I spent my Sunday afternoon mostly in the company of dead people; Luckily they have been no longer with us for several hundred years in some cases and are very well behaved. OK, I admit it, I spent the afternoon in a mausoleum showing people around as part of my English Heritage volunteering.
Spending two hours in a cold and damp (medieval churches are by the far the coldest of places to inhabit on even the hottest of days) does not sound too much like fun, I admit, but you might be surprised. They can be interesting windows on the past both on specific individuals and their lives, successes and failures but also how people viewed the inevitability of death.
The De Grey Mausoleum is in the village of Flitton in Bedfordshire, attached to, but not belonging to, the parish church. Although it sits like a huge carbuncle enveloping the East end of the church it was the property of the De Grey family who used to own nearby Wrest Park House and Gardens and used the Mausoleum as the burial place for the family from 1614 to the end of the Nineteenth century. When Wrest was sold to the government in the 1940s the Mausoleum came with it which is why English Heritage have it on their books. It is nationally important because of the sheer size and the range of monuments.
What visitors first find interesting is the private nature of the Mausoleum. Despite the huge scale of some of the monuments and the assumed massive cost, this was not a public display of commemorated lives. The Mausoleum was a private place for the family only, a place for prayer and to honour your family. This does put a very different perspective on monuments that seem to hint at hubris or look as they were made to make a particular impression – they were built to make an impression, but only on descendants.
The monuments fall into three main groups, representing the Seventeenth, Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries. The first, oldest group are formal, even grim monuments to the inevitability of death, illustrated by the effigies of the passed in formal state, while decoration includes grinning skulls and hourglasses born a lot on wings. Time, literally, flies. One in particular is poignant – Amabel (and no, I did not misspell her name) outlived her husband, the 10th Earl of Kent by some fifty years so will have visited her own effigy in pale alabaster many times. Seeing yourself laid out in state week in week out must have an interesting effect on how you viewed your own mortality.
As you go deeper into the Mausoleum the change into the Eighteenth century is striking. Suddenly it is all classical in form, columns and urns and effigies dressed as Roman soldiers. The finest monument in the Mausoleum is also the largest, a massive reclining effigy of Henry, Duke of Kent. The monuments from this period speak of celebration of achievement – this more than the others. He was the member of the family who reached the highest status in becoming a Duke and he wants you to know that. It is undercut considerably by the knowledge that all his children pre-deceased him and he was unable to pass on that status to his descendants. Before I started at the Mausoleum I saw Henry as a rather unsympathetic figure; now I rather feel sorry for him, as I suspect sadness was heavy upon him when he died.
The final section of the Mausoleum sees a final step change in style, with an unrestrained and unashamed dose of Victorian Romance. Thomas, 2nd Earl De Grey (who designed the current Chateaux style house at Wrest) lies on his tomb in fine robes and with even finer whiskers, eyes closed in his realistically carved sleep. He could just wake up any moment; in fact, when we open up the Mausoleum for viewing we have to remove the shroud we lay over him to protect the monument from the acid droppings of the bats that share the building, and it is just a little creepy pulling it back to reveal the Earl; like a lot of the monuments of this type it is very realistically carved. It is a very beautiful monument, but my favourite is next to it, a wall monument to the Earl’s wife Henrietta, Thomas stands at the base, surrounded by weeping children; above his head his wife is carried up to Heaven in the arms of an angel. It is all terribly over the top in some respects but then sometimes we forget that Victoria herself set the standard for melodrama in mourning, and it is hard not to think of Thomas spending an hour every so often in a chair at the foot of his wife’s monument, near where now his own body lies – by all accounts they were, somewhat unusually for Victorian aristocracy – actually very fond of each other.
The monuments are both expressions of grief but also positive messages of a belief in something in the afterlife or at least a life well lived. You can take one, all or none of those messages as you like, but they are objects of beauty.
The De Grey Mausoleum is open (it is free) the first Sunday of the month, 2-4pm through the summer season and various Wednesdays – check the website http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/de-grey-mausoleum/ . You might even find me lurking there with my distastefully beige volunteer uniform (but don’t let that put you off).