Tuesday, 10 July 2012

"Gnawed out of our graves"

Dealings with the Dead
Vol 2
Project Gutenburg

Dion remarks, while speaking of Trajan—he that lies in a golden urn, eminently above the earth, is not likely to rest in peace. The same thing may be affirmed of him, who has raised himself, eminently above his peers, wherever he may lie. During the Roman Catholic rage for relics, the graves were ransacked, and numberless sinners, to supply the demand, were dug up for saints. Sooner or later, the finger of curiosity, under some plausible pretext, will lift the coffin lid; or the foot of political sacrilege will trample upon the ashes of him, whom a former generation had delighted to honor; or the motiveless spirit of mischief will violate the sanctity of the tomb.

When Charles I. was buried, in the same vault with Henry VIII. and Anne Boleyn, a soldier, as Wood relates, in his Athenæ Oxonienses, vol. iv. p. 39, Lond. 1820, attempted to steal a royal bone, which was afterwards found upon his person, and, which he said, upon examination, he had designed, for a handle to his knife.John Milton died, according to the respective accounts of Mitford, Johnson, and Hayley, on the 8th—about the 10th—or on the 15th of November, 1674. He was buried, in the chancel of St. Giles, Cripplegate. In the London Monthly Magazine, for August, 1833, there appeared an extract from the diary of General Murray, giving a particular account of the desecration of Milton’s remains. The account was given to General Murray, at a dinner party, Aug. 23, 1790, by Mr. Thornton, who received it, from an eye-witness of the transaction. The church of St. Giles requiring repairs, the occasion was thought a proper one, to place a monument, over the body of Milton. Messieurs Strong, Cole, and others, of that parish, sought for, and discovered, the leaden coffin, the outer coffin of wood having mouldered away. Having settled the question of identity, these persons replaced the coffin, and ordered the workmen to fill up the grave. The execution of this order was postponed, for several days. In the interim, some of the parish, whose names are given, by General Murray, having dined together, and become partially drunk, resolved to examine the body; and proceeded, with lights, to the church. With a mallet and chisel, they cut open the coffin, rolled back the lead, and gazed upon the bones of John Milton! General Murray’s diary shall relate the residue of a proceeding, which might call the rouge to the cheeks of a Vandal:—
“The hair was in an astonishingly perfect state; its color a light brown, its length six inches and a half, and, although somewhat clotted, it appeared, after having been well washed, as strong as the hair of a living being. Fountain said he was determined to have two of his teeth; but as they resisted the pressure of his fingers, he struck the jaw, with a paving stone, and several teeth then fell out. There were only five in the upper jaw, and these were taken by Fountain; the four, that were in the lower jaw, were seized upon, by Taylor, Hawkesworth, and the sexton’s man. The hair, which had been carefully combed, and tied together, before the interment, was forcibly pulled off the skull, by Taylor and another; but Ellis, the player, who had now joined the party, told the former, that being a good hair-worker, if he would let him have it, he would pay a guinea-bowl of punch. Ellis, therefore, became possessed of all the hair: he likewise took a part of the shroud, and a bit of the skin of the skull: indeed, he was only prevented from carrying off the head, by the sextons, Hoppy and Grant, who said, that they intended to exhibit the remains, which was afterwards done, each person paying sixpence to view the body. These fellows, I am told, gained near one hundred pounds, by the exhibition. Laming put one of the leg-bones in his pocket.”

All Saints - Kings Lynn
© Godric Godricson

After reading this short, shameless record, one half inclines to cremation; even if, instead of being enshrined or inurned, our dust be given, in fee simple, to the winds. How forcibly the words of Sir Thomas ring in our ears—“To be gnawed out of our graves, to have our skulls made drinking bowls, and our bones turned into pipes, to delight and sport our enemies, are tragical abominations, escaped in burning burials.” The account from General Murray’s diary, and at greater length, may be found also, in the appendix to Mitford’s life of Milton, in the octavo edition of his poetical works, Cambridge, Mass., 1839.

Great indignation has lately been excited, in England, against a vampyre of a fellow, named Blore, who is said to have destroyed one half of Dryden’s monument, and defaced Ben Jonson’s, and Cowley’s, in Westminster Abbey. Inquiring after motive, in such cases, is much like raking the ashes, after a conflagration, to find the originating spark. There is a motive, doubtless, in some by-corner of the brain; whether a man burns the temple, at Ephesus; or spears the elephant of Judas Maccabæus, with certain death to himself; or destroys the Barberrini vase. The motive was avowed, on the trial, in a similar case, by a young man, who, some years ago, shot a menagerie elephant, while passing through a village, in the State of Maine, to be a wish “to see how a fellow would feel, who killed an elephant.”

