So what can you do with a ruined, vandalised building in the middle of a wood?
Hope that it falls down and solves the problem?
Forget about it, let nature take its course and make it into a romantic ruin?
Wait for someone else to finish the job and try and blow it up again?
Luckily for the Mausoleum, there were local people who cared about it and knew what a jewel they had in their midst. They were determined to save it. So in 2001, Gravesham Council took the bold step of buying it and Cobham wood from HM Government and, with funding from Union Railways, the Cobham Ashenbank Management Scheme or CAMS for short was formed. This included several stakeholders such as the National Trust and English Heritage and with a £6million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund they carried out the restoration. They were lucky that Wyatt’s original drawings still existed as well as James Wraight RIBA’s 1946 full drawing with measurements which were invaluable resources. In 2010 the project won at the Kent Design Awards and the National Trust took over in 2013. It must have been a real challenge to turn a ruin back into the glorious building that it is again. It opened to the public in April 2014.
It’s a remarkable building which has survived because local people appreciated its beauty and importance.
Mausolus, the journal of the Mausolea and Monuments Society commented:
‘That it’s a reminder of thwarted sepulchral ambition and episcopal control’
and it is an apt description in many ways. For a funerary symbol enthusiast like myself it was a fascinating structure to walk around it and see the various motifs of death. I was so glad that I made the effort to visit at last.
If you want to visit the Mausoleum then be prepared for a walk. You can come up through the Ransford Nature Reserve which is a lovely stroll, especially if the poppy field is in bloom. Continue walking up through it to the top of the hill and then follow the Darnley trail through the woods. I did manage to get lost on my return journey but kept following the rule of going down all the time. The alternative is to walk through Cobham village and onto Lodge Lane at the bottom and follow the directions on the map on the noticeboard.
However, I saw the Mausoleum on sunny days but on a darker, greyer day it could feel far more eerie and melancholic. A cold wind blowing around it would remind the casual passer-by that eternal rest can be a very, very long time. Perhaps that’s the effect that the Darnleys wanted to achieve.
But then who’s to say that maybe the ghosts of long dead Darnleys don’t drift up from the churchyard of St Mary Magdalene and take up their allotted space within the Mausoleum’s crypt? There’s enough room for 32 of them after all…….
Cobham Wood can feel like a haunted place. This is where the 19th century artist, Richard Dadd, murdered his father in a spot still known as Dadd’s Hole and so began his journey to a lifetime in Broadmoor. But before Mr Dadd gave into his murderous impulses, there was another place associated with death that sits alone in the woodland. Once intended as a grand and capacious building to house the dead of the Earls of Darnley, it was never used and, for a long time during the 1980’s and 1990’s, it was surrounded by piles of burnt out cars and motorbike scramblers. The hilltop location was ideal for these nocturnal sports.
But on 5 November 1980 someone went too far and lit a pile of tyres and petrol cans in an attempt to blow the mausoleum up. It brought down the chapel floor and the Mausoleum was open to the elements. But it survived.
However, it was a sorry sight in 2003 when it featured on BBC TV’s ‘Restoration’ programme as an appeal was launched for funds to restore it. However, the Mausoleum’s future looked bleak and even I thought that, due to its location, any restoration would be destroyed again. You can see how it looked at the time: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01mvbfj
But in June 2020 I made the pilgrimage through the poppy field of Ranscombe Nature Reserve and up through the woods to the Mausoleum. As I emerged from under the tree canopy I was amazed by the Mausoleum’s size. It is big, very big and was designed to hold 32 coffins in a lower crypt. It’s an extraordinary building and was originally sat at the highest point of the Darnley estate. It became an important feature of the landscape, almost an eyecatcher folly.
The Mausoleum is square in shape with a pyramid shaped roof, a dry moat and a vandal proof fence.
It’s Grade 1 listed and a rather unlovely door keeps it secure from unwelcome visitors. Just above it I could see one of the 4 lunettes or half-moon windows as the sun shone through the amber stained glass. This was a tantalising taste of what lay inside as the light shining through them is intended to create an ethereal light inside. But, alas, the building is closed to visitors at present due to COVID-19. The building is made of brick and faced with Portland stone. It can be seen as
‘a very grand classical temple that emphasised the Age of Enlightenment’s preoccupation with aclassical way of death’ according to the National Trust’s website.
It drips with symbols of death and remembrance. The square, circle and pyramid are classical motifs of eternity, the downturned torches indicate a life extinguished and there are 4 little sarcophagi on each corner. These were stone coffins designed to hold the dead and the word comes from the Greek for ‘flesh eater’. I was in my element as you can imagine.
But who built it and chose its location? It was the 4th Earl of Darnley who commissioned the fashionable and exacting architect, James Wyatt (1746-1813) to design the Mausoleum according to detailed instructions in the 3rd Earl’s will. The Earls of Darnley had always been buried in Westminster Abbey but after the 3rd Earl’s death in 1731 the Abbey was full. So the Mausoleum was to be the solution and would hold the coffins of the Earls and their family members. The 3rd Earl:
‘left detailed instructions in his will in which he clearly stated that he wanted a square stone building with a ‘prominent pyramid’ surrounded by a dry moat. He left £5000 or £10,000 if the first amount wasn’t sufficient.’ National Trust
The source of the pyramid might have come from the Earl’s Grand Tour when he may have seen the tomb of Caius Cestius in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome. There is also a building with a pyramid roof in the background of a 1647 painting by Nicholas Poussin, ‘The Sacraments of Ordination’. He was a highly regarded painter in the 18th century and there were several paintings by him included in the sale of Cobham Hall.
