I continue with my belief, informed by decades of ceaseless archaeological research, that many of those given illustrious tombs in the past, those that researchers fawn over, photograph and study, were either pointless tits or complete nipples. I don’t consider it disrespectful to the dead and their descendants to make the point that many of the reputations and legacies enshrined in material form via church and churchyard monuments are grandiose, pompous and problematic to their core. If you are offended, this blog isn’t for you.
My point is that by studying these tombs and highlighting their designs, materialities, biographies, spatial contexts, we don’t have to buy into their hyperbolic and pretentious memorial assertions. Conversely, highlighting their commemorative strategies should also be about exploring the controversial nature of their occupants, their memorial choices, and their legacies within church and churchyard settings.
If tombs are a key to the past, we should be critical of these keys, especially perhaps when they relate to Yales…
This was forthright in my mind as I explored the beautiful Welsh town of Wrexham recently. Inevitably this took me to the magnificent St Giles church, now (incidentally) home to one of Wrexham’s memorial sheep.
Outside the west end of the fabulous early 16th-century church tower is a distinctive memorial space of 18th/19th-century chest tombs, one of which commemorates the famous merchant and governor, patron and founder of Yale University, Eliugh Yale.
I’d like to hazard a guess that he is perhaps the most famous, wealthy and corrupt inhabitant of the churchyard. It is a striking and wealthy if not distinctive tomb and it is prominently situated for all to see it. Its location has been clearly respected and the tomb is well maintained.
On its south side it says:
Eliugh Yale Esq
was buried the twenty second of july
the year of our Lord
Meanwhile, on the north side is a more elaborate epitaph.
- Born in America, in Europe bred
- In Africa travell’d and in Asia wed
- Where long he liv’d and thriv’d; In London dead
- Much good, some ill, he did; so hope all’s even
- And that his soul thro’ mercy’s gone to Heaven
- You that survive and read this tale, take care
- For this most certain exit to prepare
- Where blest in peace, the actions of the just
- Smell sweet and blossom in the silent dust.
In short, he’s probably in Hell and the mourners knew it!
The Absent Stone
If there is anything more self-aggrandising than having a celebrated tomb, its having bits of stone sent across the globe to commemorate your legacy.
On the west face of the church tower, immediately overlooking Yale’s tomb, is a curious commemorative feature. A fresh stone inserted to replace one taken away and gifted to Yale University. To materialise this gift, its replacement bears a text, interestingly in the closing year of the First World War. In short, this is a memorial to an absent stone: the medium and subject are thus identical in size and materiality. In this fashion, the new stone commemorates its ‘gifted’ predecessor, tying them both into the story of Wrexham’s past with Yale’s globe-trotted career of plunder.
Yale’s legacy takes another form. Elsewhere I’ve discussed how cremation burial has afforded a memorial ‘switchback’ – allowing the recent dead to repopulate some of the oldest areas of English and Welsh churchyards, including those in close proximity to the oldest and most illustrious graves and the church building itself. The choice to cluster new cremation burials around the chest tombs west of the church tower, including Yale’s, strikingly illustrates my argument. The modern dead of the parish are thus tied into Yale’s legacy.