The Great Churchyard in Bury St Edmunds is big. Very big and forms a useful shortcut for the locals from an uninspiring car park (aren’t they all I hear you say) to Honey Hill. But the Great Churchyard is steeped in history and, according to a volunteer in nearby St Mary’s church, some of its pathways date back to Saxon times. The church sits perched further up the hill and so looks down and over the churchyard’s permanent residents.
I came upon the Great Churchyard by chance on a day trip in 2006 while exploring the extensive Abbey ruins. The Abbey’s ruins have eroded into strange shapes over the centuries and now look like lumpy fingers pointing accusingly at the sky. But after Henry VIII dissolved the Abbey in 1539, much of its flint and mortar has been ‘recycled’ by the locals and can be seen in walls and nearby houses. But it was the Churchyard’s memorable epitaphs that stayed with me and so on a bright December day last year I returned.
There is a plethora of 18th century symbols on display: skull and crossbones, winged angels, open books and one memorial had its own duvet of moss on the coffin lid shaped top.
As I explored, I found this tombstone and remembered that M R James had written a book on the Abbey’s history. Ann Clarke is the name of the unfortunate character in his story ‘Martin’s Close. I did wonder if this was his inspiration……
But the real jewel of the Churchyard is undoubtedly the 13th century roofless Charnel House. A rare survivor and its flint walls were lucky not to have suffered the same fate as the Abbey’s. The Charnel House was where all the disinterred bones from the Churchyard were stored. It’s empty now and is protected by iron railings. The Charnel House now acts as a roost for birds and also as a backdrop or gallery for the epitaphs that I remembered from 2006.
Amongst the collection are two 17th century tombstones placed on the walls. One is illegible although the symbols are still clear and the other is to a Sarah Worton, wife of Edward. Under the epitaph is the verse:
Good people all as you
Pas by looked round
See how Corpes de lye
For as you are from time ware we
And as we were f(s)o must you be.
If you take a closer look you can see how the mason had to slightly squash the letters to get all the words in.
But there are 4 significant epitaphs on the Charnel House walls and these are dedicated to the good, the bad and the just plain unlucky.
Firstly, the unlucky……..
Henry Cockton (1807 – 1853)
No. I’d never heard of him either until I started researching this post. This is not a name widely known today although his first and most successful novel, ‘The Life and Adventures of Valentine Vox the Ventriloquist ‘ is still available from various online booksellers. Note the symbol of a blank scroll of paper and quill pen above the epitaph which is the sign of a writer.
According to Wikipedia. Cockton was born in Shoreditch but ended up working in Bury St Edmunds where he married a local girl whose family were involved in the local pub trade. They had two children, Eleanor and Edward. As we shall see alliteration was a theme of Henry’s life. Valentine Vox was a largely comic novel about a man who teaches himslef ventriloquism and the jolly japes that ensue from this. It also involved social issues as, at one point, the hero is incarcerated in a private lunatic asylum and in the book’s preface Cockton rails against these places. Valentine Vox was a huge success and sold over 400, 000 copies and was published, like Dickens, in serial form. After this Cockton should have gone onto greater things but he was destined never to make any money from his writing. Editors cheated him, publishers went out of business and he was imprisoned for debt after being declared bankrupt. In 1843 he wrote ‘Sylvester Sound, the Sonanambulist’ which was about a sleepwalker who performed daring feats during his sleep but it didn’t enjoy the success of its predecessor – see what I mean about alliteration?
But he kept on writing until 1845 when he announced to his readers that The Love Match would be his final novel. Unfortunately bad luck continued to dog him – he was like King Midas in reverse as the song goes – everything he touched turned to mud. He stood surety for his brother who thanked him by fleeing to Australia and a speculative malting venture collapsed and ruined him. He and his family moved into his mother-in-law’s house and he wrote a further 3 unsuccessful novels. Sadly, aged 46, he died of consumption and 4 days later was buried in an unmarked grave in the town churchyard without any obituaries. Its exact location is still unknown. The plaque was put up by admirers and friends.
Henry’s widow petitioned the Royal Literary Fund for financial assistance and in 1856 a local paper printed another appeal for his family. But Valentine Vox, his most successful novel. has enjoyed a life beyond its creator. Jack Riley, a performer and writer on ventriloquism uses it as his stage name and Chris Jagger’s 1974 album also borrowed it. So a tragedy all round? It certainly was for Henry but not so much for his family…….
While researching online I found a blog on which there was a lively dialogue between the blogger and respondents who claimed to be Henry’s descendants. According to them, Henry’s widow remarried, Eleanor became a teacher and Edward eventually became Professor of Music at the Greenwich Royal Naval College.
And the the victim of a somewhat unkind Act of God……
Mary Haselton (1776-1785)
This fulsome eptaph is dedeicated to the unfortunate Mary Haselton who, in 1785, was struck by lightning while saying her prayers. There was virtually nothing about her online but I may contact the town’s Local Studies department. The epitaph reads:
Here lies interred the Body
A Young Maiden of this Town
Born of Roman Catholic Parents
And Virtuously brought up
Who being in the Act of Prayer
Repeating her Vespers
Was instantaneously killed by a flash
Of lightning August the 16 1785
Aged 9 years
Not Silom’ (?) ruinous tower the Vicoms slew
Because above the many sinn’d the few
Nor here the fated lightning wreak its rage
Its Vengeance sent for crimes manned by age
For while the Thunder’s awful voice was heard
The little supplicant with its hand upraised
Answered her God in prayers the Priest had taught
His mercy (?) and his protection sought
The last 4 lines are unreadable even on Zoom view. But it’s an amazing piece of verse and the mason who carved it really earned his money if he was paid by the letter.
It’s interesting that Mary’s parents religion is so openly stated. There had been a relaxing of attitudes towards Catholics in the 18th century despite the 1780 anti-Catholic Gordon Riots.
However there’s no way of knowing Mary’s actual burial place within the Great Cemetery but her memorial is in safekeeping on the wall of the Charnel House.
Part 2: The good and the bad…a Founding Father and a notorious crime.
©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated.
Further reading and references.