Symbol of the Month – the Cadaver tomb

A full length from the feet up of Benet’s cadaver tomb with the modesty cloth. ©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell

I have to admit that I am fascinated by cadaver tombs and it was in December 2018 that I had the opportunity to examine one more closely. Tastes change and people can find them a little disturbing. This example, in St Mary’s Bury St Edmunds was once brightly painted as medieval churches were during this period. We are so used to seeing plain churches that it is hard to imagine the bright colours in which they were originally painted. Traces can still be found in some churches and there is some on this example. Cadaver tombs are intriguing as you never know where you’re going to find one and this one was a complete surprise.

This month’s symbol is a cadaver or pardon tomb from St Mary’s in Bury St Edmunds.  These medieval tombs  were an extremely visual  way of reminding everyone that, despite what you had achieved during life, death would make you equal with all men.

It was as I stood in St Mary’s church, Bury St Edmunds after having admired its magnificent hammerbeam roof with lifesize angels pinned to it like exotic butterflies, that I saw John Benet’s tomb resting against a side wall.

I’d seen two, somewhat worn, cadaver tombs in Winchester Cathedral but not one so close up and so well carved. Even now it’s still crisp and detailed but due to its current location it was difficult to take a full length photo. The tomb depicts John Benet lying on his back as a lifesize corpse with a shroud or towel protecting his modesty.

Although St Mary’s guidebook describes Benet’s tomb as a Pardon tomb, they are more often known as a transi or cadaver tomb.  This definition comes from Wikipedia who describe a transi or cadaver tomb, as a ‘memento mori’.  This is Latin for ‘remember you will die’ and a reminder of the inevitability of death.  Wiki goes onto add that this type of tomb is in the form of:

‘…a type of gisant or recumbent effigy tomb featuring an effigy in the macabre form of a decomposing corpse…’

This type of tomb is particularly associated with the Middle Ages which is roughly when Benet’s tomb was created and I’ve always known them as cadaver tombs. However, they’re not always in the form of a decomposing corpse as they can also be in the form of skeletons or the body of the deceased wrapped in a shroud. I am indebted to the flickeringlamps blog which featured transi tombs in the form of ‘double-deckers’.  This is where the top layer of the tomb portrays the body of the deceased as they were when alive wearing their robes and then below on the bottom layer as a decomposing corpse.  This is an extremely visual reminder of what the person once was and what they will inevitably become as earthly glory is fleeting and all must die.

Cadaver tombs can be found in several UK cathedrals and parish churches. The earliest surviving one is in Lincoln Cathedral and is dedicated to Richard Fleming. It dates from the 1430’s.  St Paul’s cathedral has a later example from the 17th century which commemorates the poet John Donne.  Cadaver tombs are also known in Europe, particularly in Italy, as well as France. Germany and the Netherlands.

But who was John Benet?

Another full length view of John Benet’s cadaver tomb looking from the head downwards. ©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell

According to St Mary’s guidebook, John Benet was a medieval cloth trader and one of St Mary’s most important benefactors.  He financed the very ceiling that I’d been admiring and also his own private chancel chapel and tomb. Within his lifetime, Bury St Edmunds was a thriving town built on the local wool trade.  This led to the creation of a rising merchant class who were able to use their money to leave a lasting memorial to themselves in their local church as proof of their good and pious life.  Surely admittance to the Pearly Gates would be assured if you provided your church with some embellishments…. After they couldn’t take it with them but they could definitely prove that they’d had it while alive….

John Benet was a rich and powerful man within his local town  which is why he was able to afford to have a cadaver tomb made for him and one that was so well sculpted.   It originally lay in his own private chapel.  This has now gone but if you look up you can still see its glittering ceiling  which was restored in 1968.   You may just be fortunate enough to see the light glisten on the tiny pieces of concave mirror glass inserted into the gold stars to give the illusion of real stars twinkling.  Benet’s motto, ‘Grace me Governe’, his initials, coat of arms and SS collar are also part of the intricate decoration.  The latter, again from St Mary’s guidebook:

’….was a gift from the Lancastrian kings in recognition of a special or personal services.  It was in the form of a collar or chain in which the letter ‘S’ was engraved.  The letter ‘S’  which presumably stood for ‘Sovereign.’

The restored ceiling of what once was the ceiling of John Benet’s private chapel. ©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell

So Benet moved in high circles and wasn’t afraid to shout about it for all eternity.

There are Latin prayers on the ceiling’s edges which include ‘Pray for the soul of John Benet, ‘Let us praise the Lord gloriously’, Alleluia, Honour and glory to the only God.’, ‘My soul shall delight in the Lord’, ‘Seek only the highest’ and finally ‘May the pure Virgin Mary bless us with issue.’  Benet was not a man who stinted where his soul was concerned.

