I usually associate rows of skulls and piles of bones with something terrible – the genocide in Cambodia, for instance. But last week, I stood looking at the remains of some 1,500 people and, rather than disgust or fear, I sensed respect, care and pragmatism – and, over the week since we visited, I’ve thought so much about the emotions it stirred in me, I wanted to write about it.
The bone crypt at Holy Trinity, the main church in Rothwell, Northamptonshire, is one of only two bone crypts that still survive in the UK today. The other is in Hythe, Kent – but there is every possibility there are others out there that just haven’t been found.
The crypt at Rothwell was re-discovered in the early 1700s – even though scientific analysis suggests it had been used a little over 100 years before. It is accessible through the interior of the church (itself a wondrous building), and down a spiral staircase through two tiny doorways.
When you enter the room, you’re greeted with an enormous pile of leg bones, carefully laid in a large wooden frame. I’d estimate the pile was roughly six feet high (taller than me) – and then wider and longer again. There was also a second frame of an identical size behind it.
Along the walls, skulls were carefully spaced on shelves, all facing forward.
Some were numbered.
The frame and the shelves were not original; the handout we picked up suggested that the bones were originally just mixed in together, much like this small pile of bones on the floor towards the back of the crypt.
The only bones they’ve found in the crypt are skulls and thigh bones, known as ‘cross bones’. (We’re most familiar with this pairing and terminology from the legendary pirate flag.) Around 90% of the bones appear to have belonged to men – and, again, scientific analysis suggests the bones derive from two different phases, the older group coming from the 1200s and the more recent from the late 1500s. Fascinatingly, the analysis of the blood types of the bones shows the same blood groups in the same proportions as modern-day Rothwell.
So what prompted the people of Rothwell to retain only these three bones out of the 200 plus we have? What prompted them to bury them on mass? And why mainly retain the men?
The main theory seems to have been that the bones in the crypt were simply the result of two different disinterments. Rothwell was a busy medieval town – in 1204, King John even granted it a charter to hold a market – and it’s likely that the graveyard quickly ran out of space. (Bill Bryson writes on the problem of country church graveyards in his recent work Home; he explains that the reason churches sometimes look like they’re sinking is simply the sheer amount of bodies buried in the ground around them.)
So it’s entirely possible the good people of Rothwell, with their obvious sense of pragmatism, decided to make space in their graveyard for more recently-deceased individuals. And the building of the bone crypt was, to my mind, an act of respect for the dead. They deliberately chose the bones that were believed necessary for Resurrection, they dug out a crypt – and they built the crypt directly under the Church, keeping the bones on sacred ground.
So while it may look gruesome or careless to ‘dump’ bones in a room, I think the people of Rothwell found a compromise between allowing later generations to continue to use the sacred ground to bury their loved ones, while respecting the beliefs of the dead from generations past by ensuring they’d be ready when the Resurrection came.
And the mystery of the absence of women? Did that suggest these people didn’t respect their females as much? As we paid our entrance fee, the lady who took the money whispered to us she reckoned there was another undiscovered crypt on the other side of the church, but couldn’t persuade anyone to dig it up to look. So if she was right, not only did the people of Rothwell respect people’s religion, they also thought of their modesty and dignity and separated the sexes even in death.