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Cross Bones: queering sacred space?

“Meaning is not in things, but in between; in the iridescence, the interplay; in the interconnections; at the intersections, at the crossroads. Meaning is transitional as it is transitory; in the puns or bridges, the correspondence.”
Norman O Brown, Love’s Body

Whenever I exit London Bridge station, I make a brief nod in the direction of Cross Bones graveyard – its part of my recognition of London’s network of sacred spaces. I’ve been to some of the monthly vigils held at this place, but more often than not, just strolling past it – and knowing that it’s there amid the bustle of London is enough for me. A couple of mornings ago, I wandered down to the gate and spent a few minutes gazing at it, occasionally reaching out to briefly touch the ribbons – some incribed with names and dates from the eighteenth century – festooning the bars. A van passes, a train slowly clunks aross the bridge over Redcross Way. Reflecting on what this materialisation of death and loss means for me, whilst stroking a faded ribbon, brought to mind Carolyn Dinshaw’s evocative phrase from her book Getting Medieval of the need for making “a touch across time”.

Cross Bones graveyard was “discovered” in the 1990s by the Museum of London Archeology Service during the construction of the Jubilee Underground line. In 1992, 148 skeletons were removed, and the archeologists estimated that the site could contain up to 15,000 bodies. Cross Bones has been identified as an unconsecrated graveyard primarily used to interr prostitutes who were excluded from Christian burial.

Cross Bones is part of the “Southwark Stews”. In the fourteenth century Southwark came under the juristiction of the City of London, but certain areas – called “liberties” remained under the control of powerful church officials. It was in the so-called Liberty of Winchester, (controlled by the Bishop Winchester) that the “stews” – licensed brothels – were established (the name “stews” comes from the vapour baths by which brothel-goers tried to steam themselves free of venereal disease). It’s likely that Southwark had a thriving brothel culture before the enterprising bishop decided to profit from legalising and regulating them. The area was renown for a variety of “noisome” trades, such as brewing, tanning, and lime-burning, as well as small traders who wanted to escape the craft and guild regulations of the City. Southwark was also home to a large proportion of foreigners described using the term Doche (which encompassed Dutch, Flemish and Germans).

The ordinances drawn up to regulate the brothels included the strictures that prostitutes were barred from living or boarding at the stewhouses, and during religious holidays the prostitutes had to leave not only the stewhouses but the entire area of the liberty (both these regulations were routinely violated) and the stewhouses were ordered closed during nights when Parliament sat. Women who took lovers and maintained them financially were punished with prison (the bishop had his own prison, the Clink), fines, and banishment from the area. Once a woman became “public property” she had no right to a private life. It is from these regulations that the euphemism – “single women” (used to describe Cross Bones) emerges with the attendant idea that women who were not attached to a husband were in effect, common property. Whilst the City of London had no legal jurisdiction over Southwark, its councillors attempted to keep prostitutes from the Stews out of the city – for example, in 1351 prostitutes were barred from adopting the dress of “good and noble dames” (vestments trimmed with fur or lined with silk) and told to wear only simple clothes and a striped hood; and an order in 1391 banned boatmen from ferrying men and women across the river to the stews.

In the eighteenth century, Cross Bones had become a general graveyard for paupers, and by 1853 the site was apparently so full of bodies that it was closed as a health hazard and for the most part, forgotten, until its rediscovery in the 1990s.

Why then, choose Cross Bones for reflections on queering sacred space?

As Adrian Harris says in his paper – Honouring the Outcast Dead – Cross Bones is a unique “sacred site”. It’s “discovery” is fairly recent, for a start, and like many fragments of London’s history, it almost seamlessly blends into the maze of architectural styles – were it not for the iron be-ribboned gate, it would be just another walled-off area, easy to miss, easy to walk past.

Cross Bones GateConsidered as a Pagan site for finding connection with the sacred, Cross Bones is somewhat atypical – unlike more familiar sacred sites such as Stonehenge or Avebury, it’s located within an urban setting. I think this itself makes Cross Bones worthy of more attention. Despite occasional forays into “urban shamanism” Pagan discourses on sacred sites tend to focus on sacred place-making outside of metropolitan centres. Nor can Cross Bones be easily accomodated in the “pagan ownership” narratives that sometimes underwrite contestations of sacred space – that prior to the onset of Christianity (or even the Romans) such sites were “pagan” and that on that basis, contemporary Pagans are “reclaiming” the space as their own. Nor is it immediately obvious how a graveyard for sex workers and infants intersects with the broader theme of “honouring/connecting with ancestors” via the perspective that sites such as Avebury or Stonehenge represent ancient forms of spirituality. Again, Cross Bones is different – it’s sacredness is new – a product of its rediscovery and the subsequent events held there. Adrian, in his paper, draws a parallel between the tokens on the gate at Cross Bones and the “shrines” that mark “the site of road accident deaths” but they also recall for me, the “rag tree” offerings at West Kennet, Avebury and Augustine’s Well at Cerne Abbas.

At the same time, Cross Bones is a fragile site – dependent for its survival, ultimately, on the willingness of Transport for London (TfL), for whom the site represents a prime development area, to work with “local community concerns” such as The Friends of Cross Bones’ proposal that part of the site be put aside for a memorial garden (see Goose Garden for developments). It’s also “fragile” in the sense that its not segregated from other spaces – it’s not, for the most part a “quiet” space where one can easily gain that sense of hushed reverence that we tend to associate with the experience of “sacred space” (from standing stones to Christian churches).