As the journal of the Mausolea and Monuments Society says:
‘Pyramids were rare in in English Georgian architecture and made their first appearance at Castle Howard;….Wyatt and Darnley trying to recreate the solemn grandeur of the ancients…’ Masusolus
Another source of inspiration may have been the famous tomb of King Mausolus at Halicarnassus in Asia Minor. He died in 353BC and such was the fame of his tomb that his name became synonymous with all subsequent stately tombs. As a result they became known as mausoleums.
The Darnleys lived at nearby Cobham Hall so the Mausoleum it would have been handy to have your loved ones nearby for eternity. Of course you may have been looking at it and wondering when you might be joining them. In 1786, at its completion, the Mausoleum cost, in total, £9000 which in today’s money is £1million. It is a lavish building with a marvellous interior from photos I have seen.
Wyatt’s designs were exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1783 and a modified design completed in 1786. However, it was George Dance the Younger (1741-1825) who supervised the work as Wyatt was renowned for having a bad reputation in erecting his own work. After completion, Humphry Repton (1752-1818), considered to be the last great landscape designer of the 18th century spent the next 30 years designing the landscapes around Cobham Hall for the 4th Earl.
But the Mausoleum was never consecrated and so couldn’t be used for its intended purpose. According to Mausolus, the journal of the Mausolea and Monuments Society,
‘the Bishop of Rochester was disapproving of buildings in secular sites and refused to consecrate a building that so brazenly evoked pagan arcadia.’
Repton himself suggested that it be converted to a viewing platform so that it could be put to some use and the views would have been amazing but it didn’t happen.
But instead of being laid out in the Mausoleum as intended the Earls of Darnley have been interred in the vaults and churchyard of St Mary Magdalene in Cobham village. There is a fine display of their memorials at the rear of the church and in the churchyard.
The Darnleys income came from a 25,000 acre estate in County Meath, Ireland. However their fortunes declined and in 1957 they sold Cobham Hall. After the arson attack there were many suggestions and schemes for the Mausoleum’s future. A developer bought it, intending to convert it into a residence but went bankrupt. He was presumably hoping to find a buyer who liked seclusion and could find a use for 32 coffin spaces in a crypt. The building passed into the hands of the official Receiver and HM Government became its new owner. The 4th Earl’s creation’s future looked bleak, its interior blackened from the arson attack and covered in graffiti and surrounded by a rusty junkyard.
For some strange reason this didn’t post yesterday despite my having set it up to do so but here we are only a day late. But the celebration continues!
Yes, it’s shadowsflyaway’s 5th Birthday!
This means that there’s no Symbol of the Month this month. So instead we will be raising our virtual glasses of what ever takes your fancy (mine’s ideally a Pimms but usually a lemon and lime flavoured water) and let’s say loudly ‘Cheers!
I’d also like to thank all of my readers especially those who have been kind enough to either ‘like’ a post or to send their comments.
So far there have been 35,195 views over the last 5 years with 300 comments so thanks again to all of you!
My most popular post is ‘It’s behind you! The Doom Painting of Chaldon church.’ with 6292 views. If you’re ever down that way it’s well worth a look.
These are strange days indeed and I send my good wishes to you all and hope that you are all keeping well and safe.
Now that lockdown has eased in the UK, I have been out and about exploring churchyards in Kent as well as the Darnley Mausoleum. This will feature in a future post as it’s a place that I have long wanted to visit. The Mausoleum didn’t disappoint.
So let’s say it loudly again ‘Cheers to shadowsflyaway!’
I’ll be honest. I’d been out exploring churchyards just prior to the coronavirus and St Mary’s in St Mary Cray was the last on my list. I’d noticed its distinctive steeple from the train on my daily commute and it was on my list so that I could visit and cross it off. I didn’t expect to find much and my first impression confirmed it. A few ivy clad altar tombs greeted me and then I wandered around the side of the closed church. What a surprise! A gallery of 18th century headstones placed in lines with some of the more familiar symbols depicted on them. Ouroboros’s, angel heads, skulls, crossbones and then this fine selection.
As you can see, it boasts a large, sharp scythe, a half open coffin with the incumbent visible, a trumpet blowing from what seems to be a heavenly cloud and, in the centre, a heart pierced by an arrow. We usually associate a pierced heart with the ones found on millions of St Valentine’s cards as a representation of Cupid’s love darts. You may be thinking that it doesn’t have the usual heart shape but there may be how the stonemason interpreted it. This is the Symbol of the Month.
The headstone‘s epitaph reads:
‘In Memory of
Mr THOMAS ABBOTT
Late of this PARISH who departed this life
24 May 1773
In the 75th Year of his life
Near lieth the body of
MRS SARAH ABBOTT his wife
,,,,who departed ….22 January 1769 aged 69’
Although there are other Abbotts buried in the same churchyard I couldn’t find any sign of a headstone or monument dedicated to Sarah Abbott and there was none recorded on the Kent Archaeological Society survey of the churchyard So whether it has vanished over time we will never know.
