As you enter the formal gardens at Knebworth, please take a moment to visit the eternally slumbering residents of its pet cemetery which is nearby. Although not signposted it does appear on the Knebworth map.Most stately homes have one if you know where to look and they give another insight into the lives of the owners and the animals who shared their lives however briefly.
However, although Knebworth House has been the home of the Lytton family since the 1400’s it wasn’t until the 19th century that the family’s pets were formally interred in their own private resting place.
There are varying dates as to when the cemetery came into being. Apparently it started in 1825. but the official Knebworth map has it as dating from 1852. The cemetery not only contains the beloved pets of the Bulwer-Lytton family but also those of their tenants. All are equal in the small well tended graveyard.
But I’m sure that most visitors don’t notice it. It nestles in front of the yew hedge which is known as the Iron Hedge. Yew is traditionally associated with places of burial and death such as churchyards and there are supposedly many traditions associated with this. It’s also seen as a symbol of everlasting life as yew trees have been known to live for centuries. Most of the epitaphs are laid flat so can easily missed by the casual passer-by but a closer look reveals some marvellous memories.
As with other pet cemeteries, it’s the touching epitaphs that I find most interesting as well as the names that owners give their pets.
Beau was Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s cherished pet dog
There is a small monument to ‘The first of the Tibetans’, Chumbi and Ruby. It goes onto say that they were both found in the Chumbi Valley in 1929. It also adds, sadly, that Chumbi was ‘Lost on the Great North Road 1929.’ and that Ruby ‘Died at Knebworth in 1929’. There is also an inscription around the base of the monument. It reads ‘May the love they had and gave help them even beyond the grave.’ Short lives but much missed.
A large, often quiet and deserted, cemetery or graveyard can be irresistible to an inquisitive feline. Once young Tiddles or Baphomet, depending on your taste in names or cat, has exhausted neat suburban back gardens or annoyed the neighbours sufficiently they often like to explore farther afield.
A cemetery can also attract prey such as rodents or birds and so can be a happy hunting ground. And of course it can be unrivalled as a place to hang out and just chill.
At West Norwood and Woodbury Park in Tunbridge Wells, for example, cats have only to climb through an iron railing or over a wall to gain access and the whole marble orchard is their domain.
And, if you know where to find them, the keen photographer can take some wonderful pictures. I belong to a Facebook page called appropriately enough, Cemetery Cats, and features photos of cats roaming and often posing by pensive angels, monuments, crosses, or on monuments or just generally going about their lives. Contributions are from all over the world; the UK, USA, Italy, France and Eastern Europe.
What does a woman clinging to a cross, seemingly for dear life, have in common with the film ‘Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence’ and heavy metal group Def Leppard?
Strangely enough, the connection is an 18th century Protestant hymn written by a fiercely Calvinist minister which has entered the Western cultural consciousness in the same way as ‘Abide With Me’.
‘Rock of Ages’ is a hymn with an enduring message of hope and ultimate salvation. So no wonder it inspired a potent funerary symbol which is still used today. However, it’s the second line in the third verse, ‘Simply to Thy cross I cling.’ that has proved most inspirational to Victorian monument masons.
A variant is a pensive young woman leaning on a cross for support as at West Norwood. This cemetery contained several examples and here is a selection:
They’re not angels as they don’t possess wings and angels didn’t begin to appear in Victorian cemeteries until the late 19th century. But they are one of the few cemetery symbols inspired by a popular hymn. It’s also a Protestant motif and was the only way in which a cross would have been permitted in a Victorian cemetery until near the end of the 19th century. This was due to the religious wars that were raging at the time.
When the Victorians created their large municipal cemeteries there was still a fierce Anti-Catholic prejudice within Britain. This dated back to Henry VIII and the Reformation and had resulted in several anti-Catholic laws being passed during the 17th and 18th centuries. But the cry was still ‘No Popery’ in the 19th century and any symbols that were associated with Catholicism weren’t welcome in the new marble orchards. These included crosses, figures of saints and also angels. Instead, there was a return to Classicism using Roman and Greek motifs and architecture. Then, as the 19th century progressed, funerary monuments reflected the tastes of the time. So you could walk through one and see Arts & Crafts, Celtic Revival, Art Nouveau until eventually towards the end angels did being to fly in.
‘Rock of Ages’ was written by a Calvinist minister, the Reverend Augustus Toplady, in 1763 and was first published in a religious magazine, ‘The Gospel’, in 1775. It’s allegedly based on an incident in Toplady’s life. He was a preacher in a village named Blagdon and was travelling along the gorge of Burrington Combe in Somerset’s Mendip Hills when he was caught in a storm. He managed to find shelter in a gap in the gorge and was struck by the name of the crevice that had saved him. It’s still marked as ‘Rock of Ages’ both on the rock itself and maps. He is reputed to have written the hymn’s lyrics on the back of a playing card although one wonders what a minister was doing with a deck of cards. However, no-one’s sure if this incident actually happened or if it’s apocryphal….
Toplady wasn’t a popular man and in an article by Rupert Christensen of the Daily Telegraph he was described as ‘fanatical, in a gross Calvinism and most difficult to deal with.’ John Wesley avoided him. Toplady was also fond of writing bizarre articles, one of which proposed that a spiralling National Debt could never be paid off due to the extent of human sinfulness. Something for the new Chancellor to ponder on I’m sure. Toplady died in 1776 from TB and would undoubtedly have been forgotten were it not for his rousing hymn.
