Cannibals in a country church? The Harman monument,St John the Baptist, Burford, Oxfordshire

Detail of one of theTupinamba Indians on the Harman monument, Burford

As a ‘church crawler’, or someone who likes to poke about in churches and churchyards,  I didn’t expect to find this finely carved pair of South American Indians in an Oxfordshire church.  They decorate the monument dedicated to Edmund Harman (1509-1577) and his ‘faithful’ wife, Agnes.

Full view of the Harman monument, St John the Evangelist, Burford ©Bill Nicholls shared under Creative Commons Licence

The Indians have been identified as belonging to the Tupinamba tribe who, in the early 1500’s, lived at the mouth of the Amazon. They are assumed to be the earliest known representation of South American Indians in England.  The Tupinamba tribe were known to be cannibals and the carvings are believed to be the work of a Dutch carver, Cornelis Bos. However, no-one’s quite sure whether they’re there.  It has been assumed that they are a reference to Edmund Harman’s Brazilian trade interests. But perhaps Bos might have seen a similar design in the Spanish Netherlands and decided to ‘borrow’ it.

Edmund Harman was an influential man at Henry VIII’s court. In fact, he was one of Henry’s most important and trusted servants. From 1533-1547, he was the King’s personal barber and servant, a position that gave him enormous influence at court as he was so near to the King.  I’m sure that he didn’t spend his time asking Henry VIII if he’d been anywhere nice for his holidays……he was probably too busy bending the King’s ear with promoting his friends business schemes.   In 1538, Edmund had risen so high that he was included in a list of people at court who were:

‘…to be had in the King’s most benign remembrance…’

Benign it certainly was, as it meant that Edmund was granted several pieces of land in Oxfordshire as well as Burford Priory.  He was also one of the 15 servants who made up the Privy Chamber and their job was to attend to every aspect of the King’s comfort.

In 1546, Edmund was one of the witnesses to Henry VIII’s will which was a very important document.  According to the Burford church website,

He makes an appearance with his King in Holbein’s last painting which is kept at The Barber’s Hall in London. The artist has helpfully labelled all the assembled men and Edmund is at the front on the right hand side.

Henry VII and the Barber Surgeons – Hans Holbein (1497/1498-1543) Edmund can be seen kneeling with his name. Shared under Wiki Creative Commons

Edmund and Agnes had sixteen children (!) but only two of them, both girls, survived their parents.  There are representations of them on the lower half of the monument.   

The sons of the Harmans, St John the Evangelist, Burford ©Julian P Guffogy shared under Creative Commons Licence
The daughters of the Harmans, St John the Evangelist, Burford ©Julian P Guffogy shared under Creative Commons Licence

According to the Burford church website, Edmund’s epitaph:

‘…..is considered to be an early example of a Post-Reformation epitaph as there is no mention of Purgatory or saying prayers for the dead man’s soul to ease his way out of it.  Purgatory and other religious practices had all been swept away by Henry VIII’s determination to divorce Katherine of Aragon and set himself up as the Head of the new Church of England.’

It is a lovely monument with beautiful, crisp carving and a wonderful example of the stone carver’s skill. Sadly, despite all the expense and the effort lavished in creating the monument, Edmund and Agnes were buried in Taynton which is 7 miles away from Burford.

However, it stands as a memorial to a man who rose from humble beginnings, moved in powerful circles and brought the New World closer to home.

©Text and Photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated

 References and further reading

https://www.burfordchurch.org/harman-memorial

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/003591571600901610

https://www.oxfordmail.co.uk/news/3742667.barber-king-gentleman/

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A touching epitaph to the one left behind. St John the Baptist, Burford

St John the Baptist, Burford,


This was the inscription that made the most impression as it was so touching and heartfelt.  It perfectly expressed the deceased’s belief, that although they had pre-deceased their partner, they believed that they would both wake again on Judgement Day and be reunited.

