Faith, Hope and Love – The Queen Alexandra memorial, Marlborough Road, London Part 1

The Queen Alexendra memorial ©Carole Tyrrell

People pass by Queen Alexandra’s memorial every day on their way to and from the Mall.  It’s set back from the road in an alcove and is a rippling Art Nouveau composition, if bronze can be said to ripple.  I am indebted to the Tea and Morphine facebook page for featuring it and as soon as I saw it and found its location I knew I had to go and see it.  I love Art Nouveau and there was an air of mystery to the sculpture.  Who were the figures?  Who was Queen Alexandra? The memorial is very close to the royal monument section of the Mall and, on my way, I passed tourists busily snapping away at memorials of George VI and the Queen Mother as well as walking along the Diana, Princess of Wales, memorial walk. Buckingham Palace is only a short walk away.

But this particular monument is to a Queen who lives on in the many, many memorials to her in every road, avenue, street, park, hospital and even another palace high up in the North London hills that have been named after her. There are 67 Alexandra Roads in London alone. This memorial has a tale to tell of a scandalous sculptor who was persuaded back from exile and ignominy to create his last major work to commemorate the longest serving Princess of Wales in history.

Queen Alexandra as the Princess of Wales in 1881 by Alexander Bassano. Shared under Wiki Commons

Christian IX of Denmark with his family in 1862. From left to right Dagmar, Frederick, Valdemar, Christian IX, Queen Louise, Thyra, George and Alexandra. Shared under Wiki Commons

Princess Alexandra Caroline Marie Charlotte Louise Julia (1844-1925) or ‘Alix’ as her family knew her was chosen, aged 16, as the future wife of Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, the son and heir of Queen Victoria.  18 months later they married in 1863 and were crowned in 1902 after Queen Victoria’s death. Alix came from Danish royalty as her father was King Christian IX and her brother was appointed King of Greece as George I.  She was Princess of Wales for 38 years from 1863-1901 and was immensely popular. Fashion conscious women copied her dress sense but she had no political power. 

Instead, she worked tirelessly for various causes and founded her own charity, the Alexander Rose, in 1912 which aimed to support Londoners in poverty.   It’s still going today but, since 2014, it has issued Rose vouchers to enable families to access fruit and vegetables. Alix’s great, granddaughter, Princess Alexandra is its patron. I can still remember buying paper roses on stick pins in June in the 1970’s for Alexandra Rose Day and there is still an Alexandra Rose plant. Alix brought the idea of selling paper roses from her native Denmark.

Princess Alexandra Rose from an online seed catalogue.

But Alix’s marriage was not a happy one. Edward was openly unfaithful with several mistresses, one of which was the actress Lily Langtry. The public believed that their marriage was a love match but Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, Edward’s parents, had begun looking for a possible wife in 1858 believing that an early marriage would settle a ‘difficult’ son.  The couple had 6 children, one of whom died after a day and the Duke of Clarence, who had been second in line to the throne, died after an influenza pandemic, aged 28.  There were many rumours about the Duke including that he was thought of as a possible suspect for Jack the Ripper. Alix suffered from increasing deafness which was caused by hereditary otosclerosis and died at Sandringham in 1925 aged 81 from a heart attack. Poet John Masefield wrote an ode dedicated to her with music from Sir Edward Elgar called ‘So many true Princesses who have gone’:

So many true princesses who have gone

Over the sea, as love and duty bade,

To share abroad, Till Death a foreign throne,

Have given all things, and been ill repaid.

Hatred has followed them and bitter days.

But this most lovely woman and loved Queen

Filled all the English nation with her praise;

We gather now to keep her memory green.

Here, at this place, she often sat to mark

The tide of London life go roaring by,

The day-long multitude, the lighted dark,

The night-long wheels, the glaring in the sky.

Now here we set memorial of her stay,

That passers-by remember with a thrill:

This lovely princess came from far away

And won our hearts, and lives within them still.

Photo ©Carole Tyrrell

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated.

Part 2 – The scandalous sculptor of the memorial, Alfred Gilbert, and the possible meaning of the figures.


Symbol(s) of the Month – A quiver of Arrows and garland of oak leaves

A closer view of the two symbols – the bow and quiver of arrows and the oak leaves. Note the acorn. ©Carole Tyrrell

A country churchyard on a warm, sunny May day can be a peaceful and interesting place to explore. All Saints churchyard in Staplehurst is one of those as it looks down over the village from its hilltop perch.