The tomb has moved around the church interior several times. But not of its own volition as far as I know. It has been surmised that the effigy of him portrayed as a decaying corpse was made during his lifetime.

Now there’s an interior design feature for you…it would have been intended as a constant reminder of his own inevitable death and the need to make preparations for the afterlife. It’s in remarkable condition and is the best one that I’ve seen so far and may have been created in the nearby Abbey’s master mason’s workshops.  This seems very likely given Benet’s powerful connections and the quality of the carving.

Originally he was positioned with his feet facing the east but, in 1884, the tomb was turned around so that the side inscription could be read.  In this, Benet’s motto is carved and a small figure of himself is in the middle of it, dressed in his finest clothes, and holding up the word ‘Me’.  Under one hand of the decaying corpse are the words:

‘He that will sadly beholde me with his ie, May he hyd own mirrour (and) lerne for to die. ‘

A lifesize memento mori if you will. The guidebook, however, describes it as a ‘Pardon Grave’ which isn’t a term that I’ve heard before. It’s meant to indicate that the person who was being commemorated had obtained a pardon or remission from purgatory.  Benet had also left instructions for his papal pardon to be displayed near his tomb for all to see.  I had the impression that Mr Benet was a bit of a show-off but if you don’t blow your own trumpet…. I sincerely hope that all this piety and expense achieved its aim.

The cadaver tomb iconography is based on the medieval Dance of Death or Danse Macabre.

John Benet’s tomb side view, St Mary’s Bury St Edmunds ©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell

Nobleman & Physician from the Lubeck Totentanz courtesy of UT Southwestern

This depicted a long line of people from Emperors to Popes right down to a beggar, each of whom had death in the form of a skeleton at their shoulder. This was a reminder that Death made all men equal.   The first one was recorded in St Paul’s Cathedral and in Long Melford, Suffolk, according to St Mary’s guidebook, long cloths were displayed depicting ‘the dance of Pauls’

It’s amazing that this survived the Reformation and Cromwell’s wrecking crews and still sits in St Mary’s reminding visitors of their inevitable fate.   But Mr Benet has a further claim to fame as, in 2003, he was loaned out to the Victoria and Albert Museum as part of their ‘Gothic: Art of England’ exhibition. Apparently, during conservation, traces of flesh coloured paint were discovered on the figure which included red and green veins especially in the neck.  So try and imagine Mr Benet in his original colouring – it must have quite a sight to see.    I think that he’d be very proud that his tomb, the hammerbeam ceiling and also his chapel ceiling are still in St Mary’s for all to enjoy and remember him.

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated. 

References and further reading: 

St Mary’s, Bury St Edmunds A guidebook, Clive Paine, Honey Hill Publishing 1986.

Metamorphosis of a Death Symbol’ The Transi Tomb in the Late Middle Ages an d the Renaissance, Kathleen Cohen (Berkeley: University of California Press) 1973


Symbol of the Month – The Rock

One of the largest rock monuments in London’s Brompton Cemetery ©Carole Tyrrell

If you visit as many cemeteries and churchyards as I do, you’ll soon notice that there will be several monuments and memorials that are carved to resemble a rock or a group of smaller rocks to form one large rock. They are skilfully created and the casual Victorian cemetery visitor would have recognised the reference.

The Rock is an overtly religious symbol and is often surmounted by another symbol. An angel looking somewhat precarious on top as above, a cross, an anchor and even a pair of bronze eagles on top of the one below. Although sadly only the talons remain clutching on for eternity. This is the Loeffler monument in London’s Brompton Cemetery. (You may have to zoom into see the talons but they are there).

The Loeffler monument in London’s Brompton Cemetery.©Carole Tyrrell

The Loeffler epitaph. ©Carole Tyrrell

The Baxter monument in London’s Kensal Green cemetery. The rock is almost overloaded! ©Carole Tyrrell

There are numerous references to rocks in the Bible in which both Christ and God are referred to as being ‘the rock’ to the faithful. It symbolises steadfastness, firmness and stability.  It’s also seen as providing a firm foundation for faith and for life. This is echoed in the Parable of the 2 Builders in Matthew 7:21-28 in which the wise builder digs deep and lays the foundations on a rock whereas the foolish one builds on what he thinks is level ground but which crumbles and falls and is swept away by floods. In the Old Testament, God is also referred to as

‘ the Lord, My Rock and my Redeemer’

 in which he is seen as a support, something to lean on and rely upon.  Indeed, rather like a rock. In fact, the disciple, Peter’s name means ‘rock’ in Greek as it is ‘Petros.’ And the Hebrew word for ‘rock’ is ‘Eben’ which again means also indicates firmness, stability and faithfulness.   There are too many examples in the Bible for me to quote here but these are just a few:

In Samuel 22.2 it is said that:

‘Our Lord our God

You are my mighty rock, my fortress, my protector.

