Coffins of early Three Choirs stewards revealed in Gloucester Cathedral


Archaeological work in the north transept of Gloucester Cathedral has revealed the family tomb of some early stewards of the Three Choirs Festival. It contains coffins belonging to the Hyett family dating from the 17th and 18th Centuries, which are unusually well preserved. The tomb was found by archaeologists who lifted a neighbouring ledger stone while carrying out an evaluation ahead of the possible installation of a new lift. The process caused a small hole to be created which allowed the contents of the vault to be seen. The coffin labels correspond to the family names in the ledger stones above.


Historian Revd Stephen Williams tells us that Benjamin Hyett II, whose grandfather’s marble slab inscribed ‘died 1711’ is laid in the floor of the cathedral transept, was Festival Steward in 1739 (Gloucester) and again 1746 (Worcester), and 1751 (Gloucester).

Even earlier still, Charles Hyett was Steward representing Gloucester at Hereford 1726, the year Thomas Bisse preached the sermon ‘Musick the Delight of the Sons of Men’, which became the foundational document of the Three Choirs Festival Charity. Charles was son of Benjamin Hyett I, and father of Benjamin Hyett II. It was Charles who built Painswick House in the Cotswold hills 'to escape the smog of Gloucester'.

Cathedral archaeologist Richard Morriss said ‘the discovery of the 8ft (2.5m) deep chamber was unexpected. What you normally find when you dig up a ledger slab is earth and bones, there's nothing specific in there. You would expect the cathedral to have been restored time and time again. The floors get churned up and re-laid, but this has stayed intact.’

Mr Morriss said the family must have been ‘pretty wealthy’ to have afforded this kind of burial vault within the heart of the cathedral.

One of the visible coffin labels is that of child who died at nine months old.  The Reverend Canon Celia Thomson said the discovery of the vault was ‘really exciting’ and the discovery of a child's coffin was ‘particularly poignant’. ‘You can just imagine the grief of the parents at that stage. It brings history to life.’

The installation of a new lift in the North Transept is part of a 10-year plan, known as Project Pilgrim, to improve facilities at the medieval building.

Project Pilgrim Manager Anne Cranston was there when the vault was uncovered. She said: “When we lifted the ledger stones we were interested in technical information to support our plans to make Gloucester Cathedral more accessible.  This discovery has touched everyone – it’s an amazing archaeological find and a very human story.”

The discovery of the vault was featured on Inside Out West on BBC One on Monday 2 November at 19:30 GMT and is available for 30 days on BBC iPlayer. (at 10min 14secs in). [Coffin photos courtesy of BBC Inside Out]