Most people associate Knebworth with huge rock concerts and as a Gothic backdrop to many well-known films including The King’s Speech.
But it has other claims to fame apart from gargoyles and lovely gardens. It also has a wonderful mausoleum in its own field and the Lytton Chapel which, according to Pevsner and Simon Jenkins, has the finest 18th century memorials in England.
The Knebworth church is officially known as St Mary’s although it’s actually dedicated to the Virgin Mary and St Thomas of Canterbury or Thomas a Becket. It sits facing the House with its own small graveyard and surrounded by trees and railings. This is where many of the past owners of Knebworth are buried and you enter under a lovely lychgate. But why is it there?
St Mary’s was originally part of the medieval village of Knebworth and was first recorded in the Domesday Book. But when the village was moved after the creation of Knebworth Park in the late 1300’s , St Mary’s stayed in its place. It’s a church steeped in history and an architectural jigsaw as so much of it comes from different periods. The nave and chancel, for example, date from 1120 AD. When you first enter, the interior appears very plain but St Mary’s real glory is the Lytton Chapel in a side room near the altar.
However, amongst its impressive marble monuments was a memorial tablet mounted on a side wall, to the left as I entered.
This is dedicated to a woman who died on the last day of February 1601, Anne St John, and for anyone fascinated by iconography it has a rich display of symbols. She was the wife of Sir Rowland Lytton who was her second husband. Sir Rowland’s memorial slab is on the church’s floor and he died in 1674 at 59. Anne died comparatively young at 40 and I wondered if this is why there are so many references to death on her tablet. The motifs on Anne’s memorial are beautifully carved and delicately coloured. It’s a wonderful example of a memento mori. According to J C Cooper:
‘This was an image or item that urged people to remember their death. It was a reminder that death was an unavoidable part of life and to be prepared at all times.’
Memento Mori is a Latin phrase which translates as: ‘Remember you must die’ and often expressed in art through symbols as in this memorial.
The epitaph is in Latin but, helpfully, there is an English translation provided. It reads:
‘Here lies the most illustrious Lady Anne Lytton, daughter of Oliver, Lord St John who had previously married Robert C – of Morton C—— Esquire, by whom she had two daughters, Elizabeth, who married Sir Henry Walop, and Anne, who married Adolphus Carye, Esqre, by her second husband, Rowland Lytton, Esqre of Knebworth, she had 3 sons, William, Rowland and Philip, and four daughters, Anne, Judith, Elisabeth and Jane. She lived 40 years, a noble, handsome and pious lady, beloved alike by God and men. She died, greatly d—– on the last day of February 1601 for the fulfilment of whose noble life give praise to God, and pray that you may be in communion with her among the blessed ones.’
NB: The gaps are where my camera decided to play up and rendered the words unreadable.
This was my favourite memorial in the Lytton Chapel because of its modest size and unusual iconography. I apologise for the quality of the photos – the light levels are low in the Chapel and I didn’t have much time.
Let’s begin at the top of the tablet:
It’s no accident that the skull takes centre stage, as it, Death. is the ultimate conqueror of life. There is no escape and one recalls Hamlet and Yorick’s skull. The crossed mace and spade beneath it are representations of both high and humble stations in life. The mace is a representation of absolute power whereas the spade indicates a labourer. This demonstrates that it doesn’t matter what your status was in life as Death makes us all equal.
Left hand side panel.:
Vase of broken or drooping flowers: According to Howgate, this signifies ‘the brief transience of life before death intervenes, even in the first flowering of youth.’ I have discussed in a previous post the significance of roses in funerary iconography and broken rose blossoms also indicate a life cut short as the flower never blooms. But flowers are a representation of the brevity of life. Beneath is a Bible which is open at Daniel, chapter 10 which refers to Daniel going through 3 weeks of mourning. At the bottom of the panel is an Hourglass. This has been discussed in a previous post but it means that the ‘sands of time’ have run out. J C Cooper describes it as indicating
‘Time is passing quickly…everyday comes closer to the hour of their death, Life and Death is the attribute of the Grim Reaper, Death and Father Time.
When the Grim Reaper or Death is depicted as a skeleton he is often holding an hourglass and a scythe which is the next symbol. This is one of the most potent symbols of Death as the Grim Reaper is always depicted as holding one. He cuts down lives like cutting down crops or grass. Cooper adds:
‘…also symbolises the harvest which, in turn, implies death, rebirth, destructive and creative powers of the Great Mother.’
However, Keister says: ‘…form of a scythe is a union of the masculine, upright and cutting with feminine as curved and reaping.
Right hand side panel:
At the top is a spindle on which is wound the thread of life. Beneath it, the Hand of God or, as one commentator has suggested, the Hand of Fate, emerges from a cloud with a fearsome pair of shears to cut the thread and indicate that life is at an end. He is in charge of making that decision. Underneath is an empty coffin with the lid slightly ajar awaiting its next incumbent.
The bottom of the memorial – The Day of Judgement
Due to time constraints I didn’t look at the bottom of the memorial in detail. But Howgate reveals that it is an ‘image of the resurrection of the dead on the day of judgement.’ He goes onto to say that ‘The lumpy looking resurrected dead, some with hands joined in prayer, appear to be gasping for breath as they emerge with difficulty from the earth.’ Although this isn’t a very good photo I can see one person with their hands in prayer at least and I have to admit that when I saw the panel, it didn’t register as an image of people. A return visit to have a closer look is undoubtedly in the offing.
Two of Anne’s 4 daughters, Judith and Anne, are commemorated nearby in the church with floor memorials. They both lived to ripe old ages.
I am indebted to Revd Jim Pye who very kindly emailed me an informative article based on a talk given in 2008 by Michael E Howgate on the St John Memorial and the contentious panel on William Robinson Lytton Strode’s monument. My grateful thanks to him and to the 2 very helpful volunteers who were on duty in St Mary’s on my visit.
NB: Due to malicious thefts St Mary’s is only open during services and on Sundays 2-4pm during July and August – check the St Marys or Knebworth House websites for info in 2017.
© Text and photos Carole Tyrrell
Remembrance of the Dead (based on a talk given at St Mary and St Thomas church on Sunday 5th October 2008 – Michael E. Howgate M.Sc
An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols, J C Cooper, Thams & Hudson, 1978
How to Read Symbols, Clare Gibson, Herbert Press, 2009
Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography, Douglas Keister, Gibbs Smith, 2004