I have already discussed one of the symbols that I found in there which featured in a an earlier Symbol of the Month. This was ‘The Choice’ which I found in the older part of the churchyard.  After exploring the newer part of the churchyard and seeing ‘nature’s lawnmowers’ aka sheep in the field behind I returned to the older section.  I then discovered this headstone with a combination of two symbols on it.

At first glance you might be forgiven for thinking that this is the grave of a warrior or someone involved in warfare as the combination is formed from a bow, a quiver of arrows and a circlet of oak leaves.  The bow and arrows are a symbol that has been known for centuries and since the earliest times has been associated with hunting and survival.

The headstone is dedicated to Edwin Fitch who died at the fairly young age of 43 on 22 January 1869. The epitaph goes on to state that Edwin left behind a widow and two children; Marianne and Walter William.  There is also another inscription above it that states that the stone was erected as a mark of respect by the Staplehurst Cricket Club.

The epitaph to Edwin Fitch in Staplehurst churchyard. ©Carole Tyrrell

But, as with most symbols, there are other meanings and I am indebted to theartofmourning blog for reminding me of these.   For, although a cricket field can occasionally turn into a polite and gentlemanly battlefield, I was sure that there were softer connotations to the bow and quiver.

The other most obvious interpretation is of Cupid shooting his arrows of love straight to a lover’ s heart. Indeed, he is traditionally portrayed holding a bow with an arrow ready to aim and fire. There are also the famous lines in William Blake’s poem, ‘Jerusalem’:

‘Bring me my bow of burning gold

Bring me my arrows of desire.’

There is also a Biblical link with children. In Psalms 127:3-5 children are described as being:

‘Children are a heritage from the Lord,
offspring a reward from him.
Like arrows in the hands of a warrior
are children born in one’s youth.
Blessed is the man
whose quiver is full of them.

I interpret this to mean that a man’s children will continue his family line and achieve their place in the world.

The oak leaves underneath the quiver and bow are an ancient symbol of strength and the oak was known as the tree of life in pre-Christian times. According to it is believed to have been the tree from which Christ’s cross was made.

Close-up of the acorn featured on the Fitch headstone. ©Carole Tyrrell

Edwin had an untimely death and we don’t know if he, his family or members of the Cricket Club chose the symbols.  But I believe that it was a final message from him to his family that he left behind and that this thoughts were of hope.

There is also a small verse underneath the epitaph:

‘My wife and children dear I bid you all adieu,

By God’s commands I leave this world and you

And trust my friends whom I have left behind

May give you comfort, and to you be kind.’

In this Edwin clearly hopes that his friends will support his family after he has gone. The Fitch family may have been in financial straits with the death of Edwin as the Cricket Club provided the headstone.

I have found out more about Edwin and his family.  He married Maria Wickings on 9 September 1852 and they had three children together.

  • Marianne born in 1853
  • Walter William born in 1855
  • Charles born in 1858

Sadly, Charles appears to have been stillborn or may have died in childbirth as he was born and christened on the same day and is not recorded on Edwin’s epitaph. Marianne followed her father to the grave in 1875 aged just 22.

I have approached the existing Staplehurst Cricket Club for further information on Edwin but the present club has only been in existence since the 1950’s.  They thought that Edwin might have been the very first member but are undertaking further research.  One current member thought that there might have been a private Staplehurst Cricket Club associated with the nearby Iden Manor.

This is now a nursing home but was once the house of the Hoare banking family. There are members of this family buried in the churchyard.  In 1904 they sold the manor due to impending bankruptcy and they were well known in the area for holding cricket and football matches, flower shows and other events for the village.

Finally, I think that this is a poignant combination of symbols that left a powerful and comforting message to his family.  A man whose last thoughts may have been of his family and now lies under the green canopy of the tall trees of Staplehurst churchyard with his beloved daughter.

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated

References and further reading:

The Hardy Tree – a London literary landmark finally falls.

New Year’s Day 2023 – a sad sight as the Hardy Tree is gone forever. ©Carole Tyrrell

When in Late December 2022, an ash tree finally fell down in Old St Pancras churchyard in central London, it made headlines around the world. For not only was it one of London’s famous cemetery landmarks, as was Highgate’s famous Cedar of Lebanon, but it was also a place of literary pilgrimage.

