London is basically built on layer upon layer of graves. The book opens with the Bronze Age tumulus on Parliament Hill, which the author calls one of the oldest burial grounds in the city, predating Highgate Cemetery by over 4000 years. I would have liked to hear much more about the earliest burials in the area.
And I would have liked to read more about the Roman-era graves as well. I was thoroughly fascinated by the earliest chapters of this book, since those are the times I am the least familiar with.
The book really grabbed me when it explored the plague pits of the medieval Black Death. I hadn’t realized that the Danse Macabre (or Machabray) had ever come to England from the continent. I could have read much more about those centuries, although so little seems to be left above ground to mark them.
The Tudor chapters were fascinating, but things started to slow down for me after that, as the author got into material I knew better. If you are newer to the study of all things dead in London, you might find this crucial material. For me, the pace dragged.
There were highlights, though. I loved to read about Shelley and Keats in Highgate Village, before the cemetery was built. I’m fascinated by the work of Isabella Holmes, previously unknown to me. She visited every surviving graveyard in London, in hopes of closing them down and converting them to parks. I’m going to have to track down her reports. And the chapter about the fight to legalize cremation gave me insight into another subject I don’t know enough about.
All in all, this is a very readable book, full of intriguing tidbits and lots of food for thought. However, I wish each chapter had a map to display the locations of the places she talks about — or better yet, transparent maps so you could overlay them as see how deep the bodies go.
Cemetery of the Week #175: Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vincula Address: The Tower of London EC3N, England Phone: 0870 756 6060 Founded: 12th century? Number interred: approximately 1500 Open: Currently 9 AM – 5:30 daily. Last admission: 5 PM Admission: Adult: £29.90 Child: £14.90 Website:https://www.hrp.org.uk/tower-of-london/
When the Tower of London was built by William the Conqueror after the Battle of Hastings, some kind of chapel was probably also built on this site, according to London Cemeteries. It may even be the oldest church in London, if Who Lies Where can be believed. Either way, the Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vincula — St. Peter in Chains — was officially founded during the 12th-century reign of Henry I. The crypt is all that remains of that original church. The building that survives today was built by Henry VIII between 1519 and 1529.
Of the 1500 people buried at the Chapel Royal, some were executed on Tower Hill or on the Tower Green just outside the chapel’s door. Among them lies Bishop John Fisher (1467-1535), who was accused of treason after opposing Henry VIII’s decision to secede from the Catholic Church. As a reward for Fisher’s faith, the Pope created him a cardinal and sealed his fate in May 1535. Fisher declared, “The King was not, nor could be, by the law of God, Supreme Head of the Church of England.” He was executed on June 22.
While his body was buried beneath the floor at St. Peter ad Vincula, Fisher’s head was parboiled and placed on a spike on London Bridge. A folktale says that his head looked healthier and healthier as the summer heat wore on. Eventually, the crowds who came to see the miracle were so disruptive that the head was thrown into the Thames.
Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), the author of Utopia and a friend of Henry VIII’s, served as Speaker of the House of Commons and Lord Chancellor. More, who believed that “no temporal man may be head of the spirituality,” was summoned alongside Fisher to swear allegiance to the Parliamentary Act of Succession on April 13, 1534. Neither man would do so.
A devout Roman Catholic, More refused to speak at all during his trial. Others (some in service of Thomas Cromwell) testified that More refused to acknowledge Henry as head of the Church of England and denied Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn was legitimate. The court, which included Anne’s father, uncle, and brother, took only 15 minutes to find More guilty. He was sentenced to be drawn and quartered, but the king amended that to beheading.
After his execution in July 1535, More’s body was buried in an unmarked grave inside St. Peter ad Vincula. His head was set on a spike on London Bridge, where his daughter rescued it, possibly by bribery. His skull is believed to rest alongside her in the Roper vault at St. Dunstan’s Church in Canterbury, but More’s cenotaph stands in Chelsea Old Church, where he’d had the chapel rebuilt. A shrine was eventually constructed for him in the vault below St. Peter ad Vincula.
Both Fisher and More were beatified in 1886, before being canonized in 1935.
Their antagonist Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s assistant in the dissolution of the monasteries and Protestantization of England, fell from grace when he arranged the marriage of Henry VIII to Anne of Cleves. Cromwell was accused of heresy and treason and was executed on Tower Hill before being buried here in 1540.
Anne Boleyn’s birth year is uncertain (variously 1500, 1501, or 1507), but her death date is clear: May 19, 1536. After less than three years of marriage to Henry VIII, she’d given birth to a daughter (who would become Elizabeth I) and miscarried three more children, including a son in 1535. By March of 1536, Henry was courting Anne’s replacement, Jane Seymour.
