History of charnel chapels

Charnel chapels are a type of medieval religious structure located within the confines of the cemetery of all kinds of ecclesiastical complexes, including abbeys, cathedrals, hospitals, monasteries and parish churches. One key purpose of charnel chapels is to house disturbed or disinterred human bone, which are often stacked up along the interior walls in huge numbers. Disturbed human bones are often referred to as ‘charnel’, and hence to practice of collecting these has been termed ‘charnelling’.

Charnel chapels appeared and proliferated in England from the early 13th century to the Reformation in the mid-16th century. Charnel chapels were also constructed throughout medieval Europe. They continued to be founded into the 18th and 19th centuries, and are still in use in most Catholic European and some South American countries. Charnel chapels were known by a variety of names in English, French and Latin, including ossuaries, charnel houses, or carnarium, even contemporarily, within a few years of their construction.

Structural types

There are two forms of charnel chapel: free-standing, two-storeyed buildings and those built below churches. Both structural types consist of a semi-subterranean vault or chamber for the purpose of storing disturbed and displaced bones from the surrounding graveyards. Free-standing examples had a chapel built directly on top of a partially underground chamber and in the majority of cases those charnel chapels built below churches were also located under chapels within the church.

For a long time, only buildings that were free-standing were classified as charnel chapels. However, current and ongoing research conducted by Rothwell Project team members is demonstrating that these basement rooms and their associated ossuaries, such as that at Holy Trinity, ought to be considered as a secondary form of charnel chapel.

A template of architectural features indicative of charnel chapels, whether in England or on mainland Europe, was developed by project member, Dr Jennifer Crangle, as a part of her doctoral research. Each of these characteristics reflect the inherent spiritual role that charnel chapels and curation of human skeletal material signified to medieval people and their religion, highlighting their purpose beyond serving as storage locations.

Template of architectural features

  1. Charnel is consistently located below a sanctified building (church or chapel), whether of the free-standing variety or underneath churches.

  2. The lower room is always semi-subterranean, but individual structures range in their depth below ground level; some, such as Hythe (Kent) or Oppenheim (Germany) are only a few feet below ground level, whereas others, such as Rothwell or Sedlec (Czech Republic) are nearly fully underground (see Figures 1 to 5 below).

  3. The basement rooms containing the charnel were readily accessible, with nearly all identified examples having permanent staircases and doorways to allow the public, as well as those depositing charnel, to enter.

  4. Visibility was a key component of charnel chapels. It was equally as important for people to be able to see into the interior of the basement room from the exterior of the building, as it was for them to be able to see and move around when inside. Charnel chapel lower chambers normally have at least one window, usually on the south or east side, to allow maximum light to enter (see figures 6 to 8 below).

  5. Charnel chapels were deliberately sited within prominent regions of ecclesiastical complexes, or beneath particular parts of churches. Rothwell’s charnel room is located beneath a potential contemporary south wall entrance to the church, meaning that it was literally walked over in order to enter the church. Free standing structures are always located in the lay part of the cemeteries and in areas where they will be passed by most frequently.

  6. In England, the majority of charnel chapels, where construction dates could be ascertained, were built in the mid-13th century to the mid-14th century.

Figures 1 and 2: The steps leading into the semi-subterranean charnel room in Oppenheim, Germany (top). The charnel chapel at Oppenheim, Germany, founded in 1400. The arrow highlights the location of the entrance and steps to the charnel room (bottom). Photographs by Dr Jennifer Crangle, 2012.

Figures 3 and 4: The steps leading into the semi-subterranean charnel room in Sedlec, Kutná Hora, Czech Republic (top). The charnel chapel at Kutná Hora, Czech Republic (bottom). Photographs by Dr Jennifer Crangle, 2010.

Figure 5: The southern entrance into the charnel room at Holy Trinity Church, Hythe, Kent. The room is located beneath the chancel, that was deliberately raised to accommodate the room, and has six steps leading into it. Photograph by Dr Jennifer Crangle, 2009.

Figures 6 to 8: The windows into the charnel rooms at Sedlec, Hythe and Rothwell. Photographs by Dr Jennifer Crangle, 2009 to 2013.