You are the rock where I am safe.

You are my shield, my powerful weapon, and my place of shelter.’

And also Psalms 62.6:

‘He only is my rock and my salvation: he is my defence; I shall not be moved’

King James Version

There is also the classic Christian hymn, ‘Rock of Ages’ which again symbolises the eternal support of God.

Although I am not particularly religious, I do acknowledge that many of the symbols that the Victorians used came originally from the Bible.  Religion was very important to them and the Bible, or the Good Book would have been a constant source of inspiration for epitaphs and symbols. I have had a Sunday School education and can see where Biblical references can be found.

However, other cultures also revere the unchanging, eternal quality of stone or rock and in China it is seen as a symbol of longevity. Also in Japan, rock gardens are places for visitors to meditate and achieve a sense of Zen.

So, the Rock is a powerful symbol of faith, trust and steadfastness, both for the deceased and the bereaved.

©Test and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated.

References and further reading,solid%20forms%20that%20represent%20a%20person%27s%20stubborn%20nature.|MCORGID=66C5485451E56AAE0A490D45%40AdobeOrg|TS=1663950232

Now available! Death’s Garden Revisited!

Death’s Garden Revisited is out now!  40 beautifully curated essays on the relationship that people have with cemeteries and what attracts them.  Profusely illustrated with 80 lovely photographs as well as a gorgeous cover!  But it’s not just a good looking book – it’s also entertaining and thought provoking.  I am a self confessed taphophile or cemetery lover and this book will explain why they fascinate so many people. (and I have an essay within it!)

Available direct from Blurb  Death’s Garden Revisited by Loren Rhoads | Blurb Books




In a lonely place Part 3: Open Sesame! Inside the Darnley Mausoleum at last!

The never to be used coffin spaces in the burial chamber. ©Carole Tyrrell

The opportunity I had been waiting for – to  actually see the inside of the of the Mausoleum – had finally presented itself!

Down in darkest Kent they hold Heritage Open Days over 2 weekends in September.  This year was the first time I had experienced a full on version – so much to choose from! Climbing a 15th century church tower, despite being scared of heights and having two people in separate queues at separate venues hinting darkly and saying ’You’ve heard the stories about St Bart’s Hospital…’  I had read about them in a book on haunted Rochester but they said no more despite my prompting.  It’s now being developed into luxury flats…..oo-er!

But the Darnley was finally open even if it was just for a couple of weekends. Sweet horse chestnuts were already dispersing their bounty as I walked up the slope from Kitchen Field, through the woods and onto the track that led to Mausoleum.  Little spiny green covers protecting the nut inside like tiny hedgehogs.   Then I encountered a herd of large Highland Cattle in Cobham Woods which surround the Mausoleum. They were all gathered under a spreading tree and had very large horns.  We regarded each other for a moment and then decided neither was a threat to the other.

E Toro e siesta – see what I mean about the horns? ©Carole Tyrrell

As on previous visits, I was still surprised by the size of the building. It’s protected by a vandal proof railing and I felt very privileged as I climbed the front steps and greeted the two rangers at the top. I turned around.  The view was incredible and stretched on over to Essex. It’s on William’s Hill which is one of the highest points locally and I could see why it was suggested that it could become a viewing platform when it couldn’t be used for the purpose for which it was intended.  Somewhere in the greenery and trees was Repton’s Seat. Humphrey Repton was the landscape designer and the seat was created so that he could sit and look at the Mausoleum.  It’s out there somewhere in the woods….

The Darnley Mausoleum. ©Carole Tyrrell

I entered the upper chamber or chapel.  It was dark inside although the open door and the stained glass windows, or lunettes, above gave the alcoves shadows and an ethereal light.  A very tall tablet was in front of me with the Lord’s Prayer inscribed on it.  Burn marks from the attempt to blow the building up on Bonfire Night 1990 could still be seen in places on the brick faced Portland stone.  I thought that it might have Tardis like properties and be on larger on the inside than it was outside but no.  The atmosphere was solemn; this was very much a place of death and perhaps unrealised hopes.

Interior of the chapel floor. ©Carole Tyrrell
A closer view of the tablet and its inscription. ©Carole Tyrrell

Traces of the 1990 Bonfire Night explosion still remain. ©Carole Tyrrell

View of the lovely stained glass windows from the interior. ©Carole Tyrrell

A National Trust sign perched on the floor pointed out the problems with the Mausoleum in that condensation was building up in the lunette arches due, possibly, to its design.   

‘It was thought that the windows were originally intended to have air gaps to allow the natural circulation of air.   So, ventilation was being introduced into the outer windows so that they continue to protect but also allow air to circulate within the 12m high dome which was also being given a lime wash.’ 

