“For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not anything, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten”. Ecclesiastes 9:5
How will we be remembered we die? Will we be remembered at all? These are questions which occupied minds in early modern England just as much as now. Wealthy men and women in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries were very concerned about how they would go down to posterity. Although most of them probably believed in a Christian afterlife, they also hoped to prove the above Ecclesiastes verse wrong by ensuring that their memory lived on after death, thus ensuring an earthly quasi-immortality. This could be achieved most obviously through fame as a statesman, soldier or scholar, but one could also hope to secure remembrance via charitable endowments, building and portraiture, as well as through one’s offspring.
During the Middle Ages, paying for the singing of masses had been used by wealthy people as a means of shortening a soul’s stay in Purgatory, and also as a way of remembering and honouring their deceased kin. In post-Reformation England, however, paying for masses was no longer an option, so people had to venerate their family in more tangible ways. Robert Burton (author of The Anatomy of Melancholy) listed the things which well-off people did in the 16th and 17th centuries to commemorate their memory and the memory of their kin. They would dedicate “tombstones and monuments…epitaphs, elegies, inscriptions, pyramids, obelisks, statues, images, pictures, histories, poems, annals, feasts, anniversaries” and would “omit no good office that may tend to the preservation of their names, honours, and eternal memory”.
One notable development in post-Reformation England was the enormous proliferation of funerary monuments both inside and outside churches. Medieval kings and queens had, it is true, merited elaborate tombs, and some nobles and wealthy merchants had also built themselves funerary monuments, but it was really only in the 16th century that the building of monuments and memorial inscriptions great and small took off, cluttering up England’s churches in the attempt to obtain a lasting remembrance on Earth.
Building a memorial for oneself or a family member was, as well as a means of remembering the dead, a sign of piety and worldly status. Only the gentry and wealthy merchants had the money and the social standing necessary to go about erecting memorials in church. The antiquary John Weever wrote that “every man…desires a perpetuity after death, by these monuments”, and a Jacobean antiquary remarked that a man could “perpetuate the reverend memory of his honourable parents, ancestors, and much beloved friends departed” by building them funerary monuments.
Post-Reformation memorial inscriptions frequently contained a moral message, though it was less often a memento mori than a stern exhortation to lead a virtuous life. One 17th century Berkshire monument, after enumerating the qualities of the various members of the Yate family, ended with “Reader, depart, imitate”. Reading about the supposed merits of the deceased was intended to edify the onlooker and encourage them to better behaviour. Archbishop Matthew Parker (1502-75) admitted that the eulogistic epitaph which he wrote for his own tomb had less to do with his actual merits than a desire to make readers aspire to the virtues attributed to him.
Not everyone approved of this: Alexander Pope had no time for such ideas and condemned much of what was written didactically on funerary monuments as “sepulchral lies” (his own epitaph read “[Here] lies one who ne’er cared, and still cares not a pin/ What they said, or may say, of the mortal within”). The poet Matthew Prior wrote in 1714 of memorial inscriptions, “Yet credit but lightly what more may be said/ For we flatter ourselves and teach marble to lie”.
“Sepulchral lies” or not, the past few centuries have bequeathed us a rich collection of funerary monuments in churches across the country, both large and small. On a recent trip to Winchester Cathedral and the nearby Romsey Abbey I was able to see many excellent examples of early modern memorial inscriptions, ranging from the dull to the witty, from the pompous to the pithy.
Some were poignant testimonies of the unpredictability of life in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. I found many memorials dedicated to women who died in childbirth, sometimes just a year after getting married, along with inscriptions which reveal a high rate of infant and child mortality.
Near this place are interred
the remains of Mrs Ann Moody:
She Died January 14th 1780,
Aged 19 Years;
Also her infant Son,
aged 9 Weeks.
Look on this Monument,
Ye Gay and Careless,
think of its date,
and boast no more of to-morrow.
* * *
In Memory of Mary the Wife of John May
who died the 29th November 1781.
Also in Memory of all her children
Mary died in her Infancy
Ann died the 1st of May 1787 aged 17 Years
Mary died in June the same Year aged 11 Years
and Elizabeth died the 20th August 1791 aged 18 Years.
“If e’er the offspring of thy virtuous love bloom’d to thy wish, or to thy soul was Dear, this plaintive Marble asks thee for a tear”.
Although one always expects to find a certain amount of eulogising on the larger memorials, I was surprised by the very secular character of several inscriptions. They seemed more fit for the description of a heroine in an 18th century sentimental novel than for the remembrance of a dead lady, however highborn she might have been. Take, for instance, the memorial inscriptions for Frances Viscount Palmerston and Elizabeth Montagu:
In Memory of Frances Palmerston:
Her Sense was Strong her Judgement accurate,
Her Wit engaging and her Taste refined,
While the Elegance of her Form,
The Graces of her Manners,
And the natural Propriety
That ever accompanied her Words and Actions,
Made her Virtues doubly attractive,
And taught her equally to command
Respect and Love.
* * *
Daughter of Matthew Robinson Esquire
who possessing the united advantages
of Beauty, Wit, Judgement, Reputation and Riches
and employing her talents more uniformly
for the benefit of Mankind
might justly be deem’d an ornament
to her Sex, and Country.
Other epitaphs were simple yet touching; a welcome respite from the monuments which listed every last detail of a distinguished career, or eulogised the apparently endless Christian virtues of the dead. Romsey Abbey had an unusual memorial inscription commissioned by someone for a deceased family servant, “Honest Caspar”, and Winchester Cathedral featured a plaque dedicated to a charitable physician:
Whose Remains are near
this Place deposited under a black Marble Slab.
His many good Qualities, and
long and faithful Service in the Family he lived,
during Sixty Years,
Justly claim this Act of grateful remembrance
from his surviving Master
as also hereby to commemorate
to the rising Generation,
in his Line of Life, to
imitate his worthy Example
He dyed the 26th May 1785
Aged 72 Years.
* * *
To the Memory of William Widmore,
He was (which is most rare)
A friend without guile,
An Apothecary without Ostentation.
His extensive Charity in his profession
Entitles him to be call’d
The Physician of the Poor.
Let other inscriptions boast
Honours, Pedigree, and Riches,
Here lies an honest Englishman.
Who died the 19th Day of June 1756
Although unusual in the early modern period, witty epitaphs and inscriptions were not unheard of. A famous example is the epitaph of the judge John Strange (1696-1754), which reads “Here lies an honest lawyer – that is Strange”. I found a humorous inscription on a gravestone just outside Winchester Cathedral, erected in memory of Thomas Thetcher, a young soldier who died of a fever contracted by drinking small beer on a hot day:
Here sleeps in peace a Hampshire Grenadier
Who caught his death by drinking cold small Beer
Soldiers be wise from his untimely fall
And when ye’re hot drink Strong or none at all.
Nigel Llewellyn, Funeral Monuments in Post-Reformation England (2009)
Nigel Saul, English Church Monuments in the Middle Ages: History and Representation (2011)
Peter Sherlock, Monuments and Memory in Early Modern England (2008)
Keith Thomas, The Ends of Life. Roads to Fulfilment in Early Modern England (2009)