Understanding charnel chapels

To date, charnel chapels have remained a neglected area of funerary archaeology. Besides Rothwell Project research, no comprehensive attempt has been made to collectively investigate their significance or determine the quantity constructed nationally. Consequently, they are deemed to have been of less importance within English medieval religion than was the case in contemporary European countries.

Little research has been undertaken regarding their relation to the dead, either physically or ideologically, and it is assumed that they only served a functional role - as places for the storage of bones - as opposed to any more complex liturgical or commemorative purpose.

Instances of disturbance of the buried dead during the medieval period in Europe are generally deemed insignificant, and explicable in pragmatic terms. Indeed medieval burial practices frequently resulted in the disturbance of skeletal remains as existing graves and their contents were cut into in the creation of a new grave or during church construction works.

Until the early 13th century, the disturbed bones from intercutting were typically reburied in pits or inserted into newly dug graves. The emergence of charnel chapels in the 13th century signifies the first time in the medieval period that human skeletal remains were permanently kept above ground in large quantities.

The role of charnel chapels in medieval England (c. AD 1200 to 1550)

The motives for the initiation of a new form of post-burial treatment and storage of disinterred bones during the course of the 13th century are connected to contemporary developments and changes in medieval ideology, such as the official recognition of purgatory in 1254. Purgatory was believed to be a place where the souls of people not fit for immediate ascension to heaven because of sins committed during life, would reside until their sins were purged.

The duration of this purgation depended on the level and quantity of sins not repented for prior to death but could be lessened by prayers offered by the living on behalf of these souls. Such prayers were often performed in specific parts of the church such as chantries. Chantries were buildings inside or attached to churches or cathedrals where priests were paid to pray regularly and perform masses for the soul(s) of the person(s) who has established them.

There is also a strong connection between charnel chapels and repentance, confession and penance for sins committed. Some European charnel chapels, for example, Sedlec, still retained confessionals up to the 1970s, and there is a significant body of evidence for English examples having chaplains and priests assigned to them, whose sole or main duties were to hear confession. We therefore believe that charnel chapels provided the same role as chantries, but for the public.

The fate of charnel chapels in England

The reason that English charnel chapels have not been studied in detail is largely due to the impact of the Reformation (c. 1535 to 1600). With the advent of Protestantism in England many religious practices associated with Catholicism, including the curation of charnel in charnel chapels and the importance of confession and prayers for the soul, were deliberately ceased.

Some charnel chapels were emptied of charnel, which was reburied, often on unconsecrated or unspecified land, as happened at Norwich’s Cathedral and London’s St Paul’s Cathedral. Some were reused after the charnel was removed for merchants to store their goods in the cool basement, while the upper levels were rented as accommodation or other purposes. More still were dismantled down to the ground and the charnel buried in situ, so no above-ground trace was visible, as occurred at Exeter Cathedral and St Peter’s Church, Leicester.

At Rothwell and Hythe, however, the buildings were simply shored up with earth on the exterior of the church, so that the charnel basement rooms with their contents were hidden from sight. As England remained predominantly Protestant from the Reformation period onwards, as opposed to much of mainland Europe, the practice of charnelling and charnel chapel construction, and all the devotional and liturgical purposes they held, were forgotten.

Additional reading

  • Ariès, 1981. The hour of our death.

  • Bynum, 1996. The resurrection of the body in Western Christianity, 200 to 1336.

  • Crangle, 2009. Ossuaries and the curation of the dead in medieval England and Europe: Saving of space or saving the soul? Unpublished masters dissertation, Bournemouth University.

  • Crangle, 2015. A study of post-depositional funerary practices in medieval England. Unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Sheffield.

  • Daniell, 1999. Death and burial in medieval England, 1066 to 1550.

  • Gilchrist and Sloane, 2005. Requiem. The medieval monastic cemetery in Britain.

  • Horrox, 1999. Purgatory, prayer and plague: 1150 to 1380, Death in England: An illustrated history. Edited by Jupp and Gittings.