800th Anniversary of the Churchyard

St Peter's celebrated the 800th anniversary of the consecration of its churchyard on 26 December 2015

The monk and Chronicler of St Albans Abbey, Matthew Paris, believed that St Peter’s was founded by Abbot Ulsinus (or Wulsin) in 948. Although this is doubtful (recent research suggesting that Abbot Ulsinus was in fact the Abbot of St Albans Abbey in about 860-870 and that there was a vacancy in the Abbacy between about 930-970) archaeological investigations have revealed Saxon foundations beneath the building.

Matthew Paris, writing of an event within his own lifetime, also recorded that at the request of Abbot William de Trumpington (22nd Abbot, 1214-1235) the churchyard at St Peter’s was consecrated by Thomas, Bishop of Down, on 26 December 1215. Thomas seems to have acted as a suffragan to the Bishop of Ely, which presumably explains why he carried out this consecration.

The Roman practice of burying the dead outside the town walls meant that early churches did not have graveyards associated with them. It was not until the age of Gregory the Great (Pope 590-604) that burial near to a church became common and this practice was brought to England by Cuthbert, Archbishop of Canterbury, in about 750. By the 1200’s it was becoming common to enclose churchyards with a fence or wall to prevent access by animals, so it seems likely that the churchyard at St Peter’s was enclosed from the time it was consecrated, or not long afterwards.

Consecration is a ritual marking the setting aside to God’s purposes. Ancient forms of consecration of church and churchyard seem to have involved sprinkling ashes on the ground and then inscribing the Greek and Latin alphabets in the ashes in the form of a cross, such as that on the front cover of this order of service. It seems that this was understood to represent the learning of the scriptures and, at a time when the Old Testament was seen as Greek (in the form of the Septuagint) and the New Testament Latin (the Vulgate) this also stood for the common roots of faith of the Jews and the Gentiles.

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