On Thomas’s headstone, the heart is surrounded by symbols of resurrection and the Day of Judgement when all of the dead will rise. This is the meaning of the half open coffin lid. So is the pierced heart a symbol of everlasting love which means that the Abbotts will be reunited on that day? After all, Keister suggests that it’s a sign of matrimony which would fit in with both husband and wife being mentioned on the headstone. However, Cooper comments that the pierced heart is also a sign of contrition so perhaps Mr Abbott felt guilty or sad about outliving Sarah by 6 years.
But let’s discuss other representations and interpretations of the pierced heart as well as the heart in general. It’s one of the most powerful symbols and resonates through many cultures and faiths both ancient and modern. Without it, none of us would be alive as it pumps our lifeblood through our bodies. This is why it has been a central part of religions and cultures since the beginning of time.
Heart symbolism is significant in, Chinese, Hindu and most religions and cultures. For example, it is one of the eight precious organs of Buddha and also the Aztecs whose rituals involved human sacrifice. In these the chests of the victims were sliced open and their still-beating hearts were offered to the gods. The Aztecs believed that the heart was the seat of the individual and also a fragment of the Sun’s heart.
In Ancient Egypt, the heart was considered to be the source of human wisdom and the centre of emotions and memory. It could reveal a person’s true character, even after death, and was left in the body after mummification. The ancient Egyptians believed that it would survive death where it would give evidence against or for its owner and so was integral to the afterlife. This culminated in the Weighing of the Heart which appears in the Book of the Dead. The heart was given to Osiris, the god of the dead and the underworld who placed it on one of a pair of great golden scales. On the other was a feather which represented Maat the goddess of order, truth and what was right. If the heart was lighter than the feather then the deceased passed on into eternal bliss. But if it was heavier, due to past misdeeds, then it was thrown onto the floor of the Hall of Truth where Amut, a god with the face of a crocodile, the front of a leopard and the back of a rhinoceros who was also known as ‘The Gobbler’. Once he had devoured the heart then the individual ceased to exist. The Egyptians concept of hell was non-existence.
But the heart has an even greater significance in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. There are many references to it in the Bible with over a 100 in Psalms alone. One of the most famous quotations is in 1 Samuel 16.7 in which it is seen as the seat of emotion:
‘But the Lord said unto Samuel, Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him: for the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.’ (King James Bible).
The heart is seen as revealing the inner person but not only as the centre of human life. It also expresses spiritual or emotional feelings, wisdom, piety and righteousness. There is also the famous quote from Matthew 5:8;
‘blessed are the pure in heart’
However, the heart also has a darker side as an evil person is often described as being ‘blackhearted.’ In Ecclesiastes 8:11 it’s seen as evil:
‘ Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil.’ (King James Bible).
In Christian iconography the heart took on a symbolic role as an indication of God and piety particularly in the Catholic church where Christ displaying a heart in his hands or on his breast is a key image. It’s known as the Sacred Heart and is one of the most practiced and well known of the Catholic devotions. The sacred heart is seen as a symbol of ‘God’s boundless and passionate love for mankind.’ The pierced heart was also included in the five wounds that Christ suffered during the crucifixion
One saint in particular, St Augustine, has a special relationship with the pierced heart. He is often shown holding a heart, in some cases topped by a flame and in others pierced by an arrow. Another passage from the Confessions IX, 2:3 may explain the significance of the pierced heart:
‘Thou hadst pierced (sagittaveras) our heart with thy love, and we carried thy words, as it were, thrust through our vitals.’
(The word sagittaveras means literally ‘ shot arrows’ into as in this 17th century painting.
St Valentine’s Day was originally derived from a much darker and bawdier Roman festival called Lupercalia. This took place in Rome from 13-15 February and was intended to avert evil spirits and purify the city. However, it didn’t involve the giving of chocolates and bouquets of roses. Instead there was animal sacrifice, random matchmaking and couplings which were intended to ward off infertility. In reality, it was a fertility festival dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture and also to the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus. It was finally outlawed as ‘unChristian’ in the 5th century by Pope Gelasius who declared the 14 February to be St Valentine’s Day. There were two actual St Valentines who were both martyrs.
However, the first person to mention the famous day for lovers was actually Geoffrey Chaucer in his 1375 poem, A Parliament of Fowles (or Fowls). In this he says:
‘For this was sent on Seynt Valentyn’es day
When every fowl cometh here to choose his mate.’
During the Middle Ages it was believed in both France and England that February 14 was the beginning of the mating season for birds and so an ideal date for romance for all.
But it was during the early medieval and early Renaissance when the heart began to resemble the more stylised symbol that we know today. It took on the shape of a converted A and represented Amor or Love. Since the 19th century it has been associated with love and romance and the pierced heart has also been known as the wounded heart due to Cupid’s arrows.
But, due to its placing within other potent symbols of resurrection, I interpret the pierced heart on Mr Abbott’s headstone to be a token of love. Although he wasn’t buried with his wife he may have hoped that they would be reunited on the Day of Judgement when the angels trumpets sounded and the dead met the living again.
It was one of the most potent symbols that I have found in my explorations and I haven’t seen another one – yet. The pierced heart has also been one of the most fascinating symbols to research because of its many connotations and associations. Who would have thought that Chaucer might be the father of the St Valentine’s Day industry that we know so well today.
Was the pierced heart a token of love or a hope of a meeting in the after-life? We will never know but a fascinating collection of symbols for the passer-by to admire.
