Cross Bones Graveyard
Cross Bones – a medieval graveyard with a modern message
Just away the main hustle and bustle of London Bridge, down a quiet side-street, you’ll see an unusual sight – an iron fence decked with all sorts of bright offerings. Ribbons, charms, flowers, feathers, poems, pictures, oranges, a silk stocking… A plaque in the centre announces the site’s name and importance: Cross Bones Graveyard, where in medieval times the borough’s ‘single women’ or ‘Winchester Geese’ were buried.
‘Single women’ was at the time a euphemism for prostitutes. The Bishop of Winchester, under whose jurisdiction the area fell, licensed and taxed prostitutes – or ‘Winchester Geese’ – working along the busy stretch of river. Upon death however these women were denied burial in consecrated ground, instead being buried at the Cross Bones site. Tudor historian John Stow in his 1603 Survey Of London reported: “These single women were forbidden the rites of the church, so long as they continued that sinful life, and were excluded from Christian burial, if they were not reconciled before their death. And therefore there was a plot of ground called the Single Woman’s churchyard, appointed for them far from the parish church.’
In more recent centuries the site became a pauper’s graveyard for the overcrowded borough, and was closed in 1853. The land was sold as a building site but never used and slowly became overgrown. It was rediscovered during work by London Transport on the Jubilee Line underground extension in 1996. Museum of London archaeologists excavated an area and recovered skeletons, and the piecing-together of the area’s history began. Since then the site has been attracting growing interest.
Chris Student, branch secretary of the GMB union’s sex work branch, the International Union Of Sex Workers, found out about the site after googling the words ‘prostitute’ and ‘history’. He has since take up the cause of spreading the word about the graveyard and its potential as a memorial site for sex workers.
“Whatever group you are from you have a statue, plaque, garden or tree somewhere to honour and commemorate you. We as sex workers are the only group who don’t have something,” Chris explains. “Some may think there is no point in remembering the dead but the reason to remember these dead is to acknowledge they have not been respected, have not been acknowledged or valued.”
Chris says the situation of the women whose bones are buried here is particularly poignant as it has such clear comparisons to the sex work criminalisation debate in Britain today. “These women were licensed by the government of the time – the church – who taxed them and regulated them. Regulations dictated for example that you couldn’t drag a man indoors by his coat-tails; but neither could the owner of a stew (like a middle-ages motel) throw out a prostitute for doing her job. However when these women died the church would not then bury them in holy ground. In the Middle Ages that was a very frightening prospect.” Today, the semi-legality of sex work in Britain means workers should officially pay tax, yet are denied many of the rights, protection and respect that workers in other industries take for granted.
Chris has taken many individuals to visit the site, including sex workers and escort agency owners. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s legal advisor has had a tour and written to Archbishop Rowan Williams and the Bishops of Winchester and Southwark, and there are hopes the church may recognise the site. London Mayor Boris Johnson has also pledged commitment that any development plans regarding the area “will be prepared recognising the archaeological interest of this site”.
“It would be great if we could get the ground sanctified, an apology made by church and the place recognised as a legal entity,” says Chris. Interest is rocketing with sex workers, historians, artists, local community leaders, pagans, and esoteric all-faith and no-faith groups all showing support for the idea. “We want Cross Bones to be the first World Heritage site dedicated to sex workers,” Chris states, “a permanent garden of celebration and remembrance to honour their lives.”
(by Rachel Frost)
Cross Bones graveyard is at Redcross Way, Southwark, London, SE1. Contact the IUSW to arrange a tour – email firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information and to sign a petition to protect the Cross Bones Graveyard Memorial Gates and to create a Garden of Remembrance, visit http://www.crossbones.org.uk
To see a YouTube video about the site visit http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=ARGrTyCtY1g