‘The oldest building in Spitalfields, lay undiscovered for 300 years.’
By the later 19th century, Spitalfields became known as the worst criminal rookery in London. The common lodging-houses in the Flower and Dean Street area were a focus for the activities of robbers and pimps.
Families huddled together in houses in the close and dark lanes and alleys. In every room of the houses, parents, children and aged grandmothers and grandfathers swarmed together.
Located on the north-eastern edge of the City of London. Spitalfields often feels like something of a battlefield between the area’s rich and varied legacy and the overwhelming march of gentrification and redevelopment in the area.
In recent decades, they have transformed Spitalfields from a mostly working-class district to a hub for high-end boutiques and trendy restaurants.
The building of a new office block in 1999 led to the rediscovery of a medieval charnel house–the oldest building in Spitalfields, which had remained undiscovered for 300 years.
A charnel house is a building, chamber, or another area where bodies or bones are deposited. Charnel houses arose because of the limited spaces available for cemeteries. When cemetery usage had reached its limits, the bodies, by then only bones, would be dug up and deposited in the charnel house. Thus, making room for new burials.
The burial ground at Spitalfields served a dual purpose in the medieval period. Besides serving as the graveyard for the hospital at St Mary’s priory, its location close to the City of London also meant they used it as an emergency site for mass graves in times of unusually high mortality.
They used the building both as a charnel house and a chapel. On the upper floor was the cemetery chapel, while space below was the charnel house where they stored the old bones when they were disturbed by the digging of new graves.
The charnel house was not immediately demolished after the dissolution of St Mary Spital in 1539. However, the bones residing in the charnel house were likely removed and reburied elsewhere.
Brickwork and the remains of a beaten earth floor in the charnel house show it may have become a storeroom and basement kitchen for a dwelling above in the sixteenth century. Later, it was filled with rubble from the Fire of London and levelled off. They then built houses across Spitalfields in the eighteenth century. Thus, the Charnel House lay forgotten and undisturbed as a rare survival of fourteenth-century architecture, until 1999, when builders constructing the current office block exposed it.
The discovery generated enough interest for the developers to combine the building’s remains into the recent development. Today a glass panel allows the charnel house to be viewed from street level, while a flight of stairs leads down to the ruins themselves, which can be seen behind glass. It gives the visitor a rare glimpse into medieval Spitalfields, which was home not to market buildings or office blocks, but a hospital and an extensive burial ground.
Since the 1980s, large-scale redevelopment in Spitalfields has enabled archaeologists to make many discoveries, helping to paint a more detailed picture of this area’s past. The land developers funded the archaeological digs and subsequent research, which allowed for money to be spent analysing the remains, buildings, and artefacts found there, including carbon dating and even facial reconstruction.
The discovery of a Roman stone sarcophagus containing a wealthy woman’s remains one of the most famous Roman-era burials excavated in London. This woman was just one of the hundreds of Roman-era graves uncovered in Spitalfields in the 1980s and 1990s.
The burials were a mixture of burial and cremated remains, buried in coffins or alongside grave goods. Scientific analysis revealed one girl buried in Spitalfields was the daughter of a woman from North Africa. While the famous ‘Spitalfields Lady’ whose face was reconstructed (and whose coffin is now on display at the Museum of London) was originally from Rome itself.
Following the Protestant Reformation, starting in the 1530s. Charnel houses fell out of use in England, and many were demolished or repurposed, their sad contents reburied or otherwise disposed of. There was a belief among Roman Catholics that one’s resurrection at the End of Days depended on the physical body’s survival, cremation was not permitted. Moving the disturbed remains to the charnel house ensured that they remained on the consecrated ground to await the End of Days’ resurrection.
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