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The Legacy of Saint Dunstan and the Graveyard in Monks Risborough

St Dunstan Monks Risborough documentSt Dunstan’s is a quiet, sleepy, Grade One listed church that dates back to 14th century. It is located in the village of Monks Risborough in rural Buckinghamshire, which is itself one of the oldest recorded parishes in England. You could be forgiven for thinking that this building is stuck in an unremarkable past, but you would be wrong. Today it is a hub of activities including an annual flower festival, regular Bucks Art Week shows and a pop-up cinema, in addition to regular church services. As we will see, its history is also far from unremarkable.

The church is dedicated to St Dunstan, a monk from Glastonbury who rose to become Archbishop of Canterbury between 959 and 988 AD. Dunstan was for many centuries one of the most popular of English saints: there are at least three churches dedicated to him in London alone. However, status and fame were not the only reasons that the parish church of Monks Risborough was named after Dunstan. The parish was owned by the Archbishop of Canterbury for a period from the 900s AD to 1005.

The parishioners of Monks Risborough church chose to celebrate the millennium of Dunstan’s death in 1988. In our archive collection we have a pamphlet describing a kneeler that had been embroidered to mark the occasion. Alongside this we have a diverse program of their celebratory events held in 1988.

At the time of the 1066 Norman Conquest, Monks Risborough was a substantial settlement that warranted mention in the Domesday Book. At this time the parish was owned by a monastic order based in Canterbury: the Monks of Christ Church. The land had been given to them in 1005 AD by Aelfric, Archbishop of Canterbury, one of Dunstan’s successors. Thus the name ‘Monks Risborough’ derives from this connection with these monks, not the common misconception that there was a monastery in the village.

Excavation of the site

When you scratch beneath the surface of the Church - quite literally in this case - you uncover the rich tapestry that has made this building and village important throughout history. This was unearthed as part of an excavation that was led by Dr Jill Eyers in 2013. This was prior to the extension of the graveyard that was proposed in 2010, which was an attempt to better serve the parishioners of the parish. Our collection contains historic photographs of the church in various views, including one unusual image that appears to show fresh mounds of earth in the graveyard, suggesting recent or imminent burials.

St Dunstan’s Church has a history of community engagement through events, so it should come as little surprise that the 2013 excavation was a community affair. This was possible due to both amateur and professional local volunteers, as well as schools and Young Archaeologist Clubs.


The excavation yielded finds from every period of history you can imagine. Evidence was found from the Mesolithic which was around 14,000 years ago, right through to post-medieval times. This is generally material from the last 500 years up to the present day.

The zooarchaeological finds show long-term settlements from the Iron Age through to the modern day. This is not surprising given its location in the Chiltern Hills and its proximity to the prehistoric Icknield Way, a long established route for trade and movement. Analysing the animal bone findings provides a fantastic insight into farming practices and animal husbandry. A total of 1,748 fragments have been examined with the results being:

  • 2% Iron Age
  • 2% Roman
  • 3% 5th-9th centuries
  • 1% 10th-11th centuries
  • 7% 12th century
  • 14% Early to Middle Age
  • 3% Roman to 13th century
  • 44% undated layers

St Dunstan's ChurchAn articulated horse was also excavated. This was believed to be of Roman origin, just one of many finds indicating the presence of activity within the Roman period. Other evidence included a white chalk floor.

The bones shown here are on loan from Buckinghamshire County Museum. They come from context 130 of the 2013 excavation, which was a layer on top of a fill of context 009. The bones date to around the late 11th century to the early 12th century. At this spot in the excavation there were a high proportion of cow bones found in a dense area. Eleven pieces were found in total, one being the pelvis bone with straight cut marks, with the size indicating that the cow was a juvenile. As dairying was occurring, this suggests that the inhabitants may have been sedentary. There are deep puncture marks on a cow femur and extensive erosion on a cow vertebrae. This indicates that the bones may have been thrown on a rubbish heap that scavengers could access, who then made a secondary set of marks on the bones.

We also have a cow molar tooth. It shows extensive wear, the root stem is missing in sections and it is unclear whether this is an adult or a juvenile tooth. As with the pelvis, femur and other zooarchaeological finds, this implies that farming was occurring in the 11th and 12th centuries, and that their preferred husbandry pattern was dairying. Elsewhere on this site at context 157, which is a poorly sorted context, we found a pig’s lower jawbone with at least one tooth. It is thought to be juvenile, and has been dated to the late 11th to 12th century which, along with other finds, indicates a widespread farming and husbandry pattern.

Another intriguing item in the display case is SF011 from context 202. It is a Bronze Age leaf-shaped spear-head fragment and it was found in the fill of cut 201. It was found alongside Roman material, but it is of Bronze Age origin. This could tell us several things: there was settlement during the Roman and earlier periods, possibly back to the Bronze Age, or that there was migration of people through the landscape, maybe even Roman army movement, which is supported by other military-related finds.

Centre for Buckinghamshire displaySherds of Roman pottery were also found. This indicates the use of this site through Roman times to the Middle Ages and beyond. One example is the rim of a Roman bowl 2013.8.64 MRDUN13.

In addition to artefacts, the structures left behind enable us to peel back layers into the past. Figure 6.5 shows a curvilinear ditch that suggests an Iron Age roundhouse may have been present on this site. If you're interested in finding out more about this excavation, please read the site report.

Eyers, Jill. 'St Dunstan’s Church, Monks Risborough, Bucks Archaeological excavation- graveyard extension, Chiltern Archaeology Report No. 130 December 2013'

All artefacts are on temporary loan to the Centre from Buckinghamshire County Museum.

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Last updated: 22 October 2019

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