Curious case of the stone coffin and pilgrim’s bones

Fastolff Tomb, St Nicholas Minster, yarmouth

Fastolff Tomb, St Nicholas Minster, yarmouth - Credit: Archant

During the major restoration of St Nicholas’ Church of 1845-9 several interesting items were unearthed. In 1848, the workmen came upon a stone coffin in the south aisle, two inches under the floor, which appeared to be undisturbed.

The coffin was opened in the presence of the vicar, Rev’d Mackenzie, and he made sure all the skeleton was preserved for re-interment.

On removing the lid nothing was found beyond some dust and a number of bones and the monastic cowl and garb in which the body had been wrapped. There was a recess shaped for the head. The state of the bones and teeth showed the deceased was under 35 years old.

There was little hair; what remained of it was of a brown golden colour and seemed to show the presence of a tonsure. The thigh, leg, and arm bones were perfect, and the legs were placed straight. There was no trace of a pastoral staff, pattern, chalice, ring or other religious emblem of office. It was surmised the deceased was only a monk or a lay associate of the adjacent Benedictine priory.

The remains of the cowl and garb were moist, and adhered to the thigh bones. The lid and the coffin were hewn out of a single block of Ketton stone; the former was highly coped and decorated with a complicated flowered cross resting on three steps, having in the centre of the staff two Greek omegas.

There was no trace of letters or figures, but no doubt was left that the coffin was at least as old as the year 1250, and probably much older. Both the lid and the coffin tapered from head to foot and the coffin had a drain and two small holes to let out any moisture. The inside of the coffin was 6ft 2ins in length, 1ft 7ins in width at its broadest part and 1ft 3ins at the narrowest, by the feet.

Probably at one time, the lid, though highly coped and humped must have appeared above ground, as it was much worn. Nearby a skull with a scallop shell lying by it were found, from which it is inferred this individual was a pilgrim, who had probably come to perform some religious obligation at this church.

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The vicar, having allowed the coffin to be opened for a brief examination and a fitting receptacle having been found under the canopy of the Fastolf monument, saw to it the bones and fragments were restored, and the coffin placed in the presence of witnesses.

Richard Fastolfe, by his will dated the 28th of May 1356, directed his body to be buried in St Catherine’s Chapel in St Nicholas Church (one of the guild chapels). His tomb had been discovered the previous year when the large gallery, which had been placed against the wall of the south aisle many years previously, was removed.

Of course, in these days of Historic England and professional archaeologists, further studies would be done such as DNA etc. Perhaps one day…?