View of the ceiling of the dome. ©Carole Tyrrell

The doorway to the burial chamber. ©Carole Tyrrell

Then I returned down the central steps, went around the side of the Mausoleum to the back.  A small flight of stairs took me down into what was originally envisaged to be the burial chamber beneath the chapel.  This was where the Earls of Darnley were supposed to eternally rest once the Mausoleum was consecrated. But, alas, it was never to be and the 24 loculi, or Latin for ‘small spaces’, have always been vacant.  Above the main loculi are smaller ones which were intended for children and indicates the mortality rate in Georgian England.  The coffins of the Earls of Darnley and their families would have been large and heavy.  This was because they had to be lead lined to stop the body fluids from seeping out.

Loculi and the apse. The smaller spaces above would have been for children. ©Carole Tyrrell

It was whitewashed and plain and facing me was an apse, or recess, which contained a table on which it was intended that the coffins would sit.  It was a quiet, solemn and dignified space. As I stood there looking around, a small family entered.  The father soon waxed lyrical to the ranger about what he and his mates had got up to at the Mausoleum when it was a mysterious, vandalised building in the middle of thick woods.  I overheard him saying that they had slept in the loculi and believed that if you walked around it 7 times then you would die.  He obviously hadn’t as he was very much alive, but it was interesting to hear him talk about it as 7 is a sacred number.  One of the rangers upstairs had commented that visitors were telling them about swinging off ropes on the sides of the building and generally causing mayhem.  It would really have attracted bored teenagers: an abandoned building that was associated with death.  Although, under the circumstances, it was probably better that the Earls had been interred in the vaults of St Mary Magdalene church in Cobham with their memorials set outside against the back wall of the church and not in the Mausoleum.  Who know what might have happened to them.  But I felt that it was a much loved building and that the locals were proud of its metamorphosis from ruin to elegant Georgian monument and landmark.

It was the 3rd Earl of Darnley whose will had provided the funds for building the mausoleum.  Previous Earls had been buried in Westminster Abbey but their vaults were full. So, he wanted them to be interred near their ancestral seat at nearby Cobham Hall.  The most fashionable architect of the day, James Wyatt, was engaged and it cost £9000 or £1million in today’s money.  But no Earl or member of his family was ever laid to rest there as Wyatt had made the Mausoleum replete with pagan symbols: the pyramid roof, the square, the circle and sarcophagi at each corner.  As a result, the Bishop of Rochester refused to consecrate it amid comments on ‘pagan arcadia.’

Feeling fit, despite my 90 minute walk to the Mausoleum from Cuxton station, I decided to carry on to Cobham village.  I encountered the cattle again although some had melted into the trees and then I walked on. And on. And on.  It was farther than I remembered although I spotted a detectorist in a field along the way going about his business.  And like most villages I have wandered through, the pubs outnumbered the shops.  Another Dickens association with a pub called The Leather Bottle which, according to their website, was ‘Charles Dickens favourite ale house in Cobham and a portrait of him adorns the pub sign.  It features in ‘the Pickwick Papers’ and yes, I knew I was in Dickens country again. 

The church has a commanding position within the village and more about it and its unrivalled collection of medieval brasses in a future post. It was well worth the walk!

On my way back from the village and the church, as I come into sight of the Mausoleum, the rangers waved and I climbed the steps again for a last look.  The late afternoon sun shone through the lunettes and created a lovely reflection on one of the chapel’s walls.  

Late afternoon sun reflection. ©Carole Tyrrell
A ranger’s deckchair – I knew if I sat in it for too long, I would never have got up again! ©Carole Tyrrell

As I walked back down to Cuxton rail station and feeling relieved that it would all be downhill, I reflected that this might be the only opportunity I would have to see inside the Mausoleum. The National Trust appear to be closing some of their properties and Owletts on the other side of Cobham is already closed.   

But this was such a wonderful way to spend a sunny September Sunday and although I was tempted, I resisted the urge to walk around it 7 times……..

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated.

References and further reading:

Darnley Mausoleum – Wikipedia

  Darnley Mausoleum | Discover Gravesham

The history of the Darnley Mausoleum | National Trust

Symbol of the Month – Old Father Time

Old Father Time on an almost horizontal headstone, Pluckley, Kent
©Carole Tyrrell

Ah, the perils of searching for symbols in old churchyards. I had to almost lie horizontally on the ground to take a photo of this one in the churchyard of St Nicholas, Pluckley, Kent.  I was a little nervous that the headstone would fall on top of me but what a headline that would have made!

At the time I had no idea what it represented and just thought it looked interesting.  In fact it wasn’t until much later when I’d had a chance to look at it properly that I realised the identity of the figure in the carving.  I then wished that I’d also taken a photo of the epitaph.

