Dry Bones Live: A Brief History of English Charnel Houses, 1300-1900AD
Tom Farrow | Chester University
In the year 1850 a strange discovery took place at St. George's Church in Doncaster. While digging up an aisle to make space for a new organ, workers accidentally broke through the roof of a vaulted subterranean chamber which had lain long-forgotten beneath the church's floor. Peering in through the hole, a doorway could be seen in the north east corner, so to avoid damaging the vaulting further, flagstones outside the church were raised and a hole dug down to find the entrance. Once the doorway was clear it was discovered that the crypt had been harbouring a very strange secret; it was full to the brim with stacks of human skulls and bones. Against its walls the remains had been stacked systematically and methodically, clearly placed with great care by whoever had put them there. While such an occurrence might at first sound like something singularly unusual, this was not the first time that it had happened.
At Holy Trinity Church in Rothwell, Northamptonshire, a crypt containing stacked human remains was discovered in a similar (but slightly more dramatic) fashion around the year 1700, when a sexton digging a grave in the aisle knocked his way through buried brickwork and plummeted straight down into the middle of a forgotten cavern. Local folk stories tell of how, upon looking up and finding himself surrounded by thousands of grinning skulls and bones in the flickering lamp-lit dimness, the man fell mad for the rest of his days.
One such story might make for a compelling mystery, but the existence of two near-identical accounts is suggestive of something deeper. Yet still, even more similar incidents were recorded throughout the 19th century. On the 11th October 1851, the Kentish Mercury reported that work in the ruins of St. Edmund's chapel in Dartford had left them 'totally at a loss ... to describe the amazing deposit of bones' that lay in a chamber there. On 14th October 1859 the Glasgow Herald described how a similar vault containing an estimated 1500 bones, neatly stacked, had made itself known at Christchurch Priory, Hampshire. And on the 25th November 1866 the Worcester Journal described the unceremonious demolition of a similar vault belonging to the city's cathedral in order to accommodate the widening of a nearby road. Its 'vast number of bleached human skulls and thigh-bones' were destroyed all at once when the vaulting overhead gave out and crashed in a colossal cloud of dust, crushing the contents and scaring away the reporters in fear of their safety.
These accounts are but a few of many which describe such chambers, raising the questions of what exactly they are and why do they exist? Even more curiously, why were they hidden away and do any more of them remain out there to be chanced upon by unwitting churchwardens and builders?
In the medieval period, burial in churchyards was a temporary rather than permanent affair. This might seem odd today, where cemeteries full of old stone memorials suggest a permanence of memory. However, when inspected more carefully, dates found on the stones of many ancient churchyards rarely date back beyond the 17th century. When the oldest marked burial around a thousand-year-old church is a mere four hundred years old it becomes clear that burial as we think of it today, as permanent and fixed, is in reality quite a modern phenomenon.
By the 7th century the importance of burial in holy ground was well established. Urban burials under the Roman Empire had occurred beyond city walls, with the rising desire for interment in the presence of martyrs and other holy individuals leading Christian graves to accumulate in clusters around them. These sites became centres of sanctity, sometimes developing into extramural shrines. As Christianity rose in prominence, mortuary customs evolved in response and these venerable remains were brought back within city walls. Here, their burials often served as church foundations and produced a 'radius of sanctity' which bestowed spiritual advantage on those buried within it, this being the origin of the Christian churchyard.
However, within the context of a doubling of the European population between 1100 and 1300, burial demands far outstripped the space afforded by fixed churchyard boundaries. As centres of the community they had been surrounded and hemmed in by the development of their associated settlements, making expansion impossible. The solution was simple: the easiest way to make more burial space was to clear out old graves. Sometimes these exhumations were intentional, but with disorderly layouts and wooden grave markers that soon decayed, old remains were often encountered accidentally when digging new graves. Whenever and however they turned up, such remains were reinterred within communal graves known as charnel pits which ensured that they remained on consecrated ground.
Medieval belief in the literal resurrection of the dead during the end times, when souls would be physically reunited with their refabricated former bodies, meant that the continued existence of bodily remains was essential. However, the disarticulation or fragmentation of remains presented no issue so long as they remained on consecrated ground. The power of the Almighty, it seems, was not so easily thwarted by a good jigsaw puzzle. Charnel pits thus responded to this need in practical and spatially efficient manners.
