As a kind of last hurrah before returning to The States on Sunday, my friend Eric and I made a pilgrimage to one of the last two remaining ossuaries--or charnel houses--in England, found in the crypt of St. Leonard's Church in, Hythe, Kent.
The informational pamphlet provided by the church makes the claim that this is one of the "largest and best preserved collection of ancient human bones and skulls in Britain." This might well be true, but it is also, I fear, damning by faint praise; post-reformation English churches rarely have an intact statue of a saint or a touch of color, much less the kind of excess witnessed in the art form of the ossuary.
No one is sure exactly when this charnel house originated, but the earliest references, "both of which describe 'an orderly pile of dead men's bones' in the 'charnel house' on the north side of the church," date from the 1670s. But where did the bones come from? Again, from the pamphlet:
There have been many theories over the years as to who the people were and how they came to be resting in the crypt. [One]1787 drawing... stated that the bones were supposed to be those of 'Danish pirates slain in a battle' whilst a handwritten footnote on an 1860s illustration referred to them as 'men who fell in the battle of Hastings (1066).' Another argument said they were Anglo-Saxons killed in battle However, these theories are not supported by other evidence... it has also been stated that the people were victims of the Black Death... the general consensus now is that they were Hythe residents who died over a long period of years, who had been buried in the churchyard... and were dug up in the 13th century when the church was extended..
You can find out more about the ossuary at St. Leonard's Church, Hythe by clicking here. Although it does not really compare with its counterparts in Italy or the Czech Republic, its well worth a visit if you're nearby.
All photos © Joanna Ebenstein; click on image to larger images; To see additional images, click here.