Vic Keegan’s Lost London. 6: the Spitalfields charnel house

by Victor Keegan

The charnel house in Spitalfields is the only mediaeval building still to be found in the whole of Tower Hamlets. Yet you could easily live near it without knowing it is there. Unless you look downwards through a glass pavement at 1 Bishops Square as you walk across it, or turn a sharp left and go down some stone stairs to a subterranean level, you will miss it completely.

There, behind thick glass that makes it look like a medieval aquarium, you can stare at what remains, along with a recently added sculpture (pictured above) which adds to the sense of the macabre.

The charnel house started its life as a chapel, but for most of its existence it served as a place where the large and ancient Priory of Saint Mary Spital – “spital” is short for hospital –  kept the bones of the deceased so that prayers could be said for the repose of their souls.

It dates from the early 1300s, though the hospital – a word deriving its name from the word “hospitality” – was founded in the late 12th century, probably on the site of an earlier Roman cemetery.

The charnel house only came to light 20 years ago when builders constructing the new Norman Foster office block on the site came across remains which had previously not been known about. Goodness knows how many more were lost before the government changed the regulations to require archaeological surveys on sites believed to contain them.

Earlier instalments of Vic Keegan’s Lost London can be read here. His own website is here.

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