One of the most extraordinary and moving acts of remembrance that I have recently encountered is that of the Crossbones Cemetery in Southwark, London. Here, south of the River Thames – in the area where London Bridge spans the river – is Bankside and the Borough. Historically, this area was outside the old City of London’s boundaries and laws. As you crossed the river in to what was known as the ‘Liberty of the Clink’ you entered the underbelly of city life; here were prisons, drinking houses, gambling and prostitution, bear baiting and all manner of shady and edgy pursuits. In this chaotic, colourful and brutal environment the theatre was born; art imitating life at a place where living was experienced at its most visceral.
This area came under the ruling of the Bishop of Winchester, the ruins of his palace still visible near Southwark Cathedral. The prostitutes of the Liberty were under the Bishop’s licence for 500 years (they were known as ‘Winchester Geese’) but in an act of supreme hypocrisy they were denied burial in consecrated ground. The Crossbones Graveyard was where these unfortunate women ended their lives. In its latter years it became a pauper’s burial site. It was a place of forgotten souls, those whose lives had often been brutal and short and whose stories had been ignored.
This might have continued to be so but for one of those strange twists of fate. During improvements to the Jubilee Line, London Transport dug upon the land that had once – unknown to most – been the graveyard; their digging immediately unearthed skulls and bones and so further work was halted while Museum of London archaeologists were brought in to investigate and remove skeletons.
At around the same point, the playwright, poet and performer John Constable was making his own surprising discoveries with regard to the Crossbones site. Without knowing of its existence, he was drawn one night to this desolate piece of industrial ground by a poetic ‘voice’ in his head. The poem came to him in an inspired rush. It soon became apparent that the voice of this poem was that of a Winchester Goose, the ‘spirit’ of a Liberty prostitute who had been laid to rest at ‘Crossbones’. It was as if London Transport’s digging had unearthed not merely the bones of the dead but their unheard voices too.
Constable’s writing and later research led him to discover that the Crossbones cemetery had indeed once existed – it had not merely been something his imagination had conjured that first night that ‘The Goose’ had introduced herself. Those earlier poems went on to become part of a larger work of modern mystery plays known as the Southwark Mysteries and since then John has become a champion of those ‘despised and rejected’ souls.
John and the Friends of Crossbones hold monthly ceremonies at the gates of this ‘hidden’ ancient graveyard. The land is mainly waste ground which is out of bounds to the public. They clear rubbish and tend the space lovingly. The gates themselves have become a beautiful shrine covered in ribbons, flowers and tokens. As names of those interred here have gradually been rediscovered, John ties ribbons with these names written upon them; the gates are festooned, transforming this rather bleak place into something beautiful. This act of remembrance is incredibly powerful and moving. John understands Crossbones to be a ‘wound of history’ and that the work that he and others are doing at the site is a way of healing that wound, of acknowledging those who in their lives and deaths had been treated with such disdain and indifference. He believes that this work of naming and acknowledging the lost and forgotten not only brings peace and healing to those long dead but has a transformative impact on us too.
John’s approach is very near and dear to that of modern Druids. As Druids we understand the importance of honouring the ancestors, of remembering those forgotten ones. We sense that they are the foundation of our being; their days lived and shed are the countless layers of fertile psychic soil that we root ourselves within. They are you and me; we are them. Their mistakes and lessons are ours and every cell of our bodies holds a memory of their experiences. In Druidry, we aim to respectfully draw upon these for their wisdom and guidance. We know that our own stories will vanish beneath the soil all too soon and so, in remembering those who have gone before, we are also acknowledging that all existence counts; that each voice, no matter how lowly, has something valuable to add to the ever deepening and unfolding story of life. The Ancestors can enable us to remember who we truly are and in caring for them, we also begin to learn to care for our descendants too; their futures matter to us. In acknowledging the forgotten ones, we tie the thread of life – the past, present and future – into a circle, a symbol of the eternal bonds of love and experience, the spiralling of life, death and rebirth that makes us one with each other and all creation.
History is so often written by the powerful and wealthy. The political and financial manoeuvrings of a country’s elite in reality is an extremely narrow view of history, one that excludes the rich and complex day to day experience of ordinary folk. What John Constable and the Friends of Crossbones dedication and care illustrates is that when we acknowledge the story of those forgotten lives – the struggles, the degradation and the poverty; the heroism and vision of ordinary people who had the odds unfairly stacked against them – we are also acknowledging our common humanity. It teaches us how to treat each other in the here and now –with kindness, respect and care.
I find it incredibly moving that this place has become a shrine to the lost. These beautiful gates are not only an entrance to the past; they are a place where redemption is found for all those who find themselves cruelly and unfairly exiled. Here we gather those lost souls back into the fold of our humanity; here we reclaim something of ourselves.
Please do visit the Crossbones website http://www.crossbones.org.uk/# . John and the Friends of Crossbones are campaigning to save the south and oldest end of the graveyard from development. They would like to create a memorial garden. So please do sign their petition!