Church basements are usually pretty benign places, containing casseroles, bake sales, and a few extra hymnal books. Not so in the basement of St. Leonard’s church in Hythe, which has, in place of casseroles, thousands and thousands of human bones.
The bonehouse of St. Leonard’s church contains around 2000 skulls, some showing interesting dental and medical conditions as well as evidence of trepanning. Altogether St. Leonard’s contains the remains of around 4,000 men, women, and children.
The bones have been bringing in people and money (the church charges visitors a small fee) since medieval times. Perhaps part of the appeal of the bones is the story of their macabre origin.
Around 1200, Archbishop Becket was murdered, and pilgrims began visiting his shrine. The church capitalized on the visitors, asking them to donate in exchange for seeing the shrine. This made other local churches jealous as St. Leonard’s became rich.
So where then did the other 3,999 skeletons come from? No knows for sure. Some think they’re victims of the Black Death. Some believe they are the bones of soldiers. The Victorians spread the urban myth that they were Viking raiders killed in battle or drowned at sea. The most likely explanation is that the bones accumulated as a result of the church’s expansion into a burial site. The bones were, for lack of a better solution, simply dug up and stored in the church. Recent studies have also indicated that they were of probably mostly of Roman descent.
Currently, the bones are being studied by a Bournemouth University graduate to identify a disease which so far has been evident on at least 40 percent of the 250 skulls studied.