In 1274 the Catholic Church's official endorsement of purgatorial doctrine effected changes in the spiritual landscape which were reflected also in the physical one. While purgatory had long been talked about, its official recognition cemented its status as a real place wherein the souls of the deceased would undergo penance for their sins in preparation for eventual resurrection and ascension into heaven. Prayers made by the living on their behalf, as intercession, became increasingly valuable in assisting their progression through purgatory.
As the prayers of priests were considered more valuable than those of lay people, being closer to the divine, a chantry industry arose whereby priestly intercession through prayer could be purchased on behalf of the deceased or guaranteed in advance by a willed endowment. The practice became a significant revenue stream for the Church, reflected in the existence of dedicated chantry priests. Following the money, specific chantry chapels soon sprung up to accommodate the practice. Upturned charnel previously reburied in pits was now put to use in the crypts of some of these chapels, where the remains would be neatly stacked and arranged - waiting, ready and expectant for the resurrection soon to come.
Charnels soon became structures of status. When Exeter Cathedral had one constructed in 1286 the cathedral's churchyard produced insufficient bones to furnish it, so its contents were augmented by remains collected from surrounding parishes. This suggests that the charnel chapel's function or perhaps the perception of its legitimacy and authenticity rested at least partially in its iconography and aesthetics. A good stack of bones would ensure its economic success by satisfying public expectations of what such a space should look like.
Charnelling continued with gusto throughout the late medieval period. However, in the mid-16th century the Dissolution of the Monasteries changed their standing completely. No longer were charnels things of status, instead becoming symbols of close living-dead relations which reflected Popish superstition. Through this, the historic dead become prime targets for reformatory iconoclasm. The confiscation of church property resulted in the dissolving of chantry institutions and the sale of their buildings, contents included, to private individuals to be dealt with as they saw fit. What had once been sacred territory was now just property and material, with the nail of desanctification left to be hammered home by the reliable mechanism of private enterprise.
The charnel of St. Paul's Cathedral in London was the country's largest and was included with the sale of the cathedral's precinct to the Duke of Somerset. In 1549 he began disassembling the churchyard in order to salvage building material for the construction of his new house in the Strand and to ready the site for economic redevelopment. The charnel structure itself was not destroyed, being instead sold off to a stationer named Reyner Wolfe to house his printing business. And of course, it was up to Wolfe to clear the basement. No refunds.
In 1603 the historian John Stow recalled how 'more than 1000 cartloads' of bones were removed from the building, from where they were taken and dumped beyond the city walls on a plot of marshy unconsecrated land then known as Finsbury Fields. There, they were covered over by 'soylage of the city', equating them quite literally to landfill.
Such was the scale of this upheaval that the land soon became known as Bone Hill, after the literal hill of human bones which now marked it. Its size ensured that within a few years three windmills (later six) were constructed there to take advantage of the raised terrain. During the plague year of 1665 the site was enclosed by the City of London, finding subsequent use as a burial ground for religious dissenters. It still exists today, though the pleasant sounding Bunhill has come to replace Bone Hill as its name. For all of its archaic memorials, dating back to the 17th century and hosting such luminaries as Blake, Defoe and Wesley, not one stone there commemorates the longburied bones of St. Paul's Charnel which made up its foundation.
Some freestanding charnel structures were pulled down over their bones which remained in situ, while those cleared of remains were repurposed in a variety of ways. These included storage spaces, wine cellars, schools or even homes. Some located beneath churches were also cleared, finding new employment as the family crypts of local landowners.
While many charnel collections were dismantled or destroyed in this way, in some cases they were retained intact but made invisible. While reasons for their preservation in England specifically are not recorded, the charnel of Vilshofen in Germany provides some insight. When its deconstruction was ordered in 1592 local residents simply refused to dismantle it, even when offered good sums of money to do so. Eventually the compromise was reached that it should be left in situ but bricked up to prevent further access and use.
