The significance of skulls – the Jacobus Deane monument, St Olave’s, Seething Lane, City of London

The Deane monument, St Olave’s. copyright Carole Tyrrell

 I’m sure you’ll agree that this is a very flamboyant and imposing monument.  However, it is also one with great poignancy.  It dates from the early 17th century and can be found in St Olave’s church, Seething Lane in the City of London. I was working in the City at the time and spent my lunch hours exploring the ancient City churches. St Olave’s is known for several grinning skulls on the entrance arch to the churchyard which dates to 1658.  They impressed Charles Dickens so much that he included it in his book of sketches, The Uncommon Traveller, in which he renamed the church, St Ghastly Grim. 

The skulls that caught Charles Dicken’s eye over the entrance arch to the churchyard. copyright Carole Tyrrell
Full view of the churchyard arch with its complement of skulls. copyright Carole Tyrrell
copyright Carole Tyrrell

The diarist, Samuel Pepys and his wife had strong connections to St Olave’s and Mrs Pepys is buried within it.  It is a church steeped in history.

Samuel Pepys monument. copyright Carole Tyrrell

So, Sir Jacobus, or James, Deane is in good company.  This would have been an immensely expensive monument when it was created and is one laden with skulls.  Deane and his 3rd wife kneel, facing each other, over a prayer table which was a convention of the time.  They are both fashionably dressed as she wears a ruff and bonnet in addition to her beautifully carved black gown.  Jacobus himself wears dull gold armour which has been highlighted in red.

The two women also dressed in fashionable clothing on either side of the couple are Jacobus’s first 2 wives and both carry skulls. However, it isn’t a Gothic fashion accessory but an indication that they both died before their time.  The three swaddled infants beneath the figures, a pair and then one on its own, all died in infancy.  According to the V & A:

Newborn babies were swaddled, wrapped in cloth with bands around them for the first 6-12 months of their lives.  It was thought to strengthen the spine and help their body develop.  Swaddling would usually bind the whole body, leaving only the head to move.  These bands were usually just plain linen.’

The swaddling bands can be seen quite clearly on the figures of the infants.  The pair rest on a small skull as does the single one which again indicates mortality.

The two swaddled infants – note the skull that they rest on. Copyright Carole Tyrrell
The single swaddled infant – again resting on a skull. Copyright Carole Tyrrell

Two other skulls grin from on top of the monument.  Cherubic heads or possibly winged messengers also look back at the observer and there are several armorial bearings as well.

One of the two skulls on top of the Deane monument. Copyright Carole Tyrrell

Sir Jacobus Deane was knighted on 8 July 1604 and was a very wealthy man.  He made his fortune as a merchant adventurer to India, China and the Spice Islands and was very generous to the poor in every parish in which he lived or owned property.  He built almshouses and left liberal bequests.  Susan Bumsted was his first wife and Elizabeth Offley was his second.  James’s third and last wife was a widow, Elizabeth Thornhill.  She already had a son by her first husband and her third husband was John Brewster.  Sir James Deane died on 15 May 1608 aged 62 having left no children.

There has been a suggestion that there is a significance to the number 3 contained within the monument.  I can’t see it apart from the references to 3 wives and 3 children, but I would refer you to the Rushton Triangular Lodge in which there are a plethora of references to this number and its symbolism. It dates from the same period.

©Photos and text Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated.

References and further reading:

https://www.geni.com/people/Sir-James-Deane-kt/6000000040405950350

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Olave%27s_Church,_Hart_Street

http://www.speel.me.uk/chlondon/stolavehartst.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Olave%27s_Church,_Hart_Street

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rushton_Triangular_Lodge#:~:text=The%20Triangular%20Lodge%20is%20a%20folly%2C%20designed%20by,listed%20on%20the%20National%20Heritage%20List%20for%20England.

https://saintolave.com/about

http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O38154/swaddling-band-unknown/

Wildlife in Cemeteries No 8 – the dark side of the Snowdrop

As we are still in lockdown, I thought that I would repost an earlier blog about a flower that is traditionally associated with cemeteries and churchyards. This is the time of year when they start to  make a welcome appearance as signs of Spring and this year, especially, I think that we need to know that better days are coming.