It is in fact a depiction of Old Father Time.  It’s a lovely example. As you can see he’s sitting with one hand holding a fearsome looking scythe with a bent and gnarled stem and the elbow of his other hand is resting on an hourglass.  He is a very old man with a white beard, large angel wings on his back and is flanked on either side by two angel heads.  What better symbol for a life that had ended?

So far I have only discovered a few other examples.  There is a 17th century version on a tombstone in a Hendon churchyard and a huge, modern one again resting on an hourglass within Warzaw’s Powarzski cemetery.  I can’t show them in this blog as one is on a stock images library and so not royalty free and I am awaiting permission to use the other image.  However I found this one on Wikipedia but its location is not given.

Old Father Time and a grieving widow. An unknown Irish memorial.
Shared under Wiki Creative Commons

We traditionally associate Old Father Time with the New Year celebrations. He is the representation of the outgoing Old Year welcoming in the New Year which is usually portrayed as a smiling baby.  But Father Time has also been described as a gentler version of the Grim Reaper as they share the same accoutrements of a scythe and hourglass.

He is considered to be the personification of age and is related to the ancient Greek god Chronos and also the Roman god Saturn. Father Time’s ageing, worn out body is a reminder that time ultimately devours all things and that none can escape.  The grains of sand in the hourglass count out not only his life but all lives.  Although he has a long, white beard, a sign of age, it has been interpreted as a reclamation of purity and innocence.  But, as the hourglass can be inverted, so can a new generation, the New Year, restore the source of physical vitality. However, time is not always destructive as it can also offer serenity and wisdom.

Cronos, from which chronology derives, was the ancient Greeks word for Time and the Romans knew him as Saturn. According to Wikipedia:

The ancient Greeks themselves began to confuse chronos, their word for time, with the agricultural god, Cronus, who had the attribute of a harvester’s sickle.  The Romans equated Cronos with Saturn, who also had a sickle and was treated as an old man, often with a crutch. The wings and hourglass were early Renaissance additions.’

The Roman Chronos was originally an Italian corn god known as the Sower and a big festival known as the Saturnalia was held to celebrate the harvest.   So there is a link between these ancient gods and Father Time in that they both symbolically harvest, or cut down the mature crops, to make way for the Spring’s new growth.

Father Time appears throughout many cultures and also in art, books and sculpture amongst others.  In one of Hogarth’s later work, The Bathos, he appears lying down surrounded by his familiar objects, all now broken.

The Bathos by William Hogarth in which Old Father Time lies surrounded by his broken symbols.
Shared under Wiki Creative Commons.

But in St Nicholas’ churchyard  Old Father Time keeps an eternal watch over a life that has ended,  resting on a still crisply carved hourglass.  It is full, the scythe has harvested and so the endless cycle of life continues.

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated

References and further reading:

Stories in Stone, Douglas Keister, Gibbs Smith, 2004

©Carole Tyrrell

R.I.P Queen Elizabeth II

It has been quite a week with a new Prime Minister and then the passing of Queen Elizabeth II at 96. The rituals and ceremonies of a Royal passing are now in place and we have a new king, King Charles III. It feels strange and it is a shock to realise that I will not see another Queen in my lifetime.

I feel that the Queen did an exemplary job and stayed true to her principles and faith throughout her astounding 70 year reign. As she said on becoming Queen after the death of her father, King George VI, ‘I declare before you all, that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.

For most of us, she has always been there, clearly visible in her bright clothes and hats, and she did not have the option of saying ‘I don’t fancy it today, I think I’ll sleep in.’ The world has seen many changes during her reign and yet she always seemed to adapt to them.

The Platinum Jubilee was such fun and I hope that she enjoyed it. And this is how I would like to remember her.

Rest in peace Your Majesty, you’ve earned it. And Ma’am, thank you for everything.

©Text Carole Tyrrell

A Spring Saunter Part 2 – a visit to St Mary the Virgin, Fordwich – the churchyard.

The Bigg tomb, St Mary’s churchyard ©Carole Tyrrell

The churchyard – a place of skulls and spring flowers was definitely ready for its Spring mow. Shaggy grass peeped from between the monuments and memorials.  The 18th century skulls grinned at me from small headstones clustered near the church entrance and there were several styles to choose from.  These ranged from a naïve version to more professionally carved ones.

However, there was a 17th century table top tomb beside the church wall and also near the entrance It’s a helpfully low tomb in that it’s just the right height for sitting down on or standing on to look through the window above and inside the church. This tomb is dedicated to two of the Biggs brothers whose charitable enterprises still help those less fortunate in Fordwich to this day.  The Bigg brothers were Walter and Stephen who died in 1631 and 1646 respectively.  Inside St Mary’s, the bread shelves remain in place for the

‘loaf provided by Thomas Biggs (another brother who died in 1669) to be distributed weekly to the poor.’