The following month, one of Anne’s musicians was arrested. Under torture, he confessed to being Anne’s lover, then went on to implicate four other men. Anne’s brother George was arrested and charged with incest. Anne was accused of witchcraft and adultery, which amounted to treason since she was queen.
She was arrested on May 2. A barge took her from the palace at Greenwich to the Traitor’s Gate at the Tower. As she was escorted to a 14×8-foot cell in the Lieutenant’s lodgings, Anne became hysterical, laughing and crying so much that she frightened those in attendance.
Her show trial on May 15 was attended by 200 people. Anne was acquitted of incest, for which she could have been burned at the stake, but was found guilty of treason. From her room in the Tower, she watched the scaffold being built on Tower Green. An expert executioner was imported from Calais.
Four days later, Anne wore a dark gray gown with a crimson petticoat to her beheading. She knelt upright, after the French fashion of execution, and was blindfolded. The executioner removed her head with a single stroke of his double-edged sword.
No arrangements had been made for her burial, so her corpse lay on the platform until someone retrieved an arrow chest to serve as her coffin. Her ladies waited beside it until someone was found who could open the chapel’s floor so she could be laid to rest. As was the custom for those who were executed, her grave wasn’t marked but its location was recorded.
During Queen Victoria’s renovations to the chapel in 1876, Anne’s body was identified (or not—experts differ) and reburied on the left side of the altar under a marble plaque that bears her name.
The five men accused of adultery with Anne were executed publicly on Tower Hill on May 17, 1536. Without ceremony or memorial, their headless bodies were buried under the nave inside St. Peter ad Vincula. They were buried with quicklime, which dehydrates the flesh and prevented the smell of decay from disrupting services in the chapel.
Catherine Howard became Henry’s fifth wife at age 19, when he was in his fifties and running out of time to father a healthy male heir. They married on July 28, 1540, the day of Cromwell’s execution. The following year, desperate to bear the king a son and save her own life, Catherine began a relationship with Thomas Culpepper, one of Henry’s favorite courtiers. She also hired Francis Derehem, to whom she’d been betrothed before marrying Henry, as her secretary. The two men confessed, under heavy torture, to adultery with the queen.
After only 18 months of marriage, Catherine was executed on February 13, 1542. Afraid that the executioner would botch it, Catherine called for a rehearsal the night before her death. In the morning, she needed assistance to climb the steps to the scaffold. Her last words, according to legend, were, “I die as a Queen, but I would rather have died the wife of Culpepper.” She was beheaded with a single stroke of an axe and buried in an unmarked grave inside St. Peter ad Vincula. Her body was not identified during the Victorian renovation.
The third queen at rest (or not) inside the Chapel Royal was a teenager when she died. Lady Jane Grey was born sometime around 1537, the granddaughter of Mary Tudor. When she was 10, she was sent to live in the household of Catherine Parr, Henry VIII’s widow, who had remarried after Henry’s death.
At the age of 16, Jane married Lord Guilford Dudley. As Edward VI lay dying in Summer 1553, he drafted a document to forbid the crown from passing to a Catholic. Encouraged by Jane’s father-in-law, Edward specifically named Jane as his successor. The first British monarch raised a Protestant, Edward was the only surviving male heir of Henry VIII, the son of Jane Seymour.
Three days after Edward’s death, Jane was informed she was now queen. Reluctantly, she accepted the crown on July 10, 1553 and took residence in the Tower of London. Nine days later, the Privy Council switched their allegiance to Mary, daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. Jane became a prisoner in the Tower and was convicted of usurping the throne.
Guilford Dudley was executed on Tower Hill on February 12, 1554. Queen Mary allowed her cousin Jane to be executed privately on Tower Green. Jane ritually washed her hands of the throne and blindfolded herself, but when she couldn’t find the executioner’s block, she began to panic. Someone helped her to the block, where she commended her spirit to God. A single axe stroke ended her life.
Lady Jane Grey was buried on the lower step of the altar with her husband, Guilford Dudley. A marble plaque, placed during the Victorian renovation, marks their grave.
When the chapel was restored in 1876, most of the remains and some intact coffins buried under the chapel’s floor were re-interred in the medieval crypt. In all, some 1500 people are buried in the crypt: prisoners (some with their heads), soldiers who had been stationed at the Tower, the Tower’s administrators, and other Tower denizens.