Snowdrops in St George’s churchyard, Beckenham.
©Carole Tyrrell

Imagine yourself in a gloomy medieval church on the festival of Candlemass. You, and your fellow parishioners, have each brought your candles to be blessed by the priest and, after the procession which will fill the church with light, they will all be placed in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary.   Candlemass marked the end of winter and the beginning of Spring and the blessing is to ward off evil spirits.  It traditionally falls on February 2 and is shared with the Celtic festival of Imbolc.  And in the churchyard outside you can see green shoots forcing their way up through the hard winter earth.  The snowdrop’s milk-white flowers show that spring is on its way as they begin to emerge into the light.

The placing of the lit candles in front of the Virgin Mary’s statue gave the snowdrop one of its many other names – Mary’s Tapers.  But there are many others such: Dingle Dangle, Candlemas Bells, Fair Maids of February, Snow Piercer, Death’s Flower and Corpse Flower.

Snowdrops, Brompton Cemetery, January 2018
©Carole Tyrrell

 

The snowdrop’s appearance has also inspired many comments . According to the Scottish Wildlife Trusts website they have been described as resembling 3 drops of milk hanging from a stem and they are also associated with the ear drop which is an old fashioned ear ring.  Anyone who has seen a group of snowdrops nodding in the wind will understand what they mean.   The snowdrop’s colour is associated with purity and they have been described as a shy flower with their drooping flowers.  However, the eco enchantments website reveals that the flower is designed in this way due:

‘to the necessity of their dusty pollen being kept dry and sweet in order to attract the few insects flying in winter.’

Snowdrops have been known since ancient times and, in 1597, appeared in Geralde’s ‘Great Herbal where they were called by the less than catchy name of ‘Timely Flowers Bulbous Violets’.  Its Latin name is Galanthus nivalis.  Galanthus means milk white flowers and the nivalis element translates as snowy according to the great botanist, Linnaeus in 1753.   In the language of flowers they’re associated with ‘Hope’ and the coming of spring and life reawakening.

However, yet despite all these positive associations, the elegant snowdrop has a much darker side. Monks were reputed to have brought them to the UK but it was the ever enthusiastic Victorians who copiously planted them in graveyards, churchyards and cemeteries which then linked them with death.  Hence the nickname name ‘Death’s Flower.’

They were described by Margaret Baker in the 1903 ‘Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore and the Occult of the World’ as:

‘so much like a corpse in a shroud that in some counties  the people will not have it in the house, lest they bring in death.‘

Snowdrops, St George’s Beckenham.
©Carole Tyrrell

So that’s where the ‘Corpse Flower’ nickname came from.

Snowdrops are also seen as Death’s Tokens and there are several regional folk traditions of connecting death with them. For example in the 19th and early 20th centuries it was considered very unlucky to bring the flower into the house from outside as it was felt that a death would soon occur.  The most unlucky snowdrop was that with a single bloom on its stem.    Other folk traditions were described in a 1913 folklore handbook which claims that if a snowdrop was brought indoors it will make the cows milk watery and affect the colour of the butter.  Even as late as 1969 in ‘The Folklore of Plants’  it was stated that having a snowdrop indoors could affect the number of eggs that a sitting chicken might hatch.  A very powerful plant if these are all to be believed – you have been warned!

It’s amazing that this little flower has so many associations and legends connected with it but I always see it as a harbinger of spring, rebirth and an indication of warmer days to come.

But the snowdrop also has a surprise.  This came courtesy of the Urban Countryman page on Facebook – not all social media is time wasting!  If you very gently turn over a snowdrop bloom you will find that the underside is even prettier and they also vary depending on the snowdrop variety.

Here is a small selection from my local churchyard and one from Kensal Green cemetery.

So don’t underestimate the snowdrop – it’s a plant associated with life and death but watch out for your hens and the colour of your butter if you do decide to tempt fate…..

 

©Carole Tyrrell text and photos unless otherwise stated

References:

http://www.plantlore.com

http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/naturestudies/bright-in-winters-depths-why-the-flawless-flower-of-candlemas-is-ajoy-forever-8483967

http://www.flowermeaning.com/snowdrop-flower-meaning

http://www.ecoenchantments.co.uk/mysnowdropmagicpage.html

https://scottishwildlifetrust.org.uk/2014/03/natures-death-tokens/

 

 

 

 

Symbol of the Month – The Harp

The harp on top of the monument to Henry Brinley Richards, Brompton Cemetery
©Carole Tyrrell

As you pass by a cemetery do you ever think that you hear celestial music drifting on the air?  Maybe it’s because there  are so many musical symbols to be found within them – violins, trumpets, guitars and harps to name a few.

