In January 2021 the old and new world collided in a remarkable way near the U.K. city of Birmingham. Plans to build a modern railway line meant that archeologists had to check they wouldn’t destroy anything historically significant along the track route. Yet in this unassuming part of England, experts were about to find one of the most extraordinary Elizabethan sites ever discovered.
The massive railway project in question is known as High Speed Two (HS2). When complete, it’ll connect the capital of London with other major cities in northern England, the Midlands and even Scotland. It’s a huge undertaking that’s going to have a major impact. But as you can imagine, the sheer scale means that building it is proving a lengthy, costly process!
Around 22,000 workers will be needed for phase one of HS2 before the project even gets to the northern parts of England, according to its official website. This first stage involves 140 miles of track and will include the longest viaduct in Britain. The intention is that it will lead to more trains traveling faster along routes that connect eight of the U.K.’s ten largest cities.
But how far will HS2 extend? Well, by the time the project is finished, it will apparently span nearly 350 miles. The first phase focuses on the journey from London to Birmingham, but later stages will expand to other major cities like Manchester and Leeds. It’s claimed that the project will increase capacity, improve connectivity and reduce carbon emissions. That said, some still have questions about its effectiveness.
HS2 is unquestionably the biggest infrastructure project Britain has seen in years. Ancient woodlands have been cut down and miles of countryside dug up. That’s part of the reason it’s caused controversy with some environmental groups. They think that the destruction it causes will be greater than the benefits.
Building HS2 involves constructing new tracks, stations, tunnels and bridges along the way. Though you can’t legally do that kind of work in Britain without first conducting an archeological dig on the chosen locations. According to the project’s official website, the excavations will be the largest of their kind in Europe and see thousands of experts examining 60 different spots along the route.
Amazingly, pretty much every era of British history is being exposed by the archeological excavations. There are prehistoric settlements, Roman villas, medieval villages and even Victorian burial grounds. At one stage, experts came across a skeleton in Buckinghamshire belonging to a man murdered thousands of years ago. And the remains of Captain Matthew Flinders – the explorer who named Australia – were rediscovered in London where he died in 1814.
Excavating burial grounds is obviously a delicate task that requires respect for those who died, but every one of these archeological sites is valuable. Experts are hoping to learn more about the Black Death by exploring the remains of medieval villages. The HS2 official website also added that teams would be “comparing and contrasting” the lives of people in Birmingham and London.
It’s extraordinary to see what lurks below the surface where people pass every day, and some discoveries are made just a few inches underground! One particular find like this was made at Coleshill, which is close to Birmingham. Archeologists had been digging near there for two years, but workers clearing land for HS2 found more than they could have ever imagined.
Experts from the company Wessex Archaeology teamed with members of HS2 to fly drones over the dig area. This allowed them to take dozens of aerial photographs to expose the sheer scale of their latest discovery. At its prime, the site apparently stretched 1,000 feet from one end to another, according to the website Ancient Origins. Though its existence was never recorded, so no one had any idea it was there!
Amazingly, experts are now comparing the site to some of the most famous historical sites in Britain. They include iconic places like Hampton Court Palace and Kenilworth Castle, as well as Kirby Hall in Northamptonshire. Coleshill apparently shares a major similarity with these other estates.
The team isn’t just relying on drone surveys from above, either. Archeologists are also getting down in the dirt to dig trenches and conduct geophysical studies. The ruins and relics they have found on this particular site date back around 500 years – during the Tudor queen Elizabeth I’s reign. That’s how long they have been hidden, and yet they’re still astonishingly well-preserved!
Excavations in nearby Birmingham also uncovered what is believed to be the world’s oldest railway roundhouse. Nevertheless, Coleshill has its own claim to fame thanks to HS2. It’s yet another important piece of Britain’s history that could provide the opportunity to learn so much more about life all those years ago.
The discovery began with an assessment of the area that was going to be part of HS2. Aerial photography revealed what had once been an impressive structure known as Coleshill Manor, which was surrounded by an eight-sided moat. The first two years of excavations apparently started with the building and then expanded to reveal more of its astonishing history.
