Britain’s Best-Kept Bones: St. Leonard’s Crypt, Hythe

Having been pretty ill in recent weeks (to paraphrase Gok Wan in the new Activia ad, I haven’t been ‘feeling good on the inside’, though it’s nothing Activia and Gok can fix), this weekend it was time for a cheering up treat, in the form of a visit to Britain’s only bone chapel. There’s nothing like checking out 700-year-old skulls to help you put your own health issues into perspective… or to act as a nice distraction.

Shelves full of skulls in a stone crypt with vaulted ceilings

Precisely arranged and numbered, the skulls sat on the shelves of the crypt.

Wooden crypt sign with old fashioned lettering

The only spooky thing about the whole trip was this sign – could have been straight out of a horror film.

St. Leonard’s Church is in Hythe, which is a fairly nondescript town in Kent. Strangely enough, there’s no specific reason for its bones to be on display – no devout monastic order at work (as in the case of the Capuchin Crypt in Rome), no prominent case of severe overcrowding in the churchyard (as was the case at Les Innocents in Paris, later forming the backdrop to Andrew Miller’s novel, Pure). Nobody really knows why the bones are stacked so neatly and not interred in the ground, which just adds to the intrigue for me. I’m also relieved that they haven’t been discarded or removed by over-zealous authorities at some point.

Adult skull on top of leg and arm bones in the charnel house

Some bones were more polished than others.

Adult skull turned to the side with exposed gap

Not all of the skulls were perfect – that was part of the charm.

The most likely cause was that a 13th century extension of the church meant that some bodies had to be moved from graves, but this wouldn’t automatically lead to filling a ‘charnel house’ with what was found. Whatever the explanation, it’s estimated that up to 4,000 people’s remains are held here, with over 1,000 skulls catalogued and carefully numbered. As the information leaflet from the crypt explains, the earliest reference to the bones was in 1678, and there have been mentions of them intermittently ever since.

Vaulted wooden shelves filled with skulls in St. Leonard's crypt

The rows fitted in with the vaulted ceilings and gothic shapes of the church.

Stacked bones and skull with vaulted ceiling in Kent

Everything was a creamy white or grey – the remains, the ceilings and the stone work.

My favourite skulls (if you can even say that?) were the ones that had been given names, reminding everyone that they had their own lives and their own personalities. Ok, so these guys probably weren’t known as ‘Brian’ or ‘John’, but it humanized them and firmly steered visitors away from thinking of the dead as ghoulish or intimidating. They were just normal people, sometimes with problems (some skulls showed signs of nutrient deficiencies or cancer) and sometimes leading probably very uneventful lives.

Adult skulls behind chicken wire at St. Leonard's crypt

Brian stood out amongst the anonymous skulls.

Skeletal jaw bones arranged in rows

These jaw bones had been studied and were left on a bench.

Bone chapels are found across the world, from Lima in Peru to the Sedlec Ossuary in the Czech Republic, but each one is fascinating in its own right. I find it particularly weird that these remains have withstood the British stiff upper lip of not talking about death, but they’ve also survived the PC brigade and haven’t been marked as a health hazard or a negative influence on the yoof of today.

If you’re at all interested in history, biology or archaeology, go and see Britain’s best-preserved skulls and let them make their mark on you, before someone tidies them away in the name of progress. Oh, and say hello to Brian when you’re there.

Neat rows of skulls in Hythe, Kent

The natural oils and sweat from your fingers can damage the bones, as the signs point out.

Bones and three skulls in the crypt of St. Leonard's

Don’t miss the chance to explore this unique collection.

Tips for visitors:

  • Bear in mind that the road leading up to the church is very narrow (to the point where you might think the SatNav has well and truly lost it), but there is car parking space when you get to St. Leonard’s.
  • The crypt is to the left of the carpark, inside the church, and is open on Mondays to Saturdays (11am-1pm and 2pm-4pm), with some seasonality.
  • You can take as many photos as you want, so come prepared with a fully charged camera, or you’ll regret it.
  • Entry to the crypt costs £1 (as a donation to help with its upkeep), but feel free to donate more if you like what you see. Also consider buying some of the merchandise, if you fancy a souvenir.

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