This month, I’m going to be discussing the harp.  It may immediately bring visions of angels in pristine white gowns, perched on clouds, plucking away on golden harps to mind.  Harps have that ethereal quality.

Hans Memling Music making angels – circa 1480’s.
Shared under Wiki Creative Commons

I found many online images of statues of angels playing harps in cemeteries worldwide but all on stock photography sites.  It’s a reassuring image of heaven as a place of peace and calm. According to Alison Vardy, a professional harpist, the word ‘Harp’ or ‘Harpa’ comes from Anglo-Saxon, Old German and Old Norse words for ‘pluck’ as in plucking the strings.

However, when I first considered writing about the harp as a symbol I did think about linking it with St Patrick’s Day.  After all, it is the national symbol of Ireland and also appears on Guinness cans and bottles.

But this musical instrument has an ancient tradition and images of harps have been found in wall paintings in France dating from 15,000 BC. They also appear on Ancient Egyptian wall paintings from 3000 B.C.

Ancient Egyptian wall painting depicting a harp being played.

In fact, it’s one of the oldest musical instruments in the world and was originally developed from the hunting bow.  In this image the harp being played still resembles the hunting bow as it doesn’t yet have the pillar attached.  This didn’t appear until the Middle Ages and was added to support additional strings.  The earliest known image of a harp is a Pictish carving on an 8th century stone cross.

8th century Pictish carving of a harp.

 

‘Harps played an important part in Irish aristocratic life. Harpists were required to able to evoke three different emotions in their audience. Laughter, tears and sleep.’ Alison Vardy (the last emotion being very appropriate for a cemetery)

 

The harp is associated with St Cecilia who is the patron saint of music.  She was a Roman martyr who is reputed to have sung to God at her wedding and also as she lay dying after being beheaded.  You can read more about her life here;  https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Cecilia.

St Cecilia’s feast day is 22 November but her association with music didn’t begin until the 15th century. She was then depicted as playing at an organ or either holding an organ or organ pipes.

The harp also appears as an instrument of healing in the Old Testament.  In Samuel verses 16-23, David plays the harp for Saul in order to drive out the evil spirit that afflicts him.  Harps are also mentioned in Genesis and Chronicles.

When I first saw this monument in Brompton Cemetery I thought that it had to be dedicated to an Irishman.  But it is in fact on the grave of a Welshman, Henry Brinley Richards (1817-1865), who was born in Carmarthen.

1880 photo of Henry Brinley Richards
Shared under Wiki Creative Commons

He was originally destined for a medical career but music was his real calling.  However,  he didn’t play the harp as, instead, he played the piano.  He was discovered after winning a prize for his arrangement of a traditional song, ‘The Ash Grove’, at the 1834 Eisteddford in Cardiff. This really opened doors for Henry as he was able to study at the Royal Academy of Music under the patronage of the Duke of Newcastle. Henry won two scholarships while studying at the Academy and after graduation he taught piano there.  He travelled to Paris and met Chopin and he has over 250 compositions listed in the British Museum catalogues of printed music.  But his most famous piece of music is ‘God Bless the Prince of Wales’ from 1862.   Henry never lost his Welsh connections. Pencerdd Towy is his bardic name and not, as I originally thought, another Welsh town. Bardic names were pseudonyms and part of the 19th century medieval revival.  I did research bardic names but I have to admit that I was none the wiser.  And the meaning of the harp that sits so resplendently on top of the monument?  It’s the national instrument of Wales which I didn’t know until I began researching this post.

The monument to Sarah Russell, The Rosary Cemetery, Norwich, Norfolk
©Carole Tyrrell

The other example is from the Rosary Cemetery in Norwich. This is a non-denominational cemetery and rises in tiers above the city.   It’s an interesting group of symbols and is dedicated to a woman, Sarah Russell nee O’Brien (1869-1899) and there may be an Irish reference with the harp and her maiden name.   She died young, aged 30, in Kansas City, USA.  Sarah was born into a performing family as her father, Archibald O’Brien, and siblings were all equestrians.  I found the family living in Leeds in the 1881 Census and they must have really stood out amongst their respectable, aspiring middle class neighbours.  Equestrian was listed as their occupation. She married into another family connected with animals as her husband, William, was part owner of a zoo. One of her sisters, Irma O’Brien, wrote the epitaph:

‘To my dear sister Sarah Russell,

‘Soeur bien aimee reposee en paix’ 

which translates as:

‘Beloved sister rest in peace.’

