A Grave Business

On a dark night in November you would think there might be a certain reluctance to turn out for the main event in the Pettistree Heritage calendar, especially when the topic for the evening did on the surface appear to be a touch gloomy. This was not the case and the hall was soon buzzing with chatter and seats were filled.

Before welcoming the speaker, Joan Peck thanked Mr Nick Jenkins who had come along to record the event on equipment acquired by Pettistree Heritage thanks to a grant from Clare Aitcheson our County Councillor who has a Locality Budget……………………………………………………. She also took the opportunity to thank Ray Whitehand for the help he had given obtaining information from the Record Office and Mr Michael Watts, who had ‘volunteered’ at the AGM and had produced an up to date survey of the Churchyard. An exhibition was on display in the hall with details of past and present surveys.

Joan introduced the speaker Mr Peter Driver and it didn’t take long to realise how much we could learn about those who had gone before by just walking around a church and its surroundings. All aspects of social life are there if we only look – social standing, fashion, professions, family portraits and on a lighter level humour.

The Romans were the first to record and examples of notable soldiers in uniform and dress of the time can be seen in the towns they built, including Colchester. The Romans didn’t just send armies to conquer lands they encouraged their soldiers to settle and marry local girls and to this end they would be given land.

Peter moved on to nobility and the tombs of dukes and earls. The departed would be shown in full armour with hands in supplication (praying plus a generous donation to the monks would ensure a speedy route to heaven), whilst his good lady lay beside him. She would be shown lower than her husband and would be against the wall as befitted her ‘second fiddle’ status. Marriages were arranged and women had no choice in the matter. At this time images were cartoons rather than actual likenesses. Brasses cost less and were favoured by merchants who liked to consider themselves above the lower classes.

Suffolk, we learnt, is the burial place of Mary Tudor, the sister of Henry VIII. Her first marriage to King Louis of France was an arranged marriage. She was in her late teens and he was in his 50s. He died three months later and when her in-laws started negotiations to arrange a second marriage for her, Henry sent the Duke of Suffolk over to collect her, so he could arrange a more suitable marriage. The Duke and Mary Tudor secretly married, much to Henry’s annoyance. After the payment of a massive fine to him the couple settled at Westhorpe near Stowmarket and when she died Mary was buried at Bury St Edmunds. Following the dissolution of the Monasteries her remains were moved to St. Mary’s Bury St. Edmunds. Some years later she was moved to another part of the same Church. On her memorial stone her first husband’s name is spelt Lewis not Louis. It is left to the imagination why.

Closer to hand we were shown images of the Howard tombs: the 4th Duke backed the wrong side so he was beheaded which meant the mason put the coronet by the side of his feet. He would have been wearing it if he had been in favour with the king. At his feet are the Golden Lion and the Blue Boar, part of his regalia. The memorial to members of the Tollemache family made in London was so large the gable had to be cut to fit it into the church.

In the late 1600s early 1700s wall tablets became fashionable in towns. They were the merchants equivalent of the family portrait. Under the image of the parents the sons would be depicted on one side and the daughters on the other. If the son or daughter were holding or had a skull beside them they had predeceased their parents and babies wrapped in swaddling clothes died at birth. In Puritan times skeletons were often depicted and a skull and crossbones did not mean a pirate was the subject of the memorial. The soul was important, not the body. After 1730 cherubs became the fashion, not always pretty as borne out by the slide of the Cherubs on a stone in Southwold.

The earliest memorial stone in Suffolk is dated 1598 as there is no local stone unlike Derbyshire where the earliest is dated 1458. Peter pointed out that if you took an average of 6 – 8 deaths per year, the number of persons buried in the churchyard could be in the region of 10,000. Paths in churchyards are often much lower than the burial sites which would have built up over the years as more and more bodies were interred.

By Victorian times headstones had got much larger. Realising not everybody could read images were carved depicting trades. At Otley John Steptoo was the sexton and his shows a coffin, a pick, an hourglass and spade. A more gruesome example in Suffolk is on the headstone of a surgeon and shows an early stethoscope and various bits of innards. To thwart bodysnatchers iron grilles were fitted over the graves. Not many examples remain as they were removed during World War II. We learnt that an unfortunate soldier in Westerfield survived the Napoleonic Wars to return home only to be accidentally shot by a friend. We heard about the memorial to the 538 soldiers from Woodbridge Barracks who died not as a result of war but disease and of a camp follower who had followed her husband from battle to battle and had been present at Balaclava and Sebastopol.

We saw images of the grave of the Newbourne Giant and of the schoolmaster’s headstone complete with spike to stop his pupils leapfrogging over his grave and the dripping pan in the headstone of the coachman who liked his bread and dripping. We laughed at the poor man who died after 8 years of lingering for sleeping in a damp bed. Was “Suffered in Silence” the best line to finish with on a memorial to a man thrice married. We saw several cases of recycling – one as close as Wickham - two graves but only one headstone, with a reference to the adjoining grave. Was forkner a dialect word for falconer, was Lettice cut down and was God a Chinaman “Praise the Lord for his good Woks”. We may never know the answer to it all, but it made a good end to the night.

Thank you to Peter for entertaining us and to Pettistree Heritage members for organizing the event and to all those who donated the refreshments and raffle prizes.