WEIRD NORFOLK: Building once piled with human remains became Norwich School’s common room
PUBLISHED: 18:00 04 January 2020
They are windows into a former bone house where thousands of skeletons were stored in piles – right next to Norwich Cathedral and in a former sixth form common room.
Just feet from Norwich's most famous landmark, bones were stacked in piles for curious onlookers to gaze at: heaps of leg bones and grinning skulls. Today it is Norwich School's chapel, but in the 14th century it was a building with a very different purpose: this space would have been packed with bones, in particular skulls and leg bones, the essentials for walking and talking on Judgement Day. Fast forward hundreds of years and this was the place where Norwich School sixth formers enjoyed a little relaxation between lessons: where once skeletons were piled high, teenagers gossiped and prepared for lectures.
The notion that a grave is private property is a relatively modern concept - for centuries, churchyards were considered to be communal spaces that were 'borrowed' by those buried in them. Human remains would be kept within the confines of the church and churchyard forever, but it was unlikely they would remain in an individual grave space: this is why most early grave markers were wooden, so that they would disintegrate along with the memory of the deceased. When graveyards became full, old graves would be re-dug and the remains found within would be moved to buildings called charnel houses or carnaries. And this building next to Norwich Cathedral is one of only a handful left where you can see the very windows used by relatives and passers-by to peer into the realm of the dead.
Next to the door, to the right, there are three round windows, each close to ground level - it is through these where citizens of Norwich would gaze at the mortal remains of their ancestors as they waited for the day of reckoning. In a new Tombland tour - which Weird Norfolk will look into in greater detail in the following weeks - by historian and storyteller Sarah Walker for KindaKafe, walkers hear all about the strange bone house. Bones were preserved against the Day of Judgement when the righteous would enjoy paradise while the damned were consigned to hell: "Seeing the bones would have given people comfort that their relatives were ready to walk into paradise," said Sarah, "and, of course, it will have been morbidly fascinating."
She added: "It is said that the bones were dragged out of the charnel house during the English Civil War of the 1640s and burned on Cathedral Green and the ashes were later used as fertilizer." The charnel house was founded by Bishop Salmon and built by stonemason John Ramsay in 1316 - it consisted of an upper chapel of St John Evangelist and a lower chapel and charnel-crypt with its own warden and chaplains. They would celebrate mass for the souls of the founder and his predecessors and "the souls of all those whose bones are deposited in the vault of this charnel…the bones of all such as were buried in Norwich might be brought into it, if dry and clean from flesh, there to be decently reserved until the last day."
For an idea of what a charnel house or carnary might have looked like, we can trave to St Margaret's Church at Stratton Strawless, where a memorial to Thomas Marsham, who died in 1638, includes a marble representation of a 'charnel cage'. Beneath an effigy of Thomas is a cage which is packed with alabaster bones: there are skulls, a jawbone and a human hand, still with its flesh and fingernails, holding an upturned skull with preserved teeth.
* The 90-minute Explore Tombland tour with Sarah Walker sees Norwich's history of Romans, rioters and rebels, priors, friars and preachers come to life. Tickets are £9 per person and can be booked by visiting www.kindakafe.org.
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