Despite living only ten miles from the largest of England’s few extant ossuaries for half my life, it was only recently that I finally managed to visit the church of St Leonard in Hythe. Sitting at the top of a network of tortuous winding lanes on a hill above the coast, the church appears unremarkable, a flint-built medieval structure. A small sign at the south door points “To the Crypt”, a ground-level building adjoining the east end. It is this room that makes St Leonard’s more than an average parish church.
Along the left-hand wall is a stack of what at first glance could be sun-bleached firewood, perhaps twenty feet long, six high and six broad. But every so often faces stare out from this stack, counterparts to the mass of long bones that make up the great white heap. Apart from these skulls around a thousand others are placed in the four vaulted arches in each corner of the crypt and in rows stretching behind wire mesh in a wall-mounted case.
By comparison with Catholic Europe, Protestant nations tend not to leave their ancestors’ bones out for display or comment. It smacks of papistry, idolatry and a lack of taste. This makes the survival of St Leonard’s all the more remarkable. There are several theories on who the bones belong to and why they are there, as the crypt’s leaflet points out. They have been linked on precisely no evidence to any number of battles: the bones must be those of Danish vikings or Saxons who fell at Hastings. Or they are victims of the Black Death of 1348. These solutions were all proposed before the days of scientific archaeology. Results of the ongoing study by the St Leonard’s Osteological Research Group suggest that the bones are most likely those of local people moved from their overcrowded graveyard during construction of the chancel in the thirteenth century.
As could be expected there is something of a macabre atmosphere in the crypt, not helped by the fact that several of the skulls bear signs of violence, ranging from punctures to the removal of whole quarters. There are many in the arches that are numbered, making connections to more modern mass graves unavoidable. Yet there is also the potential for humour. Several skulls, one missing the entire top of its dome, peer down from the top of the stacked bones as if showing polite interest in the visitor. This interest is clearly reciprocated: the crypt has several notices forbidding us to touch. One skull immediately to the left of the door is a waxy yellow colour, very different from the pale white of the others. On enquiring it turned out that this head took a shine to a past visitor and accompanied him home. It was only returned after the thief’s death by some friends, discoloured by years on a more domestic shelf.
This is, in a way, how it should be. Not to become so familiar with the dead that we feel compelled to steal parts of them, but to be comfortable rather than horrified in places like St Leonard’s. In similar European environments the bones were decorated by family members, sometimes with the names and dates of their former owners. While these skulls bear only holes and the stamps of science they are a direct link to our past, more so than most, to the feet that tramped up the steep streets to the church over eight hundred years ago.
Matt Cambridge (BA and MA Art History, 2000)