Coleshill Manor reportedly once belonged to an English Lord called Simon Montford, who took ownership of it in 1461. Decades later he would be convicted of treason after supporting efforts to overthrow Henry VII – England’s first Tudor monarch. Montford then suffered the unenviable punishment of being hung, drawn and quartered. Henry awarded the dead man’s estate to loyal Simon Digby, who was the Tower of London’s deputy constable.
The manor would later be redeveloped by Sir Robert Digby. He was born in 1574 and studied at Oxford before entering Middle Temple. This is one of only four prestigious Inns of Court where Britons can become barristers – a type of lawyer. In 1599 Digby was knighted by Robert, Earl of Essex, while the two men were in Dublin, Ireland.
Digby wasn’t just a barrister, though. He was also a courtier and politician with some influence. The Englishman was reportedly elected in Warwickshire in 1601 and went on to represent the Irish borough of Athy in Parliament. Two years later he earned the impressive title of esquire of the body to Queen Elizabeth I. Digby was a member of the Privy Council, too, which made him a senior advisor to the monarch.
Digby continued to serve the monarchy into the reign of James I, when he helped capture some of the infamous conspirators involved in the Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament. Yet the biggest drain on his time and resources apparently came from ongoing legal troubles relating to his wife’s inheritance.
According to History of Parliament Online, Lettice Fitzgerald was about 18 when she married Digby in 1598, and they would have ten children together. The former was also an Irish noble whose grandfather was Earl of Kildare, but due to her gender she couldn’t just claim his wealth and titles. And the fact that Fitzgerald might be ineligible to inherit was something of a sore spot.
The Digbys spent years trying to litigate Lettice’s claim to the Kildare inheritance. They even alleged that her grandfather’s will had been tampered with so Lettice couldn’t inherit, the Royal Irish Academy notes. Anyway, Lettice would eventually be bestowed with the title of “Baroness Offaly” and take possession of the manor of Geashill. As a widow, she even valiantly defended her new home for several months when it was besieged during the Great Irish Rebellion.
With Digby’s prestigious title and marriage, it’s no surprise that he wanted to make a statement about his power. And the courtier’s renovation of Coleshill Manor made it a shining example of modern architecture as well as an impressive display of wealth. Though the manor was just part of what the archeologists would find.
Digby may have regularly traveled between England and Ireland, but he made sure his Warwickshire home was a particularly special place. That included ordering the construction of some of the most extravagant ornamental gardens in England as a present for Lettice. They’re brown and barren now, but at the time they must have been magnificent.
They may not be obvious anymore, but the gardens at Coleshill couldn’t hide from the archeological surveys that were necessary for HS2. Excavations have revealed traces of graveled paths, geometrically arranged ornaments and raised flowerbeds. There are even foundations that would have once supported an impressive garden pavilion.
Some have compared Coleshill to Hampton Court Palace, which was built in the early 16th century for Henry VIII’s leading minister Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. Though the former claimed it for his own when the latter failed to arrange Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon. Wolsey died just before the king could execute him for treason, but Hampton Court became the English monarch’s favorite home.
According to Historic Royal Palaces, Hampton Court has 60 acres of gardens and 750 acres of parkland. Features of note include a maze that was built in 1700 – making it the oldest puzzle of its kind in the world. Schiava Grossa – or the Great Vine – is also the largest grape vine known to man and was planted 250 years ago by a famous gardener named Capability Brown.
There are even deer at Hampton Court that are descended from Henry VIII’s herd! In addition, the site boasts a wilderness area that was converted from Henry’s orchard to the pleasure garden of Charles II. Apparently, Mary II also turned Henry VIII’s fishponds into sunken gardens. And accounts from the 1700s have allowed experts to restore William III’s Privy Garden with the same plants it would have had back then. It seems that every generation of British monarchy made the grounds their own in some way!
