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In The Charnel House

October 26, 2021
by the gentle author

I wonder if those who work in the corporate financial industries in Bishop’s Sq today ever cast their eyes down to the cavernous medieval Charnel House of c. 1320 beneath their feet, once used to store the dis-articulated bones of many thousands of those who died here of the Great Famine in the fourteenth century.

Inspector of Ancient Monuments, Jane Siddell, believes starving people flooded into London from Essex seeking food after successive crop failures and reached the Priory of St Mary Spital where they died of hunger and were buried here. It was a dark vision of apocalyptic proportions on such a bright day, yet I held it in in mind as we descended beneath the contemporary building to the stone chapel below.

At first, you notice the knapped flints set into the wall as a decorative device, like those at Southwark Cathedral and St Bartholomew the Great. London does not have its own stone and Jane pointed out the different varieties within the masonry and their origins, indicating that this building was a sophisticated and expensive piece of construction subsidised by wealthy benefactors. A line of small windows admitted light and air to the Charnel House below, and low walls that contain them survive which would once have extended up to the full height of the chapel.

When you stand down in the cool of the Charnel House, several metres below modern ground level, and survey the neatly-faced stone walls and the finely-carved buttresses, it is not difficult to complete the vault over your head and imagine the chapel above. Behind you are the footings of the steps that led down and there is an immediate sense of familiarity conveyed by the human proportion and architectural detailing, as if you had just descended the staircase into it.

This entire space would once have been packed with bones, in particular skulls and leg bones – which we recognise in the symbol of the skull & crossbones – the essential parts to be preserved so that the dead might be able to walk and talk when they were resurrected on Judgement Day. Yet they were rudely expelled and disposed of piecemeal at the Reformation when the Priory of St Mary Spital was dissolved in 1540.

Brick work and the remains of a beaten earth floor indicate that the Charnel House may have become a storeroom and basement kitchen for a dwelling above in the sixteenth century. Later, it was filled with rubble from the Fire of London and levelled-off as houses were built across Spitalfields in the eighteenth century. Thus the Charnel House lay forgotten and undisturbed as a rare survival of fourteenth century architecture, until 1999 when it was unexpectedly discovered by the builders constructing the current office block. Yet it might have been lost then if the developers had not – showing unexpected grace – reconfigured their building in order to let it stand.

Around the site lie stray pieces of masonry individually marked by the masons – essential if they were to receive the correct payment from their labours. Thus our oldest building bears witness to the human paradox of economic reality, which has always co-existed uneasily with a belief in the spiritual world, since it was a yearning for redemption in the afterlife that inspired the benefactors who paid for this chapel in Spitalfields more than seven centuries ago

The exterior walls are decorated with knapped flints, faced in Kentish Ragstone upon a base of Caen Stone with use of green Reigate Stone for corner stones

Window bricked up in the sixteenth century

Inside the Charnel House once packed with bones

Twelfth century denticulated Romanesque buttress brought from an earlier building and installed in the Charnel House c.1320 – traces of red and black paint were discovered upon this.

Fine facing stonework within the Charnel House

Fourteenth century masons’ marks

The Charnel House is to be seen in the foreground of this illustration from the fifteen-fifties

The Charnel House during excavations

You may also like to read about

In a Well in Spitalfields

In the Crypt of Christ Church, Spitalfields

In the Crypt of St Leonards, Shoreditch

4 Responses leave one →
  1. paul loften permalink
    October 26, 2021

    A thought for the terrible suffering endured by the unfortunate victims of this place situated in the heart of Spitalfields should serve us well . Thank you for reminding us of our humanity and frailty. We are indeed all very still much dependent on each other and even, what could be considered, a slight change in the weather .

  2. Jill Wilson permalink
    October 26, 2021

    This was one of the stops on the Gentle Author’s tour of Spitalfields which gave me goosebumps… To imagine all that had gone on here in times gone by and all the human suffering that has occurred in the area – compounded by the dissolution of the monasteries by the monstrous Henry VIII (boo! hiss!)

    Fascinating stuff, and a great reminder of all the layers of history under our feet.

  3. October 26, 2021

    Fascinating as ever Gentle Author – thank you so much – for this and all the other posts that bring me daily delight!

  4. Dasvid Lawson permalink
    October 31, 2021

    As I think I have mentioned in the past I believe the house where my father was born at the outbreak of the First War was somewhere above these ruins in what was then Fort Street, which ran from Spital Square to Artillery Row. The area was packed with Jewish refugees like my grandparents, fleeing Eastern European pogroms to a new life. But a tough life, crowded several families to each house.

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