Exploring the Rothwell Charnel Chapel Project

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A stack of disarticulated human remains in the charnel chapel at Rothwell. (Photo: Jenny Crangle)

Why were bones placed in charnel chapels, and just how common was this practice in medieval England? Work at Rothwell, Northamptonshire, is shining remarkable new light on the significance of these ossuaries. Elizabeth Craig-Atkins, Jennifer Crangle, and Dawn Hadley from the University of Sheffield explain the domain of the anonymous dead.

In the 1860s, Paul Cypher (the pen name of a local doctor and clergyman) published a dramatic account of the surprise discovery of the charnel chapel at Holy Trinity Church, Rothwell. Around 1700, a grave digger ‘wielding his mattock… suddenly found himself precipitated into a dark abyss, and one might easily imagine his consternation when the dust had subsided, and his eyes grown accustomed to the darkness, at discovering himself in this awful assemblage of past generations’. The nightmarish experience of falling into a dark pit filled with human bones has since passed into local folklore. Whatever the truth of this story, or indeed the fate of the poor digger, it seems that the charnel chapel had been sealed up intact and remained untouched until its rediscovery. Thanks to this, the collection of human remains stored within holds great potential for piecing together the purpose of medieval charnel practices in England.

The Rothwell Charnel Chapel Project, based at the University of Sheffield, began with the doctoral research of team member Jennifer Crangle, who reviewed the number of charnel chapels constructed during the medieval period, the motivation behind their sudden appearance and proliferation, and their role within medieval funerary and liturgical practice. We have since focused our research on the chapel at Rothwell. This is one of only two sites in England where a medieval charnel chapel and its contents are preserved, creating a rare opportunity to understand why such ossuaries were established. Our findings are challenging much of the received wisdom about such repositories.

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The charnel chapel is accessed via a staircase descending from a porch. (Photo: Jenny Crangle)

A rare survival
The room that prompted Paul Cypher’s dramatic prose is a vaulted, semi-subterranean structure divided into two bays. It lies directly beneath the south aisle of Holy Trinity Church, which was constructed during the late 13th or early 14th century. As the south wall of the church aligns with that of the charnel chapel, it may also have been built at this time. There are faint traces of a painting on the east wall of the charnel chapel, which would have been illuminated by two windows (now blocked in) placed high on the south wall. Although too little remains of this image to identify its subject, other similar scenes in medieval churches depict the Resurrection.

The charnel chapel at Rothwell still houses a large group of disarticulated human bones. Currently, most of these are arranged into two substantial stacks located centrally within the room. Despite the movement and collapse of the piles in some areas, the bones remain in an orderly arrangement, with long bones stacked in clear layers. A large number of crania have been arranged separately on shelving running along the two long walls of the chapel.

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A skull within a stack of bones at the charnel chapel at St Leonard’s Church, Hythe. (Photo: Jenny Crangle)

We are aware of only one other medieval charnel chapel in England that survives in a comparable state of completeness. It is at St Leonard’s Church in Hythe in Kent. The Hythe and Rothwell chapels share similarities in their architecture and in the arrangement of the human remains within them. The room at Hythe is larger than that at Rothwell, but it is also partially underground and illuminated by windows.

Medieval charnel chapels
Understanding the nature and extent of medieval charnel practice in England is hindered by the poor survival of the chapels themselves and the even rarer survival of the human remains once housed within them. Knowledge of the number, nature, and dating of medieval charnel chapels has, by necessity, largely relied on documentary sources such as foundation records, churchwardens’ accounts, and wills. Some comprehensive archaeological studies do exist, for example the work of Nicholas Orme and Roberta Gilchrist on Exeter and Norwich respectively, but these focus on freestanding chapels located in large, high-status ecclesiastical complexes – very different from the structure at Rothwell, which is sited beneath a parish church. The focus on documented sites has resulted in some broad generalisations about medieval charnel practice. It has been concluded that chapels were rare in England and that their role within medieval religious practice was inconsistent. It is also suggested that they were typically freestanding buildings, which tended to lie north or west of a church. As no such freestanding buildings are found at parish churches, it has been assumed that the form of their charnel chapels is largely unknown.

Our research is allowing us to challenge many of these generalisations. Surveying the documentary and archaeological evidence has identified over 50 potential medieval charnel chapel sites dating from the 13th to 15th centuries, which are located in cathedral and abbey complexes, parish churches, and hospitals across England. This contradicts the suggestion that charnelling was rare in medieval England. It is also apparent that charnel chapels could take two forms – the freestanding buildings recognised in previous research and subterranean rooms as found at Rothwell. Both types of charnel chapel were constructed from the 13th century, located below ecclesiastic buildings, and intended to house human remains. They also share permanent staircases to facilitate access, windows to provide light, and other features including wall paintings, basins for holy water, and niches, presumably for candles or statues.

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Modern study of the human remains at Rothwell is providing major new insights into medieval charnel practices in England. (Photo: Courtesy of the Rothwell Charnel Chapel Project)

New opportunities
The surviving skeletal material at Rothwell provides a way to explore the role and character of charnel practice, which will form the focus of the next stages of our research project. Although the chapel may have been built at around the same time as the rebuilding of the south wall of the church in the late 13th or early 14th century, it does not follow that this was when the charnel was placed in the chapel. We have recently undertaken a programme of radiocarbon dating of the bones, providing an independent scientific basis for the chronology of charnelling for the first time in England. Five samples were selected for radiocarbon dating. These included one skull (Sample 4) with a distinctive cut to its top, suggestive of anatomical dissection. The dates we obtained, along with a short description of the unique features of each individual sample, are presented in the table.

The wide range of dates for the skeletal material, which span the late 13th century to the 19th century, is particularly notable. These confirm that no single catastrophic event killed the individuals whose remains reside in the charnel chapel. It also seems very unlikely that the ossuary was constructed to house a backlog of disturbed charnel from the local cemetery. In this scenario, the bones would pre-date the construction of the chapel itself, but none of our dates are demonstrably earlier than the chapel. Instead, there is evidence for the placement of material in the charnel chapel throughout the medieval period and also, more surprisingly, during the late 17th to 19th centuries. In the case of the skeleton with evidence for anatomisation, the late date fits with the nature of the cut: this sort of procedure was not conducted on medieval corpses, but is documented in skeletal collections of post-medieval and modern date. Sample 5 also returned a late date, and these two crania were probably placed in the ossuary after the rediscovery of the site in the 18th century. This is long after the chapel supposedly went out of use, raising new questions about how the site was perceived, and even used, during later periods.

This is an extract from a feature published in CA 321. Read on in the magazine. Click here to subscribe

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