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Where were we? We’d come into a neatly mown clearing with a small statue of a headless angel on a plinth at its centre. There were large stones arranged around the perimeter with names and ages inscribed on them. I don’t recall seeing any signs anywhere that indicated what it was. The tall black trees seemed to whisper to each other around us but otherwise it was silent. My companion wanted us to move on deeper into the surrounding countryside and so we did. We’d already roamed around Happy Valley and he was keen to do more. But I had enough time to take one photo and it became an important, and the only, reminder of our visit.
This was in 1990 and I had no idea where we were. In later years I discovered that we had been on Farthing Downs, near Coulsdon in Surrey. Although I made several return visits and tried to retrace our walk I could never find the exact place. What was it? A farmer’s cemetery for beloved animals? The ages on the stones had been very young but I could never find it or any information online about it. Was it attached to one of the nearby asylums? Cane Hill Asylum wasn’t that far away across the valley. I was nearly there. In 2013 a magazine article and a map reference revealed it to be St Lawrence’s hospital burial ground. At last I knew where it was and what it was.
As the wind blew eerily through the bordering pine trees and passing, but invisible golfers, chatted to each other I knew that this was the place that had intrigued me for nearly 30 years. No tidy clearing now and any memorials were half submerged in the overgrown undergrowth. But at last I knew that I was standing in St Lawrence’s Hospital burial ground at Caterham which was now in the middle of a very upmarket golf course. The golf course hadn’t been there in 1990 but its manicured lawns, water features and clubhouse surrounded the burial ground. St Lawrence’s long, late summer overgrown grass, straggling and profuse bushes of blackberries and rose hips and uneven ground made a sharp contrast. I trod very carefully. There were now two black painted metal gates at the entrance and an information board with photos and pictures of St Lawrence’s Hospital and the chapel. This had long since been demolished, but the foundations and base could still be found amongst the long grass and clover. An overcast day and spits of rain combined with the mournful wind made the burial ground feel abandoned.
As I stood there it seemed impossible that over 3100 people lay buried under my feet in this spot underneath the tussocks and unkempt long grass. A burial register from 1916-1948 records 3100 people buried in 276 plots with 10-15 in each grave. However, the 1949 -1965 burial register is still missing so there may be 1000’s more buried here. The burial ground is the only surviving part of the Hospital as it closed in 1994 and was demolished to make way for a housing estate.
St Lawrence’s was originally the Caterham Metropolitan Asylum which opened in September 1870. It had a sister asylum at Leavesden, Herts. They both took in the pauper insane from London’s workhouses as it was felt that the country air would be good for them and help improve their condition. This is probably why there is such a concentration of asylums in the Surrey area. However their location often led to staff shortages due to their remoteness.
According to Lost Hospitals of London:
‘There were 1560 patients which were housed in 6 three storey blocks for 860 females and 5 blocks for 700 males. The sexes were segregated as they were in all asylums. Children were also admitted and in 1881 St Lawrence’s also become known as the Caterham Lunatic Asylum for Safe Lunatics and Imbeciles. The Victorians weren’t very PC and we would now say that these people had ‘learning difficulties’. In 1913 under the Mental Deficiency Act it became responsible for mentally defective children pauper children or again children with learning disabilities. Children from another hospital and a Training Colony were also sent to Caterham. It also had a large proportion of older patients who had no chance of improvement. 23.6% of its patients were epileptic. (Treatment for epilepsy was non-existent in the 19th century and even 40 years ago it was still in its infancy)
In 1981, St Lawrence’s and another hospital featured in a documentary called ‘Silent Minority’ which drew attention to the poor conditions in these places exacerbated by staff shortages. The media took an interest and patient care, amongst other areas, were investigated by government Inquiries. It focused on the scant and impersonal natures of the wards, deficiencies in nursing care and staffing ratios for profoundly disabled patients. It was said that the hospital management had sanctioned the programme in the hope that public awareness of the extent of the problem might bring about change for the institution. Patients began to be moved out into homes and hostels and into the community.’
When the burial ground was closed for burials in 1965 the memorial stones were removed from the main burial area and placed on the perimeter so that the grass could be mown. This is how it looked when I saw it in 1990 when the hospital was still in operation. Like Netherne, the burial ground was almost forgotten and became overgrown and abandoned until in 2008, concerned locals took matters into their own hands and started tidying it up. Local residents, cub packs and schools all wanted to be involved and in 2010 13 memorials had been located either intact or in pieces.
Here is a selection of the memorials that I saw:
The overgrown uneven ground was obviously due for one of its two annual brush cuts and I trod carefully as I explored. I found a few memorials which were clustered in the overgrown memorial rose bed. I could make out dates and names on some of them and they were poignant reminders of the hospital’s patients. According to the information board, these were the memorials that were found in 2011:
Valery Muriel Ann Howcroft 1953-1962
Graham W Cleghorn 1936-1957
Brian W Udy 1889-1917
Frederick Albert Houghton 1948-1957
Ann Margaret Hazell
Terry aged 6 years
George Henry Hale 1884-1961
Edna Phyllis Millward 1909-1953
Percy Herbert Goddard Barnes 1891-1963
Leslie Charles Alfred Nash 1924-1963
Pattie (Patricia) Hill 1912-1934
Donald Douglas Chamberlin 1907-1924
Joseph H Wenderott 1926-1942
Malcom Dow 1929-1938
I am indebted to The Downlander for information on two of the memorials:
‘Percy Barnes was in the 1890 Census where he was living at 98 Farringdon Road where his parents kept a coffee house. By 1911 he was a kitchen porter and lived in Shoreditch with his parents, 2 sisters and 3 brothers. But nothing is known of him from 1911-1963 so how did he end up being admitted to St Lawrence’s?