This was the Hardy tree, its base surrounded by headstones, some of which had become part of it as it had grown.  The legend was that Thomas Hardy, the novelist, when employed as an architectural assistant, had begun to pack headstones around the trunk. These were the stones that had been cleared to make way for the expansion of the Midland railway in the mid 1860’s.  Jon Snow in ‘The Great Trees of London, 2010 explained:

‘In the 1860’s the writer Thomas Hardy, was apprenticed to an architect, Arthur Blomfield, in Covent Garden.  The building of the Midland Railway had disrupted many of the graves in nearby churchyards.  Hardy was tasked with making an inventory and reburying them. He stacked the headstones around a convenient ash tree. (in St Pancras churchyard).’

At least this is the romantic myth.

The information board by the Hardy Tree. ©Carole Tyrrell

I am indebted to the blog ‘The London Dead’ for its research into the Hardy Tree which explored the legend.  The truth is that there is no evidence that Hardy had anything to do with it.  In fact, the tree wasn’t even there at the time.  It may have self seeded and was less than 100 years old.  In 1926 a photo was published in ‘Wonderful London’ edited by St John Adcock which shows ‘a rockery of headstones’ but without a tree.  So, the tree appears to have been much later.

The London Dead also quoted from a book on Hardy apparently written by his widow, Emily entitled ‘The Early Years of Thomas Hardy’.  In the 1860’s he was employed as an architectural assistant to Arthur Blomfield in Covent Garden.  In this she says that:

‘Hardy was not responsible for overseeing the exhumations.  This was the Clerk of Works role.  Hardy was instructed to drop by Blomfield in the evening to keep an eye on the Clerk of Works and make sure that all was proceeding in an appropriately seemly manner.  He was to report back to  Blomfield if it was not.’

There had been rumours of bodies being exhumed and bags ‘that rattled’ being sold onto bone mills from one city churchyard instead of being reinterred. Blomfield did not want this to happen at Old St Pancras. So Hardy was to visit at uncertain hours to check on the Clerk and Hardy’s manager was also to drop in at uncertain times during the week to check on Hardy and the Clerks. The plan was successful and Hardy attended during 5-6pm as well as at other hours.

The plan succeeded excellently, and throughout the late autumn and early winter (of probably the year 1865 or thereabouts) Hardy attended at the churchyard – each evening between five and six, as well as sometimes at other hours. There after nightfall, within a high hoarding that could not be overlooked, and by the light of flare-lamps, the exhumation went on continuously of the coffins that had been uncovered during the day, new coffins being provided for those that came apart in lifting, and for loose skeletons, and those that held together being carried to the new ground on a board merely: Hardy supervising these mournful processions when present, with what thoughts may be imagined, and Blomfield sometimes meeting him there. In one coffin that fell apart was a skeleton and two skulls. He used to tell that when, after some fifteen years of separation, he met Arthur Blomfield again and their friendship was fully renewed, among the latter’s first words were: ‘Do you remember how we found the man with two heads at St Pancras?’

Thomas Hardy (1840-19280 Shared under Wiki Creative Commons

In 2019, I visited the churchyard and was informed by the tour guide that the Hardy Tree was almost certainly going to fall.  It was infected with a fungus and a protective, temporary fence had been erected around it with a gap in the hedge for visitors to look through.  Iain Sinclair in, ‘Lights Out For the Territory’ described the headstones clustered around it as being:

‘like a school of grey fins circling the massive trunk feeding on the secretions of the dead.’

The tree’s final few years were being managed although it had been disturbed by recent storms at the time. It was an impressive sight with the tall ash tree or Fraximus Excelsior to give it the full Latin name, reaching for the sky.

A view of the Hardy Tree in 2019 with the church in the background. ©Carole Tyrrell
Closer view of the Hardy Tree from 2019 in which you can see how the stones and the tree had grown together. ©Carole Tyrrell

I visited the cemetery on New Year’s Day 2023 and the tree did look forlorn as it lay there. A visitor had placed a cut rose on top of a headstone in sympathy and tribute.  If you look closely at the base of the tree, headstones that had grown into it and had been uprooted with its fall can be seen. 

