The Spital Charnel House was discovered in 1999 during excavation in advance of the Bishops Square scheme. It is part of the medieval Priory and Hospital of St Mary and dates from the 1320s. Whilst it is remarkably intact for a 700-year-old building, it is fragile and requires conservation periodically to ensure its continued survival.
Conservation of the Charnel House, in Bishops Square, Spitalfields, open to invited guests.
It was built for a very specific purpose; a chapel dedicated to St Edmund and Mary Magdalene was present on the first floor, for masses to be intoned for the dead. In the undercroft below, bones disturbed from the cemetery outside were carefully stored to allow for the resurrection of the spirit at the Day of Judgement. It was a firmly held medieval belief that the body was required intact to allow the spirit to enter Heaven.
The building is an unusual example of its type – large and decorative, with elegant buttresses, knapped flint and contrasting stones, with Reigate, Caen, Ragstone, and inside, Romanesque carvings dating to approximately 1250, salvaged perhaps from an earlier church or chapel nearby?
The Charnel House survived the Suppression of the Monasteries in 1538-9 by being useful and flexible.
It became a domestic house, with the bones (mainly) removed, and a kitchen and storeroom created in the undercroft, with living quarters above. The southern wall became part of the boundary wall of the Honourable Artillery Company. It was finally demolished around 1700, and much of the stone was deposited inside, along with a great deal of rubble from the Great Fire of London, in 1666. This rapid filling and complete burial secured its survival. It was not modified, bombed or badly restored, as happened to so many medieval buildings in London, leaving us with a remarkably authentic medieval ruin.
The current conservation work consists of some careful repairs to the stone, combined with extensive re-pointing of the mortar, all done by skilled craftsmen and women using traditional materials.