The charnel chapel at Rothwell has inspired researchers for the last 300 years. Research questions include:
The origins of the skeletons – Did they come from the local cemetery or from further afield? Might the skeletons be the remains of soldiers or plague victims?
The date of the skeletal material – Are they medieval or perhaps more recent?
What the charnel chapel was used for – Was the room simply for storage of the skeletons, or was it used for other purposes?
We have highlighted some of their work here to provide an insight into the topics that interested other scholars and illuminate the long history of interest in the charnel chapel.
The earliest documented mention of there being a crypt below Holy Trinity churchis by John Morton, rector of Oxendon, Northamptonshire, in 1712. In his book ‘The Natural History of Northampton-shire; with Some Account of the Antiquities,’ he refers to
‘the great Multitude of Men and Women’s Sculls that lye heap’d up in the famous Charnel-House at Rowel’ (Morton 1712: 474).
The use of the word ‘famous’ might suggest that the site had already been known of for a considerable length of time by this date or, alternatively, that it had quickly became renowned as an unusual site.
In fact, it appears that the crypt and bones were re-discovered not long before Morton published his article, perhaps around 1700. In 1855, Mr. M. Bloxam wrote
‘About 150 years ago … some workmen in digging for a grave in the south aisle of the nave of this church broke through the crown of a vault and discovered – what had long before hid in oblivion – a vaulted crypt, in which were piled up or ranged at the east end, and on either side, extending to the west end, a collection of human sculls and bones to the height of upwards of four feet, and of the same width’ (Bloxam 1855: 2).
During the 19th century, a series of publications focused on the crypt and charnel. Following Boxam’s 1855 article, a paper was presented to the Committee for Local Antiquaries in Northampton in 1862 by Samuel Sharp, and later re-published in The Archaeological Journal in 1879. Sharp’s ‘The Rothwell Crypt and Bones’ mainly concentrated on estimating the number of individuals in the crypt (Sharp 1862).
In 1865 Paul Cypher wrote briefly about the ‘bone cavern’ of Rothwell in his lengthy publication ‘History of Rothwell in the County of Northampton’ (Cypher 1865). Busk wrote in 1870 about a sample of crania that had been taken by a Mr. Grove from
‘an enormous collection contained in a subterranean vaulted chamber in the parish of Rothwell’ (Busk 1870: xci).
These crania were analysed osteologically, although the results of this analysis and the fate of the remains is not recorded.
Wallis, in 1888, wrote about his visit to the crypt in Olla Podrida, a then monthly publication on Northamptonshire (Wallis 1888). This article was subsequently published in 1903 as a pamphlet entitled ‘All About the Rothwell Bones’ (Wallis 1903).
Up to this date, little osteological analysis of the skeletal material had been undertaken and none published in any detail. Instead, speculation on the origin of the skeletal material was the primary concern. Theories include the bones representing male battle victims from nearby Naseby where the famous Civil War battle was fought in 1645, or that the bones represented Viking warriors. These were repeated in each publication despite Bloxam’s original, rather more mundane, claim that the bones probably derived from the cemetery of Holy Trinity Church itself (Bloxam 1855: 8; Cypher 1865: 53; Sharp 1879: 56; Wallis 1888: 34). The suggestions that the bones in the ossuary represent battle victims are remarkably similar to theories relating to the charnel in another medieval ossuary at St Leonard’s Church, Hythe, Kent (Crangle 2009: 39-48). In neither case is there solid evidence to support the suggestion that the ossuaries house soldiers.
From the 1900s interest in the chapel continued. In 1910, Parsons conducted an osteological analysis of the crania at Rothwell, having published a similar analysis of the Hythe crania two years earlier (Parsons 1908). He makes some interesting observations, such as
‘At the east end [of the crypt] are some faint traces of fresco work which makes it probable that this crypt was once a chapel. This I believe is the usual history of crypts’ (1910: 485).
He concluded that the charnel was
‘contemporary with the Hythe bones, and as being the remains of English men, women, and children, most of whom lived in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries’ (1910: 485).
After Parsons’ publication, Bull published a brief article on the now re-arranged charnel, which had been re-stacked on the advice of Parsons, in 1911
‘If the money could be procured the bones should at once be restacked on two or three layers of bricks with air spaces between them, and removed from contact with the outside wall in the same way’ (Parsons 1910: 485).
Clive-Rouse in 1952 wrote briefly about the fragments of wall painting on the east wall of the crypt in his publication on the church (Clive-Rouse 1952). Trevor published a pamphlet in 1967, ‘Rothwell Parish Church Northants. The Bone Crypt.’ He noted two distinct cranial shapes, which he named Rothwell I consisting of ‘short and high’ heads and Rothwell II, ‘fairly long and low headed’ (Trevor 1967: 4). Trevor claimed that because the first group were white in colour and the second were brown, with frequent staining he attributed to copper coffin nails, he deduced that the latter group must have all been interred in coffins. He further concluded that these crania must date to after the sixteenth century based on the belief that wooden coffins were not frequently found in English cemeteries before the 16th century.
In 1976 Bryan Doughty, Holy Trinity Church warden, utilised this conclusion to propose that the brown crania represented interments exhumed from their coffins in the late 16th century when the nearby Jesus Hospital was constructed, as it may have encroached onto the cemetery of the church where these interments were located (Doughty 1977: 3-4).
Trevor’s initial supposition about the dating of the burials, based on the idea that coffins were not common before the 16th century may not be correct, as coffins appear in burials during the entirety of the medieval period. Moreover, we now know that while many things can stain skeletons brown, coffins are unlikely to be the main culprit (Boddington 1987: 13, 20; Gilchrist & Sloane 2005).
Charlotte Roberts, a well-known professor of human osteology, conducted her undergraduate dissertation on a sample of the femurs from Rothwell in 1982, the results of which were published in the International Journal for Skeletal Research (Roberts 1982). In 1988 a joint publication by Garland, Janaway and Roberts developed on this work to explore the decay processes of the human remains at Rothwell, indicating that exposure to damp over the centuries has left the bones in poor condition (Garland et al. 1988).
The potential origins of the material in the crypt are not discussed in much detail in these recent papers. Generally, papers published in the 1980s tend to agree with Bloxam, stating that the bones in the crypt derive from the cemetery of Holy Trinity church. They also favour a very practical explanation for charnelling practice; that medieval charnel houses were merely receptacles for charnel that had to be removed from the cemetery in order to make way for building works or further burials to take place.
Since 1988, little research has been undertaken in relation to Rothwell’s crypt. The most recent work has been by Paul Koudounaris in 2011 in his book ‘Empire of Death’. This book is a photographic encyclopaedia of ossuaries worldwide, from an art historian’s perspective. Koudounaris photographed the crypt and charnel but did not conduct any analytical research on either the charnel or the room itself.
William Franklin published ‘Rothwell with Orton. A History of a Midland Market Town’ in 2013 which included a very brief mention of the crypt (Franklin 2013: 73). Well-known medievalists and archeologists, including Roberta Gilchrist, Nicholas Orme and David Lepine, have all cited the crypt in various publications, although none include any new research(2005; 2003; 2003; 1991: 162-71).