 On this monument note that the harp has no strings and so cannot be played.  This indicates that the music of life has ended.  There are also other variants in which a string on the harp is broken which again means that it can no longer be played. The music has been stilled by death. The cloth, nicely detailed to simulate lace with the holes, indicates the curtain between the world of the living and the dead.  However, the broken column is said to denote a life cut short.  I have always understood this to mean that the backbone of the family, the support of the family, had died and this is usually on a man’s grave.  But maybe Sarah was the support of the family after all.  For me, it’s the unstrung harp that is the most poignant symbol of the group.

So the harp can have several associations; a musical instrument, a symbol of national pride, a representation of life and death and also with angels. However, according to J C Cooper, it can also be viewed as the ladder leading to the next world with the harpist being Death – an interesting allusion.   There is also a link with the Celtic God of Fire, Dagda, who calls up the seasons and whose playing originally brought about the change of the seasons and made them appear in the correct order.  This is the harp as an instrument of power particularly with Dagda.   This is very different from pensive angels in a heavenly harp choir. However,  it’s good to understand the contrasts in how it is used and how it’s perceived in other cultures.

I hope that you all stay well and safe in these unprecedented times.

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated.

References and further reading:

An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols, J C Cooper, Thames & Hudson, 1979

https://churchmonumentssociety.org/resources/symbolism-on-monuments

https://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/2109764

https://tuisnider.com/2015/10/12/historic-cemetery-symbols-what-does-a-harp-mean/

https://artofmourning.com/2010/11/21/symbolism-sunday-the-harp/

https://www.undercliffecemetery.co.uk/gallery/funerary-art/

http://www.thecemeteryclub.com/symbols.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Cecilia

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Cecilia

https://bardmythologies.com/the-dagdas-harp/

http://www.internationalharpmuseum.org/visit/history.html

https://www.alisonvardy.com/harp-history.html

Murder memorials: A grisly history written in stone

Here’s another interesting piece from the BBC news website on murder memorials dating from the early 19th century.  They are usually found in country areas as the victim and murderer would often be known to the community.
  • 26 October 2018
Murder stone in St Catwg's church
The tragic tale of Margaret Williams is hinted at on the stone which condemns her murderer

Wandering around the picturesque cemetery at St Catwg’s church in Cadoxton, Neath, a first-time visitor might be startled out of their gentle stroll by the stark message on top of one tall, weathered stone – MURDER.

This memorial in south Wales is one of a handful of “murder stones” erected around the UK, the majority over a period of about 100 years, to commemorate violent deaths that shocked the local communities.

The Cadoxton stone is dated 1823, and recounts the death of Margaret Williams, 26, who was from Carmarthenshire but was working “in service in this parish” and was found dead “with marks of violence on her person in a ditch on the march below this churchyard”.

Miss Williams’ story, such as is known from contemporary reports, tells of an unmarried young woman who had been working for a local farmer in Neath when she became pregnant.

St Catwg's Church, CadoxtonImage copyrightCR LEWIS/GEOGRAPH
Image captionThe peaceful graveyeard of St Catwg’s in Neath hides a harrowing tale in its midst

She had declared the father of the child was the farmer’s son, and when her apparently strangled body was discovered head down in a watery inlet in marshes near the town, he was the prime suspect.

But whatever local opinion may have believed, there was no evidence to tie him or anyone else to the crime, and her murder remained unsolved.

However, the murderer was left in no doubt as to the feelings of the local community after this stone, part gravestone and part warning, was erected over poor Margaret’s body.

Giving the details of her fate and the date of her death, the stone, erected by a local Quaker, continues: “Although the savage murderer escaped for a season the detection of man yet God hath set his mark upon him either for time or eternity, and the cry of blood will assuredly pursue him to certain and terrible righteous judgement.”

This unsolved killing is unusual in the history of the surviving murder stones in that the murderer escaped justice. Most of the other memorials are to people whose killers were quickly detected, sentenced and dispatched via the gallows.

Dr Jan Bondeson, a retired senior lecturer at Cardiff University and a consultant physician, has made a study of the history of crime alongside his medical career and has written a number of books on the subject.

