The Rothwell Charnel Chapel and Ossuary Project has been established between the Department of Archaeology, at the University of Sheffield and Rothwell Holy Trinity Church, Northamptonshire. The church houses one of only two known surviving and in situ medieval ossuaries in England.
Charnel chapels are medieval ecclesiastic buildings, located within the confines of the cemetery of ecclesiastical complexes (including abbeys, cathedrals, hospitals, monasteries and parish churches). They were constructed in England from the early 13th century to the Reformation in the mid-16th century but the height of construction occurred in the 1300’s. There are two forms of charnel chapel: free-standing, two-storeyed buildings and those built below churches. Both structural types primarily consist of a semi-subterranean vault or chamber for the purpose of storing disturbed and displaced bones from the surrounding graveyards. Free-standing examples had a chapel built directly on top of these partially underground chambers and in the majority of cases those charnel chapels built below churches were located under chapels within the church.
Collection, storage and curation
Medieval charnelling, which is the collection, storage and curation of disinterred bones from graveyards, was actively practised in most European Christian countries by the 13th century. Known officially as ‘charnel chapels’ in foundation charters, colloquially these structures soon became known as charnel houses, bone houses, ossuaries or carnaria. To date charnel chapels have remained a neglected area of funerary archaeology. No comprehensive attempt has been made to collectively investigate their significance or determine the quantity constructed nationally and little research has been undertaken regarding the role charnel chapels had in relation to the dead, either physically or ideologically. This has resulted in charnel chapels being deemed to have been of less importance within English medieval religion than was the case in contemporary European countries. It is believed that charnel chapels were never constructed on the same scale as in contemporary Europe, yet over 60 English examples have so far been identified by the author.
Instances of post-depositional activity in medieval England are generally deemed insignificant, small scale, and explicable on pragmatic terms. Medieval burial frequently resulted in the disturbance of skeletal remains as existing graves and their contents were cut into in the creation of a new grave or during church construction works. Up to the early 13th century the disturbed bones from intercutting were typically reburied in pits or inserted into newly dug graves. The emergence of charnel chapels signifies the first time in the medieval period that human skeletal remains were permanently kept above ground in large quantities. The motives for the initiation of a new form of post-burial treatment and storage of disinterred bones during the course of the 13th century are connected to contemporary changes in medieval ideology.
Architectural attributes: Whether free-standing or below churches, all charnel chapel structures seem to conform to a prescribed template, with striking continuity of specific features noted.
Location below a sanctified building: This may constitute an existing church or a deliberately constructed chapel. Where charnel chambers beneath churches are not in spatial association with a chapel directly overhead, they exhibit characteristics or features indicative of chapels implying that the charnel room itself served the chapel function.
Semi-subterranean charnel chambers: These rooms are always semi-subterranean, not fully underground. Charnel chambers below churches have been constructed so that their south and/or east walls are directly in line with the south and/or east wall foundations of the church building, permitting openings or windows to be made to the exterior. Visibility appears to have been paramount to their purpose, both to see inside from the exterior, but also to view the interior and contents once inside.
Accessibility: Both charnel chapel types have their own permanent entrances, normally through the western or southern walls. Most examples located beneath churches were accessed from the exterior of the church building.
Dimensions & orientation: Where measurements could be ascertained, structural dimensions fall within the range of a ratio of 2:1 or 3:1 east-west by north-south. According to available information, charnel chapels were consistently orientated on an east-west alignment.
Prominent location within complexes: A key feature of large ecclesiastical complexes is the siting of the charnel chapels in areas of existing public thoroughfares which were frequented on a regular basis within the cemeteries used for burial of the laity. Those located below churches also tend to be in similarly prominent positions as those in cathedral complexes, such as close to the main entrance to the church itself or to the south porch.
Construction dates: Charnel chambers below churches were built at the same time as the majority of the free-standing charnel buildings, the height of which was from the mid-13th century to the mid-14th century.
Dedications to saints: Many, but not all, charnel chapels are dedicated to Mary. There does not appear to be a standard patron saint of charnel, but both the charnel room and the chapel room were referred to collectively as one, contemporarily. This implies that just as churches were dedicated to a variety of saints but served the same overall function, so too did charnel chapels.
Function and role
Charnel chapels were not, as previously believed, merely storage locations for bones. Current research indicates they fulfilled an important funerary role throughout the medieval period and were intrinsically connected to currently well-established and researched medieval liturgical and funerary practises. They appear to have emerged in response to a combination of contemporary theological occurrences and observances, and an overwhelming need to regulate the demand on religious establishments to record, pray for and remember the dead. The roles that charnel chapels served and their inherent liturgical connections may be summarised as follows:
Chantries: Chantry chapels were private chapels built inside churches normally by wealthy families. A private chaplain or priest was employed by the chantry founder who would say masses and prayers exclusively for the family. Many of the charnel chapels had episcopal foundations, notably by abbots and bishops. These foundation records state that these charnel chapels were built for the lay population of the associated community, seemingly in the same manner as private chantries were founded and served a particular family; charnel chapels appear to have been chantry chapels, for the ‘ordinary’ people.
Purgatory and reverence of bones: In the medieval period, it was believed that prayers for the dead would lessen the time that the deceased’ soul spent in Purgatory. Purgatory was officially recognised as an actual place in 1254 by Pope Innocent IV, coinciding with the time when charnel chapels began to be constructed. With the advent of Purgatory and chantries, the initiation of charnel chapels for the benefit of souls may be understood; one building with a single chaplain could now take care of vast multitudes of souls simultaneously. With the advent of Purgatory, it was now believed that the soul did not reside in the body after decomposition had occurred, hence it was spiritually justifiable to disturb a defleshed skeleton.