New Year’s Day 2023 and if you look at the end of the trunk you can see that the tree took some of the headstones embedded in it down with it. ©Carole Tyrrell

©Carole Tyrrell

Although the Hardy Tree seems to have ultimately been an urban myth; it is a tale of London and the great changes that the Industrial Revolution brought.  Someone collected the headstones so that the final record of their lives were not lost or broken up and forgotten.   It’s a record of the endless cycle of change and renewal of the capital as, chameleon like, it sheds its skin and becomes something else.  The tree was also part of literary London as Mary Wollstonecroft is buried in Old St Pancras.

But who knows?  Another tree may self seed itself and the Hardy Tree will be reborn again.

Dedicated to Jeane Trend-Hill, taphophile, Londoner and photographer who would have been the first on the scene with her camera. RIP.

©Text and photographs Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated

References and further reading

The London Dead: The Myth of the Hardy Tree; Old St. Pancras Churchyard

The Guardian view on the death of the Hardy Tree: a legend uprooted | Editorial | The Guardian

The Hardy Tree, a Beloved Fixture of a London Cemetery, Topples Over – The New York Times (

Thomas Hardy: Gravestone-encircled tree falls in Camden – BBC News

A Christmas card from me to you

So here we are again – facing the end of another year and looking perhaps nervously at another new one. Old Father Time waits for us all.

I wish you all the best for 2023 and the festive season. The photo was taken in London’s Brompton Cemetery on a December afternoon after a frost. Some of the monuments were edged with it which made them look even more dramatic.

Let us raise a glass, mug, cup, water bottle to what ever lies ahead. Salut!

©©text and photos Carole Tyrrell

The Cemetery that Changed my Life – Death’s Garden

Angel Nunhead Cemetery 1989 ©Carole Tyrrell

Below is the article that I wrote for Death’s Garden and it has just been reprinted in Death’s Garden 2. I am no longer involved with the Friends of Nunhead Cemetery and have not visited the cemetery since 2017. However, it was by visiting Nunhead that I became involved with cemeteries and churchyards and which led to my interest in symbols. There is something about the wild, Gothic splendour of large Victorian cemeteries that attracts me; the large memorials, the art and sculpture and the space they give you in which to grieve and be alone despite being in the busy metropolis. they have given me so much and I have always tried to give them something in return.

The Cemetery that Changed my Life

It was the long, hot summer of 1989 when I first visited Nunhead Cemetery.  It was their annual Open Day, and I took the opportunity to enjoy its Gothic atmosphere and admire its overgrown, slightly mysterious monuments and memorials. My father had died unexpectedly earlier that year and it had been the first death of someone really close to me.  He’d been cremated and there was no resting place for me, or anyone else, to visit and grieve.

I was already drawn to Victorian cemeteries after reading Hugh Meller’s ‘London Cemeteries’ and Nunhead is one of London’s Magnificent 7.  Lucinda Lambton once described them as ‘a jet black necklace running through London.’  Nunhead was no tidy, municipal, neatly manicured, tombstones in neat rows like teeth, cemetery.  Instead, inside the imposing gates with their bronze downturned torches, was overgrown Gothic splendour; angels under dark canopies of leaves and ivy, the ruined, roofless chapel and a myriad of fascinating monuments, mausoleums and memorials.  I felt that I wanted to be amongst these reminders of the dead and departed and mourn. I was home.

The ruined chapel at that time was closed to the public and classed as a dangerous structure. Little did I know that, 20 years late on another Open Day, I would be watching the Dulwich Ukelele Band performing inside whilst 2 visitors jived on its tower roof roughly 100 feet up. I joined the Friends on that day in 1989 and began working on the monthly FONC publications stall which accompanied the general cemetery tours.  You never knew who would come up to the stall to speak to us.  Often it would be local residents who could remember playing in the cemetery when it was abandoned and locked up by its owners in 1969.  Its railings long gone for the war effort, there was nothing to prevent anyone going in and exploring – I wouldn’t have been able to resist it.  There were always eerie tales of mausoleums being broken into, coffins lying about after having been rifled for jewellery and skeletons as well.   Eventually questions were asked in the Houses of Parliament about what was going on and, as a result, the local council bought it for £1.  But the visitors often said that, although Nunhead felt creepy, it was an amazing place it was inside. 