No photos are allowed in the chapel, which is still a working church. It’s possible to attend a communion service or a choral Matins. Otherwise, tourists are allowed inside only by joining a Yeoman Warder’s tour, which is free with an admission ticket to the Tower. Tours begin every 30 minutes at the entrance to the Tower.
Books I Consulted – the highlighted ones I’ve reviewed on Cemetery Travel:
If you’ve ever loved the roar of traffic and the screaming engines of passenger aircraft, there is one cemetery that stands head and shoulders above the rest. Located near the idyllic Chiswick House and the beautiful A136 dual carriageway, behind the stout iron railings and red brick pillars, is probably one of London’s least tranquil and restful cemeteries, next to a train line and directly under the Heathrow flight path.
Loren very kindly invited me to write about a Cemetery which is special to me. I have a choice of two. Out of the hat, I’ve decided to go for Chiswick New Cemetery.
Chiswick. Where’s that? If you’re a Doctor Who aficionado, you may be aware it’s where Donna Noble, companion of the Tenth Doctor, lives. Chiswick New Cemetery opened in response to Chiswick Old becoming full – the likes of William Hogarth and Whistler are buried there – so in 1933, a former water meadow was redeveloped into a municipal cemetery to serve a borough facing the prospect of war.
Chiswick New is not in the same league as Highgate or Brompton, which, you may be aware, are part of the Magnificent Seven Cemeteries in London (a ring of death that circled the Capital and receive its dead to the present day, to varying degrees). The Magnificent Seven’s success spawned further places of burial. By the time Chiswick opened, mourning had changed from the pomp and grandeur of those original Seven and it was all a much quieter affair.
Despite this, there are some things to look out for, such as the striking chapel built out of the same stone as St. Paul’s Cathedral, interspersed with red brick for good measure and echoing the Art Deco style that was so popular at the time. There are also a good number of Russian crosses, reflecting the Russian community that settled in Chiswick over the years, as well as the large Irish Catholic contingent, who drape many graves with rosary beads and images of Our Lady.
One of the things I learnt when visiting Chiswick New was that John Sullivan wrote something other than hit UK TV sitcom Only Fools and Horses. Here, beneath an intricately crafted iron floral cross and a vast mass of lavender swarming with honey bees, is the actor Ralph Bates, best known for his role in Sullivan’s short-lived Dear John sitcom. Born in Bristol in 1940, he was the great-great nephew of vaccination and microbiologist Louis Pasteur and became a key actor in the later Hammer Horror films.
Another actor of stage and screen is here: Bonar Colleano, who hailed from an Australian circus family but was himself born in New York in the mid-1920s. Moving to London to tour the music halls and work in stage and radio, his decision, when war was declared in 1939, to entertain the troops meant that he was not called up for active service by either British or American forces.
His best-known work was appearing opposite actress Vivien Leigh in the London run of A Streetcar Named Desire. A car crash in 1958 cut short a promising career.
Then there’s also the Car Lady of Chiswick, Anne Naysmith, who made the headlines a few years ago for living in a shelter behind Stamford Brook station after being evicted from her house. A formidable concert pianist in her youth, she experienced heartbreak in the 1970s, which pushed her to willingly living on the street. She accepted no charity and lived on £10 ($14.50) a week. Her clothing was a mixture of different materials and her shoes were made of supermarket carrier bags, pigeon feathers, and elastic bands. Despite her poverty, she had a stockbroker in the City and an investment portfolio. Her story bears a strong resemblance to Alan Bennett’s Lady in the Van, featuring the marvellous Dame Maggie Smith.
Toward the back of the cemetery, by a very tall Leylandii hedge, is the grave of Havildar Lachhiman Gurung VC of the Gurkha Rifles, who won the army’s highest accolade in World War II by repeatedly throwing grenades out of the trench he was sharing with his comrades. The third grenade exploded as he held it, blasting off his fingers, shattering his right arm and severely wounding his face, body, and right leg. Despite this, he kept on fighting, singlehandedly repelling an attack by the German forces, killing 31 of them by firing a machine gun with one hand.
I met a delightful cat at his grave.
Chiswick New has a particular interest for me because one of my grandmothers is buried there. The grave she’s in has been a place of pilgrimage ever since I was born; it’s where my grandfather and great grandparents are buried. This was the only grave that I was allowed to see when we visited. Whilst people such as Ralph Bates and Anne Naysmith were nearby, I never got the chance to see or explore their lives, as I was far too young to be wandering around on my own.
Now, the blog I co-write with Christina and others seeks to open up these places of the dead and show you the lives once lived. And it partly started from here.
Sheldon K. Goodman is a City of Westminster guide with a passion for exploring the environment around us. He has an extensive and deep interest in cemeteries and the people buried within them, which he shares at www.cemeteryclub.co.uk. Sheldon also leads tours around London: regularly around Tower Hamlets and Brompton Cemeteries, as well as upcoming walks around Soho and Bloomsbury in Summer 2016.
About the Death’s Garden project:
For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married or did anything else unusual in one. The submissions guidelines are here.
It was the long, hot summer of 1989 when I first visited Nunhead Cemetery. My father had died unexpectedly earlier that year, the first death of someone really close to me. He’d been cremated, so there was no resting place for me, or anyone else, to visit and grieve.
This was Nunhead’s annual Open Day, so I took the opportunity to enjoy its Gothic atmosphere. I was already drawn to Victorian cemeteries after reading Hugh Meller’s London Cemeteriesand Nunhead is one of London’s Magnificent 7. Lucinda Lambton once described them as a jet black necklace running through London. Nunhead was no municipal cemetery, neatly manicured, tombstones in neat rows like teeth. Inside the imposing gates was overgrown Gothic splendour: angels under dark canopies of leaves and ivy, a roofless chapel, a myriad of fascinating monuments and memorials. I felt that I wanted to be amongst these reminders of the dead and departed to mourn. I was home.
I joined the Friends on that day in 1989 and began working on the monthly Friends of Nunhead Cemetery publications stall, which accompanied the general cemetery tours. You never knew who would come up to the stall to speak to you. Often it was local residents who remembered playing in the cemetery after it was abandoned and locked up by its owners in 1969. Its railings long gone for the war effort, nothing prevented anyone going in and exploring. I wouldn’t have been able to resist it. There were horrible tales of mausoleums being broken into, coffins lying about after having been rifled for jewelery — and skeletons as well. Eventually, questions were asked in the Houses of Parliament. As a result, the local council bought it for £1.
Visitors often just said how creepy it was, but what an amazing place inside. One man told me that he was a psychic and could sense all the departed spirits around him. He added that he was reassuring them and sending them on their way elsewhere. He seemed completely sincere. I’ve often wondered since what it must be like to have that kind of ability.
Sometimes visitors would ask about one particular symbol, as they couldn’t understand what it was doing in a cemetery. This was what they called ‘the dollar sign’ or the combination of the letters IHS which means Jesus Honimum Salvator. I found out what it was for future questions, which led me onto a fascination with the meaning of cemetery symbols.
As a result, I created the Symbols tour and began my career as a tour guide. Originally it was just going to be about symbols, but visitors also wanted the general history of the cemetery and the reasons behind the Magnificent 7’s creation. It’s always a little scary when you announce yourself to the gathered group and all eyes turn to you and your mind goes completely blank.
But they’re always very keen. On a very wet Sunday afternoon, I kept turning round, thinking that the group behind me would all have given up but, no, they kept going right to the end. Unfortunately, although the Victorians ‘borrowed’ from classical antiquity, Arts & Crafts, Celtic and Egyptian civilisations, they didn’t put them in chronological order in the graveyard, so we have to run about a bit.
I soon realised the value of visual material to hand round and spent an afternoon in the British Museum researching our largest monument: the John Allan tomb, based on the tomb of Payava in Lycia, Turkey. It takes up an entire room of the museum. I was always interested in history at school and my involvement in cemeteries has been a marvellous way to keep involved.
You never know what you might find in a cemetery, despite how familiar you are with it. In 2013, during a long winter, we discovered an unusual anchor-shaped tombstone commemorating a sailor killed in the First World War, although not buried there. In Winter 2014, I was updating my tour notes. Whilst walking along a familiar path, I looked up to see a small face carved at the centre of a cross which I had never seen before. I will have to do some more research on it.
I always emphasise on the Symbols tour that it’s an introduction to the subject and there are many more to found. Even on modern memorials there is often a symbol, a way of individualising it. In Nunhead, we have one 15-year-old boy’s grave ornamented with a football and snooker board, and the mask of comedy and tragedy on an actor’s grave.
I’ve only had one strange experience in the cemetery, or rather, outside it. One Christmas I was on my way to a Christmas social at a local community centre. As I passed by the cemetery‘s high wall along deserted Linden Grove, I heard children’s voices from inside the cemetery. As it was a cold night, I didn’t think children would be out playing. The houses opposite didn’t have any windows open. I walked on and the voices faded behind me.
The Brockley footpath runs along one of the high walls of the cemetery. Ill-lit, it is pitch black at night. Atmospheric, to say the least. I was making my way along it as a shortcut to an evening walk. Whenever I looked back, I could see that the darkness catching up behind me. I did walk a little faster after that.
