LONDON (Reuters) - It may seem somewhat grisly, but for author John Constable, paying tribute to the “outcast dead” buried at Crossbones Graveyard in London’s Borough of Southwark, has been part of life for almost 15 years.
At 7 p.m. on the 23rd of each month, up to 50 people take part in an open-air ceremony led by Constable’s shamanic alter-ego John Crow at the iron gates of a plot of land which, from medieval to Victorian times, was an unconsecrated graveyard used for prostitutes and paupers.
Vigil participants - who include office workers, prostitutes and witches, Constable says - sing songs and attach offerings of ribbons, handicrafts and other baubles to the gates amid the pungent scent of wafting incense.
“People walk past and see us and it’s easy for them to think we’re a bunch of nutters, but actually I find anybody who spends five minutes or so with us tends to get quite drawn in - what we’re doing isn’t that weird actually,” said Constable, who wants at least part of the Crossbones site to be transformed into a memorial park designated as a world heritage site.
The Crossbones land on Redcross Way is slated for redevelopment by owner Transport for London (TFL) as part of a controversial modernization scheme in Southwark, which is changing the character of London’s Bankside, Borough and London Bridge areas.
“Crossbones burial ground is part of a much larger site owned by TFL,” a TFL spokesperson said. “TFL is seeking a comprehensive redevelopment of the whole site and has been working with stakeholders, including John Constable, to see how the burial ground can be sensitively incorporated.”
In the Middle Ages, prostitutes known as “Winchester Geese” were free to ply their trade around these parts in the Liberty of the Clink under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Winchester.
The Liberty of the Clink was in an area on the same south bank of the Thames river as modern-day Southwark across from and, in medieval times, outside the laws of the old City of London.
Historically, the area featured brothels, bear-pits, prisons and pubs, providing creative fodder for some of England’s most important writers, including Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens.
The South Bank was also home to the Globe and the Rose theatres where some of England’s earliest plays were performed.
The prostitutes of the Liberty of the Clink were buried in unhallowed land, despite working under license from the Church.
The Crossbones burial ground served the poor of the parish of St. Saviour‘s, Southwark, but the ground is thought to have been used at least as early as the 17th century, as a single women’s or prostitute’s cemetery, according to the Museum of London Archaeology Service. By 1769, it was a paupers’ cemetery until the graveyard was closed in 1853.
In the 1990s, archaeologists removed 148 skeletons from Crossbones when the extension of the London Underground Jubilee tube line opened up a section of the site. The bodies, buried between 1800 and 1853, represent only a sample portion of an unknown number of bodies on the site.
The cemetery is associated with paupers and prostitutes, but it was meant to serve the poor of the parish, said Jelena Bekvalac, curator of human osteology at Museum of London. It is impossible to link current skeleton research findings to determine whether the Winchester Geese were buried on the site.
“The land belonged to the Bishop of Winchester, it was unconsecrated and they had the name associated with him as Winchester Geese,” she said.
“That could be one of the great unknowns.”
On the night of November 23, 1996, Constable says he was immersed as his Crow alter-ego, writing in his Georgian attic room in Southwark when he received a visitation from the “spirit of a medieval whore” - or “the goose, as she called herself” which led to a prolific bout of automatic writing.
“Effectively, in a single night I wrote a very long poem or a very long poem was written in or through me by the goose,” he said. “It was the story of a medieval prostitute, or really a woman, who travels through many ages of this area.”
Subsequently, in 1999, he published “The Southwark Mysteries,” an epic drama, which was performed at Shakespeare’s Globe theater in 2000 and at Southwark Cathedral in 2000 and 2010.
“I realized I was trying to heal a spirit by remembering her.”
Writing by Julie Mollins, editing by Paul Casciato