Leslie Nash’s memorial is under the black pines but I didn’t see it on my visit. ‘The burial ground restoration team were contacted by a cousin. He told them that Leslie’s brother was still alive and had been searching for Leslie’s memorial for many years. You can imagine how thrilled he was to know its location at last. Apparently Leslie had epilepsy and cerebral palsy and was sent to St Lawrence’s in 1938 when he had become too heavy for his parents to lift. They had three other children as well. Leslie’s epitaph reads:
Leslie Charles Alfred Nash
Born 6.6.24 – Died 20.9.63
Sweet the sleep you so much needed
Free from suffering care and pain on thy face so peaceful.’
The restoration team managed to make contact with a small number of relatives of those buried here so that they are not forgotten. As I wrote this, a relative was trying to trace her aunt who had been admitted to the hospital aged 18 and died there at 35. I was glad that the burial ground had been reclaimed by local people and that a few of the relatives had been located. As at Netherne they seemed to vanish once they were in the system unless a determined relative decided to look for them.
However, there would have been very few memorials and these would originally have been wooden markers which rot or simple metal markers bearing a number. Originally there were two angels marking the graves of two children and the one that I saw in 1990 may have been one of them. I found another one in the luxuriant undergrowth but it wasn’t the one in my photograph. . The bodies of those who died without friends or family were given to the School of Anatomy to help doctors with medical research and training.
The information board also records:
‘that the Chapel was demolished in 1971 (and from the photo wasn’t a particularly decorative building). However it was large enough to house 8 coffins. The burial service took place in St Lawrence’s Hospital Chapel. A horse drawn hearse with a tarpaulin cover was led by the hospital porters through the gate at the back of the hospital farm and crossed the field to the burial ground. In later years the Head Gardener’s truck was used. It had an iron frame with a hood over the top and rollers for the coffin. But a former head Gardener recalled that the burials were ‘always done with dignity, never rushed.’
The burial ground is in an isolated spot and is reached by walking up a long, secluded lane. So unfortunately it attracts vandalism.
The lovely, very solid seat that I saw on my visit in 2017, surrounded by carved wooden animals, was set alight in an arson attack in 2019. It had been carved with a chainsaw by a local sculptor, Andris Bergs and weighed over a ton. The main seat was made from London Plane and its supports from oak wood. The animals were created from Douglas Fir and it seemed sad that these lovely creations were destroyed for no reason. They had been part of the burial ground’s restoration. It’s also seen as a haven for wildlife and newts have been found here.
However, I’m always surprised that asylum graveyards and burial places survive at all. Netherne Hospital Cemetery is also located in an out of the way place and maybe this is why it’s survived. The hospitals to which they were attached no longer exist and in time they might have been forgotten or just built over. In 1990 on my first visit all the big asylums in the area were about to close due to ‘care in the community’. They had become too large, too overcrowded and once inside people seemed to find it difficult to get out of them and so became institutionalised.
But I had finally found the place that had haunted me since 1990. The Royal Surrey Golf Club didn’t open until 1999 and at that time it was just countryside for miles. Paupers surrounded by posh golfers. It seemed almost ironic. Maybe after lockdown it’s time to make a return visit and pay my respects to the permanent residents of St Lawrence’s Burial Ground.
As you pass by a cemetery do you ever think that you hear celestial music drifting on the air? Maybe it’s because there are so many musical symbols to be found within them – violins, trumpets, guitars and harps to name a few.
This month, I’m going to be discussing the harp. It may immediately bring visions of angels in pristine white gowns, perched on clouds, plucking away on golden harps to mind. Harps have that ethereal quality.
I found many online images of statues of angels playing harps in cemeteries worldwide but all on stock photography sites. It’s a reassuring image of heaven as a place of peace and calm. According to Alison Vardy, a professional harpist, the word ‘Harp’ or ‘Harpa’ comes from Anglo-Saxon, Old German and Old Norse words for ‘pluck’ as in plucking the strings.
However, when I first considered writing about the harp as a symbol I did think about linking it with St Patrick’s Day. After all, it is the national symbol of Ireland and also appears on Guinness cans and bottles.
But this musical instrument has an ancient tradition and images of harps have been found in wall paintings in France dating from 15,000 BC. They also appear on Ancient Egyptian wall paintings from 3000 B.C.
In fact, it’s one of the oldest musical instruments in the world and was originally developed from the hunting bow. In this image the harp being played still resembles the hunting bow as it doesn’t yet have the pillar attached. This didn’t appear until the Middle Ages and was added to support additional strings. The earliest known image of a harp is a Pictish carving on an 8th century stone cross.
‘Harps played an important part in Irish aristocratic life. Harpists were required to able to evoke three different emotions in their audience. Laughter, tears and sleep.’ Alison Vardy (the last emotion being very appropriate for a cemetery)
The harp is associated with St Cecilia who is the patron saint of music. She was a Roman martyr who is reputed to have sung to God at her wedding and also as she lay dying after being beheaded. You can read more about her life here; https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Cecilia.
St Cecilia’s feast day is 22 November but her association with music didn’t begin until the 15th century. She was then depicted as playing at an organ or either holding an organ or organ pipes.