One man told me that he was a psychic and that he could sense all the departed spirits around him.  He added that he was reassuring them and sending them on their way elsewhere.  He seemed co I’ve often wondered since what it must be like to have that kind of ability and he seemed completely sincere. 

Sometimes visitors would ask about a particular symbol as they couldn’t understand what it was doing in a cemetery.  One asked me why a dollar sign was on a headstone, and this led me onto do research into symbols for any future questions from visitors.  It was in fact the combination of the letters IHS which means ‘Jesus Honimum Salvator’ and led me into a fascination with symbols and their meanings.

In fact, as a result, I created the Symbols tour and so began my career as a tour guide. I shadowed an experienced guide, started taking the general tours and then a specialist Symbols tour.  Originally it was just going to be about symbols, but visitors also wanted the general history of the cemetery and the reasons behind the Magnificent 7’s creation.  I lead a Symbols tour in another of the Magnificent 7 now and it’s still always a little scary when you announce yourself to the gathered group, all eyes turn to you and your mind goes completely blank.   

But visitors are always very keen.  On one very wet Sunday afternoon I kept turning round thinking that the group behind me would all have given up but, no, they kept going right to the end.

Unfortunately, although the Victorians ‘borrowed’ from classical antiquity, Arts & Crafts, Celtic and Egyptian civilisations they didn’t put them in chronological order, so we do have to often zig zag around the cemetery to see as many as possible. I always emphasise on my Symbols tours that they are an introduction to the subject and there are many more to find. Even on modern memorials there is often a symbol, a way of individualising it and in Nunhead there was a 15 year old boy’s grave ornamented with a football and snooker board and the masks of comedy and tragedy on an actor’s grave.

I soon realised the value of visual material to hand round and spent an afternoon in the British Museum researching Nunhead’s largest monument; the John Allan tomb, based on the tomb of Payava in Lycia, near Turkey which is in there and takes up an entire room.

You never know what you might find in a cemetery despite how familiar you are with it.  I was updating my tour notes in winter 2014 and whilst walking along a familiar Nunhead path I looked up to see a small face carved at the centre of a cross which I had never seen before.  In 2013, during a long winter, an unusual anchor shaped tombstone was discovered that commemorated a sailor killed in the First World War although he wasn’t buried in Nunhead. 

I only had one strange experience in the cemetery or rather outside it. One Christmas I was on my way to a FONC Christmas social at a local community centre and, as I passed by the cemetery‘s high walls. Suddenly, I heard children’s voices from inside Nunhead at a particular spot.   I couldn’t  see anyone around and the road was deserted.  The houses opposite were dark and, as it was a cold night, I didn’t think children would be out playing.  I walked on and the voices faded behind me.  Interestingly enough, the voices were near the old, now bricked up entrance to the cemetery that led to the long gone Non-Conformist chapel which was bombed during WW2.  The entrance had to be closed as local children made fun of the non-conformist burials that entered through there.

It was during the winter of 1989, whilst exploring with my posh new film camera, that I took the picture of the angel.  At the time I thought she belonged to the grave on which she’s perched.  But my lady moved around on the path and, although the years weathered, she  is still there.  I used to always go and check on her on my visits.  Unfortunately, the child angel is long gone.  It was on top of a child’s grave dedicated to Albert Anthony Dufourg who was an only child and died aged 5 years and 3 months.  For several years I used the angel as a guide to where I was in the cemetery until one day it vanished – presumably stolen. It was a poignant reminder of unrealised hopes.

I have visited cemeteries in the UK, America, and Venice.  The way in which the dead are treated is often an indication of how the living are treated.  Tears pricked my eyes at Ground Zero and Calton Hill in Edinburgh was certainly the eeriest one I’ve visited.  Then there was the supernatural experience I had in Greyfriars Kirk but that’s another story.  But Nunhead always felt like home. There are no famous people, no royal connections but, instead, a place in which to wander, to reflect, admire the view of St Paul’s Cathedral from the top of the hill as butterflies flutter around you on a warm summer’s day.

But in all the cemeteries that I have visited I have never found the answer to the question of why, when angels are actually male, are the angels in cemeteries reflective young girls?

©Carole Tyrrell text and photograph

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!)

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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