Execution cemetery on Stockbridge Down
The preparation of a site for a bonfire on the hill east of Stockbridge, to mark the 1935 Jubilee of HM King George V, led to the chance discovery of a human skull and other bones. This resulted in two seasons of excavation by Dr N Gray Hill in the summers of 1935 and 1936 and the uncovering of a cemetery containing at least 41 identifiable burials, in an area of about 100 square metres.
A nearby ‘barrow’, which had ‘well-defined chalk walls’, was also examined but produced no convincing evidence of association with the burials. Finds of clay pipe and glass, and the absence of any Bronze Age material, led the excavator to conclude that its origin may have been as recent as the 17th century.
The cemetery graves were generally shallow, haphazardly aligned, narrow and of short length. In one case the interment was less than 15 cm (6”) below the turf and in no other instance was an undisturbed burial found at more than 90 cm (36”) below that level. Frequently a body had been flexed to fit into a grave and it was apparent that little attention had been paid by the grave diggers to earlier burials: in all, nine skeletons had been cut through and occasionally assemblages such as a foot with ankle bones were found at some distance from the associated skeleton.
All of the skeletons were males in ‘the prime of life’ although one was probably in his mid-teens and two were ‘middle-aged’. In general they appeared to be in good health, although there was plenty of evidence of worn teeth, associated with the consumption of bread made from coarsely ground flour, and crude dentistry. One or two skeletons showed past injuries which had healed well, while examination of the several thousand bones showed little evidence of serious disease. Typically the individuals would have stood about 1.70 m (5’ 6”) in height although one may have been about 1.85 m (6’ 0”) tall.
Among the finds associated with individual burials were six silver coins of the reign of Edward the Confessor which were minted in Winchester* (they were hidden in a small bag under an armpit of skeleton 19 and missed by the grave diggers). There were also two bronze and three iron buckles identified as belonging to the post-conquest period, a ‘wrist-fastener’ and three iron rings, along with evidence of a leather belt. The skeleton of a large dog and the skull of a hornless sheep were also found. There was also a piece of coarse, grey-ware, decorated pottery identified as part of a glazed pitcher, of a type known to be common in the area c. AD 1100.
The indifferent and callous nature of the burials identifies the site as an execution cemetery and it is interesting to note that similar groups of burials have been found along the line of the Winchester-Old Sarum road at Lopcombe Corner, Meon Hill and Old Sarum itself. Two near-identical post holes, found in close proximity to the burials on Stockbridge Down, may have been the sites of gibbets, and an unexplained spread of oyster shells was found across the site.
Under the Norman kings ‘Forest Law’ barred anyone other than the king from exclusive ownership and use of a forest. William II Rufus (1087-1100) introduced the death penalty for infringements such as poaching, in place of the mutilation prescribed by his father, William the Conqueror (1066-1087). This punishment was continued, although with less rigour, into the reigns of Henry I (1100-1135) and Stephen. Forest Law was administered by special justices appointed by the king.
Bearing in mind that only officers of state acting under royal authority would have the power to order the execution of a large number of men over an extended period of time, it seems fair to conclude that the cemetery contained the remains of those put to death for infringement of Forest Law, presumably during the reigns of William II Rufus and Henry I, although the former is perhaps more likely (but see the case – below* – for an earlier start, at least, for the cemetery, based on the coin evidence).
Image: Woolbury hillfort in 1989, with Stockbridge Down beyond it – upper middle left in the image.
N Gray Hill (1937) Excavations on Stockbridge Down, 1935-36, Proc Hants Field Club, vol 13, 247-259.
* In a follow-up paper published in the British Numismatic Journal in 1955, R H M Dolley refines the dating of the coin hoard and argues that it is with ‘considerable exactitude’ that he can date the execution of the man in question to ‘not earlier than the autumn of 1065, and before the summer of 1066’. There is even enough evidence to suggest the event took place ‘before Christmas’. The six coins, which were concealed in a linen bag, presumably fixed by wax to the hairs under his armpit, included three from the same die (the moneyer Anderbode) another struck by Anderbode and two made by Leofwine. Three of the coins are in the British Museum, two lost, and one held by the Hampshire Cultural Trust.
Series by Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, Peter Stone for Hampshire Cultural Trust
With thanks to pilot extraordinaire, Ginny Pringle.