Into the charnel house they go

Aylmerton, Norfolk

Following on from a post about burying the dead in church buildings in late medieval Britain, I now offer a post about digging up the dead.  As a historian I have long been perplexed by the modern notion that churchyards can be become ‘full’ and that we are running out of burial space for the dead. The idea that our historic churchyards with the marked graves of long-forgotten Victorians and Georgians, cannot be reused for the burial of modern people, is a bizarre notion and is at variance with the traditions and ideas of past generations, including the Victorians and Georgians who now dispossess our generation of the right to be buried in God’s acre.   In the past the grave was not considered to be private, alienable property that could be occupied for perpetuity, the churchyard was considered a communal space that individuals borrowed to enable the clean and efficient decomposition of their shrouded corpses.  Human remains would be kept within the confines of the church and churchyard for perpetuity, but the concept that an individual grave space was yours and yours alone, was unknown.

Christ Church, Gleadless
The leaning grave in the centre is that of my great, great grandparents.  They died in the 1890s and they and their neighbours continue to block up space that would be better reused  for the burial of their descendants.

When I was Rector of a benefice in Norfolk, one pleasant September afternoon I went to conduct my first funeral in one if my four medieval churches. My first act as incumbent was to deal with a rather fine specific of a human jaw bone, complete with an excellent set of gnashers, which was presented to me by the churchwardens.  After I had conducted the funeral in the churchyard, the jaw bone was popped back into the ground as part of new grave’s infill.  That was the way we operated in this church, one of my predecessors had the good sense to start to re-use part of the churchyard that had last been used in the eighteenth century.  When new graves were cut the bones of the dead were quite often disturbed and were usually added to the infill of the new grave by the gravedigger to one side of the new coffin.   In doing that we were to all intents and purposes following the pattern that persisted in past centuries.   The defleshed bones of the long dead, made way for the freshly dead corpses of the current generation.  This whole process was both pragmatic and sensible and a churchyard never came to be filled.

The Hague, MMW, 10 F 17, 73r.   from a French Book of Hours, c. 1490.
Morgan Library MS M 199, f. 172r  From a French Book of Hours, c. 1460.

In many medieval images of the burial of the dead from illuminated manuscripts you can see such a process being undertaken, though with a bit less dignity and decorum than in my former parish churchyard.  In the French images I share on here of that subject matter, the gravediggers manhandle shrouded corpses into their last resting place in a shallow grave, while around the graves, lying on the ground are the skulls and bones of those accidentally exhumed in the process.

Morgan Library, MS M 169, f. 99r.   From a French Book of Hours, c. 1470

Notice in the image above the little painted grave markers that mark the burial place.  For both economical and for practical purposes, these were made of wood.  Intended to last a generation or two at the most, they lasted just long enough for the deceased pass out of mind. Unlike the stone headstones favoured in the recent past, they were designed to decay and to be temporary.

Rothwell, Bone Crypt
image copyright Martin Beek

Rather than returning the bones to the ground as part of the grave infill, it was quite common in the later medieval period, for the bones disinterred during the digging of graves, to be added to a communal bone hole or a structure called a charnel house.

BL MS Yates Thompson 46, f. 156v.   French Book of Hours, c. 1410-20.   How many clergymen does it take to bury one body?

The fabulous illuminated image above, is taken from an early fifteenth century French Book of Hours now in the British Library.  The scene is the same as in the other manuscript images I’ve shared, the burial of the corpse in a shallow grave,  In the background of the scene is a building with a pitched roof, this is a ‘charnel’ house, stacked to the rafters with the grinning skulls.  A number of medieval charnel houses remain in British churches, some have their grisly contents, some don’t.  Some are subterranean structures, some like that in the French manuscript illustration are constructed above ground as freestanding structures.

Bone Crypt, Rothwell, Northamptonshire
The Rothwell bone hole, image copyright Martin Beek.  This Northamptonshire charnel house was reorganised and the last century.  The skulls have all been neatly placed on shelves and the long bones stacked in a large pile in the centre.

There are two subterranean charnel houses in Britain that are known to still retain their contents. I say known, as there are no doubt others that have not been discovered or opened.  The known ones are are at Hythe in Kent and Rothwell in Northamptonshire.   The one at Hythe is a vaulted tunnel under the chancel.  The one At Rothwell (illustrated above) is a vaulted chamber under the south nave aisle.  This charnel house contains the remains two and half thousand (2500) of Rothwell’s inhabitants, mostly dating from between the thirteenth and the sixteenth century.