In the 1316 foundation charter for Norwich charnel chapel, it is stated that ‘in the Carnary beneath the said Chapel of St John we wish that human bones, completely stripped of flesh, be preserved seemly to the time of the general Resurrection.’ (Saunders cited in Gilchrist and Sloane 2005: 42). Given that blood was viewed as a contaminant to consecrated ground, the disturbance and disarticulation of a still fleshed corpse could have been tantamount to contamination of the graveyard. In transferring human remains to charnel chapels, there was an emphasis on not only post-depositional movement, but crucially, on post-decompositional movement. Even today in modern Catholic societies who practise charnelling, bones are generally not moved or brought above the earth until they are defleshed (Goody & Poppi).
The lack of evidence for disturbance prior to decomposition may reflect the medieval belief that a body may in some way retain an element of life whilst fleshed, that a soul may linger in the vicinity of its deceased body for up to a month, and the general acceptance that it took about a year for a body to fully decompose. It was decreed in 1299 by Pope Boniface VIII, that once bodies had returned to ash there was no objection to their being displaced from the grave or their being relocated.
Confession, penance and prayer: Charnel chapels also exhibit a definitive link to confession, penance and prayer. The charnel chapel at Exeter Cathedral was built as a penance for murder, and it was dedicated to Edward the Confessor (Orme 1991). It is recorded that one of the chantry priest’s duty there was to help in hearing confession and imposing penances on parishioners.
In 1282 the Mayor of London and the commonality of the city paid for the ‘communal chantry’ chapel to be built over the charnel chamber in the graveyard of St. Paul’s Cathedral. A chaplain was also to be maintained there who would pray for ‘all the faithful departed’. In 1302 this chaplain was required to open the charnel house to pilgrims ‘who were to have access to the charnel house every Friday and on certain days, such as the Feast of the Dedication of the cathedral, three days after Whitsun, and the Feast of the Relics.’ (Rousseau 2011: 75). By 1379 the charnel chapel was in need of repair and all those who contributed to restoring the charnel chapel were granted a ‘great pardon’ by the Cathedral’s archbishop. At Worcester the charnel chapels’ chaplains’ duties included daily masses for the dead (Willis-Bund & Page 1906). At Norwich, chaplains were also to pray for ‘all the dead in general; and in particular for the souls of all those whose bones were reposited in the vault of this charnel.’ (Blomefield 1806: 56).
The episcopal foundation and funding of the constructions of charnel chapels may be understood as the fulfilment of the seventh Corporeal Act of Mercy, which was the requirement to bury the dead, as stated in the Book of Tobit. Undertaking good works such as the Corporeal Acts of Mercy was encouraged throughout the medieval period. The addition of the act of burial into these acts of humility is evidence of the importance that care of the dead signified to medieval people and of the reciprocal relationship between living and dead communities. Fulfilment of these charitable works was believed to benefit one’s own soul and the souls of others after death.
Ossuary creation not necessarily due to overflowing graveyards
Occasionally charnel was moved from its original location in the graveyard of a church to become incorporated into a charnel chapel at a different church. This occurred in 1316 at Norwich Cathedral; Bishop Salmon did not have sufficient charnel for his newly constructed charnel chapel and so the charnel from Norwich’s graveyards was collected and translated to the newly constructed cathedral charnel chapel (Gilchrist 2005). This movement indicates that the charnel within charnel chambers need not necessarily reflect the density of burial, population or mortality rates at the immediate sites where they are located. The act of relocating charnel from one location to another indicates that by the time charnel chapels were being built, there was already a pre-existing familiarity of seeing or being around charnel and an acceptance that people would ‘follow’ the charnel to view, visit or pray at the charnel in its new location. It further implies that there was an evident element of prestige associated with possession of a charnel chapel, and as a result the creation of such structures may have had more to do with their significance as a marker of status for the establishment than them representing a response to a pressing requirement for charnel curation.
Destruction and eradication
With the advent of the Reformation, charnel chapels’ role within religion and society changed. As they were intrinsically connected to pre-Reformation Catholic religion and theology, when the Reformation and its aftermath took place from the early 16th century, they were destroyed, emptied or re-used for secular purposes. This explains why currently their location, purpose or very existence is not known about, because the reverence of bones and the role of ossuaries and charnel chapels in society and faith was ceased, according to the new prevailing religion. Charnelling did continue after the Reformation, but in a different manner. Due to this deliberate eradication of the physical structures constituting charnel chapels and of the inherent religious ideology, their original role and usage has become forgotten or misunderstood.
The Rothwell Charnel Chapel Project
The project aims to engage the public both with the site and with archaeological motivations for examining human skeletal material. A current programme of osteological and funerary research, plus conservation plans, are underway at Rothwell, including; osteological examination of the ossuary contents, research into the previously unrecognised funerary practise of charnelling, PG student dissertations and field trips, an extensive public outreach programme and conservation efforts. An open day will be held at Holy Trinity Church on Saturday 10th August to launch the project (see details below).
Top photograph: Shelves of crania line the north and south walls at Rothwell Holy Trinity Church since the restacking in 1912.
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Cite this article
By Jennifer Crangle. The Rothwell Charnel Chapel and Ossuary Project. Past Horizons. August 03, 2013, from http://www.pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/08/2013/the-rothwell-charnel-chapel-and-ossuary-project