Skulls and Cross Bones: the Medieval Ossuary at Hythe

I’d like to introduce you to the beautiful Norman-era church of Saint Leonard’s at Hythe.  This small, seaside town is about midway between Hastings and Dover, just enough off the beaten track to get few visitors.  The church is also the reason I selected this particular location for certain events in Elisha Rex.    For one thing, Saint Leonard is a patron saint of prisoners, a key theme in the book.  And for another thing. . . there is the crypt.

St. Leonard's at Hythe, exterior

St. Leonard’s at Hythe, exterior

The church is not especially well marked, but we found it along the winding streets, and were able to go inside. It turns out that the crypt is only open certain times during the off-season (we were there in November), and the rector did not answer his doorbell. However, we heard sounds from above, and waited by the tower door until two bell-ringers emerged from setting up for the Remembrance Day service.  One of them, the friendly and fascinating Nigel, offered to let us in, then go find one of the trustees, and so I found myself in the basement of the church with its many inhabitants.

to Canterbury 271to Canterbury 276

England, unlike some other parts of Europe, is not known for its ossuaries.  Most bones are either buried in graveyards, or in barrows during earlier times, and no one is quite sure how the ossuary at Hythe developed.  It seems that the bones had been exhumed from earlier graves during expansion, and stored.  This storage may have been intended as temporary when it first began, but by the 14th century, the bones had been ensconced in their place, in stacks by type, but with the occasional, dare I say decorative? flourish, like the skull tucked in among the humerus bones above.  The collection includes about 1000 skulls, and probably represents between 1500 and 2000 individuals.

some of the many skulls, neatly arranged

some of the many skulls, neatly arranged

While the bones are rumored to have been those of slain pirates or other invaders, a large number of them belong to women and children.  They were probably Hythe residents exhumed when the church was extended in the 13th century.  Nowadays, the collection has been examined to reveal signs of disease, tooth-decay and aging, and various other osteological studies.

The ossuary is a valuable resource for historical study–and a fantastic setting for my barber-surgeon who may be drifting too close to necromancy.


About E. C. Ambrose

I spend as much time in my office as I possibly can--thinking up terrible things to do to people who don't exist.
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