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……
©Text and photos Car0le Tyrrell unless otherwise stated.
Knebworth House guidebook, Heritage House Group ©Knebworth Estates 2005