‘Rock of Ages’ caught the popular imagination. Gladstone translated it into Latin and Greek and asked for it to be played at his funeral. Prince Albert reputedly requested it on his deathbed and it has appeared in several feature films. These include ‘Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence’ where it’s sung by David Bowie as Major Jack Celliers and both ‘Paper Moon’ and ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ where it’s played at a funeral. It’s also inspired musicians such as Def Leppard and the writer of the film score for ‘Altered States.’ John Congliano. It’s also the title of the long running musical stage show.
These are its lyrics:
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy riven side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure,
Cleanse me from its guilt and power.
Not the labour of my hands
Can fulfill Thy law’s demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone;
Thou must save, and Thou alone.
Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless, look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Saviour, or I die!
I’ve also seen the lyrics of the hymn inscribed on monuments as at Streatham Cemetery and also Brompton.
However it does also appear as a motif on tombstones as here:
It has been described as a symbol of faith, of a person lost in sin whose only hope is to cling to the cross.
Sometimes just the phrase is enough as here:
It was also popular as a print and these are two examples:
Both seem to clinging to a cross in a raging sea – a sea of sin perhaps?
The symbol has reappeared in more recent years and there is a much smaller, modern version at Beckenham Cemetery. This is on the grave of a 16 year old who died in 1965.
An inspirational hymn to the Victorians and also well into the 20th Century but what could have the same effect these days? I’ve always fancied a video of Sid Vicious singing ‘/My Way’ on my tombstone…..
The wind thrashed through the small group of ancient oak trees in Mausoleum Field as I stood admiring the view of the surrounding hills. It was a hot, but windy, August day and the gift shop assistant had been enthusiastic about the wonderful vistas. But I felt that on a dark winter’s night it could be very eerie and lonely.
This field contains Elizabeth Bulwer-Lytton’s (1773-1843) mausoleum in which she rests with several other members of the Lytton family. But why is she resting here eternally and not in the Lytton chapel in the nearby church?
Elizabeth was the mother of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the novelist and she lived at Knebworth from 1811 -1843. She is responsible for the House’s present Gothic style with its myriad of gargoyles, bats, towers and battlements after having had most of the old, ancient House demolished. She inherited it from her father, Richard Warburton-Lytton who lived at Ramsgate and described the estate as ‘the old half-feudal pile. ‘ Or as we would describe it today ‘as having many original features and development potential.’
She lived with Edward, her third and favourite son, until she died and her rooms are still preserved exactly as she left them. Edward had inscribed above the mantelpiece a reminder to future generations to maintain them in her memory. He was very close to Elizabeth but one wonders if he was worried that she might return and haunt him if he didn’t.
Elizabeth had a powerful personality to say the least. She disapproved of Edward’s marriage to Rosina Doyle Wheeler by cutting off his allowance and forcing him into a whole new career as a writer. He was very prolific, as the section of his books in the library attests, and he coined the famous phrases ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ and ‘The pen is mightier than the sword.’ Edward also had a successful political career but found the pressure too much and after two children, his marriage collapsed. Elizabeth’s thoughts on the situation that she had helped create aren’t known but he gained custody of the children after a nasty separation. Rosina then embarked on her own literary career with a thinly veiled account of her marriage and followed this with other works on the theme of the wronged wife. She was buried in an unmarked grave in Croydon which is certainly ‘out of sight, out of mind’ and was forgotten until her great-great-grandson erected a tombstone in her name in 1995.
Elizabeth quarrelled with every rector of St Mary’s about the tithe that the church claimed on all estate produce. As a result, they all ended up preaching to an empty church while she insisted that her staff and tenants attended her own church services in Knebworth’s State Drawing Room. The large Bible at the foot of her bed in her room is the one that she always used and carries her own initials EBBCL – Elizabeth Barbara Bulwer Lytton. As a House tour guide told us, she planted trees around the church to hide it from the House and they’re still there but it was only partially successful. She was also equally determined that she and her family wouldn’t be buried within the Lytton Chapel or the churchyard.
Of course with the compact size of the Chapel and the three 18th century Lytton gentlemen’s monuments which take up most of the space she may have felt that there simply wasn’t room for her. Or at least room for her to be forever remembered in the way that she wanted and so her own large sepulchre was the only way in which she could compete. Four of the five female statues in the Chapel decorate Sir William Lytton’s monument and it does feel like a gentlemen’s club. So Elizabeth had a mausoleum constructed a short distance from the church and in what is appropriately named Mausoleum Field. Although the male incumbents of the Chapel may have life size facsimiles of themselves lolling about in rumpled sheets Elizabeth had gone farther in a game of one-upmanship.
The octagonal mausoleum, reputedly based on an Italian design and built in 1817, has niches containing elegant funerary urns.
Elizabeth’s epitaph is on one side and there are other epitaphs to Lytton family members around the tomb.
An obelisk surmounted with an urn commemorates Edward’s son, Robert who became the first Earl of Lytton, and is near the entrance.
Another strong-minded Lytton woman who is interred here was Lady Constance Lytton (1869-1923) who was a noted suffragette under an assumed identity and was force-fed on several occasions. The epitaph reads ‘…sacrificed her health and talents in helping to bring victory to this cause.’ The vault was restored in 2004 and has contemporary iron railings around it. There is a sarcophagus on top of it with shell acroteria. However, these always remind me of old-fashioned baths.
But knowing Elizabeth’s determination and desire to have her own way one wonders if she and the other incumbents rest easily together or if they are all locked into an eternal argument……