Highgate is a functioning cemetery, so my trip there allowed me to extend my collection into the 21st century. I lingered particularly in the vicinity of Karl Marx, a favourite resting place of old comrades. I didn’t find many personal virtues here, however, just a lot of mission statements. (Kay Titmus, spouse of the better-known Richard, is described as a “committed” wife, which makes it sound as if she was married to a trade union.) But as one moves away from Marx, family sentiment reasserts itself. “Loving” remains the most popular adjective – loving husbands, loving wives, loving parents, and (a new addition, this) loving grandparents.
The last three decades have brought some striking changes as well, however. Gone are the self-mortifying virtues of an earlier age; in their place “passion“, “vibrancy“, “love of life“, “mischievous Irish spirit. Gone, too, is any notion of a world beyond the grave. The tone is backward-looking, but celebratory. Perhaps this can be related to other recent changes in the ceremonial of death, such as the habit of wearing brightly coloured clothes to funerals, or of painting coffins with flowers.
The epitaph here, of Matthew Faherty, is representative of an entirely new type. Although long, it contains little that I could catalogue under any of my traditional virtue headings. It is an affectionate, jokey memorial to one individual’s eccentricities, as seen by members of his immediate family. The key line comes at the end: Matt Faherty was “one of a kind”. There is something in the modern mindset that bridles at the thought that an individual could be summed up in general descriptions, even honorific ones such as “brave” or “generous”. We want to be remembered for our quirks, not our virtues.
A recent walk around Highgate Cemetery has added 77 new records to the collection, including this simple epitaph to William Morton, who died in 1896.
Highgate Cemetery opened in 1839 as one of a number of new burial grounds designed to relieve pressure on the crowded and unsanitary churchyards of central London. It contains thousands of monuments, only a small fraction of which – 1 per cent or fewer, by my reckoning – mention the virtues of the deceased. Most tombs simply give names and dates, followed by a Biblical verse. Some are inscribed with a few lines of sentimental poetry, expressing grief and a hope of “meeting again”. If any virtues feature, they are usually those of the good spouse and parent, as in the case of William here. Of all the epitaphs in Highgate Cemetery, I found only three in the older, more expansive manner: Alexander Gooden (d. 1841), Josias Wilson (d. 1847), and Henry Richmond (d. 1858). (There may be more: I can’t claim to have checked them all.)
How can we explain this new style of commemorating of the dead? One possibly relevant fact is that a Highgate tomb, unlike a tomb in a church or churchyard, was unlikely to be seen except by friends and family. Its function was not to proclaim the deceased’s virtues to the world but to record the feelings of his near and dear. But more “ideological” factors were also at play. Victorian epitaph compilers execrated the “pagan pride” implicit in lengthy paeans to the deceased. In the words of one Joseph Snow (1847), the purpose of an epitaph is “not to furnish hyperbolic compliment or stilted panegyric, but to suggest, as regards the dead, immortal hopes, to mourners, a sedate sorrow, and to general readers, earnest and solemn admonition.” This advice, repeated by many subsequent writers, was clearly heeded .
William Prude, “lieftennant coronell in the Belgick Warres”, who died at the siege of Maastricht in 1632, is the only seventeenth-century soldier in the database so far. We have one soldier from the late-sixteenth century, Cornelius Vandun, who served “with K Henry at Turney”, and one seventeenth-century admiral, Sir William Penn, father of the founder of Pennsylvania, who died in 1670. Military men were not commonly commemorated before the Napoleonic wars. From 1700 to 1789 we have only 8 records out of a total of 147. Then there is a sudden explosion. Between 1790 and 1819, officers are commemorated in 31 epitaphs out of a total of 163, a fourfold increase from the previous century, and their proportion remains high through to the First World War. Whether this is to be explained by the growing prestige of soldiering, or simply a greater number of men in uniform, I am not sure; probably a combination of the two.
Little is known about William Prude. He was presumably one of the many English mercenaries active in Germany and the Low Countries during the Thirty Years War, drawn by the prospect of loot and glory. His epitaph tells us that “his life was war”, and that “what he wonne, he drew by just deseart”, having been in service from sixteen till “neere sixty” – a point underlined by the trumpets, drums and cannons which embellish the tomb. His virtues are those we would expect of an old soldier: valour, nobility and “fearlessness of death”. Understandably absent, on the other hand, are any of those virtues commonly ascribed to soldiers in the era of national armies: patriotism, loyalty to the reigning monarch, and public service. Colonel Prude was a freebooter. If he fought bravely, it was on his own behalf, not for “king and country”.
