Digging up the past

Archaeologists have rediscovered a crypt containing the coffins of the family that taught Norwich to dance. Derek James reports.

A crypt, containing the coffins of a famous Norwich family, has been rediscovered beneath a city centre church.

In their 18th century heyday the Noverres taught the city to dance. And even when they died they stayed close to Norwich's finest ballroom.

The family crypt was beneath medieval St Stephen's church, close to the Assembly Rooms where the dance masters are still commemorated in the Noverre rooms.

When a water main failed close to St Stephen's, alongside the Chapelfield Mall, and a huge crack split its east wall, the city centre congregation had to move out while engineers and builders moved in.

The upheaval was enormous as the church was closed and transformed into a building site. But for one group of experts it was an unmissable chance to dig deep into the history of Norwich.

Before the east wall of the St Stephen's church was underpinned any buried bodies which might be disturbed by the work had to be removed and local archaeologists got the chance to excavate inside and out.

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They uncovered 52 skeletons, dating back to the 12th century, plus a burial vault containing the lead-lined coffins of the famous Noverre family.

The human remains will be reburied once the underpinning work is finished but the information revealed along with the skeletons will remain.

The deepest, earliest burials were up to 2.3 metres below the modern ground level. These bodies had been wrapped in shrouds but by the 18th century the dead of St Stephens were buried in wooden coffins. All the bodies had been carefully placed according to Christian tradition, lying east to west, on their backs ready to be awakened by the trumpet sounding at the Last Judgement.

Four babies buried close together in the Chancel are believed to have died of disease, perhaps the black death which swept through Norwich in the mid 14th century. The dig was carried out by NAU Archaeology – part of Norfolk County Council's NPS property consultants company.

David Adams, senior project officer, said 'A particularly poignant finding was the identification of an 18th century brick vault in the chancel that contained members of the Noverre family, buried in lead coffins within the vault.'

The Noverres were the fascinating French family of dancers who travelled to London to give a series of performances in 1755.

The troupe included Jean Georges Noverre, his wife, two of his sisters and his younger brother Augustin.

Unfortunately they arrived just as war broke out between France and England.

Anti-French rioters stormed the theatre and in the resulting fighting Augustin stabbed a man.

He fled to Norwich – and found its sanctuary so satisfactory that he eventually set up a dancing school.

In Georgian Norwich, high society revolved around balls at the Assembly House and dancing lessons were vital for young gentlefolk.

The Noverre dance academy thrived and Augustin's son, Francis, became a Norwich dance master too – and also one of the original directors of Norwich Union.

Today, the family is still commemorated in Norwich's Noverre Rooms, part of the Assembly House, close to St Stephen's church.

And it is beneath St Stephen's church that their earthly remains were briefly uncovered by archaeologists.

Today the crypt is resealed and the dancing Noverres are at peace once more.

St Stephen's is expected to reopen later this year.

For more information about NAU Archaeology visit www.nau.nps.co.uk