Remains of important medieval hospital surprise archaeologists beneath historic city theatre

By Ben Miller | 05 June 2015

Archaeologists discover "amazing" remains of the largest medieval hospital in the north

A photo of a woman in a high-visibility jacket and helmet carrying archaeology remains
Archaeologists made some dramatic discoveries at York Theatre Royal© YAT
The remains of mystery buildings from a busy medieval hospital have been found beneath the stalls of one of Yorkshire’s largest theatres, surprising archaeologists with their intact condition during a series of discoveries made as part of renovation works costing £4.1 million.

St Leonard’s Hospital was one of the largest and most important hospitals in medieval England. But its foundations have stood beneath the floorboards of York Theatre Royal, remaining unknown to audiences since they began enjoying productions there during the 18th century.

An overhead photo of building work being carried out at a large circular theatre
The theatre dates from 1744© YAT
“It is rare to find occupation deposits within any sort of medieval building, let alone one of the country's most important medieval hospitals,” says Ben Reeves, of the York Archaeological Trust, where experts have had a hectic time since the remains were unearthed last month.

“Documentary sources tell us there was an infirmary and chapel, a children's house, a leper house and, of course, there would have been quarters for the monks and nuns who ran the hospital and cared for the sick and dying,”

An overhead photo of building work being carried out at a large circular theatre
The hospital is believed to have been in action between 1137 and 1539© YAT
“There would also have been other service and ancillary buildings like kitchens and outbuildings. Samples from the occupation deposits in this particular building within the precinct might give us a better idea of what specifically it was used for.

“We're not always lucky enough to find definitive evidence for this, but having something to work with in the first place is what really makes this a significant opportunity.

A photo of archaeologists in helmets and high-visibility jackets working on a theatre site
The site is believed to have been the largest medieval hospital in the north of England© YAT
“The survival is surprising because usually these somewhat ephemeral and delicate layers don't tend to survive modern groundworks. Given that the theatre had a new floor put in during the early years of the 20th century, it was thought that they would not have survived.”

Archaeologists have long been aware of structural remains surviving within the theatre, finding a number of column plinths and bases for the rib vaulted ground floor under the guidance of archaeologist and historian George Benson during the early 20th century.

A photo of archaeologists in helmets and high-visibility jackets working on a theatre site
The hospital was largely destroyed during the Reformation© YAT
Benson’s discoveries were thought to have been destroyed during the theatre alterations. Having exposed two bays of rib-vaulted undercroft in 1989, though, the Trust has now found six column bases and the limestone foundations of the north wall under the modern floor of the auditorium.

Experts believe a complex series of mortar floors and delicate layers of occupation deposits could be even more significant, representing an “exceptionally rare” chance to unpick, excavate and sample the deposits in order to deduce the full use of the building.

An overhead photo of works being carried out within the floor space of a large theatre
The discoveries have been a surprise to organisers at the theatre and the trust© YAT
“We hope to get information about what was going on inside the buildings,” says Reeves.

“We may find evidence which enables us to suggest what the building's function was.

“It is amazing, considering all the alterations to the theatre since 1764, that so much of the medieval hospital has survived under the stalls.

“These are exceptionally important remains and this work provides an exciting opportunity, both for archaeologists and the public, to investigate and understand more about one of the city’s most fascinating sites.”

The standing remains of hospital buildings in the Keregan Room and near the city’s library are already Scheduled Ancient Monuments.

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