There is nothing like being surrounded by dead people to make you think about death and people’s attitude to it, and how that attitude had changed over the centuries. As well as volunteering for English Heritage at Wrest Park House and Gardens in Bedfordshire I also am part of a small number of volunteers that help people interpret the De Grey Mausoleum in Flitton, a village about a mile and half from Wrest, the home of the De Greys until 1917 (I am pretty certain I’ve blogged about this before but I’m getting old and therefore will inevitably repeat myself). In the 1600s the church a Flitton was the local Parish church so when the 7th Earl of Kent decided to create a mausoleum for the family it was added to the North side of the chancel.
Family mausolea of this period are an odd beast. Unlike a monument in a church aisle the mausoleum is for the family only; monuments in it a reminder to descendants of where they have come from and sending various additional messages that change over the years as styles and attitudes change. The De Grey Mausoleum is one of the biggest in England and has monuments from the early 1600s through to the last in 1859. It was massively increased by Henry, 12th Earl and 1st Duke of Kent – more on him later – and one of things I enjoy is being able to show people how the monuments change over time.
The earliest monuments hang over from the Medieval view of reminding people they are mortal, and death comes to us all, no matter how important you are. It is adorned with skulls and almost in a black comic manner, a colourful hourglass with wings – time flying, indeed. Next to this chest tomb is another from the late 1600s – a man and a woman’s effigy lying in state but now carved with more elegance and the shock tactics have been dropped in the 5o years between them.
When the Duke of Kent quadrupled the size of the Mausoleum he was at the height of his power, having been Lord Chamberlain and having elevated the family to a Dukedom. His monument is massive and of the highest quality, an Eighteenth-century hymn to achievement. He lies full sized reclining, dressed as a Roman general. Now it is not so much about death as about what was achieved in life.
Unfortunately for Henry and the De Greys, the one thing he could not achieve was a legacy. All his children pre-deceased him and with no male heir the Dukedom passed back to the Crown (the current Duke of Kent being a member of the Royal family is a regular source of confusion for visitors, who assume there must be some Royal connection). The monuments to his children in my eyes become smaller and speak more of the sadness of a powerful man facing the inevitability that there was nothing he could do to save his family. In the end, he secures the title of Marchioness for his remaining descendant, his granddaughter Jemima.
The monuments to her and her two daughters, now late 1700s and creeping into the Nineteenth Century are best described as modest and elegant; these are still monuments to powerful and wealthy people, but as they sit on the wall opposite the huge monument to Henry, they almost seem a little embarrassed by the bombastic excess.
My favourite monuments are the last ones installed before the family moved away and stopped using the mausoleum. Thomas, 2nd Earl De Grey, inherited the Wrest Estate from his aunt and set about designing his own house to replace the old one for himself and his Countess Henrietta. Henrietta, who died first, is seen being carried up to heaven by an angel as Thomas stands among other mourners, his head in his hands. To the left, he himself lies in state, full size and realistically carved, looking as though he might just get up and walk away at any time (it is a source of some amusement that we have to put an old bed sheet over Thomas when we lock up to prevent his effigy being degraded by the droppings of resident bats).
Both monuments drip with Victorian Romanticism, that death is merely sleep until the Resurrection, and anyway we’ll be united with our loved ones in heaven.
The De Grey Mausoleum is open 2-4pm the first Sunday of the month through the Summer and on occasional Wednesdays, bets to check the website https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/de-grey-mausoleum-flitton/ Admission is free.