I’m interested in ruins as contexts for mortuary deposition and commemorative practice, both in the distant past and in more recent times. A good example of this is Bolton Abbey in West Yorkshire. It is widely regarded by many as simply a ‘ruin’ of a 12th-century house of Augustinian canons dissolved in the early 16th century, and thus today a 21st-century picturesque recreational space for a day out from the towns and cities of the county. The Bolton Abbey website claims this is a place to ‘escape the 21st century’. I also like how the visualisation of the space denies the dead: the mortuary remains are ‘written out’ of the heritage experience yet again!
Yet Bolton Abbey is also a distinctive deathscape with a complex material history of death and commemoration since the Dissolution. The nave of the priory became a chapel of Skipton parish, and so the former Augustinian priory persisted as a place of worship, but also burial and memorialisation, following the monastic closure of 1539-40. It became an independent parish church from 1864, and thus the church and the ruins have witnessed an emerging network of memorials from the 16th century to the present day.
Inside the abbey are displayed fragments of memorialisation in the medieval past, now part of the story of the Augustinian priory and its patrons. These are the fragments of the 15th-century tomb of John Clifford, 7th Baron de Clifford, Lord of Skipton. Information tells us anachronistically that his ‘remains are buried in the ruined chancel’ (meaning of course they were buried in the chancel before its ruination!).
On the wall, clearly re-arranged from elsewhere into a single memorial display, are three 18th-century brass plaques in that wonderful vernacular script found on many Yorkshire gravestones of that century.
There is an extensive 19th- and 20th-century churchyard that encircles both church and ruins. The medievalism of some of the 19th-century gravestones is stark. In this fashion, both church and ruins operate as a place of burial and commemoration in a fashion akin to St John’s Priory in Chester and Tally Abbey, Carmarthenshire.
Located in the NW corner of the churchyard beside the road is a further material connection to an imagined medieval Christian past. The memorial is a circle-headed ‘Celtic’ cross design inspired by early medieval Irish high crosses and I confess I took it to be a First World War memorial. However, it states that it commemorates Lord Cavendish who was killed three decades before the outbreak of that conflict:
TO THE BELOVED MEMORY OF
LORD FREDERICK CHARLES CAVENDISH
SON OF WILLIAM 7TH DUKE OF DEVONSHIRE
AND OF PLANCHE GEORGINA HIS WIFE
BORN NOVEMBER 30, 1836.
HE WENT OUT AS CHIEF SECRETARY TO IRELAND
FULL OF LOVE TO THAT COUNTRY
FULL OF HOPE FOR HER FUTURE
FULL OF CAPACITY TO RENDER HER SERVICE
HE WAS MURDERED
IN THE PHOENIX PARK DUBLIN
WITHIN TWELVE HOURS OF HIS ARRIVAL
MAY 6 1882.
THE LORD GRANT THEE THY HEART’S DESIRE
AND FULFIL ALL THY MIND
This cross’s Irish allusions are therefore by no means happenstance. This monument was erected to the memory of a Liberal politician who never got to serve, let alone see, Ireland and its early medieval monuments. This one was raised by the estate’s tenants, but there is a more elaborate neo-Gothic fountain raised as a memorial to the same gentleman close by on the estate but outside the churchyard.
Another aspect of the modern (19th/early 20th-century) use of the ruins are the relocation of disturbed gravestones beside the abbey ruins. One of them at least might be a real medieval grave-slab!
With my interest in contemporary archaeology, I must emphasise the most recent connections between death, burial, commemoration and the medieval priory ruins. The cremation memorial plot was chosen to re-connect in a close spatial way with the east end of the abbey ruins. With the outer wall of the church as its backdrop, and looking out over the 19th-century gravestones, the recent cremated dead are thus immersed in the past and discrete from the surrounding churchyard. Individually modest and neatly arranged within a wooden fenced area beside a path, they reconnect to the ruins in a more intimate fashion than the churchyard it overlooks.
Time for one final memorial connection? Around the priory ruins there are a range of memorial benches, closely spaced and looking out at the churchyard and the surrounding landscape. Their texts are either carved or upon plaques. Each bench’s text begins with the suffixes ‘In loving memory’ and ‘In memory’ and commemorate individuals who died in the 1990s and 2000s. One is to a ‘beloved guide & fellow Christian’. A further one simply bears a name only. One articulates affinity to the place: ‘Bolton Abbey – her Heaven on Earth’. Another states ‘Forever at Peace at her beloved Bolton Abbey & Priory’.
So we’ve sketched the ‘deathscape’ of Bolton Abbey. What other traces of death and memory can be found in the wider landscape?