The harp also appears as an instrument of healing in the Old Testament. In Samuel verses 16-23, David plays the harp for Saul in order to drive out the evil spirit that afflicts him. Harps are also mentioned in Genesis and Chronicles.
When I first saw this monument in Brompton Cemetery I thought that it had to be dedicated to an Irishman. But it is in fact on the grave of a Welshman, Henry Brinley Richards (1817-1865), who was born in Carmarthen.
He was originally destined for a medical career but music was his real calling. However, he didn’t play the harp as, instead, he played the piano. He was discovered after winning a prize for his arrangement of a traditional song, ‘The Ash Grove’, at the 1834 Eisteddford in Cardiff. This really opened doors for Henry as he was able to study at the Royal Academy of Music under the patronage of the Duke of Newcastle. Henry won two scholarships while studying at the Academy and after graduation he taught piano there. He travelled to Paris and met Chopin and he has over 250 compositions listed in the British Museum catalogues of printed music. But his most famous piece of music is ‘God Bless the Prince of Wales’ from 1862. Henry never lost his Welsh connections. Pencerdd Towy is his bardic name and not, as I originally thought, another Welsh town. Bardic names were pseudonyms and part of the 19th century medieval revival. I did research bardic names but I have to admit that I was none the wiser. And the meaning of the harp that sits so resplendently on top of the monument? It’s the national instrument of Wales which I didn’t know until I began researching this post.
The other example is from the Rosary Cemetery in Norwich. This is a non-denominational cemetery and rises in tiers above the city. It’s an interesting group of symbols and is dedicated to a woman, Sarah Russell nee O’Brien (1869-1899) and there may be an Irish reference with the harp and her maiden name. She died young, aged 30, in Kansas City, USA. Sarah was born into a performing family as her father, Archibald O’Brien, and siblings were all equestrians. I found the family living in Leeds in the 1881 Census and they must have really stood out amongst their respectable, aspiring middle class neighbours. Equestrian was listed as their occupation. She married into another family connected with animals as her husband, William, was part owner of a zoo. One of her sisters, Irma O’Brien, wrote the epitaph:
‘To my dear sister Sarah Russell,
‘Soeur bien aimee reposee en paix’
which translates as:
‘Beloved sister rest in peace.’
On this monument note that the harp has no strings and so cannot be played. This indicates that the music of life has ended. There are also other variants in which a string on the harp is broken which again means that it can no longer be played. The music has been stilled by death. The cloth, nicely detailed to simulate lace with the holes, indicates the curtain between the world of the living and the dead. However, the broken column is said to denote a life cut short. I have always understood this to mean that the backbone of the family, the support of the family, had died and this is usually on a man’s grave. But maybe Sarah was the support of the family after all. For me, it’s the unstrung harp that is the most poignant symbol of the group.
So the harp can have several associations; a musical instrument, a symbol of national pride, a representation of life and death and also with angels. However, according to J C Cooper, it can also be viewed as the ladder leading to the next world with the harpist being Death – an interesting allusion. There is also a link with the Celtic God of Fire, Dagda, who calls up the seasons and whose playing originally brought about the change of the seasons and made them appear in the correct order. This is the harp as an instrument of power particularly with Dagda. This is very different from pensive angels in a heavenly harp choir. However, it’s good to understand the contrasts in how it is used and how it’s perceived in other cultures.
I hope that you all stay well and safe in these unprecedented times.
The cawing of rooks in the bare trees kept me company as I walked towards St Mildred’s in Nurfield, just outside Meopham. It was a dark, wet, overcast day and St Mildred’s huddled surrounded by fields at the end of Church Lane. In fact, it’s known as ‘The Little Church in the Field’.
Kent has many of these picturesque churches and I hoped to discover more symbols or interesting headstones in the churchyard. Coronavirus was snapping at my heels and I knew that all churches would soon be closed.
On the horizon of one field outside the churchyard I could see the bright yellow traces of a future rapeseed crop but the other field, alongside it, was still ploughed earth. The bare trees tried to stretch up to the sky on the other side of it. I’ve always loved these in winter as you can really see the shape of the tree and the delicate pattern of branches and twigs.
St Mildred’s was closed but the church door was protected, or hidden, by four tall yew tree sentinels. A pot of purple pansies beside it were a splash of colour on such a grey day.
Despite the damp weather there were large patches of Spring flowers; Violets, both purple and white covered parts of the churchyard, together with smaller groups of Lesser Celandine which is one of the seven signs of Spring. Daffodils shuddered in the wind and a group of them huddled together for warmth by headstones. But I was determined and found the symbol of a closed book on one grave to a man who had died young. The oldest headstone was now unreadable and was decorated with tiny pom-pom shapes of a lichen. An imposing Celtic Cross was dedicated to a priest. The bright yellow flowers of lesser celandine had closed themselves up and who could blame them? Primroses kept their heads down but in one corner of the churchyard there were indications of living residents. These were of the four legged kind who had dug deep holes and left pungent evidence…..
Nurstead was described 700 years ago as ‘a poor little parish with a church.’ St Mildred’s was originally a Saxon church and made of wood. The current flint structure dates from the 14th century and the guide leaflet says ’that together with the 14th century hall of nearby Nurstead Court it is the only surviving part of the Manor as it existed in 1349.’
