Rothwell is a pretty little town in Northamptonshire. The settlement dates back at least two thousand years, established by the Romano-British. In the Medieval period it was of some importance, being a bustling market centre. The 13th-century parish church, Holy Trinity, holds the title of longest church in Northamptonshire. Holy Trinity is also home to a bone crypt, or ossuary. One of only two still existing in this country. Beneath the floor of the church lay the remains of some 2500 individuals. How their bones came to rest in the vaulted crypt has been lost to the mists of time. However, the crypt’s rediscovery has, naturally, become the stuff of legend.
The presence of the bone crypt was unknown until the 1700’s, when an unfortunate gravedigger fell through while working in the church above. His descent into a pitch-black cavity, and onto this ‘awful assemblage of past generations’, was too much to bear. The poor man lost his mind and remained stricken to the end of his days.
Sadly, this may not be entirely true. However, it is known that around 1700 a sexton fell through one of the windows that had been covered over with earth at some time in the past. He discovered a jumbled mass of bones in a room 9 metres by 4.5 metres, and 2.5 metres high. At the far end of the room traces of a fresco were found. This was later identified as a depiction of the resurrection and doomsday. It is therefore thought before being used as an ossuary, the crypt had been a chapel.
Today, the entrance to the bone crypt is not quite so dramatic, but no less atmospheric. Behind a usually locked door is a narrow stone corridor with steps at the far end. As these wind around a corner, the view of the crypt is obscured until reaching the bottom. The air is cool and smells suitably musty, setting the scene for all the senses perfectly. Peering through a gothic arched doorway reveals two large piles of bones arranged in the centre of the room, while row upon row of skulls line the walls.
It is really quite a remarkable sight. We don’t in modern society have much opportunity to come face to face with the dead, beyond exhibits in museums. To suddenly be confronted with so many skulls en masse can be somewhat unsettling, but the overall feeling is incredibly peaceful.
Polite notices remind the visitor that these were once ordinary people, ancestors of the current townsfolk (so please do not touch). The guides are happy to share what is known about the bones. Various theories have been put forth which include battlefield casualties, monastic orders and plague victims. However, it’s generally thought that the bones are from local people which accumulated over the centuries. It was common practice to repurpose graves and old bones were moved to charnel houses to make room for new burials in overcrowded churchyards. No one is quite sure why this crypt contains only skulls and femurs, or what happened to the other bones.
The only other known ossuary in England is at Hythe in Kent. There were once others but their contents have since been re-interred. It is thought that there were once many more, as the practice of moving bones to a charnel house or ossuary was common prior to the Reformation. It is quite possible that other old churches around the country have similar crypts waiting silently in the dark for rediscovery.