Cryptic clues: The mystery of St. Leonard's Church's 2,000 skeletons
What could possibly be more exciting to the Sinister Isle team than a town with no less than NINE charity shops and a covered craft (absolute tat) market? Try a medieval ossuary with the bony remains of 2,000 people.
“Respect your ancestors, do not touch their skulls,” reminded the church warden as we entered the tiny crypt of St. Leonard’s Church in Hythe.
It was our first visit to the Kent seaside town, and we had decided to check out the top rated activity on Trip Advisor while we were enjoying a weekend away in nearby Folkestone.
We knew how we had ended up in this tiny, damp room hidden through a passageway at the back of a church on top of a very steep hill - but when it comes to our 700-year-old ancestors, we are none the wiser.
St. Leonard’s is home to the largest and best-preserved collection of ancient human skulls and bones in Britain, with 1,022 skulls and a huge 7.5m x 1.8m stack of leg bones - in total the remains of around 2,000 people.
The history of the ossuary is as fascinating and mysterious as its contents.
No one knows for sure how the collection of bones came about, with some connecting them to people who died at the nearby Battle of Hastings in 1066, Danish pirates who were slain in a bloody battle after a failed invasion centuries ago, and others believing they are just a collection of remains from local churchyards that were cleared pre-1500.
Others have argued they might be Roman, and some studies have put forward that most of the skulls were female or belonged to youngsters.
Even the crypt itself is a mystery to historians, with some saying it is a merely a medieval ‘charnel house’ used to house defleshed bones. Its earliest mention is in 1678 by Town Clerk of Rye, Samuel Jeake, and a year later by Rev Brome, Chaplain to the Cinque Ports, both of whom described “an orderly pile of dead men’s bones” in the “charnel house” on the north side of the church.
There was a further grizzly description pinned to the wall, “extracted from a very ancient history of Britain” which particularly caught my attention, describing the bloody fight between the Britons and the Danish pirates.
It read: “The slaughter was prodigious, there being no less than 30,000 dead. After the battle the Britons wearied with fatigue and and perhaps shocked with the slaughter, returned to their homes.
“Leaving the slain on the Field of Battle where being exposed to the changes of the weather the FLESH rotted from the Bones which were afterwards collected and piled in heaps by the inhabitants who in time removed them in to a vault in one of the churches of Hythe.”
Each skull tells a story; worn down molars show they survived on rough, coarse food; sponging around the eye sockets shows anaemia and other deficiencies, and some nasty looking injuries - some healed, some fatal - hint at a violent and painful death.
Despite this, the warden was adamant that there are definitely no ghosts or malevolent energy in the crypt.
As a CD of atmospheric organ music blasted from a portable boombox on a shelf she cheerily told us: “Their bones are holding up a very important part of the church, they’re happy skulls!”
Crypt of St. Leonard, Hythe. Open summer months 11am-1pm and 2-4pm on Monday to Saturday and 2-4pm on Sundays. £2 entry.