That the residents of Vilshofen were so unwilling to simply turf out the comfortably resting bones of their ancestors suggests that the significance of charnels was more than just religious. By housing the remains of whole communities which had accumulated over centuries, charnel houses became repositories of social memory, ancestry and the history of place. They represented the continuity of the community through the changes of time, physically housing them at the centre of daily life and ensuring their continued tangible presence in everyday activities. Like photographs of bygone relatives on contemporary living room walls, the skulls watched on.
The charnel crypt at Rothwell, accidentally rediscovered in 1700, is one such hidden example from within England and forms one of only two generally known extant examples in the country. It has undergone substantial research in recent years as part of Sheffield University's Rothwell Charnel Chapel Project and may be seen online in virtual form following its GIS mapping.
The other example exists at St. Leonard's Church in Hythe, Kent, and was similarly blocked up rather than destroyed during the Dissolution, though when it was rediscovered is harder to ascertain. James Brome, a clergyman and author, mentioned the skulls in 1679. He described how no local people that he asked could account for their presence, indicating that within little over a hundred years all popular awareness of previous charnel practices in the town had fallen far from memory. In their place, myths of Saxon battlefields and Kentish shipwrecks arose as popular explanations for the bones.
While charnelling as a Catholic practice was done away with during the Dissolution, the issue still remained that large populations outstripped available burial space, particularly in urban areas. In the 17th century John Aubrey noted that ''our bones in consecrated ground never lie quiet: and in London once in ten years (or thereabout) the earth is carried to the dung-wharf". This disregard, however, was perhaps the exception rather than the norm. Removed from its Catholic context, charnelling remained a practical and respectful way of dealing with quantities of disturbed human remains. Richard Taylor, in his 1821 'Index Monasticus' describes how after the Dissolution some crypts simply ceased to be used for religious purposes and remained in use as repositories for upturned bones. So while some were demolished, disassembled, hidden away or repurposed, others remained in continuous use. As the term ‘charnelling’ remained lastingly associated with Catholic practices, continuations were rebranded in a more pragmatic way. At St. Mary's, Warwick, for example, the accounts of 1653-1654 describe a payment made to John Glendall for 'piling up the bones in the bonehouse'. Many such references pepper churchwarden's accounts of the 17th and 18th centuries, with their use and occasional construction continuing throughout the 18th and even 19th centuries. The parish church of Colton, Lancashire, had one constructed in 1764 (absent by the early 20th century), while another was built at St. Bartholomew in Burnley in the 1830s. The 19th century was a contradictory time for charnels and bonehouses, which attracted growing interest among antiquarians such as Matthew Bloxam who recorded numerous examples. The period also saw the destruction of many sites, such as the aforementioned crypt at Worcester Cathedral. Victorian propensities toward the 'restoration' of ancient churches seem to have offered little room for the relics of medieval charnelling, which arguably clashed with fantastical idylls of the period as green and pleasant. Many 'restorations' saw the installation of heating systems - for which the most convenient place of storage was the old and underutilised crypt. The example at Doncaster was among those cleared for this purpose when St. George's was rebuilt following a fire in 1853. At the same time, a completely new example was assembled at Ripon Cathedral in Yorkshire. In 1843 the sexton, a Mr. Dennis Wilson, took it upon himself to rearrange the crypt's jumble of old upturned bones into a real work of art, bearing visual similarity to the acclaimed Paris catacombs. The crypt was a successful attraction, locally beloved and described as 'celebrated' in tourist guides of the time. The antiquarian Francis Buckland's account of his visit in 1864 makes for an entertaining read, commenting on its tasteful design and 'festoons of skulls'.
However, Victorian 'restoration' once more became the culprit of this arrangement's untimely demise, as in 1865 the architect Sir George Gilbert Scott deemed it hardly suited to his vision for the place. He had the crypt's contents deconstructed and buried in the churchyard where the bones joined Mr. Wilson - who had, perhaps fortunately for the integrity of Scott's nose, passed some years earlier.