A sort of 18th century food bank as the guidebook helpfully points out. More examples of their generosity are recorded on Benefaction boards by the tower arch.  The guidebook adds that:

‘Walter Bigg gave the income from land for the relief of poor and aged people in the parish and Stephen Bigg gave 20 shillings yearly for six poor householders in Fordwich and six in Sturry from land rent with the remainder to be used to put out poor boys and girls of each parish as apprentices. These bequests (including the bread) are still being fulfilled by the Fordwich United Charities.’

Frustratingly, I couldn’t find out much about the Bigg brothers but I will keep researching.

Stone dove on top of a headstone. ©Carole Tyrrell

Spring flowers studded the grass: bluebells, dog violets and the bright yellow flowers of lesser celandine made splashes of colour amongst the memorials.  Spring is such a lovely time to be out church crawling, or steeple chasing, as Mother Nature begins to yawn and stretch and come back to life again.  A line of forget me nots led the way to a young child’s grave.  The rose on it was a poignant reminder of unrealised hopes.

A rug of primroses on a grave. ©Carole Tyrrell

Dog violets. ©Carole Tyrrell

Bluebell. ©Carole Tyrrell

Forget me nots leading the way to a child’s grave. ©Carole Tyrrell

Close up of child’s grave. ©Carole Tyrrell

But it was the skulls that caught my attention.  They were all clustered around the entrance, jostling for position as they reminded the parishioners to lead a godly life as they would one day be only a skull and crossbones.

A skeleton on a corner of a large table top tomb. ©Carole Tyrrell

Skull and crossbones on the same table top tomb. ©Carole Tyrrell

3D Skull on the headstone of Mr John Smith. ©Carole Tyrrell

A naive skull on a small headstone. ©Carole Tyrrell

A double header headstone for Mr Henry Brown. ©Carole Tyrrell

As I rounded the corner of the church, I saw the River Stour in the distance and also a rug of wood anemones completely covering the flat top of another grave.  They are one of my favourite Spring flowers and nearby was another rug but this time it was of primroses, yellow and pink.  Cuckoo flowers with their delicate, pale pink flowers lifted their heads up to the sun.  They are an important feed plant for both the Orange Tip and Green veined White butterflies.  Cuckoo flowers are also known as ‘lady’s smock’ and their arrival is thought to coincide with the arrival of the first cuckoo hence the name.

Wood anemones. ©Carole Tyrrell

Cuckoo flower. ©Carole Tyrrell

The more modern section of the churchyard was beside the river and these headstones featured kingfishers and daffodils.  There are several meanings attributed to daffodils and these include Memory. There was also a man swimming on one of them and I wondered what it meant. This was proof that people, even now, want to leave a message for those left behind.

As I finally left St Mary’s and walked back down the path, I spotted a lone headstone, set apart from the others, and in a very different style.  It was a winged skull and reminded me of the ones that I’d seen in photographs from ancient New England churchyards.

Winged skull. ©Carole Tyrrell

However, I forgot to keep a lookout for the rumoured ghost that is supposed to patrol this quiet corner of Fordwich.  It is as the guidebook says:

‘Colonel Samuel Short, Lord of the Manor, who died in 1716, and it is his ghost that is said to still walk by the church gate.’

I then moved onto the church in Sturry that I’d seen from the bus and …what delights I found there…

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated.

References and further reading:

Guidebook to St Mary’s Fordwich, Kent published by the Churches Conservation Trust ( some interesting facts about Fordwich and its history)

A spring saunter – a visit to St Mary the Virgin, Fordwich, Kent

The entrance to St Mary’s ©Carole Tyrrell

Spring may seem a distant memory now that we are in the middle of a summer heatwave but this may bring back memories of sunny but more bearable days at Easter….

When I stepped into St Mary the Virgin’s church, I knew immediately that I was in a very special place.  It held the history of a community within it:  help for the poorer parishioners over the centuries and the still to be seen traces of the medieval church.  But so much had been left untouched, it was almost like walking into a time capsule.

From the mysterious tomb, rumoured to be that of a local saint, to the remnants of the Great Rood and evidence of the charity, still in use today, instituted by two brothers who lie in the churchyard, I could see how much the little church had meant, and continues to mean to the little village (well, hamlet really) of Fordwich

Town sign ©Carole Tyrrell

Although now closed for services and managed by the Churches Conservation Trusts (CCT), it nestles in its churchyard with the River Stour running alongside the churchyard behind it.  It was photos of the headstones in the churchyard on Facebook that had attracted me here and Easter had seemed a good time to visit.   Despite the bus driver saying that she had never heard of Fordwich Road despite it being on the timetable, I spotted the sign announcing ‘Historic Church’ and, once in the village, I was directed to St Mary’s by a friendly couple and their smiling, fluffball of a dog.   Church crawling, or steeple chasing 2022, had begun!  And I had already noted another possible church to explore from the bus as we trundled through Sturry, just outside Canterbury.