Saint Andrew - Bacton
© Godric Godricson
Dryden’s, and Cowley’s monuments are on the left of Ben Jonson’s, and before you, as you approach the Poet’s Corner. Dryden’s monument is a lofty affair, with an arch and a bust, and is thus inscribed: “J. Dryden, born 1632, died May 1, 1700.—John Sheffield, Duke of Buckingham, erected this monument, 1720.” It is not commonly known, that the original bust was changed, by the Duchess, for one of very superior workmanship, which, of course, is the one mutilated by Blore. The monument, erected by George, Duke of Buckingham, to Cowley, is a pedestal, bearing an urn, decorated with laurel, and with a pompous and unmeaning epitaph, in Latin hexameters. If Blore understood the language, perhaps he considered these words, upon the tablet, a challenge—

————Quis temerarius ausit—
Sacrilega turbare manu venerabile bustum.

The monument of Ben Jonson is an elegant tablet, with a festoon of masks, and the inscription—Oh rare Ben Jonson! It stands before you, when Dryden’s and Cowley’s are upon your left, and is next to that of Samuel Butler. In the north aisle of the nave, there is a stone, about eighteen inches square, bearing the same inscription. In the “History of Westminster Abbey,” 4to ed Lond. 1812, vol. ii. p. 95, note, it is stated, that “Dart says one Young, afterwards a Knight in the time of Charles II., of Great Milton, in Oxfordshire, placed a stone over the grave of Ben Jonson, which cost eighteen pence, with the above inscription:” but it is not stated, that the stone, now there, is the same.
Dr. Johnson, in his Life of Dryden, recites what he terms “a wild story, relating to some vexatious events, that happened, at his funeral.” Dryden’s widow, and his son, Charles, had accepted the offer of Lord Halifax, to pay the expenses of the funeral, and five hundred pounds, for a monument. The company came—the corpse was placed in a velvet hearse—eighteen coaches were in attendance, filled with mourners.—As they were about to move, the young Lord Jeffries, son of the Chancellor, with a band of rakes, coming by, and learning that the funeral was Dryden’s, said the ornament of the nation should not so be buried, and proceeded, accompanied by his associates, in a body, to wait upon the widow, and beg her to permit him to bear the expense of the interment, and to pay one thousand pounds, for a monument, in the Abbey.

Saint Mary - Heacham

© Godric Godricson
The gentlemen in the coaches, being ignorant of the liberal offers of the Dean and Lord Halifax, readily descended from their carriages, and attended Lord Jeffries and his party to the bedside of the lady, who was sick, where he repeated his offers; and, upon her positive refusal, got upon his knees, as did the whole party; and he there swore that he would not rise, till his entreaty was granted. At length, affecting to understand some word of the lady’s, as giving permission, he rushed out, followed by the rest,  proclaiming her consent, and ordered the corpse to be left at Russell’s, an undertaker’s, in Cheapside, till he gave orders for its embalmment. During this proceeding, the Abbey having been lighted up, Lord Halifax and the Dean, who was also Bishop of Rochester, to use the tea-table phrase, waited and waited, and waited. The ground was opened, the choir attending, and an anthem set. When Mr. Dryden went, next day, to offer excuses, neither Lord Halifax, nor the Dean, would accept of any apology. After waiting three days for orders, the undertaker called on Lord Jeffries, who said he knew nothing about it, and that it was only a tipsy frolic, and that the undertaker might do what he pleased with the corpse. The undertaker threatened to set the corpse before the widow’s door. She begged a day’s respite. Mr. Charles Dryden wrote to Lord Jeffries, who replied, that he knew nothing about it. He then addressed the Dean and Lord Halifax, who refused to have anything to do with it. He then challenged Lord Jeffries, who refused to fight. He went himself, and was refused admittance. He then resolved to horsewhip his Lordship; upon notice of which design, the latter left town. In the midst of this misery, Dr. Garth sent for the body, to be brought to the college of physicians; proposed a subscription; and set a noble example. The body was finally buried, about three weeks after the decease, and Dr. Garth pronounced a fine Latin oration. At the close of the narrative, which, as repeated by Dr. Johnson, covers more than three octavo pages of Murphy’s edition, the Doctor remarks, that he once intended to omit it entirely, and that he had met with no confirmation, but in a letter of Farquhar’s.The tale is simply alluded to, by Gorton, and told, at some length, by Chalmers. Both, however, consider it a fabrication, by Mrs. Thomas, the authoress, whom Dryden styled Corinna, and whom Pope lampooned, in his comatose and vicious performance, the Dunciad, probably because she provoked his wrath, by publishing his letters to H. Cromwell.

Hannah Chapman - Trunch

© Godric Godricson
In the earlier editions of the Encyclopædia Britannica, the tale is told, as sober matter of fact: in the last, Napier’s, of 1842, it is wholly omitted. Malone, in his Life of Dryden, page 347, ascribes the whole to Mrs. Thomas. Dryden died, in 1700. The first four volumes of Johnson’s Lives of the Poets, containing Dryden’s, went to the press in 1779. Considering the nature of this outrage; the eminence, not only of the dead, but of some of the living, whose names are involved; its alleged publicity; and its occurrence in the very city, where all the parties flourished; it is remarkable, that this “wild story,” as Johnson fitly calls it, should have obtained any credit, and survived for nine-and-seventy years.

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