Sunday 24 October 2021

'This stoney register'

 Oddly, in researching my book on monuments, I never visited the Collegiate Church of St Bartholomew, Tong, one of the most monument-packed churches in the Midlands (it's just over the Staffordshire border in Shropshire). Yesterday, on my Mercian travels with my cousin, I made good the omission, and was relieved to find that it contained no particularly interesting monuments of 'my' period (the early 17th century). But it does indeed contain a lot of monuments, to members of the Vernon and Stanley families – a collection whose general effect is, it has to be said, more than a little oppressive. 
  One of the monuments – a grand, well carved double-decker – has some literary interest. It commemorates three of the Stanley family, various members of which illustrious clan patronised William Shakespeare. Because of this connection, it is widely believed that the two epitaphs on this monument were written by the man himself. If so, they are not among his best efforts, but they have their moments. One reads
'Ask who lyes here but do not weep
He is not dead he doth but sleep
This stoney register is for his bones
His fame is more perpetual than these stones
And his own goodness with himself being gone
Shall live when earthlie monument is none'
[Note the unfortunate per-echo of that ever popular funeral verse 'Do no stand at my grave and weep']
And the other reads
'Not monumental stone preserve our Fame
Nor skye aspiring pyramids our name
The memory of Him for whom this stands
Shall outlive marble and defacers Hands
When all to Time's consumption shall be geaven
Standley for whom this stands shall stand in Heaven'

  Tong church has another literary association too. It was in Tong that Dickens set his great tearjerker, the death of Little Nell (he knew Tong because his grandmother was housekeeper at Tong Castle). This death scene (of which Oscar Wilde wrote 'One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing') caused such a sensation, on both sides of the Atlantic, that Dickensian pilgrims soon began descending on Tong in search of Little Nell's grave. At some point an enterprising verger created a suitably inscribed tombstone and even faked an entry in the church's burial register, so Tong churchyard became the site of 'Little Nell's Grave'. Visitors were quite prepared to overlook the fact that in The Old Curiosity Shop she is buried inside the church.

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