Shakespeare’s World in 100 objects : Number 93, a charnel house

Continuing the theme of the previous post, Peter Hewitt, a doctoral researcher in History at the University of Birmingham, describes a lost building of Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon that was itself a form of memento mori

O, bid me leap, rather than marry Paris,
From off the battlements of yonder tower;
Or walk in thievish ways; or bid me lurk
Where serpents are; chain me with roaring bears;
Or shut me nightly in a charnel-house,
O’er-cover’d quite with dead men’s rattling bones,
With reeky shanks and yellow chapless skulls

Or bid me go into a new-made grave
And hide me with a dead man in his shroud;
Things that, to hear them told, have made me tremble

Romeo & Juliet Act 4, Scene 1

STRST SBT 1939-25

Thomas Girtin watercolour of ‘The Old Charnel House’ Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, about 1799 [STRST SBT 1939-25]


As a building used to store the bones of their dead, the old charnel house that stood on the north side of Holy Trinity Church must have loomed large in the imagination of every resident of early modern Stratford.  This ‘house’ retained the decomposed remains of family members, friends, enemies and strangers, and its interior was rarely seen by any mortal save the sexton, priest and churchwarden.  The purpose of the charnel house was distinctly functional – as the churchyard filled up with bodies, the sexton needed to make space for the new burials – as a result, the older remains were disinterred and lodged in the consecrated building attached to the chancel of the church.

Stratford’s charnel house was probably built in the fifteenth century, but was later remodelled by the Dean, Ralph Collingwood, in the early 1500s.  It consisted of two or three floors, the basement being partially below ground level and accessed by a flight of steps.  A door in the church, now bricked over, and decorated with corbels depicting Christ’s Resurrection, provided access to the upper floors of the building.

It is possible that the upper floor was once used for services to dedicate the bones held in the subterranean chamber or crypt beneath, but it is certain that the upper room was used as a vestry or sacristy (a room that housed liturgical garments and even relics).  After 1491, Collingwood established a foundation for four choristers or ‘singing boys’ who used this space to practice until the Reformation.  A later account calls the upper room the ‘minister’s studye’ situated ‘over the Bonehouse’ in 1620. [1]

It is clear therefore that the ‘bonehouse’ was in use during Shakespeare’s time, although the poet’s remains were never deposited there.  He was buried only a few paces away from the charnel house beneath the floor of the chancel.  A local piece of folklore, collected in 1777, records that Shakespeare once looked into the charnel house and ‘was so much affected by it’ that he was moved to write his own epitaph, which is now incised into a slab on his tomb [2]:

Good frend for Iesvs sake forbeare,

to digg the dvst enclosed heare,

Bleste be Ye man yt spares these stones,

And curst be he yt moves my bones.

This rhyme, according to tradition, was aimed at the canny sexton.  In reality, it is unlikely that Shakespeare expected his remains to be moved:  in 1604 he had purchased a 32 year lease of half of Stratford’s tithes and was therefore entitled to the customary privilege of a burial within the chancel.

The sometime travel writer Samuel Ireland noted in 1795 that the charnel house contained the ‘largest assemblage of human bones’ he had ever beheld.  By this time the charnel house was derelict and in a state of decay, as can be seen from Thomas Girtin’s watercolour in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s collection.  In 1800, Stratford’s churchwardens petitioned for its demolition and the building was taken down; the basement was ‘arched over’ with the bones still inside and covered with earth.

Halliwell Philips charnel house

An etching illustrating the interior ‘crypt’, reprinted in James Halliwell ‘The Life of William Shakespeare’, (1848).


Whilst the authorship of the epitaph is doubtful, it certainly had the desired effect.   In 1796, workmen repairing vaults in the chancel uncovered an opening in the ground near Shakespeare’s tomb.  They presumed that the hole corresponded with a cavity associated with the poet’s remains and immediately the local clerk was called to guard it whilst the men finished their work, taking great care not to disturb the earth any further. [3]

It could be said that Juliet’s vivid description of ‘reeky shanks’ and ‘chapless skulls’ are the lasting monument to the countless people who lived and died in Stratford during the late medieval and early modern period – but their remains are there still, just below the surface.


[1] Robert Bell Wheler’s papers ‘Collectanea’ SBTRO ER/1

[2] J. O. Halliwell-Phillips retells the story which was first printed in Walpole’s New British Traveller (1794) in his Outlines of the Life of Shakespeare, p. 366

[3] J. O. Halliwell-Phillips, Outlines of the Life of Shakespeare, p. 233

  • Leonidas Kazantheos

    In reality his body was not actually “plast” within the monument as described but laid into a family tomb below the chancel steps as we are informed; the inscription ends with the details of his death:
    “He died AD 1616 aged 53 on the 23rd April”

    According to church records he was buried on the 25th April 1616 in Holy Trinity, his body laid beneath the chancel floor of the church where his wife and daughter had also been interred. Is the inscription on the monument a paradox, a deliberate contradiction or simply a literary misconception by someone who did not know where his body was laid? Over the top is a roughly inscribed stone flag on the steps leading up to the chancel beneath the actual monument on the wall above. The bust of Shakespeare is most likely taken from a plaster cast of the dead body and face so that is probably why in attitude it appears so vacant in expression. Although not unusual for the time, the memorial inscription appears strangely oblique in actual meaning if not slightly ambiguous in the turn of phrase. The style is almost the same as the written reference attached to the Droeshut portrait by Ben Jonson, with its accent on the fickleness or temporality of prevailing nature, the monetary value of the monument, and the re-direction given to the spectator to examine deeper beyond the seeming superficial aspect of the object viewed. Above the monument is the coat of arms purchased by Shakespeare and below that the bust or rather upper torso of a poorly executed William Shakespeare who holds a quill pen in his right hand next to a piece of blank parchment held down on a soft cushion with tassels on the corners. Two pillars are located either side holding up an arch of this strange monument.
    It is Leonard Digges, a translator and writer, the son of the scientist Thomas Digges, and the grandson of his namesake Leonard Digges who directs our attention to the Stratford monument in his poetic lines attached to the First Folio:

    Shake-speare, at length thy pious fellows give
    The Worlde thy Workes, by which, out-live
    Thy Tombe, thy name must when that stone is rent,
    And Time dissolves thy Stratford monument,
    Here we alive shall view thee still.

    However, on his “tombstone” laid on the steps of the chancel is another inscription:


    This appears to be quite a popular inscription from the time used by several other living relatives, usually to inscribe a gravestone. It is clearly a piece of doggerel verse that does little to venerate or immortalise the highly crafted verses for so long attributed to the “Swan of Avon”, William Shakespeare. In fact it is a common curse aimed at any grave-robbers who might be tempted to remove the body or someone looking for treasure. It was quite common practice for bodies to be removed and used for scientific, ie medical purposes. Clearly, Shakespeare could not have given instructions to inscribe his grave with such a crude epigram. So why was this inscription permitted for such an illustrious playwright and poet? Again, investigators into the Shakespeare mystery have seized upon this crude inscription as an anagram, secret cipher or code.

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