The first part of the epitaph on a unknown Monument, So John te Baptist, Burford
The second part of the epitaph on an unknown monument, St John the Evangelist, Burford

Its simplicity is what makes it stand out simple and yet I have no idea on which monument the inscription was despite looking through my photos from the day.   But it made a powerful impression.  In many ways it was more powerful than far more ornate monuments and tombs.

However, when the Penguin Book Cover Generator was doing the rounds on social media just prior to Christmas last year it provided inspiration for one book design.

When we can actually go out again, whenever that is, I’m coming back Burford – ready or not!

The final message …..a thoughtful gift from Banksy

Like many others I turned out on a wet Sunday morning to look at the elusive artist, Banksy’s, temporary emporium of homewares in trendy ‘Tech City’ Croydon.

He created ‘Gross Domestic Product” in response to a greeting card company attempting to copyright his name. He was advised that in order to stop it happening he needed to create his own own homeware brand.  This is how the shop came into being.

Amongst a baby’s cradle surrounded by CCTV monitors and the Union Jack vest worn by Stormzy at Glastonbury I found this.  The epitaph said it all and this is the artists statement on it.

It may soon be available to buy on Banksy’s online store.

Epitaph Exploring in East Anglia! Part 2 The Great Churchyard, Bury St Edmunds

And now the good and the bad….(although that can be debatable.)

 

Dedicated to Capt Gosnold and is self-explanatory – it looks quite recent as well.
©Carole Tyrrell

An unacknowledged  Founding Father who may have changed history 

Captain Bartholomew Gosnold(1571 – 1607) 

Although the memorial stone and epitaph is largely self-explanatory there is a lot more to Gosnold’s story.  The explorer and colonist isn’t buried here. Instead he is reputed to lie in Jamestown, Virginia.  This was the colony that he helped found and, where. according to Presevation Virgina he is regarded as being …’the prime mover of the colonisation of Virginia.’

Gosnold was originally a Suffolk man who studied law at Middle Temple after graduating from Cambridge.  He made an influential marriage and had seven children. But the sea and adventure were in his blood and he sailed with Sir Walter Raleigh whom he was soon to outstrip.

In 1602  Gosnold. on the ship Concord. made his first attempt to found a colony in Southern New England. Along the way they named Cape Cod after the large number of the fish they found there and then he continued to sail on along the coast to a place with an abundance of wild grapes.  He called the place Martha’s Vineyard because of the grapes and also in memory of his infant daughter who had died in 1598.  However the colony was abandoned when its settlers decided to return to England.

There was big money and fame to be made from exploring and colonising in the 17th century.  These were usually private ventures and so profit driven. But for Gosnold and his ambitions there was only one snag; Raleigh held the patent for Virginia.   But Queen Elizabeth I, who was on the throne at the time, was very interested in revenue and Raleigh’s star was descending.  He’d already lost £40k on the Roanoke disaster which was a huge sum at the time.  Soon Gosnold held an exclusive charter for a Virginia charter to settle there and this eventually became what is now Jamestown.

Sadly Gosnold wasn’t destined to enjoy his acheivements for long.  He died, aged only 36, on 22 August 1607 as the result of a 3 week illness after only 4 months after landing in the New World.  The burial was an honourable one ‘with many volleys of small shot’ fired over his coffin.

This is believed to be Gosnold’s grave in Virginia.
shared under Wiki Creative Commons
©Ser Amanho di Nicolao

He was one of the prime movers in Virginia’s colonisation and it has since been speculated that without him it might have been Spain that ended up colonising the Atlantic coast.  Elizabeth I’s successor, James 1, was extremely keen to maintain peace with Spain in the 1600’s and Spain was equally enthusiastic to explore the New World.  Without Gosnold who knows what might have happened?

For centuries the location of Gosnold’s grave was unknown.  But, in 2002, a body was excavated in Jamestown which has been presumed to be his.  Preservation Virginia  revealed that it appeared to be a person of high status as a captain’s staff had been placed in the coffin with the body and the coffin had an unusual gabled lid.  DNA was taken and compared with that from a distant descendant of Gosnold’s interred in a Suffolk church but the tests were inconclusive.

I note that his wife is recorded on this memorial plaque so either she didn’t go with him or returned after his death.

And the bad…..or unfortunate…….

Sarah LLoyd – a warning to the passer-by. Charnel House, The Great Churchyard.
©Carole Tyrrell

This epitaph is meant to be a cautionary tale for the passer-by.  The inscription tells Sarah Lloyd’s sad story and again the mason has earned his money if he was paid by the letter.   It’s almost like reading a penny dreadful written in stone.

Reader

Pause at this Humble Stone

a Record

The fall of unguarded Youth

By the allurements of vice

and the treacherous snares

of Seduction

SARAH LLOYD

on the 23d of April 1800

in the 22d Year of her Age

Suffered a Just but ignominous

Death

for admitting her abandoned seducer

into the Dwelling House of her Minstrefs

in the Night of 3rd Oct

1799

and becoming the Instrument

in his Hands of the crimes

of Robbery and Houseburning

These were her last Words

May my example be a

warning to Thousands.

 

This seemed to tell all of Sarah Lloyd’s story but did it?  I did further research and found that there was more to it than the epitaph states. I am indebted to Naomi Clifford’s excellent blog post for this.

The facts are that Sarah Lloyd was employed as a maidservant for Mrs Syer at her house in Hadleigh near Ipswich and had begun an illicit relationship with Joseph Clarke, a local man. On the night of the burglary, she let him into Mrs Syer’s house while Mrs Syer and her live-in companion slept.  The pair then stole various items from the house including a watch and 10 guineas in cash. They also managed to steal Mrs Syer’s pockets, which were small bags, from their hiding place under her pillow.  These contained cash and jewellery worth 40s (£2.00).  According to the court transcript, Clarke then set fire to the curtains in one of the rooms although other accounts state that they started a fire in a stairwell.   Both of them then fled the scene, hoping to have covered up their crime,  but unluckily for them neighbours managed to quickly put out the fire and the house was saved.  Clarke advised Sarah to leave him out of it and, instead, to say that two other men had been involved.

They lay low until Sarah was recognised as she ran across a field and she was eventually arrested by the local constable. She confessed and the stolen goods were recovered from her family home.  The cash was never found and soon Clarke was also arrested.

However, according to the account of the trial Clarke was found not guilty and acquitted whereas, Sarah, although found not guilty of the burglary was found guilty of stealing.  The strongest penalty was awarded.  This seemed harsh to say the least. According to Naomi Clifford  when Sarah appeared at the local Assizes on 20 March 1800 all she said in her defence was:

‘ It was not me, my lord, but Clarke that did it.

Here is a link to a contemporary account of the trial:    (However, be warned that it’s in 16th century phrasing where the ‘s’ has been replaced by a long ‘f’ which renders, for example, ‘passing’ as ‘paffing’.

https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=Wb1jAAAAcAAJ&pg=PA7&lpg=PA7&dq=sarah+lloyd+the+great+churchyard&source=bl&ots=VStZFRhEFa&sig=ykdosMHb6URQb08QcxF9IFel7RE&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwihhOSVgN3YAhUHIsAKHc7JAEAQ6AEISjAH#v=onepage&q=sarah%20lloyd%20the%20great%20churchyard&f=false

The charges against Clarke were dropped which may have been because he hadn’t confessed to his part in the crime whereas Lloyd had.  Also it was only her word that placed him at the scene as there was no other evidence.

The Assizes judge, Judge Grose, made several remarks which condemned Sarah:

A servant robbing a mistress is a very heinous crime; but your crime is greatly heightened; your mistress placed implicit confidence in your; you slept near her, in the same room, and you ought to have protected her… and though this crime was bad, yet it was innocence, compared with what followed: you were not content with robbing her mistress, but you conspired to set her house on fire, thereby adding to your crime death and destruction not only to the unfortunate Lady, but to all those whose houses were near by.  I have to announce to you that your last hour is approaching; and for the great and aggravated offence that you have committed, the law dooms you to die.’

There was a further twist to the case in that Sarah told the Rev Hay Drummond, the local vicar, when he visited her, that Clarke had seduced her and regularly visited for sex. She’d regarded him as her husband and on the night of the crime she had revealed that she was pregnant and he’d promised to marry her.  Rev Drummond felt that she’d been used and immediately set about organising a petition together with Capel Lofft, a lawyer and magistrate. to try to obtain a Royal Pardon.    Lofft moved in influential circles but the Home Secretary, the Duke of Portland refused any clemency as he considered that Sarah should be made an example as her alleged final words on the epitaph state. Although I think it more likely that she might have said ‘How did Joseph Clarke get off with not guilty?’

The pregnancy wasn’t mentioned again and she was executed on 22 April 1800 after it had been delayed for 14 days by the attempts to obtain a Royal Pardon.  Sarah was buried in the abbey churchyard  that evening with a crowd of 1000 people in attendance.  Mrs Lloyd. Sarah’s mother, had tried to commit suicide when she had heard that the execution was to proceed.

Although Sarah’s age is started as 22 on the epitaph she was unaware of her true age and was illiterate.

The epitaph also seems to have commented on Sarah;s morality although her ‘abandoned seducer’ isn’t named.However, her case has been seen as being part of a slow movement of change with capital punishment.  The first decades of the 1800’s brought significant reductions in the numbers of crimes punishable by death with other less harsh methods of punishment.  Sarah Lloyd was one of 7 women hanged in 1800. There were 6 in England and I in Ireland.  Only 3 more were to hang for stealing in a dwelling house and it ceased to be a capital offence after August 1834.

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated.

Further reading and references:

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

https://historicjamestowne.org/history/captain-bartholomew-gosnold-gosnoll/

https://britishheritage.com/bartholomew-gosnold-the-man-who-was-responsible-for-englands-settling-the-new-world/

http://anthropology.si.edu/writteninbone/unusual_case.html

https://www.buryfreepress.co.uk/news/hidden-treasures-brought-into-view-1-399134

https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=Wb1jAAAAcAAJ&pg=PA7&lpg=PA7&dq=sarah+lloyd+the+great+churchyard&source=bl&ots=VStZFRhEFa&sig=ykdosMHb6URQb08QcxF9IFel7RE&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwihhOSVgN3YAhUHIsAKHc7JAEAQ6AEISjAH#v=onepage&q=sarah%20lloyd%20the%20great%20churchyard&f=false

http://www.naomiclifford.com/sarah-lloyd/

http://www.capitalpunishmentuk.org/lloyd.html

http://www.eadt.co.uk/ea-life/bury-st-edmunds-and-sudbury-how-tragic-sarah-paid-a-terrible-price-for-seduction-1-3452212

 

Epitaph Exploring in East Anglia! The Great Churchyard in Bury St Edmunds

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.

St Mary’s and its elongated shape overlooking its part of the Great Churchyard.
©Carole Tyrrell

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……

An M R James connection? The Great Churchyard.
©Carole Tyrrell

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)

Engraving of Henry Cockton from 1841 by James Warren Childe (1780 – 1862)
Shared under Wiki Creative Commons

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

MARY HASELTON

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.

 

 https://bradspurgeon.com/brads-rejected-writings/impeccable-intuition-robertson-davies-on-henry-cockton/

 

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

https://www.buryfreepress.co.uk/news/hidden-treasures-brought-into-view-1-399134

 

Symbol of the Month – the open book

Another example from Beckenham Cemetery where the inscription is now unreadable but the weathering of the stone makes it still very attractive.
©Carole Tyrrell

 

Sometimes a wander through a cemetery can make you feel as if you’re in a heavenly library due to the number of open books reverently laid on top of graves.  They’re usually made from stone or granite, inscribed with the name and dates of the deceased and often a decorative book marker complete with carved tassel keeping the pages open.  On first appearance the open book can seem a very simple and obvious symbol and it’s used in place of a more formal headstone. But, as with other symbols, it can have alternative meanings.

The 3 dimensional version that is carved to simulate a real book is a 20th century innovation.  Prior to this it was rendered in a 2 dimensional, flat form and can be found on 18th and 19th century tombstones as part of an overall design or epitaph.  This example is from the Gibbs memorial in Brompton cemetery in which the downwardly pointing finger indicates the large open book.

The open book can almost resemble a visitors book with the deceased’s details inscribed on it as if they were signing in or checking out for eternity and sometimes one page is left blank for perhaps the partner who will follow.  On a recent stroll through Beckenham I came across several variations:

For example, there was one with both pages blank which could indicate that the inscription has worn off or that they were ready to be written for eternity.  The latter echoes the well-known phrase  ‘he or she can be read like an open book’ and the empty pages  can indicate that this is how they want to be judged on the Day of Judgement.   The echoes the quotation from the Book of Revelation 20:11-15:

And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. King James Bible

This is also why the open book is also known as the Book of Life as it contains everything that the deceased has done throughout their life and for which they will now be accountable. Christ is often depicted carrying a book.  J C Cooper also sees it as the Book of Life and adds that it can also represent

‘….learning and the spirit of wisdom, revelation and …wisdom.’

It can also indicate a chapter of life has ended or closed.

Here the Book doesn’t have an epitaph but instead is inscribed with a Biblical quotation from Jeremish 31:3
©Carole Tyrrell

In this example, a favourite verse has been inscribed on the pages.  It is a quotation from Jeremiah 31:3

The LORD hath appeared of old unto me, saying, Yea, I have loved thee with an everlasting love: therefore with lovingkindness have I drawn thee. King James Bible

This makes the symbol almost resemble a Bible.  Other suggestions are that it can indicate the grave of a writer, publisher or even more obviously a clergyman.

 

It can also indicate a chapter of life has ended or closed and a variant is the closed book.  I found this one in West Norwood cemetery and it clearly indicates a life that has ended with the final chapter now written.

An example of a closed book from West Norwood Cemetery/
©Carole Tyrrell

So the open book has made me think about how my book of life would look on my last resting place. I’m determined to make sure that it’s a good read for any passing visitor.

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise indicated.

References:

An illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols, J C Cooper, Thames & Hudson, 1978

Stories in Stone, a field guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography, Douglas Keister,

Gibbs Smith, 2004

 

http://biblehub.com/search/jeremiah/31-3.htm

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Revelation%2020:11-15

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

https://stoneletters.com/blog/gravestone-symbols

https://www.thoughtco.com/photo-gallery-of-cemetery-symbolism-4123061

 

Symbol(s) of the Month – the exuberant 18th century symbols of St George’s churchyard

One of the skulls at base of blank cartouche on one side of large chest tomb, St George’s.
©Carole Tyrrell

It’s often on a winter’s night, just as dusk begins to fall and the lamp lights in St Georges churchyard come up, that  the fine selection of 18th century tombstones are at their best. Carved skulls leer at you, an hourglass emphasises time passing and the gravedigger’s tools stand ready for the next interment.  And perhaps there is still a phantom schoolteacher using his sculpted globe to teach geography to his spectral students.

There has been a church on this site since the 14th century and in one place in the graveyard  the number of burials over the centuries has made the ground rise up on both sides.  But, as well as 18th century examples of funerary symbolism, there are also some wonderful 19th century ones as well.  Inside the church there’s also a good selection of impressive wall monuments dedicated to prominent local families dating back to the 1600’s.  They are  buried in the vaults beneath the church.  St George’s also has the country’s oldest lych gate in that the current one incorporates elements from  a far older one. The churchyard is a pretty one for a short walk through to the bustling High Street  especially when the spring flowers begin to appear, carpeting the grass between the stones with bluebells and flitting butterflies.