He became interested in murder stones after editing a book which featured them.

He said: “The murder stone in Cadoxton is the only one in Wales. There are plenty of them in England.

“There was an instinct for the local people to erect them. There was a strong instinct to commemorate a tragic murder.”

Dr Bondeson has documented several further murder stones across the English counties, and one early example of the type in Scotland.

One murder stone has been immortalised by no less a writer than Charles Dickens himself. In the novel Nicholas Nickleby, the eponymous hero walks through the ominously named Devil’s Punch Bowl at Hindhead in Surrey.

Stone to unknown sailor, Hindhead, SurreyImage copyrightPETER TRIMMING/GEOGRAPH
Image captionThe murder stone at the Devil’s Punchbowl, Surrey, features in Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby

There, he and his companion come across the real-life stone marking the 1786 murder of a man known only as the Unknown Sailor.

The unnamed man was en route to his ship in Portsmouth when he visited a local pub in Thursley. There he fell in with three fellow sailors, and paid for their drinks and food before leaving with them.

The sailor was repaid for his generosity in the following way: They “nearly severed his head from his body, stripped him quite naked and threw him into a valley”.

The three did not get far. The sailor’s body was found soon after, and James Marshall, Michael Casey and Edward Lonegon were chased and captured after trying to sell the dead man’s clothes at a pub.

They were hanged from a triple gibbet near the murder scene, and the unknown man was buried in Thursley with a stone paid for by local people.

But the local mill owner, James Stillwell, went a step further. He placed a stone in Devil’s Punch Bowl itself, with this grim warning to future generations:

“ERECTED, In detestation of a barbarous Murder, Committed here on an unknown Sailor, On Sep, 24th 1786, By Edwd. Lonegon, Mich. Casey & Jas. Marshall

“Who were all taken the same day, And hung in Chains near this place, Whoso sheddeth Man’s Blood by Man shall his, Blood be shed. Gen Chap 9 Ver 6”

Dr Bondeson said the majority of the stones appeared around the 1820s, adding “That was the high level for the erecting of murder stones. All of them are in the country – none are in urban areas.”

Elizabeth Sheppard murder stoneImage copyrightDEBORAH MCDONALD/GEOGRAPH
Image captionBessie Sheppard was murdered on her way home after going to look for work

Elizabeth – Bessie – Sheppard was just 17 when she set out from her home in Papplewick, Nottingham, on 7 July 1817, to seek work as a servant in Mansfield, seven miles away. She found a job, but she never found her way back home, because on her return journey, a travelling knife grinder found her.

Charles Rotherham, a man in his early 30s, had served as a soldier in the Napoleonic wars for 12 years before beginning this new stage in his life.

He was seen on the road coming from Mansfield after drinking several pints where his path crossed Bessie’s.

Her severely battered body was found in a ditch by quarrymen the next day. Her shoes and distinctive yellow umbrella were missing and there was evidence her attacker had tried to remove her dress but had failed.

Rotherham had sold Bessie’s shoes and was on his way to Loughborough when he was arrested. He confessed to the crime and was returned to the scene where he showed a constable the hedge stake he had used to kill Bessie.

Like all murderers at the time, Rotherham swung for his crime. Local people, outraged by the attack, banded together to raise money for a stone to commemorate Bessie, which was placed on the site where she was attacked.

Bessie’s stone simply honours the memory of the dead girl, but another stone erected to a female victim of violence has more of a moral tone, seemingly warning women against certain behaviour as much as expressing anger with the killer.

“As a warning to Female Virtue, and a humble Monument to Female Chastity: this Stone marks the Grave of MARY ASHFORD, who, in the twentieth year of her age, having incautiously repaired to a scene of amusement, without proper protection, was brutally violated and murdered on the 27th of May, 1817.”

The story behind Mary Ashford’s death and its aftermath is one which left a permanent mark on English legal history.

Mary Ashford and Abraham Thornton
Mary Ashford and the man accused of her murder, Abraham Thornton

She had gone to a dance in Erdington, Birmingham, with her friend Hannah Cox, whom she planned to stay with overnight before returning to her place of work at her uncle’s house in a neighbouring village.

At the dance, she met a local landowner’s son, Abraham Thornton, and later reports confirmed the pair spent most of the night dancing together and having fun.

