Up on a hill, overlooking the coastal town of Hythe, is the 11th-century church of St.Leonard. St. Leonard’s Church has been an important part of the Hythe community for almost 800 years and has watched over the town’s rich history while remaining a steadfast monument of it’s past. As I stepped (okay climbed, breathing heavily) up to the face of the the church, I wondered if the walls could talk what stories they would tell. The church itself is modest, but beautiful, with a charming old cemetery and stained-glass dotted interior.
In St.Leonard’s lifetime the town of Hythe went from a bustling port city to a town that had lost it’s sea due to sediment build-up. The Black Death hit Hythe on St.Leonard’s watch, with 1500 people perishing before the bubonic plague came and took even more. In the 1700’s an earthquake hit Hythe damaging the church and forcing the townspeople to rebuild much of the facade. St.Leonard’s has been a witness to countless tragedies and triumphs and has miraculously withstood through time and remains an important house of worship for the townspeople today. Almost as a testament to St.Leonard’s diverse and colorful past, a small room within it’s walls holds a mysterious secret that scientists have been unable to matter-of-factly solve to date.
Called “The House of Bones” a small crypt lies within St. Leonards which holds the human remains of over 4000 people. Piles of leg bones and shelves of human skulls welcome you as you enter. It is a surreal experience to visit the crypt as it is so unusual to see human bones kept in such a way.
You almost feel as if you are being watched by the smiling skulls as you pass by them. The origin of the bones is widely disputed. Some think they were dug-up from the church yard after a renovation, with neighbouring churches ‘donating’ their bones when they closed up shop. (This is the leading theory.) Others think they are the victims from the Black Plague or soldiers who were killed during a war. Most of the bones belong to women so the last theory doesn’t really hold up…
Assuming the bones are locals, it is pretty amazing to put the town’s population into correlation with the amount of bones. During medieval times, there would have been only 20-30 burials a year in the Hythe area. To rack up 4000 bodies we are talking at least 200 years of adding to the pile. Pretty amazing.
The bones have been attracting visitors since the 1300’s when St.Leonard’s hoped to monopolize off of the pilgrims coming in from the continent on their way to Canterbury Cathedral. It continues to bring a small income in for the church and has become a destination for history lovers and off-the-beaten path travellers alike.
The bones are pretty incredible to see and I definitely recommend you stopping by if you are ever in the Hythe area. Admission is a very reasonable £1, and you will burn a handful of calories walking your way up to the church. Hythe is located on England’s South-east coast, in the county of Kent.