Visit to the Spitalfields Charnel House

When Jane Sidell, Inspector of Ancient Monuments at English Heritage, offered to open the site of the Spitalfields charnel house for CBA London members on Halloween evening, we leapt at the chance. The timing meant that we were only able to inform members on our email list, so sorry to those who weren’t aware of it. Those who got the notice were quick to snap up the places though – it booked up in four days and we had a waiting list too.

It was a dark and slightly drizzly night…

Before turning us loose to investigate the building at close quarters, Jane Sidell described the setting and significance of the structural remains of the charnel house. It had been found in the excavations of the medieval Spitalfields monastery and burial grounds around 2000/2001, which had also revealed remains of a Roman cemetery of some 400 graves. The 10,000 medieval burials excavated at Spitalfields had become one of the major research assemblages anywhere in the world. Although a charnel house had been predicted, the extent of the survival was a surprise, as was the rather mysterious construction, which evidently reused a stone Romanesque arch from a much earlier 12th century building, presumably also on the site.

The charnel house, constructed about 1320, had had two storeys originally: an undercroft for bones and an upper level serving as a chapel. It had been built over earlier burials, but disarticulated bones had also been found in situ, despite the fact that after the dissolution of the monastery, the building had become a home for a family. In later centuries one of the walls had been preserved as part of a building on the Artillery Ground site, helping to ensure its survival. Once excavated, it had taken lengthy discussions to resolve with the developers how to preserve the remains. They are now visible through glass from above and from one side but only occasionally open for visits, let alone for a chance to hear so much about the history, archaeology, context and construction.

In her usual highly professional manner, Jane had also provided an array of plastic skellies, foil bats and illuminated pumpkins to add to the atmosphere. And CBA Members seemed to be especially keen on our own special treat: the dozens of chocolate eyeballs dotted round the historic remains….