Thursday, 15 December 2011

Wayside Shrine - Malta

Flowers for the Saints and the departed
© Godric Godricson

Faith and belief are well understood in Malta. This island, so deeply imbued with  Catholicism, is comfortable with the wayside shrine and Flowers for the saints and for the dead. The communities remember both the saints and their family in a joyous combination under the sunshine. This is a beautiful island and the people are marvellous.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Margaret Southcotte, Died 27th of August 1786

Margaret Southcotte, Died 27th of August 1786
Saint John The Baptist
Niton - Isle of Wight
© Godric Godricson

Beneath this stone, in sweet repose,
   The friend of all, a fair one lies:
Yet hence let Sorrow vent her woes,
   Far hence let Pity pour her sighs;
Tho’ every hour thy life approv’d,
   The muse the strain of grief forbears;
Nor wishes, tho’ by all belov’d,
   To call thee to a world of cares.
Best of thy sex, alas! farewell,
   From this dark scene remov’d to shine,
Where purest shades of mortals dwell,
   And virtue waits to welcome thine.

Margaret Southcotte, Died 27th of August 1786 Stoke Fleming Devonshire

Friday, 9 December 2011

"The Graveyard school"

Robert Blair (17 April 1699 – 4 February 1746)

While some affect the sun, and some the shade.
Some flee the city, some the hermitage;
Their aims as various, as the roads they take
In journeying thro' life;--the task be mine,
To paint the gloomy horrors of the tomb;
Th' appointed place of rendezvous, where all
These travellers meet.--Thy succours I implore,
Eternal King! whose potent arm sustains
The keys of Hell and Death.--The Grave, dread thing!
Men shiver when thou'rt named: Nature appall'd
Shakes off her wonted firmness.--Ah ! how dark
The long-extended realms, and rueful wastes!
Where nought but silence reigns, and night, dark night,
Dark as was chaos, ere the infant Sun
Was roll'd together, or had tried his beams
Athwart the gloom profound.--The sickly taper,
By glimm'ring thro' thy low-brow'd misty vaults,
(Furr'd round with mouldy damps, and ropy slime)
Lets fall a supernumerary horror,
And only serves to make thy night more irksome.
Well do I know thee by thy trusty yew,
Cheerless, unsocial plant! that loves to dwell
'Midst skulls and coffins, epitaphs and worms:
Where light-heel'd ghosts, and visionary shades,
Beneath the wan, cold moon (as fame reports)
Embodied thick, perform their mystic rounds,
No other merriment, dull tree! is thine.

See yonder hallow'd fane;--the pious work
Of names once fam'd, now dubious or forgot,
And buried midst the wreck of things which were;
There lie interr'd the more illustrious dead.
The wind is up:--hark! how it howls!--Methinks,
'Till now, I never heard a sound so dreary:
Doors creak, and windows clap, and night's foul bird,
Rook'd in the spire, screams loud; the gloomy aisles
Black plaster'd, and hung round with shreds f 'scutcheons,
And tatter'd coats of arms, send back the sund,
Laden with heavier airs, from the low vaults,
The mansions of the dead.--Rous'd from their slumbers,
In grim array the grisly spectres rise,
Grin horrible, and, obstinately sullen,
Pass and repass, hush'd as the foot of night.
Again the screech-owl shrieks--ungracious sound!
I'll hear no more; it makes one's blood run chill.

Quite round the pile, a row of reverend elms,
(Coeval near with that) all ragged show,
Long lash'd by the rude winds. Some rift half down
Their branchless trunks; others so thin at top,
That scarce two crows can lodge in the same tree.
Strange things, the neighbours say, have happen'd here;
Wild shrieks have issued from the hollow tombs;
Dead men have come again, and walk'd about;
And the great bell has toll'd, unrung, untouch'd.
(Such tales their cheer at wake or gossipping,
When it draws near to witching time of night.)

Oft in the lone church yard at night I've seen,
By glimpse of moonshine chequering thro' the trees,
The school boy, with his satchel in his hand,
Whistling aloud to bear his courage up,
And lightly tripping o'er the long flat stones,
(With nettles skirted, and with moss o'ergrown,)
That tell in homely phrase who lie below.
Sudden he starts, and hears, or thinks he hears,
The sound of something purring at his heels;
Full fast he flies, and dare not look behind him,
'Till, out of breath, he overtakes his fellows,
Who gather round and wonder at the tale
Of horrid apparition tall and ghastly,
That walks at dead of night, or takes his stand
O'er some new-open'd grave; and (strange to tell!)
Evanishes at crowing of the cock.

The new-made widow, too, I've sometimes 'spy'd,
Sad sight! slow moving o'er the prostrate dead:
Listless, she crawls along in doleful black,
While bursts of sorrow gush from either eye,
Fast falling down her now untasted cheek,
Prone on the lowly grave of the dear man
She drops; while busy meddling memory,
In barbarous succession, musters up
The past endearments of their softer hours,
Tenacious of its theme. Still, still she thinks
She sees him, and indulging the fond thought,
Clings yet more closely to the senseless turf,
Nor heeds the passenger who looks that way.

Invidious Grave!--how dost thou rend in sunder
Whom love has knit, and sympathy made one?
A tie more stubborn far than Nature's band.
Friendship! mysterious cement of the soul,
Sweet'ner of life, and solder of society,
I owe thee much. Thou hast deserv'd from me,
Far, far beyond what I can ever pay.
Oft have I prov'd the labours of thy love,
And the warm efforts of the gentle heart,
Anxious to please.--Oh! when my friend and I
In some thick wood have wander'd heedless on,
Hid from the vulgar eye, and sat us down
Upon the sloping cowslip-cover'd bank,
Where the pure limpid stream has slid along
In grateful errors thro' the underwood,
Sweet murmuring; methought the shrill-tongued thrush
Mended his song of love; the sooty blackbird
Mellow'd his pipe, and soften'd every note:
The eglantine smell'd sweeter, and the rose
Assum'd a dye more deep; whilst ev'ry flower
Vied with its fellow-plant in luxury
Of dress--Oh! then the longest summer's day
Seem'd too too much in haste; still the full heart
Had not imparted half: 'twas happiness
Too exquisite to last. Of joys departed,
Not to return, how painful the remembrance!

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Burials in Churches

There is a very real time line for burials inside Churches and we acknowledge that Roman Law would not traditionally allow either burial or cremation within the city. It is fair to say that there was a fear of ghosts in the ancient world and a loathing of close proximity with the dead. In succeeding years and with the development of Christianity the wish to separate the living and the dead weakened as cremation moved to burial as a means of disposing of the body. We begin to associate Churches with a Royal burial or with the burial of a saint on the site.

A dark faith
© Godric Godricson
 Bishops and Martyrs began to be buried in the Churches, despite earlier disapproval. The cult of bones becomes not only prevalent but actually acceptable and in a strange manner the adherents of Christ became associated in what may be described as a 'death cult' whereby a faith based in hope, light and Resurrection became a faith associated with a darkness and death. It seems that many people wanted to be buried in close proximity with the 'Holy' and the 'Royal'. We see an early Christian dislike of cremation as the Resurrection required the bones to be intact rather than destroyed. It is also the case that the Roman practice of public cremation seemed disrespectful to the departed and the ferocity of the hot fire appeared harsh for the remains of the faithful departed.  The tradition of burying the occasional Holy person or the Royal Martyr became so entrenched that rich and powerful people started to be buried inside the Church. In fact, anyone with money wanted to be buried inside the Church and the rate of burials rose in the post reformation period. Bodies were buried in cloister, Church or chancel and the numbers of burials on Church sites increased. Rather than an occasional burial for a specific occasion we find that noble families actively developed their traditional vaults under the Church and this became a  practice hallowed by tradition. Anyone with money could now pay for the privilege of being buried inside the Church.

The association of the dead with Christian piety is an early association and the veneration of the relics of the saints is identified as early as the second century. In England,  the veneration of the bones of Saint Swithin is a good example of the manner in which bones and relics are acceptable and even desirable. The bones of the saints are needed in society and seen as possessing something of the actual power of the saint. In the year 971, we find that Swithin’s body was transferred from the open air to the inside of Winchester Cathedral and from that point we find his bones venerated, subdivided and glorified inside the environment of the Church building. In such an environment, it is unsurprising that Christians came to accept the dead and their remains in such  close proximity  to the living in worship and prayer.

Discarded stone coffin
© Godric Godricson
 Monuments to record the famous and the ignoble dead become evident around the UK.  Cathedrals and chapels contain both the Holy and Royal burial as well as the nobleman and his family all in search of immortality. Flagstone floors weren't common in rural churches until the 16th and 17th  Centuries and in medieval times church floors might be just compacted earth or laid with small tiles.  Raising these floors to effect a burial was relatively easy and this proved tempting and we can imagine the floor being in a state of constant upheaval. Burials move rapidly from the porch towards the East end and we perceive that the lids of stone coffins are set into the floor until they become a major part of the floor itself. The stone coffins of the 12th Century  were usually hewn out of a solid block of local sedimentary stone with a drainage hole in the base. The coffin lid, often of great thickness, was fashioned out of a slab.  The photograph to the left is a stone coffin in King's Lynn and presumable  was fixed into the floor until discarded at some point along with the disarticulated skeleton.

The research of intramural inhumation or burial in Churches is an increasingly specialist topic and well researched. This research has indicated that churches charged a fee for burials inside Churches and that this became for some parishes a major part of their income.

Chancel floors around England show signs of floor slabs even if that has been re-sited over the years. There may be several slabs set into the floor and we begin to see the names of those buried beneath as people cease to be anonymous individuals. Our ancestors become real people with names and with identities. It was also customary for the priest of the parish to be buried in the Chancel along with the Lord of the Manor.

In the march of humanity towards the East end and the holiest part of the Church, we begin to find  burials placed closest to the main altar or set apart in private chapels within the church. We find extravagantly decorated chapels that reflect the increase of wealth in society and we see the dead being placed above ground in special chapels and underground in specially built crypts and vaults.

Dance of Death


 The practice of burying inside a Church was carried to such an extent that many churches became full of bodies and the Church made money from the burying of the dead inside the Church. In the urban setting and sometimes without access to a cemetery, the Church became overwhelmed with bodies decomposing in graves resting just below the floor or resting in side chapels or stored in ossuary. It is difficult for the 21st Century mind to imagine such an horrific situation developing or  for such a position becoming normal. Such places were said to have been the cause of outbreaks of plague and pestilence although the effects of such intensive burials cannot always be clearly assessed. For an idea of the extent of such practices see a brief explanation of the Cimetière des Innocents in Paris.

Many pre-reformation monuments have been found in 19th century enlargements to Churches although it is clear that many monuments and stone coffins had already been re-used by earlier masons for ordinary building purposes. So much for any claim on immortality.

Although Christianity had grown up cheek by jowl in close proximity to the dead we see that by the middle of the 19th century, the practice of burial inside churches was discontinued for reasons of hygiene. Some memorial stones continued to be laid and burials could be arranged under very strict licence.

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.