Cross Bones is I’d suggest, a site where pluralistic affiliations coexist and collide. You don’t have to make an affiliation with John Constable’s elaborate The Southwark Mysteries to appreciate Cross Bones, or to feel a connection with the “outcast dead” interred there. That is a matter of self-identification, and the public Cross Bones events have a firm commitment to inclusiveness – no one would be turned away for not being sufficiently “outcast”, and the events attract a wide variety of attendees – people who live in the area, visiting Pagans, Christians, local politicians and the London Mayor (see this Indymedia article for some debate about linking Cross Bones to St. George’s day). As Cross Bones events are not only celebratory, but also work to raise the profile of the site in order that it is not built over, the events have to be inclusive to the widest possible spectrum of potential allies.

Although its well-recognised that the site is Christian (albeit “outcast Christians”) and as Adrian points out, the only icon inside the graveyard is a statue of the Madonna, London Pagans make up a good proportion of those who attend both the monthly vigils and the Halloween festivals which have been held yearly there since 1998. More recently, Cross Bones has become incorporated into walking events organised by Cooltan Arts – marking International Women’s Day and International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia – which in 2011 included a blessing by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence (May Day Largactyl Shuffle) at Cross Bones. Not only is Cross Bones a site for remembering its interred “Whores and Paupers of Southwark” but in 2007, messages were pinned to the gate memorialising five women sex-workers who were murdered that year in Ipswich. It has also been recognised as an important site by the International Union of Sex Workers who would like to see the site preserved as a memorial for sex workers. There are other possible claimants too – an 1833 report, expressing concerns over public health and grave-robbing speaks of Cross Bones having an “Irish Corner”.

Here lay your hearts, your flowers,
Your Book of Hours,
Your fingers, your thumbs,
Your Miss You, Mums.
Here hang your hopes, your dreams,
Your Might-Have-Beens,
Your locks, your keys,
Your Mysteries.
The Southwark Mysteries

Cross Bones would not have become a sacred space without John Constable, whose visionary contact with a genuis loci – “the goose” moved him to begin the monthly vigils, the celebrations, and the campaign to preserve the site in some form. His play, The Southwark Mysteries has been performed at both the Globe Theatre and Southwark Cathedral, and caused a minor controversy when it was first performed, due to its depictions of a “swearing Jesus” and a female Satan wearing a strapon phallus. Although John Constable’s own magical perspective (see The Goose, The Crow and The Cross Bones Portal) is often the first point of contact for people wanting to find out more about Cross Bones – I think what is interesting here is that Constable works hard to stress that what is happening at Cross Bones is an “unfolding vision” rather than an attempt to create a particular doctrine.

From the crossbones website’s Halloween event page:

The form of the ritual embodies these contraries: combining a sense of awe and reverence with a bawdy humour befitting The Goose. It presents a syncretic vision of healing and transformation, rooted in native pagan animism and Crow’s idiosyncratic Goddess worship, and encompassing elements of ‘left-hand’ Magdalene Gnosticism, Buddhism, Tantra, spiritualism and the Western Magical Tradition. However, Crow has always asserted that The Goose’s teachings are not a doctrine, creed or belief-system. They can best be understood as a spiritual practice in which conflicting ideas can co-exist within a spiritual or astral state of ‘Liberty’ or ongoing process of liberation. The Southwark Mysteries and other teachings of the Goose-Crow source are revealed in poetry and song, as allusions and emblems of that which cannot be spoken, rather than as literal, ‘gospel’ truth.

Yet at the same time that Constable/Crow makes this appeal to openness – to an “ongoing process of liberation” I think its obvious that the events he has staged there have played an instrumental role in shaping the emerging “mysteries” of Cross Bones. I wonder if, in time, other enactments will accrue around similar burial sites in London such as Cripplegate in Warwick Place or the Bethlem graveyard (again recently rediscovered due to excavations around Liverpool Street Station)? Possibly only if someone comes forwards who is passionate about the sites to devote care and attention to them.

Carolyn Dinshaw, in Getting Medieval describes what she terms the “queer historical impulse” – a desire to make that “touch across time” that is based not in continuity but a “shared positionality” – an “impulse toward making connections across time between, on the one hand, lives, texts, and other cultural phenomena left out of sexual categories back then and, on the other, those left out of current sexual categories now.”
She proposes a politics based not on identity – that is, the continuist model of history which emphasises an easy, essential sameness between past and present – but using the past, and a sense of partial connection to work for connectivity and coalition, crossing boundaries not only across time, but more conventional divides (such as academic-nonacademic, or queer-normative). Dinshaw’s work seeks to interrupt the temporal seperation between past and present.

Cross Bones, I think, fits well with both of these strands, in terms of its coalition, inclusive politics, and its presence as a tangible reminder that the past is never truly gone, that it continues to be felt and that its meanings are always contested, revised, and reconfigured.


  1. Cat
    Posted April 22nd 2012 at 12:24 am | Permalink

    What a wonderful post, I used to live in Southwark 25 years ago, before this site was discovered, that was one of those truly magickal times in my life.

  2. Lou
    Posted April 30th 2012 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    Great piece Phil. As I recall the single women sex workers were called ‘geese’ – hence the expression ‘the Bishop of Winchester’s Geese’. I always think there must have been a fair proportion of them that were lesbian or trans – queer in fact – there is something about the location that is also truly queer – what with the Boot & Flogger across the road which claims to be the only premises in the UK with the right to sell wine without a licence (dating from a charter of 1567 granted by Queen Elizabeth I) – even though the Boot & Flogger does not refer to some more elaborate SM practice but the implements used to open the bottle!!