Watching the progress of the Crossrail construction project has been fascinating in terms of what has been unearthed. The Charterhouse Plague Pit was one such buried secret, first uncovered in March 2013.
Charterhouse lies between Clerkenwell and Smithfield, just north of the City of London. The area is allegedly rife with plague pits. Research revealed that the Charterhouse skeletons dated back to the 1348 outbreak of plague; an outbreak that decimated London’s fledgeling population.
This part of London lay outside the walls of the original, medieval city, along with a whole range of other plague pits. Another lies in Bunhill Fields, now beloved as a favourite lunch spot by local City workers.
According to urban legend, the Piccadilly line follows a strange bend at the edge of Green Park to skirt the edge of one such plague pit.
This is possibly nonsense, and Jacqueline Simpson and Stephen Roud even note the “tendency nowadays … for people to explain any patch of apparently unused land … as old ‘plague-pits’.” (affiliate link).
But according to Scott Wood, Bank station (beside the Bank of England) is even built on a plague pit. Given archaeologists uncovered a range of cemeteries at nearby Liverpool Street Station, that isn’t so far-fetched.
But we’re talking about the Charterhouse plague pit.
The area probably became a plague pit due to its location outside of the 14th-century city.
As well as the plague pit, the site also played host to a monastery, founded in 1378 and dissolved in 1537. That makes the burial site older than the monastery by 30 years or so.
A mansion house stood on the site for a while, until the founders of the Charterhouse School (and hospital) created the new establishments on the site in 1611. The School existed until 1872 when it relocated to Godalming in Surrey.
There’s a fantastic post here on the Charterhouse as it is today.
But did the dead of the Charterhouse plague pit stay quiet?
The pits take the form of narrow trenches. The uncovered bodies lie in rows and scholars remark on the level of order in the burials.
Yet an outbreak of plague must have been a time of chaos and widespread fear. Rumours grew about the poor being thrown into the pits while still alive. I’ve no doubt the pits became a handy dumping ground for the victims of violent crime.
Another ghost story claims those who walk past the site of the Charterhouse plague pit can hear the cries of those buried alive among the bloated corpses.
While the School was on the site, legend has it that older boys used to tell tales about what lay beneath the cobbles of the schoolyard.
Apparently, if you pressed your ear against the stones, you’d hear the screams of the plague victims below. According to Scott Wood, in his book London Urban Legends: The Corpse on the Tube and Other Stories, the boys even dared each other “to crawl across the square at midnight, when the groans and cries of the dead below could be heard”.
Back in 2011, this tale of the Charterhouse plague pit inspired me to write my own story, The Charterhouse Bullies. You can access the story by signing up below – and I’ll also notify you about these folklore posts every week.
That’s not all you’ll find in Charterhouse Square.
After the monastery opened, the monks prayed for the plague victims buried outside the gates beneath the square. But their own tragedy erupted during the Reformation. The monks refused to accept King Henry VIII as the new head of the church. Officials hanged, drew, and quartered John Houghton, the prior at Charterhouse. The other friars reported nightly visits by their dead leader and continued to refuse Henry’s demands. Even the execution of 16 of their number didn’t diminish their resolve. Sadly the Dissolution of the Monasteries saw the monastery converted into a mansion house.
But according to legend the shadowy ghost of a monk keeps the plague victims company after dark. The headless Duke of Norfolk descends a staircase, frightening the unwary. The stories claim some 35,000 spectres lurk in the square. I’m sure there would be more reports if they were seen at the same time!
Would you press your ear to the ground in Charterhouse Square? Let me know in the comments!
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