From the 12th to the 17th century, the Bishop of Winchester was effectively the Lord of a semi-autonomous manor, the Liberty of the Clink, in Southwark. His London residence, Winchester Palace, stood between the church, now Southwark Cathedral, and the Clink Prison.
Many activities that were forbidden within the City walls were permitted and regulated within the Liberty. By Shakespeare's time, this stretch of the Bankside was firmly established as London's pleasure quarter, with theatres, bear-pits, taverns and brothels - the 'stews', licensed by the Bishop under Ordinances dating from 1161 and signed by Thomas Becket. In life, such women enjoyed a measure of protection from the church; in death, if John Stow is to be believed, they were denied even a Christian burial.
Parish registers of the time do not identify specific burial grounds, but a long-established tradition links this 'Single Women's churchyard' with the Cross Bones site. Such 'beyond the pale' burials would have taken place back in the 16th century, before Cross Bones' recorded use as a parish graveyard. Back then it lay within the Bishop's park-lands, beyond the settlements to the north and east. The Bishop had extensive personal land-holdings in the area and leased properties or areas of park-land to tenants. The lease for the Cross Bones ground passed through many hands before being eventually assigned to the churchwardens of St Saviour's parish in 1665. The date – the year of the Great Plague – lends some credence to another piece of Cross Bones lore: that it was once a plague pit.
The stews had been closed by royal proclamation in 1546, although within fifty years they had returned to Shakespeare's Bankside. Such houses were finally closed in the late 1640s, along with the theatres and bear-pits, and Bankside's fortunes went into decline.
By the 19th century, the story of Cross Bones was deeply entrenched in local folk-lore. In 1833, the antiquarian William Taylor wrote: