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