Meopham is pronounced Meppham and it’s more of a hamlet than a village. But it does possess another, larger church at the other end of it. This is dedicated to St John the Evangelist and appears on the village green town sign. St John’s was open and I gratefully sheltered inside glad of the respite from the weather.
The church on the sign – St John the Evangelist
Inside it was peaceful and St Johns had some interesting features. There was a very decorative wooden pulpit attributed to Grinling Gibbons and dated 1632 and the colourful and beautiful tiles decorating the chancel. They were uncredited in the guidebook. There was also a window containing fragments of medieval glass which have been dated to 1346. Curling hazel branches had been placed on windowsills and I wondered if it was in honour of Branch Sunday. Outside in the churchyard I explored and my shoes soon became soaking wet. A bonfire had been lit in an adjoining garden and the combination of that and the gloomy weather made it feel more like November. The Millais painting, ‘Autumn Leaves’, with its melancholy atmosphere sprang to mind. A patch of primroses cuddled up to each other in a drift of fallen leaves and the Lesser Celandine flowers had closed themselves in response to the rain. A lone dog violet stood in defiantly in the middle of them. It was time to go home.
But when I returned two days on the Saturday it was under sunny blue skies. St Mildred’s was now open and despite the wind that made the daffodils blow this way and that I noticed that the Spring flowers seemed to have colour again. The crisp white blossom of blackthorn foamed in one corner as did the Wild Cherry blossom on the other side of the churchyard. Late snowdrops nodded in the wind as I entered the church. The interior was very plain and simple with large ledger stones providing the nave flooring. The bare fields now looked as if they were impatiently waiting for the forthcoming crop to burst forth. I had hoped to see a March hare but no such luck. The headstones were bathed in the golden glow of the sun and the bright flowers of Lesser Celandine lifted their heads upwards and basked.
These were dedicated to past residents, the Edmeades, of nearby Nurstead Court, and dated back to the 17th century. They are actually buried in the vaults beneath the stones. A squint could be seen in the West Tower and the slow, regular ticking of the church clock was the only sound. St Mildred and her stag featured in the window above the altar and an ancient piscina was decorated with wheat ears and grapes. A reference to a farming community? The wind howled round the little church as it had done for centuries, as if trying one last time to blow it down, but it still stood.
In contrast St Johns was closed but the bright sunshine revealed several headstones that I had missed. I’m not quite sure what this figure represents but he does seem to be pointing to the small skull in the corner.
This is on the headstone dedicated to
‘Hannah, wife of Joseph Munn the elder Feb 15th 1715 in either the 34 or 54 year of her age.’
Mr Munn is buried beside in a separate grave with his second wife but not with such an intriguing symbol.
Also this naive head or skull on one headstone.
The sticky buds on a venerable Horse Chestnut tree at the entrance reminded me that despite the horrible weather we’ve had over the last couple of months Mother Nature was just getting on with it as she studded and carpeted churchyards with the bright colours of Spring flowers and blossom.
Sadly, my poking about in churchyards has had to be put on hold this Spring due to the virus. However I did manage to visit two Kent churches just before the lockdown and I will blog about this on a future post. One churchyard was awash with symbols!
I hope that you are keeping well and safe during these strange times. Life has taken on a surreal quality for some of us as others, keyworkers, keep things going and risk their lives. Will things return to normal afterwards or will we not take so much for granted again? Who knows.
I thought that for this month’s Symbol it would be good to have one that was specifically linked to Easter. So April’s Symbol is the Easter Sepulchre.
Although this is a difficult time for all of us with the worldwide pandemic of COVID 19, life still has to go on despite it feeling a little strange. Easter is one of the holiest weeks in the religious or faith calendar and in medieval times the Easter Sepulchre would have been an integral part of the celebrations.
However, there are now very few examples of these in churches and only within England and Wales. After the Reformation and Henry VIII’s break with Rome over his divorce from Catherine of Aragon most of them were destroyed. The ones that have survived are to be found in little country churches. I discovered this lovely example completely by chance when I visited the church of St Bartholomew in Otford, Kent.
Initially I thought that it was a canopied tomb without an effigy. But the guide leaflet confirmed that is is a particularly good example of an Easter Sepulchre and bears two symbols; the pomegranate, which was the badge of Catherine of Aragon and the Tudor Rose. The sepulchre was made from Caen stone and has been dated to the early 16th century. The guide leaflet for St Bartholomew also suggests that the symbols could be a reference to the visit of Henry VIII and Catherine to Otford in 1520 on their way to the Field of the Cloth of Gold in France. There is a small ledge on the right of the Sepulchre which is assumed to represent Christ’s empty tomb. As John Vigar says:
‘It was the tomb of an individual erected on the north side of the chancel which over each Easter weekend would be used as a focus for devotion, representing the entombment and resurrection of Christ. It always had a flat surface on which the sepulchre itself would be placed.
