The Hall of Waltheof/Chapter IX

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The Hall of Waltheof by Sidney Oldall Addy
IX. Foundation Sacrifice
He shall lay the foundation thereof in his firstborn, and in his youngest son shall he set up the gates of it.—Joshua, vi, 26.

MODERN research has shown that there has existed, and perhaps still exists, in various parts of the world, a practice of burying human beings alive beneath the foundations of buildings. "It was often thought necessary," says Grimm, "to immure live animals, even men, in the foundation on which the structure was to be raised, as if they were a sacrifice offered to Earth, who bears the load upon her: by this inhuman rite they hoped to secure immovable stability or other advantages."[1]

According to more recent opinion the object was to propitiate the local spirit or god. Numerous instances of human sacrifices made at the foundation of houses and other buildings have been collected by Dr. Tylor[2] and Mr. Gomme[3] from widely-separated parts of the world. For example "a seventeenth-century account of Japan mentions the belief that a wall laid on the body of a willing human victim would be secure from accident: accordingly, when a great wall was to be built, some wretched slave would offer himself as foundation, lying down in the trench to be crushed by the heavy stones lowered upon him."[4] And, as Mr. Gomme has shown, English and Scotch legends and folk-lore have preserved the memory of such sacrifices in these islands. One of the most notable legends is that about St. Columba who attempted to build on lona, when the walls fell down as fast as they were erected. Then the "saint" was told that the walls would never stand unless a human victim was buried alive beneath the foundations, and this had to be done.

A recent discovery at Treeton in Hallamshire furnishes an apparent illustration of foundation sacrifice at the building of a church. During the restoration of the church at this place in 1892, under the supervision of Charles Hadfield, Esq., of Sheffield, architect, a child's stone coffin was found in a remarkable position. It appears that the wall of the south aisle was of great age—it was probably the oldest part of the building—and this wall, owing to its tottering and 'unsafe condition, had to be removed and rebuilt. The removal was effected by Mr. George Webster, the builder and contractor, and from him and from Mr. Hadfield I have received the following account of the discovery of this little coffin. It was found about twelve inches below the surface of the ground, and in the foundation of the old wall. It lay on its side lengthwise, with the hollow part facing the inside of the church, and with the head eastwards and close to the buttress of the Brampton Chapel. It had no lid or covering, and Mr. Webster informs me that there were no bones therein, but that it was "filled with dirt." The coffin, which is figured in the drawing, is now placed inside the porch of the south aisle, on the west wall of the porch, with the cavity facing outwards. Its interior measurements are: length thirty inches, length to the shoulders twenty-three inches, extreme breadth six-and-three-quarter inches, breadth in the narrowest part three-and-three-quarter inches, depth four inches. A piece of one of the sides of the coffin has been broken off, and it may have lost a little of its original depth owing to its having been trimmed by the mason so as to fit its new position in the porch. Such a little coffin could only have contained the body of a child of about a year old, and the thought of the horrible and cruel rite of which it is an appalling witness may well bring tears to the eyes. The position in which the coffin was originally placed shows either that a child was built in alive to ensure the stability of the wall or of the church, or else that an empty coffin was laid in by way of symbol of the ancient sacrifice.[5] The fact that the coffin was "filled with dirt," without containing bones, would seem to point to the conclusion that it was laid in merely as a symbol, but on the other hand we must remember that as the coffin was without lid its contents would be more freely exposed to the dissolving earth. The church, moreover, is very old, and a church at Treeton is mentioned in the Doomsday Survey. In so long a period the bones of a little child would hardly escape dissolution, and all that can be said is that there is no evidence whether the coffin was placed there as a symbol of the foundation sacrifice, or whether a child was actually buried there alive. But one of these two things must have happened, and if such sacrifices had ceased to be made at the time when the church was built, the position of the coffin nevertheless shows that children were once built in alive in England to ensure the stability of churches or other buildings. The position of the coffin also shows that it can hardly have been a "bond stone" or a piece of earlier work made use of by the builder in erecting the wall, and I shall presently relate three other English discoveries which make such a conclusion highly improbable, if not impossible. Before doing so I will quote a few sentences from Grimm. He says: "When the new bridge at Halle, finished 1843, was building, the common people fancied a child was wanted to be walled into the foundations. To make Liebenstein Castle impregnable, there was walled-in a child, whom its mother for base gold had parted with; while the masons were at work, says the story, it sat eating a roll and calling out, 'Mother, I can see you,' then, 'Mother, I see a little of you still,' and when the last stone was let in, 'Mother, I see nothing of you now.' In the outer wall of Reichenfels Castle a child was built in alive: a projecting stone marks the spot, and if that were pulled out, the wall would tumble down at once."[6] And he relates various legends of the same kind.

Mr. Gomme gives the following account of two remarkable burials in England:—"In the year 1876, the old church at Brownsover, Warwickshire, was restored ; the earlier parts of the building were of Norman, the latter of early thirteenth century architecture. The church stands upon the site of an early British entrenchment about two miles from Rugby, and two from the Roman station on the Watling street road. It was found necessary to lower the foundations of the north and south walls of the church; and in doing so two skeletons were discovered, one under the north, the other under the south wall—about one foot below the original foundations—exactly opposite to each other and about six feet from the chancel wall which crosses the north and south wall of the church at right angles. Each skeleton was covered with an oak slab about six feet in length by ten inches wide and two inches thick—of the colour of bog oak; these pieces of oak plank had evidently been used as carpenters' benches from the fact that each of them had four mortice-holes cut in them in such a form as to throw the legs outwards, and from the cuts made in them by edged tools. The skeletons were found in a space cut out of the solid clay which had not been moved, on either side, and just large enough to take the bodies placed in them. The skeletons were seen in situ; they could not have been placed there after the original walls had been built. The skulls were, by an eminent authority, said to be Danish. They were remarkably thick and heavy, as also were the jaw-bones. The teeth, though a good deal worn, were perfecl in condition and number. The feet pointed towards the east."[7]

