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Shakespeare in 100 objects: Charnel House

Object 93 - According to an 18th century writer, the charnel house in Stratford-upon-Avon contained the ‘largest assemblage of human bones’ he had ever beheld.

Peter Hewitt

Continuing the theme of the previous post, Peter Hewitt, a doctoral researcher in History at the University of Birmingham, describes a lost building of Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon that was itself a form of memento mori.

Thomas Girtin watercolour of 'The Old Charnel House' Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, about 1799 [STRST SBT 1939-25]
Thomas Girtin watercolour of 'The Old Charnel House' Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, about 1799 [STRST SBT 1939-25]

As a building used to store the bones of their dead, the old charnel house that stood on the north side of Holy Trinity Church must have loomed large in the imagination of every resident of early modern Stratford.  This ‘house’ retained the decomposed remains of family members, friends, enemies and strangers, and its interior was rarely seen by any mortal save the sexton, priest and churchwarden.  The purpose of the charnel house was distinctly functional – as the churchyard filled up with bodies, the sexton needed to make space for the new burials – as a result, the older remains were disinterred and lodged in the consecrated building attached to the chancel of the church.

Stratford’s charnel house was probably built in the fifteenth century, but was later remodelled by the Dean, Ralph Collingwood, in the early 1500s.  It consisted of two or three floors, the basement being partially below ground level and accessed by a flight of steps.  A door in the church, now bricked over, and decorated with corbels depicting Christ’s Resurrection, provided access to the upper floors of the building.

It is possible that the upper floor was once used for services to dedicate the bones held in the subterranean chamber or crypt beneath, but it is certain that the upper room was used as a vestry or sacristy (a room that housed liturgical garments and even relics).  After 1491, Collingwood established a foundation for four choristers or ‘singing boys’ who used this space to practice until the Reformation.  A later account calls the upper room the ‘minister’s studye’ situated ‘over the Bonehouse’ in 1620. [1]

It is clear therefore that the ‘bonehouse’ was in use during Shakespeare’s time, although the poet’s remains were never deposited there.  He was buried only a few paces away from the charnel house beneath the floor of the chancel.  A local piece of folklore, collected in 1777, records that Shakespeare once looked into the charnel house and ‘was so much affected by it’ that he was moved to write his own epitaph, which is now incised into a slab on his tomb [2]:

Good frend for Iesvs sake forbeare,

to digg the dvst enclosed heare,

Bleste be Ye man yt spares these stones,

And curst be he yt moves my bones.

This rhyme, according to tradition, was aimed at the canny sexton.  In reality, it is unlikely that Shakespeare expected his remains to be moved:  in 1604 he had purchased a 32 year lease of half of Stratford’s tithes and was therefore entitled to the customary privilege of a burial within the chancel.

The sometime travel writer Samuel Ireland noted in 1795 that the charnel house contained the ‘largest assemblage of human bones’ he had ever beheld.  By this time the charnel house was derelict and in a state of decay, as can be seen from Thomas Girtin’s watercolour in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s collection.  In 1800, Stratford’s churchwardens petitioned for its demolition and the building was taken down; the basement was ‘arched over’ with the bones still inside and covered with earth.

An etching illustrating the interior ‘crypt’, reprinted in James Halliwell 'The Life of William Shakespeare', (1848).
An etching illustrating the interior ‘crypt’, reprinted in James Halliwell 'The Life of William Shakespeare', (1848).

Whilst the authorship of the epitaph is doubtful, it certainly had the desired effect.   In 1796, workmen repairing vaults in the chancel uncovered an opening in the ground near Shakespeare’s tomb.  They presumed that the hole corresponded with a cavity associated with the poet’s remains and immediately the local clerk was called to guard it whilst the men finished their work, taking great care not to disturb the earth any further. [3]

It could be said that Juliet’s vivid description of ‘reeky shanks’ and ‘chapless skulls’ are the lasting monument to the countless people who lived and died in Stratford during the late medieval and early modern period – but their remains are there still, just below the surface.

[1] Robert Bell Wheler’s papers ‘Collectanea’ SBTRO ER/1

[2] J. O. Halliwell-Phillips retells the story which was first printed in Walpole’s New British Traveller (1794) in his Outlines of the Life of Shakespeare, p. 366

[3] J. O. Halliwell-Phillips, Outlines of the Life of Shakespeare, p. 233

O, bid me leap, rather than marry Paris,
From off the battlements of yonder tower;
Or walk in thievish ways; or bid me lurk
Where serpents are; chain me with roaring bears;
Or shut me nightly in a charnel-house,
O'er-cover'd quite with dead men's rattling bones,
With reeky shanks and yellow chapless skulls

Or bid me go into a new-made grave
And hide me with a dead man in his shroud;
Things that, to hear them told, have made me tremble

Romeo & Juliet Act 4, Scene 1