A MOLA archaeologist recording a 15th century cesspit uncovered in the basement of the Courtauld © MOLA

Secrets of the cesspit: Courtauld excavation reveals remnants of 15th century residence

MOLA team

During excavations in the basement of the Courtauld Gallery, as part of transformative building work ahead of its reopening in 2021, we were amazed to unearth the remains of a medieval cesspit containing an array of fascinating finds. This remarkable discovery is helping to shed further light on Chester Inn, a poorly-documented 15th century residence belonging to the bishopric of Coventry, Lichfield and Chester which once stood where Somerset House does today.

The location of the chalk-lined cesspit, which measures almost 15 feet deep, suggests it could have been used by both visitors and residents of the household as they passed through the courtyard of the Chester Inn. Fascinatingly, the cesspit appears to have been used in a variety of ways for over 400 years; by the 17th century it had been converted to a cellar and, following this, several layers of brick flooring were added, with the last layer dating to the 18th century. A latrine was added in the corner of this layer – an amusing twist, especially considering that this very spot will eventually be the location of the new lavatories at the Courtauld Gallery. This means that for almost half a century there has been always been a toilet of sorts in the same place!

A panorama of the area around the Strand as seen from Southwark in around 1543, by Anthonis van den Wijngaerde. It is not know which building represents Chester Inn. (c) Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

This discovery is the first substantial evidence of the remnants of a building that has long since disappeared and which was part of a long line of luxury homes along the Strand. Regional bishops, like the Bishop of Coventry, held residences in this area because it was the ideal location for a short commute into the Palace of Westminster and the City. We have very few existing resources that we can use to understand this chapter of the Strand’s history. Only one depiction of the area from this time exists: a panorama by Anthonis van den Wyngaerde (above), sketched around 1543, which is not considered to be an entirely accurate point of reference. This makes the cesspit an incredibly important find in terms of understanding the past history of the area, including the medieval settlements, the later palace, and the people who lived there. 

Excavation of the cesspit unearthed some fascinating finds that had been discarded in its depths. These included a ‘Penn’ floor tile, of a type generally used for decorating palaces and monastic sites in the 14th century, as well as a range of pottery drinking vessels and tableware from the 14th and 15th centuries. There was also a variety of metal items, including a delicate finger ring, a pendant, an iron spur, a belt buckle and a bone-handled fork. Analysis is still at a very early stage, and research will reveal more about the site’s illustrious history. It is hoped that a selection of artefacts from the dig will go on display at the Courtauld Gallery when it reopens in Spring 2021.

This work was carried out on behalf of the Courtauld Gallery with Mills Whipp Projects Ltd acting as archaeological consultant.