In 1881 some pretext or other was invented for pulling down the chancel of Hope Church in Derbyshire (fourteen miles from Sheffield). "There can hardly be any doubt," says a writer on this subject in the Sheffield Independent,[8] "that the chancel, in point of age, is the least ancient part of the church. As it now appears it is entirely of the fifteenth century, and by comparison with the rest of the edifice its external appearance is poor and mean. Whilst the remainder of the church is all faced with squared ashlar, this is constructed of small and unshaped stones, in the placing of which the builders seem to have taken the faintest possible interest." It seems to me that the "small and unshaped stones" which, according to the same writer, "were secured with mortar of such excellent quality that in not a few cases the stones and not the mortar have given way,"[9] furnish proof that the original chancel was not the "least ancient" but the oldest part of the church.[10] The same writer in the Independent gives an excellent account of a discovery made in this chancel. "To begin with," he says, "there were no foundations, in the ordinary sense of the term. The walls were simply built on the surface of the ground, as was found to be the case during the late restorations at Rotherham and Sheffield Parish churches. The wonder is how such massive piles stood with so imperfect a bearing. But at Hope there was in one sense, and in two places, a foundation. Under the north wall and under the south wall, where these joined the nave of the church, were placed, face upwards, two massive ancient gravestones, and on these the walls were built. Beneath the stone on the north lay the vault of the ancient family of Woodroofe; below the one on the south we are not aware that there were any interments. The position and character of these stones are interesting. . . . Both stones are perfect. The smaller one bears a well-proportioned floriated cross, with a bugle horn at its side, and so fresh and perfect is the work that the squaring lines by which the mason guided himself in making out the design may still be seen. The larger stone bears, in addition to the cross, a bugle horn, arrow, and sword. . . . Besides these several other fragments of incised slabs were found built into the rubble within the wall."[11] Such fragments are not uncommon in the walls of churches built on the site of earlier buildings.

It will have been seen that the skeletons at Brownsover lay under the north and south walls of the foundations of the church, and that their position was similar to that of the incised slabs at Hope. The extreme freshness of one at least of the slabs at Hope seems to show that they were expressly made for the purpose of being laid beneath the foundations, or of covering bodies laid beneath the foundations. But the evidence in this case is too imperfect to allow the inference that the walls of this chancel were built on the bodies of human beings sacrificed to ensure the stability of the building, for it does not appear whether bodies were found beneath the stones or not. In the absence of afhial sacrifice we may nevertheless conclude that the slabs were purposely laid under the walls in accordance with custom or ritual, for the symbols of sacrifice would survive after the more barbarous rite had ceased to exist. It should be mentioned that the Doomsday Book records a church at Hope. Dr. Cox has recorded his his [sic] opinion that the date of these slabs "is probably of the reign of Richard I or John,"[12] and in a letter to me Mr. Leader says "you may fairly contend that early in the thirteenth century the builders of this chancel so far paid deference to the ancient heathen rite as to prepare gravestones and pretend to bury human beings under the north and south walls."

"In 1885," says Mr. Baring-Gould, "Holsworthy Parish Church was restored, and in the course of restoration the south-west angle wall of the church was taken down. In it, embedded in the mortar and stone, was found a skeleton. The wall of this portion of the church was faulty, and had settled. According to the account given by the masons who found the ghastly remains, there was no trace of a tomb, but every appearance of the person having been buried alive, and hurriedly. A mass of mortar was over the mouth, and the stones were huddled about the corpse as though hastily heaped about it, then the wall was leisurely proceeded with."[13]

Footnotes[edit]

  1. Teut. Myth. (Stallybrass) p. 1141.
  2. Primitive Culture, i, p. 96, etc.
  3. Folk-Lore Relics of Early Village Life, p. 24, seq.
  4. Gomme, ut supra, p. 27, following Dr. Tylor.
  5. "In Holland," says Mr. Baring-Gould "have been found immured in foundations curious objects like ninepins, but which are really rude imitations of babes in their swaddling-bands. When it became unlawful to bury a child, an image representing it was laid in the wall in its place."—Strange Survivals, 1892, p. 29.
  6. Teut. Myth. p. 1142.
  7. Folk-lore Relics of Early Village Life, p. 34.
  8. 15th May, 1881.
  9. Sheffield and Rotherham Independent, 2nd Aug., 1881.
  10. The great strength and tenacity of Roman mortar is well known. The stones with which a Roman wall in Britain is faced can be broken with much greater ease than the mortar which holds them together.—Wright's Celt, Roman, and Saxon, 4th ed., p. 189. Mr. Irvine who reported on the Hope chancel said: "The lower walling represents probably the work of the Early English period."—Derb. Arch. Jour. iv, 92. I gather from the account given at the last reference that the chancel walls were of different ages, and underwent a good deal of alteration at various times.
  11. Sheffield Independent, 2nd Aug., 1881. The italics are mine. "The pulling down of this chancel," says the same writer, "has enabled us to see the foundation wall of an older and narrower chancel about twelve inches within the present wall."
  12. Derb. Arch. J., iv, 140, where drawings of the slabs are given. The sharpness and freshness of the carving are very apparent in Mr. Leader's photographs from which these drawings were taken.
  13. Strange Survivals, 1892, p. 13. Mr. Baring-Gould has given many other instances of foundation sacrifice in the first chapter of this book.