Mary Godfree: the untold story of a Londoner and plague victim

Robert Hartle
18.01.2016

We recently worked with National Geographic Magazine and Crossrail on a feature about London’s Archaeology London’s Big Dig Reveals Amazing Layers of History. We were thrilled to share our discoveries and research with writer Roff Smith and photographer Simon Norfolk. One of the items Simon photographed was a grave slab excavated and pictured at Crossrail‘s Liverpool Street site. In this blog Senior Archaeologist Robert Hartle, who supervised the dig, tells us what this discovery reveals. 

Until October 2015, the only surviving record of the existence of Mary Godfree, a child from the parish of St Giles, Cripplegate, was a single handwritten line in a burial register which noted her death from the plague on the 2nd September 1665. Her name was one of 95 victims who died of the plague in that parish on that day.

While the plague had begun in the early months of 1665 and would last sporadically until summer 1666, it was at its very worst in September 1665, claiming over 7,000 people per week.  Well known historic accounts tell of panic and mass graves, how, in the face of the ‘great mortality’, traditional burials and decency were forgotten for the sake of efficiency and public safety. The Court of Aldermen records at the London Metropolitan Archives note how the ground at the New Churchyard had become ‘surcharged with dead bodyes’ by early September. Then, in October, there were complaints from local inhabitants about the ‘stenches and annoyances’ arising from ‘pits and tumultuary burials’ and orders were issued to cease these practices and return to digging single graves.

Almost exactly 350 years since Mary Godfree’s death, I was fortunate enough to find her headstone at the site of the New Churchyard during Crossrail archaeological excavations. Ironically, it seems the stone survived because her grave had been forgotten, having been taken down sometime in the 18th century and reused in the foundation of a brick structure, perhaps a later tomb. However, while the stone provides no further biographical information for Mary Godfree, it nevertheless confirms where she was buried, which was not recorded in the register, and, perhaps more crucially, how she was buried. Thus, correlating historic records with evidence from Crossrail excavations allows us to begin to cast new light on these historical events. The presence of this grave slab could indicate that normal burial practice, with single marked graves, continued, at least in this burial ground, for the majority of the crisis, and that the digging of pits between September and October 1665 was a late and desperate measure which was only briefly tolerated by Londoners.

While we will never be able to confirm if any of the human remains at the site are that of Mary Godfree, because her headstone was no longer with her grave, it is hoped that further analysis and DNA testing will confirm which of the burials, single or multiple, might belong to the victims of the Great Plague epidemic.

Read the full National Geographic Magazine article London’s Big Dig Reveals Amazing Layers of History!

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