When they left the dance, Mary told her friend she would spend the night at her grandparents’ home – possibly a ploy to spend more time with Thornton – and Mary and he went off together.

Mary returned to Hannah’s house at 4am, changed her dancing clothes for her working clothes, collected some parcels and set out for her uncle’s home.

About two hours later a labourer found a bundle of clothing and parcels on the path leading to Mary’s home. The alarm was raised and her body was found submerged in a water-filled pit.

An autopsy showed she had drowned and had been raped shortly before her death.

People believed Thornton, having been rebuffed by Mary during their hours together, had lain in wait for her to return home and raped her before throwing her into the pit to drown.

He was duly arrested and tried, but a number of witnesses placed him at another location at the time of Mary’s death and he was acquitted.

But the story does not end there. Mary’s brother William Ashford began a private prosecution under an obscure ancient law, which allowed relatives of murder victims to bring an “appeal of murder” following an acquittal.

Thornton had a surprise up his sleeve though. In response, he demanded a trial by combat as was his right under that law, under which he could legally have killed Ashford, or if he defeated him, gone free.

Ashford was much smaller than Thornton, and declined the battle. Thornton was a free man, and the case was swiftly followed by a change in the law in 1819, banning such appeals and therefore trial by battle.

Murder stone commemorating William WoodImage copyrightCOLIN PARK/GEOGRAPH
Image captionThis murder stone at Disley in Cheshire commemorating William Wood was erected 50 years after the crime

Other victims include:

  • William Wood, of Eyam, Derbyshire, murdered by three men who robbed him of £100 in 1823 – his head was “beaten in the most dreadful manner possible”. Two men were caught, one escaped justice. A permanent memorial was erected over 50 years after the crime after earlier versions were destroyed or removed, which showed the strength of feeling still present in the community about the murder.
  • Father and son William and Thomas Bradbury, who were brutally attacked in William’s pub The Cherry Arms, known as Bill O’Jacks locally, on 2 April 1832 in Greenfield, Saddleworth. Their unsolved killings were recorded on a stone which noted their “dreadfully bruised and lacerated bodies”.
  • The Marshall family – the “special horror”, as noted in The Spectator at the time, of the Denham murders in Buckinghamshire, where a family of seven including three young girls were beaten to death at their home attached to their father’s blacksmith’s premises. The youngest, Gertrude, four, was found still clutched in her grandmother Mary Marshall’s arms. Killer John Jones was found a few days after the killings on 22 May 1870 and speedily tried and executed. They are buried in one grave in St Mary’s Church, Denham, where the original worn murder stone has been supplemented by a modern plaque to remember the victims.

The last word goes to those who chose to commemorate Nicholas Carter, a 55-year-old farmer from Bedale, Yorkshire, killed by a farm labourer as he rode home from market.

The stone laid at the murder site in Akebar – later to become a Grade II listed monument which hit the headlines earlier this year when it was badly broken in a car crash – had a very simple message, along with the date of his death, May 19, 1826.

Do No Murder.

 

 

Symbol of the Month: Gather ye rosebuds while ye may as Death is always waiting

At last the endless sorting out of boxes is over after the move.  I’ve found some money I’d forgotten about, family photos and a lot of books. The Cancer r Research charity shop in the High Street is groaning under the weight of my donations and I have recycled a lot of stuff.

And now down to the important things in life – shadowsflyaway!   I didn’t have an internet connection for a few weeks which was probably a good thing as it made me concentrate on emptying boxes and organising rooms.

But let’s begin with Symbol of the Month!

This month’s symbol comes from a post on Facebook’s Folk Horror Revival page and I was intrigued enough to make this one Symbol of the Month.  I would describe it as a memento mori which is Latin for ‘Remember you must die.’

Tombstone from St Peter’s Church Falstone ,Northumberland
©Stephen Sebastian Murray

It’s a carving on a tombstone featuring a skeleton and a woman or girl facing the viewer. She is holding three flowers in one hand.  In this photo, although the skeleton almost seems to be rising from the ground, he is actually holding a scythe in one hand and an hourglass in the other.  This can be seen more clearly in the clipping from Northumberland’s Hidden History by Stan Beckensall which another reader on the strand of the post kindly attached.

Clipping on headstone from Falstone churchyard, Northumberland. taken from Northumberland’s Hidden History by Stan Beckensall used without permission.

