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The Historic and Cultural Issues Surrounding the Development of the Former Royal Mint Site

The Royal Mint (1807-9) by Robert Smirke and James Johnson, credit: Wikimedia

Shakespeare said, “There is a history in all men’s lives.” An estimated 2,400 victims of the Black Death (c. 1347-1351) lay interred in mass plague graves in East Smithfield buried deep under the foundations of what is the former Royal Mint courtyard. The site was purchased in 2018 by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) for its new embassy in the UK.
The original land was provided by King Edward III in 1349 for emergency grave use as churches ran out of space for the victims of the bubonic plague in London. Known at the time as the Churchyard of the Holy Trinity, the site is adjacent to the Roman boundary wall of Londinium, parts of which remain visible in the local area today.
Despite being a mass burial site, 762 bodies out of the 2,400 that were excavated by the Museum of London’s Department of Greater London Archaeology between 1986 and 1988 (Royal Mint, East Smithfield, E1 Sitecode MIN86) were found laid out in thoughtfully created individual trenches. Each person placed east to west in a ritualised manner following the Christian tradition. So, the body would have its head to the west facing the sun and its feet to the east ready to face the coming of the Final Judgement.
Cemeteries have cultural significance, historical importance and are a designated ‘sleeping place’ for the dead. The designation as the Churchyard of the Holy Trinity means that the land was consecrated for burial use and it was recorded as being opened by Ralph Stratford (c. 1300-1354), the 74th Bishop of London.
Different cultures have their own burial traditions and China is no exception. The Confucian tradition of “ancestor worship” evolved alongside the roles of filial piety and ancestral piety. In Arthur Waley’s 1938 translation of the Selected Sayings or Analects of Confucius (Chinese 論語), Analects I:9 states: “When a proper respect towards the dead is shown at the End and continued after they are far away, the moral force [de] of a people has reached its highest point.”
The Chinese objective of burying family members in the same area symbolically keeps the family together in this life and the afterlife. Guo Pu (Chinese: 郭璞; AD 276–324) a learned Daoist scholar in the Jin Dynasty and more commonly considered to be the founder of Feng Shui, taught that the place of internment had special significance and to disturb or otherwise disrespect that site was considered especially taboo, further emphasising the significance of the burial tradition in traditional Chinese culture.
The former Royal Mint is a strategically important one for the UK with its proximity to the Tower of London, the City of London and its rich Roman foundations, the Black Death burial site, Cistercian abbey and Royal Navy Victualling Yard. Culturally speaking, it is a memorial to the lives of the thousands of Londoners who lost their lives to the Black Plague. The building of underground rooms for the potential new Chinese embassy threatens to disturb the resting place of the bodies and destroy the unique architecture of the remaining parts of the Cistercian abbey.
However, the Chinese Government is no stranger to the destruction of traditional culture. The Cultural revolution lasting from 1966 to 1976 saw the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) overturn the traditional elements of Chinese society to promote Communism and Mao Zedong.
This was done according to the Epoch Times’ Nine Commentaries on the Communist Party by destroying Traditional Culture with the systematic eradication of family based values, degrading faith in Gods, Buddhas and Daos, damaging cultural artefacts, breaking parts off Buddha statues in temples, burning precious paintings, scrolls and manuscripts, killing or brainwashing the intellectuals, forcing cultural groups such as the Hui Muslims to eat pork and raise pigs for the state to get them ‘over’ their spiritual beliefs and attacking the burial place of Confucius and his ancestors.
With its track record showing no signs of abating, how likely is it that the current Chinese Government will care about the British history buried underneath its acquisition or respect the cultural and spiritual values of traditional Christian and Roman Catholic Cistercian order?
A campaign mounted by locals and Tower Hamlets Councillor Rabina Khan leading to a Motion regarding the treatment of Uyghur Muslims in China and the situation in Hong Kong presented to the Tower Hamlets Council meeting on Wednesday 18th November 2020 seems to have had little real impact on the plans to design and develop the site.
Architects Journal on 16th November confirmed with a spokesperson from the organisation that the new design contract had been awarded to David Chipperfield Architects. The elephant in the room (or Royal Mint foundations) is of course the global Novel Coronavirus pandemic, which originated in China. How truly ironic that the development of the new Chinese embassy is likely to disturb victims of one of the earliest pandemics, the Bubonic plague or Black Death.

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