However, the stone canopy was not the actual the Sepulchre. This was a wooden chest containing either the cross from the main altar or a consecrated Host in an ornate container known as a Pyx. Some of the sepulchres were so small that they could only hold the Host. The sepulchres were part of Easter church rituals from the 13th to 15th centuries and were used in both Catholic and Anglican churches. Each church was only allowed to have one. According to https://www.encyclopedia.com/:
‘In this period the ritual burial of Christ was a solemn observance. At the end of the Liturgies of Good Friday, the priest would carry the pyx and the Cross, both wrapped in linen, to the north side of the chancel where a temporary sepulchre which was usually wooden and draped with a pall had been made ready and laid them within. The sepulchre was then perfumed with incense and lit by numerous candles as a constant watch was kept to protect the Host and Pyx. The Host would have been consecrated on Maundy Thursday. Early on Easter morning, candles would illuminate the church, the clergy would come to the Sepulchre, the Host was removed to the Pyx above the high altar and the Cross was raised from the sepulchre and carried in procession around the church while church bells chimed and the Resurrection was celebrated’.
Henry VIII wanted to preserve the sepulchres after the break with Rome but Archbishop Cranmer passed laws ordering their destruction. The wooden chests were then put to other uses such as dish racks! Soon their actual purpose was forgotten.
A more permanent form of the Sepulchre was as a recess, often canopied over a tomb chest. Wealthy patrons or local families who wanted to be associated with the Easter mysteries often built tombs for themselves that could also be used as Easter sepulchres. They vary from the very plain to the very ornate as with the one in Lincoln Cathedral. Often they are not inscribed with the name of the donor and a church could only have one. It was wonderful to see such a fine example at Otford as I explored the interior of the church.
Here are two fine surviving examples:
Augustus Welby Pugin, the celebrated Victorian architect and designer attempted to revive the Easter Sepulchre and there is a magnificent example in St Giles, Cheadle. But it was seen as merely decorative.
I’ve always associated Easter with a time or rebirth. Spring is usually on its way by Easter time; churchyards burst forth with Spring flowers and there’s a general feeling of Mother Nature getting on with it. This rebirth has never been so important as it is in 2020 in the light of the pandemic.
This month’s Symbol of the Month is later than planned due to the Coronavirus snapping at my heels. I was determined to have a Spring saunter through three local churches while I still could. They have now all inevitably closed.
I hope all of you can stay well during this difficult time.
It wasn’t until late in the 19th century that angels fluttered into large Victorian cemeteries and there is undoubtedly a story to be written as to how they changed sex once they had perched themselves on top of monuments. There is a hierarchy of angels and they can be identified by what they hold in their hands; a sword, shield, a book or, in this case, a trumpet. The angel holding a trumpet is the one that features as this month’s Symbol.
I have seen several examples and this one comes from West Norwood Cemetery. It’s on the headstone dedicated to Edward who died aged only 13 years. As the epitaph states,
THE ONLY SON
E. du Bois Esq
BARRISTER OF LAW’
I’ve always considered it to be a very striking, almost 3D image, with the detail on the angels wings, clothes and the clouds that surround her. It depicts an angel blowing on a trumpet with a Biblical quotation surrounding her. The angelic figure is definitely a woman. and it’s always intrigued me how angels which are traditionally male in the Bible became pretty, pensive young women when they appeared in cemeteries and churchyards. The quotation reads:
THE LAST TRUMPET (words unreadable)………
ALL SHALL RAISE AGAIN
In this case, the angel trumpeter on this headstone is a representation of the Last Judgement Day as she is the herald of the resurrection.
There are many references to angels blowing trumpets in the Bible and their association with the dead rising on the Day of Resurrection. For example in Corinthians 15:32, it says:
‘in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye,
At the last trumpet.
For the trumpet will sound, and the
Dead will be raised imperishable,
And we shall be changed.’
There are also references in the Book of Revelation and Matthew 24:32.
However, it is the archangel, Gabriel, who is most associated with blowing a trumpet to announce the resurrection of the dead and images of this began to appear in the 14th century. There is a very stern and definitely male angel figure holding a trumpet at the entrance to Queen Victoria’s mausoleum at Frogmore. There is also a geometric figure known as Gabriel’s horn or Torricelli’s trumpet. It has infinite surface area but finite volume. According to Wikipedia:
‘The name refers to the Abrahamic tradition identifying the archangel Gabriel as the angel who blows the horn to announce Judgment Day, associating the divine, or infinite, with the finite. The properties of this figure were first studied by Italian physicist and mathematician Evangelista Torricelli in the 17th century.’
Angels appear in most religions and it’s appropriate that one of the most well-known is associated with communication. In fact angels are usually seen as messengers as the word ‘angel’ is derived from the Greek word, ‘angelos’, which means ‘messengers.’ They also appear in Islam as the word for messenger, Mala’ika, is the Islamic term for angel. The Koran, like the Bible, also has references to angels especially Djibril or Gabriel nd Mikhail or Michael. According to Douglas Keister:
‘Angels appeared to grow wings in a 5th century mosaic in Rome. After all they are seen as messengers between heaven and earth.’
Gabriel is is also associated with the Annunciation. He is, with his trumpet blowing, an obvious choice for announcing the departure of a soul and its arrival in Heaven.
I have seen an example of an angel blowing a trumpet in Tower Hamlets Cemetery and this lovely example comes from St Mary’s Catholic cemetery which nestles next to its larger neighbour, Kensal Green. She is on top of the Abreu monument.
While exploring Kent churchyards prior to the Coronavirus outbreak I found 17th headstones with angel heads on them with trumpets surrounding them. In this one the trumpets are crossed like long bones beneath the angel head.
So, in many ways this is a very ancient symbol which has come down through the centuries as a message of comfort to those left behind. The one dedicated to Edward du Bois has an epitaph that expresses his father’s grief as well as his anger at his son’s untimely death.