I’m following a nun into the crypt, her black habit trailing on the floor as she unlocks the ceiling-high metal bars. Today I’m going on a crypt tour at Tyburn Convent, a community of cloistered nuns in central London. In Christianity, nuns can belong to either apostolic or contemplative orders. Unlike apostolic nuns, who take part in the community, contemplatives vow to spend their lives behind convent walls. The women here leave only to vote, receive medical care, or travel to another cloistered community. Just minutes from the chaos of Marble Arch, it’s an unlikely home for women devoted to lives of quiet contemplation.
But there’s a reason why the convent is here, braving the commotion of the city. The secret is in the crypt, where the convent houses a venerable collection of bones, blood, and hair from Catholics martyred at the Tyburn. The historic gallows originally stood close to this site. After England became Protestant, Catholics became victims of religious persecution, many joining the murderers, thieves, and traitors condemned to death at the Tyburn. The convicted prisoners were paraded through London, hung for several seconds, and then, while still conscious, disembowelled. The Tyburn nuns commemorate their sacrifice and, three times a day, will introduce curious visitors to the martyrs’ remains.
From the outside, the Tyburn looks like any other Church. It’s a modest brown building with a simple cross. Inside there’s a small chapel that the public can visit, tall bars keeping the nuns separate. At least one them is always praying in front of the main alter. The women alternate every hour and so, day or night, the chapel is never deserted. Kneeling in her long white headdress, the nun reminds me of a marble statue. The atmosphere doesn’t belong to central London. It feels old and quiet and solemn, something from another time and place.
Before the stairs to the chapel, there is a small kiosk selling rosaries and religions medallions. I press the bell and wait awkwardly until a cheerful Australian nun pops her head around the corner. The woman in front of me hands her a prayer written on a scrap of paper. “God bless you,” says the sister, smiling. She closes the kiosk and reappears with a bundle of keys, beginning the complex process of unlocking the gates. We walk down the cool stone staircase and into the crypt. It’s dark and very still, a world away from the sunny day outside. Leaving me alone, the good-natured Australian sister dashes off to find the Mother Prioress.
It’s a strange experience to be left alone in the crypt of a cloistered convent. At first glance the room could be any well-kept church, with its neat rows of pews. There’s none of the Gothic eeriness I’d anticipated until I take in the replica of the gallows, large beams of dark wood joined together in the instantly recognizable triangle. It looks out of place in the gentle, subdued little basement room. The clash between the two is unnerving and I’m relieved when the Mother Prioress appears. She’s in her early thirties, with a kind, slightly harried expression. Finally, after unlocking even more bars, we enter into the main room.
Crossroads, the Prioress tells me, are a traditional place for gallows. The Tyburn became one of the most famous in Europe, its name synonymous with death. For Londoners, hangings were a form of popular entertainment, with vast crowds gathering to watch. Executions at the Tyburn only ended in the 18th century, moving instead to Newgate prison. The change was caused by the very London phenomenon of rising property prices. Wealthy inhabitants objected to the rowdy crowds and so, in an early, and somewhat bizarre, form of gentrification, the gallows were taken down and turned into wine barrels. “Perhaps it’s appropriate that the only other ‘Tyburn’ in the area is a pub,” adds the Prioress.
Countless people lost their lives at the Tyburn before its final removal. The best method to salvage a piece of a body, the Prioress tells me, was to pay the executioner. Judging by the number of relics here, Tyburn hangmen were extremely susceptible to bribes. I squint into the elaborately carved cases with items labelled in Latin. There is rope from the hangman’s noose and a fragment of the Tyburn’s original timber. The gorier remains include ancient linens soaked in blood, bone fragments, and what looks like a fingertip. Upon closer inspection the print is still clear on the mummified skin. Shortly after, I spot a minute patch of cloth, apparently from Sir Thomas Moore’s hairshirt. The Mother Prioress points into one of the cases. “That one is unusual,” she says. “It’s a piece of heart that leapt out of the fire.”
Looking at the blackened speck, it’s difficult to imagine it was ever part of living, breathing person. This, of course, is why the convent is still here, a reminder of the dead; from Archbishop Oliver Plunkett, to common men and women. Several hundred years later, Catholics still use the memory of their lives as inspiration. I ask the Mother Prioress if she feels close to a particular martyr. All of them are important, she tells me, and then, after some consideration, quotes one very young man executed at the Tyburn: “I hope that my death will accomplish more than my life would have done.” His death, she says, helps put things in perspective.
We end by the tomb of Marie Adele Garnier, the Tyburn’s Foundress. Her grave is in a narrow outside area, surrounded by the convent’s high walls. There’s the beginnings of an herb garden, a few shoots of green in the sun. In the calm of the convent garden, I think about how easy it is to forget the victims of this country’s bloody religious history, where people from so many different faiths died. The crypt is a reminder of that suffering; tucked away in the city’s heart.