The 19th century's medical developments and reactions to industrial urban squalor granted new importance to the hygiene of the wider population. Reports on bonehouses in crowded cities spoke of ghastly and gruesome goings-on, fuelled by the financial incentive of ever-rising burial fees. In the 1840s it was reported that in the bonehouses at Clerkenwell and Spa Fields, London, newly-exhumed bodies were being hacked apart with spades and burnt to make room for more paying customers. An enquiry was undertaken in 1842 where a Select Committee heard of how coffin fittings were being stripped and sold on in the bonehouse at St. Anne's in Soho, and furthermore, employees had been seen playing skittles with skulls and bones.
These 'bonehouses' were in reality not 'bonehouses' at all, representing a corruption of the term which nonetheless discredited more legitimate practices occurring under that name. As real-life penny dreadfuls dropped squarely on the doorstep of social progress, the described phenomena were much more representative of the dark capitalism at the heart of the under-regulated early Victorian burial industry than any true charnel practice. All the same, they helped contribute to the end of such practices which were soon rendered largely obsolete anyhow, at first through the renewed Victorian focus on cemetery construction and secondly by the rise of cremation as an acceptable process of bodily disposal.
With the newly established cemeteries meeting spatial demands and cremation in turn reducing them, no more would it be required or even acceptable to exhume old graves for the purposes of interring new ones. Within the context of Victorian ideals, which have continued to shape contemporary notions of burial in perpetuity and permanent memorialisation, charnelling not only became obsolete but downright offensive within changing ideas of how the dead were to be respected.
The account given here has in some cases presented contradictions. For example, the simultaneous destruction, retention, repurposing and continued use of charnel structures through the Dissolution represents four disparate strands of what would be all too easy to present as one story. Additionally, it is interesting to note how the great interest that arose in them in the 19th century was contemporaneous with their frequent destruction during church renovations. In acknowledging these facts, it is important to remember that generalisations are often not the way to truth. Furthermore, the ways in which individual communities have historically related to their dead are often locally varied: just because something is suddenly established practice in London does not make it immediately the case in deepest Yorkshire.
It is also important to remember that the full story of this phenomena's practice and history within England is still largely unexplored. The work of the Rothwell Charnel Chapel Project has done a great deal to illuminate the site in Northamptonshire, and by extension medieval practices in general. However, it is still just one case study out of the potential hundreds suggested by documentary sources which remain to be addressed.
In response to the last of the questions raised at the start, it is entirely possible that more of them might remain out there. In 1905 a 5ft by 5ft charnel room associated with the medieval church of St. Peter, demolished and built over in the early 17th century, was rediscovered when building a bank in Dover town centre. While not a large example, the discovery nonetheless proves that such chambers may remain located beneath not just churches, but also places where churches used to be. More recently, in 1999, remains of the medieval charnel house of St. Mary Spital in London were discovered during the construction of an office block. The structure was free of bones, having been repurposed as a house after the Dissolution, before its eventual demolition for redevelopment c.1700. Its foundations remain visible through a glass ceiling, thoughtfully preserved beneath Bishops Square.
All things considered, the story of English charnel practices remains largely unwritten and their modern investigation is only just beginning. With more work on the way it is hoped that they will not much longer be consigned to the charnel house of history - but instead resurrected, bringing them almost full circle in the strangest of ways.
Craig-Atkins, E., Crangle, J.N., Hadley, D. 'The Nameless Dead: Inside a Medieval Charnel Chapel', Current Archaeology, 321 (2016) 40-47.
Craig-Atkins, E., Crangle, J.N., Barnwell, P.S., Hadley, D., Adams, A.T., Atkins, A., McGinn, J.R. and James, A., 'Charnel Practices in Medieval England: New Perspectives', Mortality, 24, 2, (2019) 145-166.
Crangle, J.N., A Study of Post-Depositional Funerary Practices in Medieval England. (PHD Thesis: University of Sheffield, 2016).
Koudounaris, P., The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses (London: Thames and Hudson, 2011).
Tom Farrow is studying an MA in the Archaeology of Death and Memory at the University of Chester, where his dissertation focuses on skull painting in postmedieval European ossuaries. He is currently pursuing routes to doctoral study where he intends to investigate the history of charnelling in England. He is interested in both historical and contemporary treatments of death and commemoration, specialising in the postdepositional curation, display and affective components of interaction with human remains.