Church of St Leonard Dover
Oak Walk
Kent CT21 5DN
 
 

Overlooking the small Cinque Port town of Hythe is an impressive parish church with an extremely rare example of a medieval Ossuary or Charnel House filled with thousands of thigh bones and skulls.

 
Many visitors only come to St Leonards to see this macabre display but the church itself is also well worth exploring.
 
Saxon Begining
Originally a Saxon church dedicated to St Edmund, it was expanded in 1080.  Parts of the original Saxon building can be seen in the North Transept via the Vestry.  On entering the vestry there is an archway on the right leading into the old Saxon church.  On the vestry side the arch is ornate and dates from the 12th century but on the other side the ancient Saxon arch can be seen.
 
It is believed that this Saxon part was kept as a meeting room for the town’s Bailiffe and Councillors to discuss matters pertaining to the running of the Port and judicial matters. The North Transept has a number of interesting memorials including the ‘wolf helmet’ of Captain John Warde of Sandgate Castle who died in 1601 and is buried under the floor.
 
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Norman additions
The Nave is the centre of the original aisle-less Norman church.  Traces of this original Norman building may be seen in the two round-headed windows at the western end of the north arcade.  The church was lengthened and widened in 1120 with the walls being replaced with arches and columns and north and south aisles. On the right-hand columns you can still see faint traces of paint.  Pre Reformation the whole church would have been alive with brightly painted murals.
 
The font bowl at the western end of the nave is 14th century. The bell tower at the west end was erected in the 14th century but had to be rebuilt in 1739 after it collapsed following an earthquake.
 
13th century Chancel
The chief glory of this parish church is the Chancel built in the 13th century.  Amazingly it has a clerestory and triforium, i.e. a gallery and windows built above the graceful Early English arches.  The floor of the chancel was raised to provide space for an ambulatory (a processional passage).  This ambulatory also served as a resting place for bones disinterred during the chancel’s construction.
 
There is a rare 13th century double piscina for washing Communion vessels, and a double sedilla for seating the priests.
 
World War 2  Damage
The church suffered from air-raids in the Second World War which shattered much of the medieval glass.  However it was painstakingly collected and re-leaded into plain glass windows.  The great East Window is modern.  Other interesting things can  be seen in the side chapels.
 
The South Transept is known as the Deeds Chapel.  The Deeds were an important Hythe family for many centuries and paid for the transept’s rebuilding in 1751.  Their memorials cover the walls and their Arms are in the window.
 
Triangular masons’ marks and Pilgrims’ crosses can be seen when passing under the round Norman arch back into the nave.  The stained glass windows in the south aisle survived the air raids and are original.
 
Along the wall are two interesting memorial brasses.  John Bredgeman MP, was Hythe’s last Bailiff and first Mayor in 1575 when Queen Elizabeth I granted the town its Charter.   A more modern brass commemorates Edward Colley who died on the Titanic.
 
The pillar nearest the south porch door is especially interesting for its graffiti of fishing vessels scratched perhaps by a sailor praying for a good catch.
 
Mass Dials
The visitor is still not done with the interesting things to be found in this church.  Nowadays church services are advertised on a notice board but in times when people could not read they relied on visual symbols for information.  Inside the porch, cut into the wall to the the left of the main door are three Mass-dials.  Before the 14th century porch was added this wall was an outside wall in full sun.  A peg placed in the top hole threw a shadow indicating the time of the next Mass, like a little sundial.
 
Ossuary or Bonehouse
On exiting the church there is a little path on the left which leads to the Ossuary or Bonehouse.
 
The Bonehouse is open every day from May to 30 September or by prior arrangement with the Vicarage for the rest of the year.
Opening Hours are: 10:30 – 12:00 and 14:30 – 16:00.
 
There is a small charge to visit this amazing place and a guide on hand who will point out items of particular interest.
 
The bones are carefully arranged in massed displays with the skulls carefully placed on shelves.  There are some 2,000 skulls and about 8,000 long bones, mainly thigh bones.  The remains represent approximately 4,000 people.
 
The remains are the subject of great interest and anthropological study.  We know that they belonged to ordinary Hythe citizens (men, women and children) who mainly died from natural causes.
 
On special days in medieval Hythe the priests would process around the outside of the church carrying a Holy Relic of St Leonard. It was important that the relic not leave consecrated ground so the passage under the new (13th century) chancel was created.  We know that about 30 burials a year occurred so the quantity of bones in the Ossuary represents burials from at least 200 years prior to the 13th century.
 
St Leonard’s has been on the ‘tourist’ route for over 1,000 years with pilgrims travelling from Europe to visit St Augustine’s shrine in Canterbury. They called into the Hythe church to give thanks for a safe passage across the sea.  The Ossuary proved an added attraction for the pilgrims and provided a good source of revenue for the church.
 
As the church says on its own website “…our bonehouse has been a nice little earner for the church since medieval times. Some people think it is wrong to put them [the bones] on show, but they are reverently treated, they remain on consecrated ground, and they are contributing to their church even as they did in life.”
 
For more information click on ‘The Crypt’ on the St Leonard’s Church homepage (below).
 
Facilities
Toilets are located in the vestry.
 
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Contact & Further Information
Telephone  +44 (0)1303 266 217
Website  Church of St Leonard    External Link
 
Getting There
St Leonard's Church is at Oak Walk, Hythe, Kent CT21 5DN. It is impossible to miss as it towers above town. To find it from the main street, follow signs up the hill.
 
Google Maps - Church of St Leonard