Although, as Fordwich proudly boasts on its town sign, it is England’s smallest town with only 300 residents it has been connected with Canterbury for centuries. 

According to the guidebook:

‘Fordwich once served as the port for Canterbury and was part of the Cinque Port of Sandwich. It  still takes part in the annual ceremony of paying its Ship money.  In the 15th century, there are payments for the shipment of over 400 tons of stone from Sandwich to Fordwich to build the south west tower of Canterbury Cathedral.’

It may seem strange to describe an inland hamlet as a port but in Roman times, Thanet was an island and the sea came up to Canterbury and could be navigated as far as Fordwich.  However, it became silted up and by the 17th century was no longer a port.  In fact in 1830, it ceased being a port altogether with the coming of the railway.

Spreading, tall yew trees provided welcome shade, both along the path to the church door and in the churchyard.  An 1855 restoration was responsible for the shingled, splay footed tower but there were original features to be seen inside.

St Mary’s interior ©Carole Tyrrell

Box pews were still in place and these, prior to a collection plate or box going round, were once the source of a small regular income to the church.  They could be rented by individuals and families for their sole use.  A singers pew was still in place and the supports for the silver gilt Mayor’s mace were still there.  The mace now resides in a far safer place but returns to St Mary’s on Mayor’s Sunday.

The church interior is plain and peaceful and in the plaster of the main arch, the 10 Commandments are inscribed together with the coat of arms of King William II.  But this colourful addition from 1688 hides what is left of the medieval Rood.  The 14th century chancel arch was filled in with plaster but before this it would have been the focal point of the church.  A Rood contained 3 figures: Christ crucified with his Mother and St John at the foot of the Cross.  The 17th century iconoclasts and their determination to remove all idolatry from churches made their mark even here. Another reminder of St Mary’s links to Canterbury is the prominent and large alms box.  This was carved from an oak beam taken from Canterbury’s Guildhall to commemorate the 1953 Coronation.

The church almsbox ©Carole Tyrrell

St Mary’s Champing sign. ©Carole Tyrrell

But I felt that I might not be alone in St Mary’s as a sign announced  that Champers were in residence in the side chapel.  I paused but could hear no snoring.  It was good to see that Champing had returned to the church calendar and was happening at a church I might be able to get to.  Champing is an amalgam of ‘camping’ and ‘church’ and people pay to stay a night or more in a CCT church and I have been very tempted…

I began to tiptoe towards the legendary Fordwich stone which is alongside a side wall.  This stone has been traditionally known as St Augustine’s tomb. The guidebook informed me

‘is believed to have been in the form of a dummy tomb.’ 

It’s a large block of oolitic limestone, roughly 5.5. feet long and has moved several times.  In 1760, it went into the churchyard, according to the guidebook, and then onto Canterbury Cathedral before coming home to St Mary’s in 1877.  It is thought that relics of a saint may been placed beneath it.  The lovely carving on the stone dates from 1100 and

‘consists of interlaced Norman arches beneath scaly decorations’.

The mysterious tomb – possibly St Augustine’s?©Carole Tyrrell

The font has a locking device on its lid to prevent baptismal water being ‘misappropriated.’ I wondered what the guidebook meant by that….

In addition St Mary’s has some gorgeous and rare stained glass, both medieval and 20th century. I’ve only seen fragments of medieval glass in other churches so to see complete, quatre foil windows of it was a real treat.

St Margaret with her spear through the dragon’s mouth.  She was a popular saint in medieval times and her prayers were sought by and for women in childbirth’ and a bearded face. ©Carole Tyrrell

The Virgin Mary with her child in her arms and the Virgin Mary with her emblem, the lily.©Carole Tyrrell

And in the main aisle was a brass – I can remember when brass rubbing was all the rage in the 1970’s – dedicated to the very fashionably dressed, by 17th century standards, Alpha Hawkins, who died aged 21 in 1605.

Brass of Alpha Hawkins. ©Carole Tyrrell

I left St Mary’s feeling curious about what it would be like to spend the night there…but the churchyard was calling and on such a lovely Spring day, I could no longer resist…..

Part 2 St Mary’s churchyard – the place of skulls and Spring flowers.

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated

References and further reading:

St Mary’s Fordwich guidebook published by the Churches Conservation Trust

Symbol(s) of the Month – Hope and the Anchor

Monument to William Hayward, Brompton Cemetery ©Carole Tyrrell

‘A Life on the Ocean Wave?’  You could be forgiven for thinking this whenever you see an anchor on a headstone or monument and perhaps assume that it’s a mariner’s grave. But if it appears on a Commonwealth War Grave like this one in Brompton’s Cemetery then it will undoubtedly be on the grave of a naval man or woman.