She is wearing a tightly belted dress, perhaps fashionable in her time, and seems carefree despite having Death standing next to her in all his glory. I had the impression that this might have been on the grave of a young girl due to her dress and the flowers.

They reminded me of roses and I immediately thought of the famous phrase, ‘Gather ye rosebuds while you may’ which is a quotation from a poem by Robert Herrick, a 16th century poet.

The poem is entitled: To the Virgins to make much of time and the quotation comes from the first verse:

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,

   Old Time is still a-flying;

And this same flower that smiles today

   Tomorrow will be dying.

So this little scene could be saying Enjoy life while you can as death will soon be here.’   It sounds a little depressing but life was shorter in earlier times. In the 19th century, for example, the average life of a working man was until their late 40’s and women often died in childbirth.  I wander around cemeteries a lot as you can imagine and there are many monuments and memorials to wives and often children who have died young as a result.  On the other hand it can be seen as uplifting in that it encourages the onlooker to enjoy life to the fullest.

Sadly I don’t know who’s buried here but she or he was obviously much missed to have such an impressive scene carved on their tombstone.

© text Carole Tyrrell photos use  with permission.

Wildlife in Cemeteries No 8 – the dark side of the Snowdrop

Snowdrops in St George’s churchyard, Beckenham.
©Carole Tyrrell

Imagine yourself in a gloomy medieval church on the festival of Candlemass. You, and your fellow parishioners, have each brought your candles to be blessed by the priest and, after the procession which will fill the church with light, they will all be placed in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary.   Candlemass marked the end of winter and the beginning of Spring and the blessing is to ward off evil spirits.  It traditionally falls on February 2 and is shared with the Celtic festival of Imbolc.  And in the churchyard outside you can see green shoots forcing their way up through the hard winter earth.  The snowdrop’s milk-white flowers show that spring is on its way as they begin to emerge into the light.

The placing of the lit candles in front of the Virgin Mary’s statue gave the snowdrop one of its many other names – Mary’s Tapers.  But there are many others such: Dingle Dangle, Candlemas Bells, Fair Maids of February, Snow Piercer, Death’s Flower and Corpse Flower.

Snowdrops, Brompton Cemetery, January 2018
©Carole Tyrrell

 

The snowdrop’s appearance has also inspired many comments . According to the Scottish Wildlife Trusts website they have been described as resembling 3 drops of milk hanging from a stem and they are also associated with the ear drop which is an old fashioned ear ring.  Anyone who has seen a group of snowdrops nodding in the wind will understand what they mean.   The snowdrop’s colour is associated with purity and they have been described as a shy flower with their drooping flowers.  However, the eco enchantments website reveals that the flower is designed in this way due:

‘to the necessity of their dusty pollen being kept dry and sweet in order to attract the few insects flying in winter.’

Snowdrops have been known since ancient times and, in 1597, appeared in Geralde’s ‘Great Herbal where they were called by the less than catchy name of ‘Timely Flowers Bulbous Violets’.  Its Latin name is Galanthus nivalis.  Galanthus means milk white flowers and the nivalis element translates as snowy according to the great botanist, Linnaeus in 1753.   In the language of flowers they’re associated with ‘Hope’ and the coming of spring and life reawakening.

However, yet despite all these positive associations, the elegant snowdrop has a much darker side. Monks were reputed to have brought them to the UK but it was the ever enthusiastic Victorians who copiously planted them in graveyards, churchyards and cemeteries which then linked them with death.  Hence the nickname name ‘Death’s Flower.’

They were described by Margaret Baker in the 1903 ‘Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore and the Occult of the World’ as:

‘so much like a corpse in a shroud that in some counties  the people will not have it in the house, lest they bring in death.‘

Snowdrops, St George’s Beckenham.
©Carole Tyrrell

So that’s where the ‘Corpse Flower’ nickname came from.

Snowdrops are also seen as Death’s Tokens and there are several regional folk traditions of connecting death with them. For example in the 19th and early 20th centuries it was considered very unlucky to bring the flower into the house from outside as it was felt that a death would soon occur.  The most unlucky snowdrop was that with a single bloom on its stem.    Other folk traditions were described in a 1913 folklore handbook which claims that if a snowdrop was brought indoors it will make the cows milk watery and affect the colour of the butter.  Even as late as 1969 in ‘The Folklore of Plants’  it was stated that having a snowdrop indoors could affect the number of eggs that a sitting chicken might hatch.  A very powerful plant if these are all to be believed – you have been warned!