I have visited cemeteries in the UK, America, and Venice. The way in which the dead are treated are often an indication of how the living are treated. Tears pricked my eyes at Ground Zero. Calton Hill in Edinburgh was certainly the eeriest one I’ve visited. Then there was the supernatural experience I had in Greyfriars Kirkyard, but that’s another story. However, Nunhead will always feel like home. No famous people, no royal connections, but instead a place in which to wander, to reflect, admire the view of St Paul’s Cathedral from the top of the hill, as butterflies flutter around you on a warm summer’s day.
Carole Tyrrell has always had a desire to walk on the darker side of life. A published ghost story writer, her passion for cemeteries and graveyards began after her father died and she felt a need to be where the dead were remembered. She visited cemeteries in New York, Venice, Edinburgh, and all over the UK, but she prefers slightly overgrown Victorian cemeteries where ivy-clad angels watch as she discovers the stories behind every epitaph. She is a cemetery tour guide, specialising in the intriguing subject of symbols, and has her own blog called Shadows Fly Away. You can keep up with her on Facebook.
About the Death’s Garden project:
For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. (This one’s a little late.) If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you. The submissions guidelines are here.
Vintage postcard of Stoke Poges Churchyard, pre-1924, when the spire was removed.
St. Giles Church
Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire, SL2 4NZ, United Kingdom
Telephone: +44 1753 642331 Founded: circa 1086 Size: 3 acres Number of interments: unknown Open: St. Giles’ Church is open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Legend says that Thomas Gray was inspired to write the “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” while visiting this small churchyard in the heart of England. Famous and Curious Cemeteries claims the poem is “the greatest tribute to any burial ground.” It may be one of the goth-est poems every written, with verses such as this:
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r, And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave, Awaits alike the inevitable hour: The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
Yew tree, porch, and wooden grave boards, about 1790
The church served the manor, which stands 200 yards away, and never had a village nearby. The manor itself was probably a Saxon thane’s home until the Norman Conquest in 1066. The Normans didn’t waste any time before settling in; by the 1080s, they were already building the first church. The Chancel (the part near the altar) walls and pillars in the Nave (the main body of the church) remain of that Norman church.
The church is first mentioned in 1107, when it was “made over” with money tithed to the Priory of St. Mary Overie in Southwark. It was remodeled every hundred years or so, enlarged and improved. In 1702, the spire was erected – Gray admires it in his poem as the “ivy-mantled tower” – but the ivy damaged the spire and it was removed in 1924, when it was in danger of collapse.
The word Stoke meant a stockaded place. It was large and important enough in 1086 that the lord of the manor became known as William of Stoke. In the 13th century, Amicia of Stoke, heiress of the manor, married Robert Pogeys, and their land became known as Stoke Poges.
Inside the chancel, on the left, stands the tomb of Sir John de Molyns, Marshal of the King’s Falcons and Supervisor of the King’s Castles. He served both Edward II and Edward III, but was a robber baron who is believed to have murdered his wife’s uncle and cousin in order to inherit their land. He died in March 1360.
Souvenir booklet published in 1948: “copyright reserved by the Vicar.” The aerial view of the church shows the manor up toward the right corner.
Around 1558, Lord Hastings of Loughborough built a chapel for the “inmates of an almshouse” that stood nearby. The chapel was also intended to serve as a burial place for the Hastings family. On the chapel’s south wall is a mural with cherubs’ heads and skulls, which is believed to be a memorial, although it doesn’t have any names on it. Sir Thomas and Sir Walter Clarges were buried somewhere nearby with their families from 1677 to 1728, but the graves have been lost.
The “most ancient monument” found in the churchyard was a flat tombstone dug out of the churchyard. It was moved into the Hastings chapel and placed near the door. Around its edge, it says in Norman French, “All those who pass by here, Pray for the soul of this one. William of Wytermerse he had for a name. God to him grant true pardon.”
Thomas Gray’s tomb
Thomas Gray (1716-71) himself lies in a brick tomb next to his mother and her unmarried sister under the east window of the Hastings Chapel, just outside the east end of St. Giles’ Church. His name doesn’t appear on the tomb, but a tablet in the wall records his burial “in the same tomb upon which he has so unfeeling inscribed his grief at the loss of a beloved parent.”
Immediately opposite the southwest door of St. Giles’ Church stands the yew tree under which Gray composed his poem.
The churchyard was enlarged twice since Gray’s burial, but is now closed. A new cemetery opened in 1911, immediately adjacent.
Useful links: History of Stoke Poges Church at the church’s website
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