Headstone dedicated to L J Smart, Brompton Cemetery ©Carole Tyrrell

But when it appears elsewhere then the anchor can have several other meanings.  It was a popular motif in the 19th century and appears in many cemeteries.  This example comes from the churchyard of St John the Evangelist in Southend on Sea.

Monument to Susie Kaye Sayer ©Carole Tyrrell

The definition of an anchor is that it is a heavy object made from metal and connected to a rope or chain which is then connected to a ship.  It holds the ship in place by digging into the seabed under the ship.  There is a metal shank with a ring at one end for the rope or chain and, at the other end, there are two flukes with barbs to dig into the seabed and it’s these that give the anchor its distinctive shape.

Found on Pinterest with no photographer’s name attached.

But, despite its popularity with the Victorians, the anchor symbol Is much, much older.  It was used by the ancient Christians in Rome prior to them adopting the fish symbol.  The anchor resembles a cross and so was a covert way of identifying other Christians.   It was seen as a metaphor for faith and steadfastness in that it grounds a ship and keeps it fixed in a secure place despite storms and bad weather and faith does the same thing by keeping the faithful grounded and secure during the difficult times in life.

Found online with no artist credited.

The anchor appears in the New Testament of the Bible in Acts 27:13,17, 29-30 and 40. In Hebrews 6:18:19 it says:

‘That by two immutable things, in which it was impossible for God to lie, we might have a strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us;

Which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which entereth into that within the veil’. King James Bible.

This is where hope and anchors become entwined and there are many pubs in the UK named ‘The Hope and Anchor.’  But more of Hope later.

In these examples, you can see that the anchor is very firmly chained to the cross and so to God.  The deceased believed in eternal life.  On the one below dedicated to the Maskelyne family, there is a well carved anchor with a rope attaching it to a cross.  This has been carved to resemble wood, perhaps Christ’s cross, and with ivy winding around it as a symbol of eternity.

The Maskelyne monument, Brompton Cemetery. ©Carole Tyrrell

However, I think that the wide spread use of the anchor during the 19th century was due to an immensely popular hymn of the time which is still sung today and is one of the most well known in the English language.  It was written by a Sunday school teacher, Priscilla Jane Owen (1829-1907).

Will your anchor hold in the storms of life (We have an anchor)

Will your anchor hold in the storms of life,

When the clouds unfold their wings of strife?

When the strong tides lift, and the cables strain,

Will your anchor or firm remain?

We have an anchor that keeps the soul

Steadfast and sure while the billows roll,

Fastened to the Rock which cannot move,

Grounded firm and deep in the Saviour’s love.

It is safely moored, ‘twill the storm withstand,

For ‘tis well secured by the Saviour’s hand;

And the cables passed from His heart to mine,

Can defy the blast, through strength divine.

It will firmly hold in the straits of fear,

When the breakers have told the reef is near;

Though the tempest rave and the wild winds blow

Not an angry wave shall our bark o’erflow.

It will surely hold in the floods of death,

When the waters cold chill our latest breath;

On the rising tide it can never fail,

While our hopes abide within the veil.  

Note the reference to the Rock which appears in these two monuments.

On some of the monuments that I’ve seen, the chain to the anchor is broken and it’s difficult to know if this is deliberate to indicate that the deceased’s earthly life is over or just general wear and tear.

The Forster monument, Brompton cemetery. ©Carole Tyrrell

There have been other suggestions about the anchor motif in that it might have been a tribute to St Nicholas who was the patron saint of fishermen or to St Clement of Rome who was rumoured to have become a martyr by being tied to an anchor and drowned.  But there is no firm evidence of St Clement’s watery death.

Now let’s return to Hope.  She appears in cemeteries as the statue of a woman dressed in vaguely classical robes and holding an anchor in one hand.  This one is on a monument to Louisa Mutton in Brompton Cemetery.  Hope is one of the Seven Virtues of the Christian religion, and she is with Faith and Charity.  Note that her right arm is raised with the index finger pointing to Heaven and symbolising the pathway to Heaven.  The other example is from the Blondin monument in Kensal Green cemetery in which Hope does not have a raised arm but, instead, is looking heavenwards. So, Hope was the deceased’s way of telling those left behind that they were entering into eternal life.  According to Wikipedia, the earliest Hope statue was in Dublin in the 18th century.  But there has also been a suggestion that Hope was influenced by the Statue of Liberty.

Statue of Hope from the Blondin monument, Kensal Green. ©Carole Tyrrell

Hope together with Faith and Charity, the Mutton monument, Brompton Cemetery ©Carole Tyrrell

So, the Hope and Anchor have become entwined as examples of faith, steadfastness and a hope for an eternal life – a comforting message perhaps for both the deceased and those left behind.

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated.

References and further reading: