Alan looks at some of the touch­ing tributes to fam­ily mem­bers found at churches and cathedrals across the land

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - CONTENTS - ALAN CROSBY lives in Lan­cashire and is editor of The Lo­cal His­to­rian. He is an hon­orary re­search fel­low at Lan­caster and Liverpool univer­si­ties

Touch­ing tributes to the dearly de­parted

Dur­ing the past few years I’ve vis­ited many churches and cathedrals, and of­ten find my­self look­ing with amuse­ment or sad­ness at the in­scrip­tions on mon­u­ments and wall tablets. I en­joy the flat­ter­ing prose of the tributes to the de­parted, com­posed to give the most pos­i­tive and vir­tu­ous im­pres­sion for pos­ter­ity, and I’m touched by the sad sto­ries that they of­ten tell.

For ex­am­ple, John Barker esquire, of Clare Pri­ory in Suf­folk, died in Novem­ber 1804. His griev­ing wife Caro­line penned an epi­taph, which is in­scribed on an el­e­gant oval mar­ble tablet in St Peter and Paul’s Church, Clare. She did this so that his “In­fant Chil­dren” would be re­minded that John had been “the Du­ti­ful Son, the Kind Brother, the Ten­derly Af­fec­tion­ate Hus­band, the Fond Father, the Brave Sol­dier, & the Pi­ous Hum­ble Chris­tian”.

Poor Caro­line out­lived her hus­band by 43 years and died in 1848, aged 80, a fact recorded on a match­ing tablet next to that of her hus­band. On it, too, her own virtues are set out: “De­voted to her ma­ter­nal du­ties, and to the ex­em­plary dis­charge of ev­ery other Chris­tian re­la­tion… es­teemed and re­spected by all, and deeply lamented by her poorer neigh­bours.” That last phrase em­pha­sizes the role of the lady of the manor, who was meant to be con­cerned for the wel­fare of the de­serv­ing poor of the com­mu­nity, giv­ing them ap­pro­pri­ate char­ity and help­ing them to sus­tain and bet­ter them­selves.

Some­times the in­scrip­tions are akin to mini-bi­ogra­phies. At Bottes­ford in Le­ices­ter­shire, bury­ing place of the earls and dukes of Rut­land, the chan­cel is crammed with gi­ant mon­u­ments and fan­tas­tic ef­fi­gies, some with tablets that re­cite in de­tail the ca­reers of fam­ily mem­bers. We are told, for ex­am­ple, that in 1569 Ed­ward, Earl of Rut­land, was “sente into the northe parts in the time of those civill trou­bles” (he helped to put down a North­ern Ris­ing that threat­ened to topple El­iz­a­beth I), while in 1595 his son Roger “be­gan his first tra­vails into divers parts be­yond the seas, as France, Italie, Suise­land, & the Low Coun­tries”, spend­ing three years on this pi­o­neer­ing “Grand Tour”.

Al­most in­vari­ably, th­ese mar­ble tablets with their lengthy or flow­ery text are in­side the church, where the great and good were buried and com­mem­o­rated. Dur­ing ser­vices, the or­di­nary mem­bers of the con­gre­ga­tion – or those of them who could read – would thereby be re­minded of the im­pres­sive suc­cesses and unim­peach­able virtue of their bet­ters. The tablets were like a form of ad­ver­tise­ment, and, of course, they never men­tioned the neg­a­tives – the faults, of­fences or per­son­al­ity de­fects of the de­ceased.

All of this is a far cry from the usual, much more la­conic, in­scrip­tions on the grave­stones of or­di­nary peo­ple. They were buried out­side in the church­yard, where mar­ble slabs would soon weather and de­cay. For the ma­jor­ity of the pop­u­la­tion – the poor – there was no me­mo­rial at all. An un­marked grave in a cor­ner of the church­yard was all that could be ex­pected – a pau­per’s fu­neral, prob­a­bly paid for by the parish, and no re­minder of who lay there.

For such peo­ple, the only record we have is likely to be a terse en­try in the parish reg­is­ter. We know next to noth­ing of their char­ac­ter or ac­tiv­i­ties, whether they were good or bad par­ents, lov­ing or faith­less spouses, or du­ti­ful Chris­tians. There’s ob­vi­ously no way of overcoming that, but just oc­ca­sion­ally we do have a won­der­ful glimpse of the more or­di­nary folk. I love the small brass plate at Wing in Buck­ing­hamshire, which is ded­i­cated to “Hon­est Old Thomas Cotes” who died in 1648. It was erected by his “frend”, Ge­orge Houghton and de­scribed “that good man” Thomas, who was porter (or gate­keeper) at nearby As­cott Hall. The in­scrip­tion tells us he “hath now left his key, lodg, fyre, friends and all to have a roome in heaven”.

There’s even a pic­ture of Thomas, arms stretch­ing heav­en­wards and hat and key dis­carded be­hind him!

The wall tablets never men­tioned the neg­a­tives – the faults, of­fences or per­son­al­ity de­fects of the de­ceased

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