The current neat arrangement of the chamber with skulls on wooden shelves and bones sorted into type dates only from 1912.  As the image above shows, the earlier arrangement was less ordered ans more shocking to behold.   The bones were originally arranged in heaps against three walls of the chamber.  Long bones in stacks, skulls on the tops of each heap.  In the Middle Ages the walls of the end wall of the chamber was painted and in the nineteenth century there were still faint traces of an image of the Resurrection of Christ, wonderful fitting for a chamber devoted to those awaiting the general resurrection.
Of the many freestanding charnel house standing in churchyards, few now remain and those that do have long been emptied of their contents and turned to a different use.  In south Pembrokeshire, there are a couple.

Carew Cheriton//

The first is at Carew Cheriton and is a fourteenth century whitewashed building to the west of the main church.    It consists of an upper Chapel, over a barrel vaulted charnel chamber.  I haven’t been inside, but I understand there is a Piscina in the upper chamber, indicating its ecclesiastical former use.   This charnel house has survived because it continued to have a purpose for many years.  Following the Reformation, still no doubt with its grisly contents intact, it was used as a parish school room and continued being used as such until the twentieth century.

Carew Cheriton

There is a door into the lower chamber from the west end, but on north and south wall there are two curious round openings at ground level.  Presumably these were primarily for ventilation, but they could also have been used for depositing human remains into the chamber without the need to enter it.

Angle, Pembrokeshire

Down the road from Carew at Angle, is a second churchyard charnel house.   This little fifteenth century,structure known as the ‘Seamen’s Chapel’ or the chapel of St Anthony, is smaller, but similarly constructed to the Carew charnel house.  The lower chamber is a vaulted charnel chamber, entered by a door in the east end.

Angle, Pembrokeshire

Above is a beautiful barrel-vaulted chapel, restored in the early twentieth century with an Arts and Crafts altarpiece by Coates Carter.  A plaque in the chapel records that the Chapel was founded in 1447 by Edward de Shirburn of Angle, I’ve not been able to find any evidence of that.

Angle, Pembrokeshire

As at Carew the charnel chamber is ventilated by two openings in the north and south walls.

Tunstead, Norfolk

At Tunstead in Norfolk there is a raised platform at the east end of the vast fifteenth century chancel, which forms an extraordinary backdrop for the high altar.  This platform, which also formed the support for the high altar reredos and was in the shadow of a monumental east window (now blocked) is raised over a narrow vaulted chamber.  The chamber is entered through a small door in its western face and it has an opening on its roof protected by a metal grille.

Tunstead, Norfolk

Although this chamber is now just the repository for an old plastic swivel chair, it is almost certainly an internal charnel house, I can’t see what else it could be.  Some fanciful suggestions have been made like it’s a repository for relics, or was built as platform for the performance of mystery plays!   What hogwash, it’s a charnel house.  Perhaps the bones is contained were brought up to surface when the chancel was constructed?  It is curious to have such a space created within the church building, but it was probably put here for practical reasons.  The chancel at Tunstead goes right to boundary of the churchyard and there would have been no space for one outside the east wall of the chancel.   What an extraordinary setting for the parish mass this would be. The fifteenth century parishioners of Tunstead would have witnessed the mass, with its prayers for the departed and all its supposed efficacy for the souls of the faithful, in front of the communal grave of the parish faithful.

Dorchester Abbey, Oxfordshire

Internal charnel houses that shape the liturgical arrangements of a church building are not unique. The extraordinary nave altar at Dorchester Abbey in Oxfordshire, with its fourteenth century painted reredos is built on the roof of a substantial charnel vault. The altar, which in the Augustinian Abbey church was the parish or ‘peoples’ altar, is raised up on a flight of steps built up over the remains of the dead.  As the people of Dorchester worshipped, they worshipped with the physical remains of those who had passed that way before them.

6 thoughts on “Into the charnel house they go

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  1. I've heard of Charnel houses but nver know of any that were still around. Interesting that about Dorchester Abbey, I've been in there and seen that chapel in that photo but have yet to return for a proper photo session for my blog. Must look out for them now.


  2. I have also wondered about the unusual arrangement of the nave altar at Dorchester. Thank you for the explanation (which doesn't appear in any literature available at the church).


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