 

However for this month’s Symbols post I will concentrate on the 18th century memorials within the churchyard. These  tombstones  are topped with classic memento mori symbols.  This is Latin for ‘remember me.’  They are the visual accompaniment to the immortal epitaph from Dundee’s Howff graveyeard:

Remember Man as you pass by

As you are now so once was I

As I am now so must you be

Remember man that you must die.’

 

Graveyard symbolism, according to Douglas Keister, began when the well to do  could no longer be buried with in their local church due to lack of space. Instead, they took up their eternal residence in the newly consecrated burial grounds outside and surrounding the church walls. These were often known as’God’s Acres’ and gave the wealthy the opportunity to erect a lasting memorial or tombstone in their memory.

 

St George’s churchyard became the last resting place of prominent local familes, some of whose descendants still live in the area. The oldest tombstone dates from 1668 and the 18th century ones  are nearest to the church walls which in effect meant that they were  ‘‘Nearer my God to Thee.’

 

I’ve always enjoyed walking through the churchyard as it can feel like walking through a gallery of funerary symbols.  There’s something very exuberant about these 18th Century motifs of mortality even though some have eroded and only one epitaph is still fully readable.  However, the skull and crossbones, the Death’s Heads and others have, in several cases, lasted better than the epitaph below them.

 

The skull and crossbones are an effective, if macabre, reminder of what is left of a body after it decomposes and there are several good examples in St Georges.

 

This one is near the church entrance and features a skull and crossbones with what appear to be protruding palm fronds.  It also seesm to be resting on something whch may be a shield.  All that can now be read on the epitaph is…who dep….’

 

The skull and crossbones, a winged hourglass and a set of sexton’s tool on the left hand side.
©Carole Tyrrell

Nearby is another skull and crossbones with a winged hourglass above it.  This is a reminder that ‘Time flies’ or ‘Tempus Fugit’ and that the onlooker will soon be bones and dust and it’s important to make the most of their time on earth. On the left hand side is a pick and shovel.  These are a sexton’s tools which made me wonder if this was a sexton’s grave but the epitaph is now illegible.  The sexton’s role not only encompassed maintaining and looking after the church but also the churchyard.  In larger graveyards the sexton would have been more of a manager but in smaller ones he would have had sole responsibility for preparing the ground, digging and closing the grave, mowing the lawn and also maintaining the lawn and paths.

Skulls also feature prominently on two other tombstones on the other side of the church very near the wall. One seems to have a very sharp pair of horns and a  definite smirk.  On each side of it there appear to be small trumpets but it’s too weathered to see if anyone’s blowing them.  Maybe he’s keenly anticipating the Last Day of Judgement.

 

Somersaulting skulls and hourglass
©Carole Tyrrell

 

Nearby is a large tombstone with what seem to be two somersaulting skulls on them although one is more eroded than the other.  Below them is a small worn hourglass.  I believe that these two examples of skulls may be unique to St Georges as I’ve haven’t yet seen them anywhere else.

 

Douglas Keister has suggested that the skull and crossbones slowly began to be replaced by the much less stark and macabre  ‘Death’s Head.’  This is a human face with wings on either side of it.  I’ve always known it as the ‘winged cherub’ and there are also several good examples within the churchyard.

A closer view of the Saxby Angel with what appears to be a faded open book on one side and a stylised flower on the other side.
©Carole Tyrrell

I am also a huge fan of calligraphy having studied it for two years at evening classes and it has undergone a revival on late 20th and early 21st century tombstones.  However 18th century calligraphy has a style all of its own and is instantly recognisable.  The only legible 18th century epitaph in St Georges is the one dedicated to a John Saxby.  It reads:

 

‘               ‘Here lyeth the body of John Saxby of the Parish who Departed this life…year of May 1731 aged 41 years. ‘

 

A fine example of a Death’s Head is on top with an open book beside it which may be the Bible or the Book of Life and there’s a stylised flower on the other side.  The open book may be a depiction of the incumbent offering their life to God for judgement as an ‘open book’. People are sometimes described as an ‘open book’ as they have their feelings and thoughts open to the world with no attempt to hide them.