It’s amazing that this little flower has so many associations and legends connected with it but I always see it as a harbinger of spring, rebirth and an indication of warmer days to come.

But the snowdrop also has a surprise.  This came courtesy of the Urban Countryman page on Facebook – not all social media is time wasting!  If you very gently turn over a snowdrop bloom you will find that the underside is even prettier and they also vary depending on the snowdrop variety.

Here is a small selection from my local churchyard and one from Kensal Green cemetery.

So don’t underestimate the snowdrop – it’s a plant associated with life and death but watch out for your hens and the colour of your butter if you do decide to tempt fate…..

 

©Carole Tyrrell text and photos unless otherwise stated

References:

http://www.plantlore.com

http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/naturestudies/bright-in-winters-depths-why-the-flawless-flower-of-candlemas-is-ajoy-forever-8483967

http://www.flowermeaning.com/snowdrop-flower-meaning

http://www.ecoenchantments.co.uk/mysnowdropmagicpage.html

https://scottishwildlifetrust.org.uk/2014/03/natures-death-tokens/

 

 

 

 

A murder in Brompton Cemetery! Wildlife in Cemeteries no 5

 

 

An ominous gathering of crows and possible juveniles on 21 May 2017..
©Carole Tyrrell

On a recent visit to Brompton Cemetery to research animals on memorials my companion and I decided to explore a side path to find examples.  On a corner where it met another side path we suddenly saw a very large gathering of crows perched on various tombstones, graves and memorials.  There were so many that passers-by were stopping to look and take photos.  My photo doesn’t do the scene justice as I couldn’t fit all the crows that were actually there in the picture.

Brompton’s crows have always been known for their photogenic and obliging qualities by posing on a nearby tombstone in suitably Gothic fashion but I’ve never seen that many gathered together in one place.

A group of crows is known as ‘a murder of crows’ and it only takes 2 crows to make one of these.

The phrase however, appears to date from the late Middle Ages and comes from the Book of Saint Albans or The Book of Hawking, Hunting and Blasing of Arms, which was published in 1486.  This is a compendium of items for gentlemen of the time and had an appendix which consisted of a large list of collective nouns for animals.  These were known as ‘company terms’ or the’ terms of hunting’.  These include familiar ones such as ‘a gaggle of geese’ amongst other colourful and poetic names such as ‘a skulk of foxes’ or ‘an ostentation of peacocks’.  There were also collective nouns for various professions such as ‘a melody of harpers’ etc.  The ones that have survived to this day derive from this book include ‘a subtlety of sergeants’ and also ‘a murder of crows’.  A crow gathering has often been the subject of folk tales and superstition and amongst these is the claim that crows will gather and decide the fate of another crow.

There are also other traditions, which considering that this was happening within a large London cemetery, are worth quoting ,

 ‘Many view the appearance of crows as an omen of death because ravens and crows are scavengers and are generally associated with dead bodies, battlefields, and cemeteries, and they’re thought to circle in large numbers above sites where animals or people are expected to soon die.’

Romain Bouchard, Etymology nerd

However, there are birdwatchers who insist that a group of crows should be known as a flock of crows and not a ‘murder’ so the jury’s out on that term.

A Facebook friend identified some of the crows as juveniles by the white patches on their breasts who may have just left the nest and are with their parents.  The adults will defend their youngsters very aggressively. Crows are very social, live in tight knit families and they mate for life.  They can roost in huge numbers of up to 1000+ as protection from other predators.  Crows are also highly intelligent and have a repertoire of at least 250 different calls.  A distress call will bring other crows to their aid   as crows will defend other unrelated crows. A crow’s black plumage have led to them being associated with death and they are members of the Corvidae family which includes magpies and ravens. They are predators and scavengers and will eat virtually anything including roadkill, snakes, mice, eggs and nestlings of other birds amongst other delicacies. I often see crows inspecting the contents of large waste bins at supermarkets or communal litter bins and have seen them take young ducklings in a flash.

A couple of minutes after I took this photo the entire gathering took flight and scattered and I felt very privileged to have seen it at all.

©Text and photo Carole Tyrrell

Reference:

https://www.quora.com/Why-is-a-group-of-crows-called-a-murder

http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/a-murder-of-crows-crow-facts/5965/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

©Carole Tyrrell