The body in St Andrew

I’ve seen three corpses in my 34 years. One of them was a road accident victim whose life had left him a matter of minutes before I saw him. One of them was a close relative who had been dead for a number of hours.  And one had been dead for at least 600 years when I came face to face with him in the crypt of St. Andrew’s Church in Holborn.

In the summer of 2003 (I think)  I was running a theatre company called Natural Perspectives. We had put on a couple of shows which had been modestly successful and popular, and were looking for a new space to house a show we were developing about the Chevalier D’Eon – Europe’s only cross-dressing, possibly hermaphrodite, Knight (it’s a long story and one we never told fully, or well enough, as it turned out – the story is there if you want it…).  A friend of one of my co-artistic directors knew the then Rector of St. Andrew’s and had suggested that it might be an interesting place for theatre to happen. The problem? The crypt had only been just re-opened and certainly wasn’t ready for the public. Possibly due to the plague victims recently exhumed from the crypt…..

Nevertheless, we made a trip to St. Andrews and were led down the steps into the crypt, through a small door and into the space you are now standing in. The Rector pointed out the strata of London’s history, clearly visible in the walls – shards of pottery, metal and glass, mapping out of London’s past vertically and physically – history made visible, tangible. We were shown the well in one of the corners of the crypt – which had become a Temple to Minerva when the town was called Londinium by the Romans.

“Do you want to see our Resident?”

From what I recall, He had been found when workmen had knocked through a wall in one of the corners of the original site (you know the Church was pretty much demolished by the Germans during the Blitz, right?). He’d been there since the 14th Century – any records of His past, history, position in society, long since lost in the Chruch’s turbulent history.  All that could be said was that He must have been important to have been buried St Andrew Holburnestrate (that’s not a typo – it was called that in the Early Middle Ages.

“Fuck off.” “No Way.” “Er, YES”.

At least one of these responses was uttered, I’m sure.

We crept through the hole in the wall made by the workmen – and there He was.  The head of the (now almost totally disintegrated) wooden  coffin faced towards the hole we entered through, which meant the first view we got of Him was his feet, still wrapped in his funeral shroud and partially encased in what was left of the coffin.  Now, what I remember most was the smell – not decay, but a kind of dry smell – wood, and earth, and dirt. I want to say stale air but that can’t have been the case as the air had been moving around Him since he had been discovered – amazing how the memory tries to re-configure itself to make a story more dramatic.

Moving through the hole and past Him, however, I DO remember  holding my breath as I saw Him in full. Arms crossed, wrapped in his shroud, delicate finer bones poking through. His femur visible where the shroud had decomposed.  And His face. Well, not his face, as the flesh was long gone. But His features. The cloth over His skull remained – and imprinted with his features. Dark sockets where the eyes had been. The ghost of his lips. And the shadow of a nose – aquiline, distinguished, and above all, human.  He was going to be moved soon, we were told.    No, we probably shouldn’t touch Him.

So touch Him we did not. But I did bring my face close to His – about three or four inches away. I remember angling my face until it was level with his, my eyes looking into the dark patches where his eyes had been, my nose the perpendicular with the line of His. And that is the moment I can recall most fully – the one I can still inhabit, remember, feel. And that sensation wasn’t of fear, or awe, or sorrow, or even excitement. It was, quite simply and silently, recognition. And, in a strange kind of way, through that recognition, friendship.

We left through the hole in the wall. We finished the tour of the crypt. We went to the pub (as actors always do).  Conversation never moved far away from Him. Who was He? Why was he buried there? Why did no one know who he was? What did he do?

Later (and drunker):  isn’t it sad we don’t know the answer to these questions? Is this all there is?

The show never happened in The Crypt – too expensive (or, according to the Arts Council, Not Financially Sound).  He was moved – to the British Museum where he could be preserved for further centuries. The Well was walled up. And the Crypt became a (wonderful) performance space.

But every time I watch a show here I think of Him. And the walls of the room you are standing in, full of history, showing us what has been and what will be and what will become of all of us. And when I think of this, for a moment at least, I am not afraid.

Simon Muller

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