Thursday, 8 December 2011

Monuments on the Isle of Wight

Saint Boniface
© Godric Godricson

When we look at funerary monuments on the island we are inevitably drawn to the Churches themselves and particularly Saint Boniface.

Without documentary evidence we are compelled to rely on legend and myth in relation to the foundation of this magical  Church set on the quiet and often moody wooded slopes. The most accepted legend is that monks from the Abbey of Lyra, in Normandy, travelled to the Island, and built a small structure on the woody plateau where the Old Church now stands. They dedicated the Church to St. Boniface a popular saint of the period who was renowned for teaching and conversion. The legend  indicates that the monks selected the ruins of a previous Saxon Church for their new foundation and this is supported by the fact that they dedicated their Church to a Saxon Saint. The most memorable statistic from the Church is the small size of the building. The Church is  48ft in length by 12ft wide and the interior feels more like a private chapel rather than a communal building for the whole village and community. It may be that the Church was once the chapel of a local lord and became by degree a village resource although it clearly remained small and undeveloped. There are no monuments of any size in the Church and this may indicate the lack of any noble family in the area.

William Dier d 1681
© Godric Godricson

As a personal observation, I really like Saint Boniface as a Church and as an archaeological site and I commend the Church Authorities for their care and attention of the building and the Churchyard which is ‘under-conserved’ as befits such an ancient monument.

Saint Boniface Church has a number of ancient Chest tombs which are a specific sort of monument now a part of English funerary monuments and they can be seen across the UK. Table tombs are often stark and concrete in the early 20th Century and florid and baroque in the 18th Century Have a look at these links for a description of table tombs   [1] [2]    The United States has its own experience of table tombs and we can see the huge size that these monuments have aspired towards on this site American Chest tombs.

Victorian 'stele' type monuments
© Godric Godricson

In addition to table tombs in Saint Boniface we have Victorian monuments of the ‘stele’ type and this type is pretty standard for the period and for the island. We also have larger monuments from the better off citizen.The sandstone monuments are quite well preserved in the cemetery of saint Boniface and still have legible inscriptions that reverence the memories of the departed. The site of the Church on the wooded hillside protects the moss and lichen and we find a beautiful balance between accessibility for the visitor and a sense of the untouched woodland glade.

We also find the cemeteries that have been cleared and destroyed as a unified place of repose. We find the Church at Niton largely obliterated apart from some interesting monuments that stand out from the crowd.

Mary Stuart Maitland
Makgill Somerville
© Godric Godricson
 The monument of Mary Stuart Maitland Makgill Somerville (1829-1895) at Chale is an example of the person of greater affluence who came to live on the island in the 19th Century as the tourist trade increased. Mary's monument is larger than the average on the island and the size and style of the monument speaks of her wealth and the aspiration of the contemporary family even in death.

Mary married Vice-Admiral Philip Horatio Townsend Somerville. (1808 - 1881) is an example of the more expensive interment on the Isle of Wight being sited in Chale. The monument is listing heavily and we note that Mary Stuart is a person who had a 'soft spot' for the French language and her last will and testament refers to her as 'Marie Stuart'. Like many Scots away from home they perhaps hanker after the old country and a popular monarch

© Godric Godricson
Whilst the island is replete with chest tombs and stele for the individual it is also home to more modest communal monuments within the Church itself that reflect on the collective efforts of the citizenry. Such monuments speak of wars and conflict and of the communities that people were forced to leave and we find them throughout the island and the UK. They are as important to the genealogist as any individual grave and they are often a source of information for the social and economic historian. The First World war was an exercise in futility when many good men died for no purpose and there cannot be said to be any purpose for a war that saw the overturning of certainty, established monarchies and which made way for the even bloodier Second World War

This monument to the fallen pictured above is fairly typical of the type and it is evident that the monument has a 'tryptych' construction whereby the monument references the medieval style of altar found in pre-Reformation Churches. This indicates the strength of the Anglo-Catholic tradition in the Church of England in the period and of a wish to tie the monument into a sense of traditional piety. However, the location of the monument into the corner of the wall is strange and it seems squeezed into the building and its significance is marginalised although I'm sure that is not at all the sentiment of the time.

James Arnold Hearn
© Godric Godricson

Out of all the collective monuments, I like the stained glass that we find around the island which marks war and peace and also the 'local man makes good' sort of story as in this example. See Mr Hearn's monument at 'Find a grave' Glass is a wonderful medium that engenders hope in the reflected light that shines around the room and the message in the words inscribed or painted onto the glass. This is art as propaganda or art as a plan for eternity. In this period perhaps no-one envisioned the end of a immobile world or the end of the Church as a carrier of tradition. The glass in the Church setting contains the idea of certainty, tradition and eternity.

Parish cemetery Niton
© Godric Godricson

Perhaps my favourite monument is the rather large and intimidating slab covering this grave and I'm ashamed to say that because I was in a rush, I didn't take the name of the person under the marker. I continue to like the Isle of Wight and the monuments of the island which are rich and diverse although also at risk from the Church Authorities as they seek to have maintenance friendly cemeteries.

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