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Alfred the Great granted his wife Ealhswith an estate in Winchester on which the Nunnaminster was later built. In the early 10th Century the bounds of the estate were copied into a Book of Gospels that once belonged to the Nunnaminster. The original is now in the British Library.

St Mary's Abbey location plan (In red). The outlines of existing buildings & structures are shown in blue. The visible excavated area is blocked in red.

"The bounds of the estate which Ealhswith has in Winchester run up from the ford on the westward weir of the most westerly mill eastwards to the old willow and then along the weir of the eastern mill, northwards into Cheap Street (now the Broadway): then eastwards along Cheap Street up to the boundary of the King's burgh (the city walls) of the old mill weir (the River Itchen) and there along the old mill weir until it reaches the old ash, and then southwards over the twofold fords onto Mid Street (a street lost as part of Ethelwold's reforms to the monastic boundaries): and there back west along the street and over the ford, so that the weir of the most westerly mill is reached again."

To revive the monastic life in Wessex, Alfred the Great encouraged the arts. He invited scholars from the Frankish lands and brought men of learning together from all over England. The result was a blossoming of the arts in manuscript illumination, embroidery, ivory and bone working, and enamelling. The sisters of the Nunnaminster were in the forefront of this movement. They made and embroidered St Cuthbert’s Stole, which is now at Durham, and it is said that they may have worked on the  Bayeaux Tapestry.
After Ethelwold's reforms the nuns followed the rules of St Benedict. Suitable women could enter the nunnery at any time during their lives. Many of the novices were young girls who, after taking their vows, lead a cloistered life under a strict regime for the rest of their lives.
The regime called for an ordered day divided into eight canonical hours known as divine office. The normal day started at 2 am with Matins, followed successively by Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None (noon), Vespers and ended with Compline about 7 pm. there was also the Chapter Office, held in the Chapter House, where the business of the Abbey was discussed, followed by readings from the Rule of St Benedict. During the period between None and Vespers the nuns would fulfil other duties.

The earliest burials found belong to Ethelwold's church and are dated between 964 - 1108. There was one adult, one child and four neonatal infants. Monasteries were in the forefront of medicine of their day and young ladies of noble birth entered the Nunnaminster during their pregnancy. The high number of infant burials found probably reflects the high infant mortality rate of the time.
In the medieval period a cemetery to the north of the church was reserved for the nuns. Other areas were probably put aside for general cemeteries. Thirty-seven burials were excavated in the church, the earliest dating to the 13th century. Burial in the Abbey church was highly prestigious and the graves found probably represent the highest levels of medieval society, and presumably include many of the Abbey's wealthy patrons.
Males and females were present in equal numbers, but there were few infants or children. Of the adults, seven - all female - reached an age of 45 years or over. Arthritis was by far the most common disease. Despite the high status and wealth of those buried in the church, many showed signs of dietary deficiency

Group of limestone and chalk coffins. - The center one is composed of chalk blocks.
The limestone coffin that contained the remains of a high official of the Abbey, and the staff of office shown below.

The high quality of the coffins indicates the social status of those buried in the church. One important 13th century grave located in the south aisle was that of a female over 45 years old in a stone coffin (The limestone coffin with a squared off top to the head end) accompanied by a wooden staff or crook of office adorned with a carved ivory top. Later the grave formed the focus of an enclosed chapel. She may have been an Abbess or a lay official of the Abbey.

Drawing of the finial of the Staff of Office found in one of the coffins.

Food remains found during the excavations provide valuable information about the diet of this community of nuns. In the Late Saxon period the noble status of many of the nuns ensured a rich and varied diet. The remains of young lambs, piglets, goats, calves, and game animals were recovered.
The introduction of the Benedictine Rule in the late 10th Century completely changed the diet. The Rule, which forbade the eating of meat, was slightly relaxed in the 14th century, but then meat could only be eaten on special occasions. The remains of sturgeon and dolphin - then considered a royal fish - suggest that despite plagues and famines in the City the Abbey was able to obtain high class fare for important visitors.

The text in these pages (with minor additions), and all the diagrams with the khaki backgrounds, were taken from the excellent information panels provided by Winchester Museums Service at the excavated site.

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