If the gardens at Coleshill were similar to the Tudor gardens at Hampton Court, then it’s likely they hosted similar events. According to Historic Royal Palaces, there were sections to relax and other areas to hunt deer. Henry VIII also had a tiltyard for jousting that would later become a set of kitchen gardens to grow herbs and vegetables.
Tudor gardens apparently often took Renaissance Italy as an inspiration, which meant the design aimed to fit with the owner’s house. Pavilions and spiral paths like those at Coleshill were popular, and it wasn’t uncommon to create patterns that could be admired from above. Artificial hills provided good viewing spots, too. But the gardens weren’t just aesthetically pleasing.
Deer parks obviously had a useful purpose as a source of meat, but they were also a sign of wealth at the time. Meanwhile, flowers in the gardens were chosen for practicality as well as beauty. The rose was most important, but marigolds and violas were also sources of scent and flavor for sweet dishes, according to the National Trust. Signs of the practical uses of the gardens at Coleshill have been found throughout the grounds.
There’s an eight-sided moat surrounding Coleshill, and in it, experts found a coin dating back to the 13th century. That’s long before Elizabeth I or any Tudor monarch! In a statement, one of the experts from Wessex Archaeology – Stuart Pierson – described “some exceptional artifacts. [These included] smoking pipes, coins and musket balls – giving us an insight into the lives of people who lived here.”
Other, older parts of the site that predate Digby include a gatehouse that may have been built as far back as the 14th century. Smithsonianmag.com notes that there are also Roman artifacts and an Iron Age house dating back even further. Elsewhere, burnt stones left by the nearby River Cole may have been used by Bronze Age humans to heat water thousands of years ago.
For Pierson, this dig was really something else. He explained in a statement, “For the dedicated fieldwork team working on this site, it’s a once-in-a-career opportunity to work on such an extensive garden and manor site, which spans 500 years.” It’s not just about clearing the way for HS2 for these historians, but about exploring something unmatched in Britain.
That doesn’t mean the people working for directly for HS2 aren’t excited as well, though! Jon Millward is HS2’s historic environment manager, and he said in the statement, “It’s fantastic to see HS2’s huge archeology program making another major contribution to our understanding of British history. This is an incredibly exciting site, and the team has made some important new discoveries that unlock more of Britain’s past.”
Of particular interest to Pierson was “how the gardens have been changed and adapted over time with different styles.” This, in turn, has offered insights into different historical periods – including the reign of Elizabeth I and the English Civil War a few decades later. He added, “The preservation of the gardens is unparalleled.”
These comments were echoed by a historian called Dr. Paul Stamper, who has a particular expertise in landscaping and gardening. He described Coleshill as “one of the most exciting Elizabethan gardens that’s ever been discovered in this country.” This seems pretty impressive when you consider that no one had even written down that it ever existed!
“The garden doesn’t appear in historical records, there are no plans of it, [and] it’s not mentioned in any letters or visitors’ accounts,” Stamper said in the statement. Yet a team of archeologists has managed to spend two years so far revealing just how extensive and astonishing Digby’s estate was and remains – even as ruins.
At the time of writing, excavations at Coleshill are still ongoing. It seems unlikely, then, that the railway will be built there until every historically significant element is uncovered and where possible preserved. HS2 states that it hopes to share British history with communities through its archeological work.
Different sites along the HS2 route have attracted open days, expert lectures and school visits. And for people who can’t actually travel to the locations, there have been online channels showing the kind of work that the experts are involved in. Just how this is done has varied between sites, but Coleshill has been part of it.
Can you actually visit Coleshill, though? Well, you can’t go and see it at the time of writing. And government regulations around the pandemic have stopped the archeologists including a viewing platform. But there have been efforts at public engagement nonetheless. This has included a series of webinars where anyone could ask questions of some of the experts at the site. And as more of Coleshill is revealed, its likely there will be more events.
No one was expecting to find Elizabethan gardens that were so large and well preserved at Coleshill. Though now they have, it’s important the experts learn everything they can from them. Their discovery as part of the HS2 work means there’s also a duty to share as much of it as possible with the public, so watch this space!