My main interest in tombstones is for what they say about the dead: this has shaped the way I have designed this website. But in the course of my research, I have found myself more and more drawn to inscriptions as specimens of the stone-carver’s art. Here is a particularly lovely example, from the plaque of Philip Allanson, “gentleman”, who died in Bath in 1767. The man who carved it has made free use of italics and capitals, and also of the long ‘s’ (ſ) – though only in the middle, not at the ends of words. All these are typical features of eighteenth-century lettering. Notice also the spacing between letters and words. It is wide, and varies subtly for the sake of balance and emphasis. (Thus for example the middle line, “to all that knew him”, is more widely spaced than the line above. Presumably this is to make it longer, and to give it extra force, since it ends the first sentence.) In general, as my stone carver friend Emma Lavender has pointed out to me, eighteenth-century carved lettering follows the rhythms of handwritten, not printed text; this is what gives it its flowing, unconstrained quality.
Around 1815, the style changes markedly. Inscriptions from this date onward are modeled on print, not handwriting. The letters are evenly formed and spaced. Often capitals are used throughout. The overall effect is more mechanical, and less engaging. The tombstones of Anna Stanhope (1819) and William Arney (1824) are typical.
This tombstone of infant Samuel Friend and his sister Joan is quite special. For a start, it is unusually well-preserved for an eighteenth century tomb outside the church, being made of an extra-hard slate common on Dartmoor. (St. Petroc’s in Lydford contains several tombs cut from the same slate, some of them for other members of the Friend family.)
But the most charming feature of Samuel and Joan’s tomb is the naive angel which tops it, with her wild googly eyes. She is, presumably, blowing the last trump, but it looks more like she is smoking a huge pipe. There are other similar carvings in St. Petroc’s churchyard, possibly by the same local artist.
At the bottom of the inscription is a pious poem, of the sort common on children’s tombs, reassuring onlookers that “we are now where the angels be”. Above it are the Latin words: Memento Mori, Vita Brevis – “Remember death, life is brief”. I have created a special category for what I call “reminders of death”. It brings up 28 records in all, with the highest concentration in the early 17th century. (Between 1610 and 1650, 6 out of the 13 recorded epitaphs have a “memento mori” theme. ) By the mid-eighteenth century, reminders of death have become much rarer. I have 13 records dated between 1730 and 1790, out of a total of 107. Six of these are from St. Petroc’s; another three are from the Priory Church of St Mary, Abergavenny. Perhaps it was only on the outer fringes of the British isles that this gloomy theme still persisted during the age of Enlightenment.
Daniel Pulteney (1684-1731) was a government official and politician, sitting in the House of Commons from 1721 till his death in 1731. Like his better-known cousin, William Pulteney, he was one of the “Patriot Whigs” opposed to the government of Robert Walpole, which might explain why he never held high office. His epitaph, in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey, is long on patriotic virtues and short on actual achievements. Indeed, it mentions no achievements at all. Epitaphs of nineteenth-century public figures never fail, by contrast, to detail the ways in which they benefited the country. I think we can see in this a shift from a “virtue-centred” to an “achievement-centred” conception of politics. In the eighteenth century, it was considered sufficient for a public figure to have manifested certain qualities of mind and character. In the nineteenth century, he had to have actually done something.
Among the virtues for which Pulteney is commemorated are “independence” and “disinterestedness“. The one implies that Pulteney was “his own man”, in no one else’s pocket; the other that he judged all things according to the national, not his own private interest. Both were quintessentially Georgian virtues. “Independence” last appears in 1839; “disinterestedness” in 1824. Neither virtue made it into the post-Reform era of organised party politics.
Christopher Pitt, an eighteenth-century clergyman poet, was resident most of his adult life in or near Blandford Forum, Dorset, where his tombstone stands. He is hardly known today, but was well respected during his life for his translation of the Aeneid, which earned him a short mention in Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the English Poets.
The inscription on his tomb is simple and elegant, and representative of a style which came into fashion in England in the middle decades of the eighteenth century. Seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century inscriptions are typically “unlineated”, meaning that their lines run on from edge to edge, as in ordinary prose. See the epitaph of Mary Marow (d. 1714) for a typical example. Christopher Pitt’s epitaph consists, by contrast, of short lines which have evidently been broken off at points carefully selected with a view to rhythm and “point”. This is a genre of writing all of its own, distinct from both prose and verse.
