..... or the bone house?
At the western end of the churchyard of All Saints’ Church, Bisley, there is a stone structure, the origin and function of which are still debated. On a circular basement stands an upright hollow hexagon decorated by Early English shafts and trefoil-headed arches on which rises a hexagonal spire with corresponding trefoil-headed openings. The interior of the lower tier has been filled with rubble. It is about 12 feet tall (3.6 metres) and there is general agreement that the basic construction can be dated to the thirteenth century. When first drawn by Bigland about 1780, the top of the spire was crowned with what turned out to be a Norman baptismal font bowl, apparently placed there some years earlier.
The earliest extant description is that of the antiquarian Samuel Lysons who in 1803 described it as ‘the remains of an ancient cross of stone in Bisley church-yard, which, from the style of its ornaments, seems to have been erected about the beginning of the thirteenth century’. His drawing shows it without the surmounting font. Charles Pooley drew it for inclusion in his The Old Crosses of Gloucestershire published in 1868. He was, however, uncertain whether it was a cross at all as the construction differed considerably from 78 other crosses in the county which he described. Pooley is the first to mention that local people referred to it as ‘The Bone House’ and to bring to notice the supposition that, after a churchyard tragedy, it had been built to cover a well. This assumption was maintained by the Rev. W.H. Lowder who described it in 1880 as a ‘curious pointed cover to a well’. In 1910 A.C. Fryer referred to the structure as a ’bone house’ and a ‘draw-well’ in the same paragraph.
By 1937, Miss Mary Rudd held that there was ‘no reason to doubt that the beautiful Early English structure with its double rank of arcading covers a disused well’. And as some supporting evidence she introduces the two legends or myths of death by drowning in Bisley churchyard. In the first, which certainly predates 1714, one Pearse, a workman engaged on repairs to the church falls into a well; the church and its congregation thus come under an interdict from the Pope and the community is forced to bury its dead in a section of the churchyard at Bibury. A second suggests that a priest on an errand of mercy at night fell into an open well and was drowned. From Bibury comes yet another explanation for an excommunication and this concerns a brawl in Bisley churchyard during which blood was shed on consecrated ground. Needless to say, there is no evidence, documentary or otherwise, to support these stories, save that a portion of Bibury churchyard is still known as ‘The Bisley Piece’. It appears that the interdict forbade the burial of Bisley parishioners within the diocese of Worcester and Bibury, being a ‘Peculiar’ of the Abbey of Osney and not subject to diocesan jurisdiction, was the nearest churchyard. There was, in fact, a short interdict in 1470 following bloodshed in the churchyard, the well stories subsequently being woven into this incident.
The well-cover explanation lasted until 1953 when W.I. Croome declared that ‘at Bisley we have a unique structure which was almost certainly a ‘Poor Souls’ Light’. This judgement appears to be based on an unstated similarity with the ‘Lanternes des Morts’ of which many are still found in western France. In this tradition, the ‘poor souls’ are those in purgatory awaiting entrance to heaven. David Verey did not disagree in 1970 and believed it to be ‘the only one in England out of doors’.
Whatever the reason for its original construction, this remarkable survival has certainly stood in the same place since drawn for volume I of Bigland’s Historical, Monumental and Genealogical Collections about 1780. Fryer (1927) refers to a local tradition that the baptismal font bowl was removed from the church about 1770 and remained on its spire for about 70 years. Apparently, the Rev. Thomas Keble, Senior, had the font bowl returned to the church and substituted a small cross of Celtic design– quite out of keeping with the original structure. It was, however, the pedestal of the font which soon became the focus of antiquarian discussion. Distinguished local worthies such as Ulric Daubeny and W. St.Clair Baddeley were quite certain that this was of artistic merit equal to that of the bowl of the font and carved by the same sculptor from the same local rag stone. Even David Verey suspected the Rev. Thomas Keble, Senior, and his architect/curate the Rev. W.H. Lowder of perpetrating a hoax similar to that of the ‘Bisley Boy’. Fryer (1927) refers to it as a ‘rudely carved but modern stem’ echoing a phrase used by the Rev. Dr. J.C. Cox in 1914. In 1937, Miss Rudd wrote that ‘it is imperative to state that it is absolutely modern’, having been carved by the Rev. T. Meyrick in imitation of the bowl of the font.
Here, in the place of historical myths we have an historical mystery. Thomas Meyrick was admitted to Corpus Christi College Oxford in February 1835 aged 17. Thomas Keble, Senior, had been admitted to the same college in April 1808 aged 14 and left as a Fellow ten years before Meyrick went up to Oxford. Thomas Keble, Junior, went up to Magdalen College Oxford in 1842. It would appear that from his Tractarian beliefs Meyrick started on his conversion to the Roman Catholic Church about 1844 and became an apparently somewhat eccentric member of the Society of Jesus. His connections with the Keble family are not obvious and how he came to carve the pedestal is, for the moment, certainly obscure.
- Ralph Bigland, Historical, Monumental and Genealogical Collections, 1791
- J. Charles Cox, Gloucestershire, 1914
- Charles Pooley, The Old Crosses of Gloucestershire, 1868
- Alfred C. Fryer, Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archæological Society,
- ‘Gloucestershire Fonts, Part III, (a) Norman’, 1910, vol. 33, pp.287 and 293-295.
- ‘Gloucestershire Fonts, Part VI (d) Norman’, 1914, vol.37, p.117
- ‘Gloucestershire Fonts, Part XVII, © Post Reformation Period’, 1927, vol.49, pp.140-143
- Ulric Daubeny, Ancient Cotswold Churches, 1921
- Mary A. Rudd, Historical Records of Bisley, Gloucestershire, 1937
- David Verey, Gloucestershire: The Cotswolds, 1970