Bishop Square Charnel House

Chris Thomas of MoLAS and Stephen Brindle of English Heritage standing in the Charnel House ( MoLAS)


Author: Chris Thomas

On Thursday 7th July, English Heritage, MoLAS and the Spitalfields Development Group held a launch of the completed charnel house display at the new Bishop Square development at Spitalfields. The charnel house is an early 14th-century building, constructed in the cemetery of St Mary Spital, for the storage of human bones disturbed in the cemetery. The crypt was a semi-basement entered by a door and stairs at the east end. There was originally a chapel above it where services were held to dedicate the bones and commemorate the dead. Most of the bones were cleared from the crypt at the Dissolution when the building was turned into a house.

The structure's remarkable survival was due to its reuse up until c. 1700 and the nature of the redevelopment of the area at that time when the ground level was raised by about 2m. It is one of only a handful of medieval buildings in Tower Hamlets and only a similar number of charnel houses survive in the UK, despite the fact that most cathedrals and a few other churches once possessed them.

After its initial discovery in 1999, English Heritage and the Spitalfields Development Group negotiated for its permanent retention on the site in its own dedicated basement. The project was jointly funded by EH and SDG and the project was co-ordinated by them, MoLAS, Fosters and Arup. Small sections of the highest surviving southern wall had to be removed to put in beams to support the floor of the new building. Holden Conservation conserved the structure and Foster and Associates designed a forecourt and window to allow a permanent viewing chamber within the new Bishop Square. Access into the charnel house itself will be by appointment only. A new metal staircase has been created to allow access into the crypt and a number of worked stones from the building are now displayed there.

There were short articles in the press including the Guardian and a large piece in the Daily Telegraph on Monday 11th July.

This site report is extracted from MoLAS 2005: annual review

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