John Sparrow, the famous Warden of All Souls, wrote a fascinating little book, Visible Words (1969), on inscriptions as works of art. One chapter is devoted to the “lineated inscription”, which Sparrow sees as a typical expression of the seventeenth-century taste for concision and wit. But Sparrow’s survey is confined to Continental Europe. In England, still on the periphery of European artistic culture, the lineated inscription arrived somewhat later.
Lineation provided the epigrapher with some remarkable effects, which can only be appreciated by seeing his work in its original setting. This is, as Sparrow shows, a unique form of literary composition, addressed to both mind and eye together. It deserves more study than it has been given.
“Of great prudence, firmness and honour and a faithful member of the Church of England, she was loved by all who knew her for the gentleness and simplicity of her manners, her sweetness of temper, and her exemplary life.” Thus runs the epitaph of Harriet North, Countess of Guilford. “Prudence” (obscured by the reflection in the brass) is worth dwelling on. This classical virtue appears thirteen times in the records, at fairly regular intervals from 1670 through to 1874. If there is any change over time, it is in the sex of those it is ascribed to: before 1720, they are all women; after that date (with the exception of Harriet) they are all men. This chart shows the change.
Why this sea shift? I’m not sure exactly, but I suspect it has some connection with the declining importance of the household as a unit of production. In the seventeenth century, a wife of the upper class would be expected to “look well to the ways of her household”, as the Book of Proverbs puts it – manage the books, look after tenants, and so forth. “Prudence” was one of her essential attributes. But over the course of the eighteenth century, as managers took over the running of grand estates, the wife’s role was confined to that of companion and support to her husband and children. Tenderness, sweetness and love were now the virtues required of her, not prudence. Prudence became a masculine quality, something hard, dry and self-seeking – as it still is today.
Why Harriet North is the exception to this general rule, I cannot tell. It may be because because she outlived her very much older husband, Francis North, 6th Earl of Guilford (1772-1861) by thirteen years, marrying again two years after his death to a John Lettson Elliot of Pimlico. That suggests some degree of “prudence” and “firmness”.
This epitaph for “Nestor, a black, 22 years a servant to James Ramsay”, is one of a kind. Epitaphs for servants are rare enough – so far the collection contains only 4 out of 532 – and epitaphs for black servants are presumably much rarer. Fortuitously, we have one other, from the crypt of St. Martin in the Fields. But Nestor’s epitaph is exceptionally long and detailed.
Nestor is described as being of “neat dress”, “chaste, sober life”, “honest” and “diligent in Duty”, and “hating idle visiting” – all virtues which might well have endeared a servant to his master. “Chastity” is rarely mentioned on tombstones. We have only three other entries so far, from 1645, 1672 and 1730, all women. Nestor’s being praised for chastity suggests not just that it was expected of him but that it was not taken entirely for granted; young ladies from good families were not usually mentioned as being chaste. “Sobriety” is another rarely mentioned virtue. There are four other entries, from the seventeenth and early-eighteenth centuries, where the word carries its older sense of decorum and restraint. Here, perhaps, it means simply that Nestor didn’t drink.
Nestor’s master, the Rev. James Ramsay, was an early opponent of the slave trade, having seen at first hand the treatment of slaves in the Caribbean. He was one of an influential group of abolitionists based in Teston, Kent, where he and Nestor are both buried – the “Testonites”, as they were called. ‘The plaque photographed here is a reconstruction carved by Emma Lavender, a stone-carver friend of mine, from the original; a resin copy resides at Teston Church.
This epitaph, from St. James’s, Westminster, illustrates many of the qualities which a grand lady of the early eighteenth century was expected to possess. Lady Mary is said to have behaved with dignity to both superiors and inferiors; she was “easy to ye meanest, not abject to ye greatest”, which made her “esteem’d by persons of ye first rank, valu’d by her equals, honour’d by her inferiors, & belov’d of all.” Kindness to social inferiors – or “condescension“, as it is sometimes called – is praised on five epitaphs, the last of them carved in 1835, after which more democratic attitudes prevail.
Lady Mary is also said to have possessed a “firmness of mind”, supporting her in all extremities so that “no cause of grief, no pain or sickness, could extort a complaint from her”. The virtues of patience, fortitude and resignation in the face of illness and death are frequently praised on Georgian and Victorian epitaphs, particularly in connection with women, to whom no other form of courage was available. A search of “virtues of endurance“, as I have called them, brings up 55 out of 527 epitaphs. 29 of these are of women, which given that men in general outnumber women by more than two to one means that women were much more likely than men to be praised for these particular excellences.