Crown in clouds with small faces, presumably angels, peeping out from either side.
©Carole Tyrrell

On another memorial two small faces, presumably from the angelic host, peer out from either side of the clouds surrounding a crown.  It’s a representation of the reward that awaits the faithful in heaven.  This verse from the Bible refers to it:

 

James 1:12 New International Version (NIV)

Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=James%201:12

 

A very plum faced Death’s Head with an open book on one side and a skull and a long bone on the other side.
©Carole Tyrrell

A plump faced death’s head is surrounded by another open book and what I think maybe a small skull in the far corner of the stone.

 

 

 

 

But one of the most unique and impressive tombstones in St George’s, or perhaps anywhere, is that of John Kay.  He was an 18th century schoolmaster and his life and talents are recorded by the tools of his trade that have been carved on his stone. There’s a globe on a stand, a trumpet, what appears to be a cornet, an artists palette, a pair of compasses and other items which are now too indistinct to read.  He was obviously very erudite and much appreciated by his students.  Sadly his fulsome epitaph is now virtually unreadable. He lies near Mr Saxby under a spreading yew tree.

On the other side of the graveyard is a large chest tomb.  There is a dedication and an armorial on its top and I feel that some patient research in St George’s burial registers may reveal the incumbent’s identity.  There are blank cartouches on each side with death’s heads on top and two skulls beneath each one.  At one end are palm fronds which are a Roman symbol of victory which were then adapted by the Christians as a martyr’s triumph of death.  The palm as a symbol originated in the ancient Near East and Mediterranean region  and is a powerful motif of victory, triumph, peace and eternal life.  It’s traditionally associated with Easter and Palm Sunday and Christs’ resurrection and victory over death. On the other end of the tomb are what appear to be olive flowers.  The olive’s association with wisdom and peace originally came from Greek mythology when the goddess, Athena, presented an olive tree to the city that was to become Athens.  Successive Greek ambassadors then continued the tradtion by offering an olive branch of peace to indicate their goiod intentions. The olive tree is also associated with longevity, fertility, maturity, fruitfulness and prosperity.  In the Bible, Noah sent the dove out after the Flood to see if the floodwaters had receded and when it returned with an olive leaf in its beak Noah knew that the Flood had ended.  Even today the phrase ‘ offering an olive branch’ means the someone wants to make peace. But in this context the olive branch may mwean that the soul has departed with the peace of God. So one memorial incorporates powerful  motifs of mortality and resurrection.

 

St George’s has also used old tombstones to pave two of the pathways within the churchyard of which some are still readable.  It always feels as if I’m walking over someone’s grave although they are buried elsewhere in the graveyard.  However, although the 19th and 20th century memorials are rather more restrained and far more legible I prefer the more ‘in your face’  18th century symbols.  But in the case of the horned skull I can only frustratingly only guess at its meaning and the person who lies beneath…..

 

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell otherwise stated.

References

Stories in Stone; A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography, Douglas Keister, Gibbs M Smith, 2008

St George’s Churchyard, St George’s Parish Church, Beckenham, Revised June 2005

St George’s Parish Church, Beckenham, information leaflet,, October 2003

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

http://www.catholictradition.org/Saints/signs4.htm

http://www.planetgast.net/symbols/plants/plants.html

https://www.thoughtco.com/photo-gallery-of-cemetery-symbolism-4123061

https://stoneletters.com/blog/gravestone-symbols

http://www.graveaddiction.com/symbol.html

 

OLIVE: The olive is a true Biblical tree, a tree ‘full of fatness’ w