Resting Place

High up on a shelf in an old stone cathedral somewhere in the leafy south of England sit some rather unusual caskets.

The occupant of the most significant of these came from a long line of outrageously named heroes. His father was Forkbeard. His grandfather, Bluetooth. And his great-grandfather ruled men under the name King Gorm.

If they hadn’t already existed, Tolkien would surely have had to invent them.

His name is a more British affair: but it has become synonymous with a demonstration which has for a thousand years been sorely misunderstood.

For in that little casket lies King Canute.

Yes, he sat in the waves and commanded them to stop moving inexorably forward; but it was all for a greater cause. Canute the Viking wanted to show his subjects that if you prick a King, does he not bleed?

“Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings”, he told his men, “For there is none worthy of the name but God, whom heaven, earth and sea obey”.

He was preceded by a Saxon. Silly old Aethelred: the Saxon King sought to find immortality for himself and his blood line by ordering the slaughter of all Danish men in England. Not a politic move: Forkbeard and his son were over to revenge their relatives with cut throat speed. And in a continuance of the impossibly colourful names tradition, even his defeated enemy was called Edward Ironside.

Someone should really write a play about this.

He was a fair king, this Canute. He said sorry for the Vikings’ dastardly deeds and built churches by way of recompense. He brought the country together for the first time and because he was also King of Denmark, no-one fancied raiding their own lands. Twenty years of peace, Forkbeard’s son brought, before popping his Viking front seamed shoes and shuffling off this mortal coil.

Winchester was big, back then.Canute arranged to be buried in the old minster later converted to a cathedral. And there his tiny casket lies, a monument to those words he once spoke. Empty and worthless is the power of kings, the little box seems to say.

Is it very uncharitable to chuckle over the fate of a king who sought to prove otherwise?

Henry VIII did not sow seed carefully. And posthumously, he reaped what he sowed, according to a modern historian.

Robert Hutchinson wrote an account of the last days of the corpulent king. He began planning his tomb at the tender age of 27: clearly posterity was always something to be wooed. He gave the project to his friend Cardinal Wolsey. twelve years later and in failing health, Wolsey was accused of treason, and died travelling to the trial.

So Henry picked on that man of steel, Cromwell.

You spot the flaw immediately, Reader, I am sure. For in good time the aforementioned Earl of Essex was executed too. After just 10 years, the job of tomb construction supervisor was vacant once more.

Who would the Royal Hard Hat pass to next?

To his son, it seems: but Edward disliked such fripperies and the project languished. Henry’s daughters could not have been overly motivated either. By the end of Elizabeth’s reign all that stood were a black and white marble base and eight tall brass pillars.

During the Protectorship, the tomb was not protected. Four brass candlesticks from the blousy monument later turned up in a cathedral in Ghent. Finally George ย IV laid a slab in the floor of St George’s Chapel and had done with it.

Posterity has its own price, Hal.

The nineteenth century: and death became immensely fashionable. It had always walked London’s streets, scythe in hand, but the little parish churches which still used their graveyards became full to bursting with a population explosion: from one million in 1800 to more than two milion in 1850.

It was the private sector who moved in first. They created suburban ‘garden cemeteries’: landscaped swathes of green, green burial ground which enchanted the public so much they flocked to walk there of a Sunday afternoon. In 1832 Parliament passed a bill which gave the go-ahead to seven huge cemeteries in a ring around London; Abney Park, Brompton, Highgate, Kensal Green, Nunhead, Tower Hamlets and West Norwood.

The great and the good planned great marble tributes to themselves with considerably more success than the man with six wives. At Highgate lie Karl Marx and Christina Rosetti, and Bram Stoker’s Lucy Westenra met her vampiric come-uppance in the gothic fictional Dracula. At Kensal Green among a host of great names rest William Makepiece Thackeray and William Wilkie Collins.

One can go to see them online. Cursory research reveals not only leafy green glades but lists of names which take one’s breath away.

We have to end up somewhere, I suppose. For years one of the few options was a church. Canute’s monument is a simple wooden box: Henry’s hopes ended in one plain slab.

It took the Victorians to make a cemetery a lavish, landscaped celebration of those who once lived within the boundaries of a very great city.

And today, as long ago, the leafy walks can lead to a chance brush with a life which, though extinguished, still touches ours today.

A link to Kensal Green Cemetery’s site here

And Highgate here

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26 thoughts on “Resting Place

  1. I do enjoy a walk through an old graveyard. They really do speak to us in a way that more simple, modern cemetaries do not – so much feeling and history comes through, and some are truly lovely and, well, restful.

    When my son was young, I worked in a daycare that was located in the basement of a church built during the Revolutionary War. We had to walk the kids through the cemetary each day to get to the play yard. I always kind of enjoyed the thoughts and impressions evoked by our lively little processions passing among the stones reminding of us folks who had gone long before us.

    1. Patti, what a wonderful picture you paint. We are layers of time, one upon another aren’t we? All those little feet enjoying themselves. What a wonderful purpose that resting place fulfilled. Thank you ๐Ÿ™‚

      1. It was tough keeping the kids off the marker stones as we walked along. I’m sure some of the “residents” would have enjoyed it, but others most definitely would not – and that was the tricky part – knowing which was which.

  2. Lovely photo to adorn the graves described herein, Kate.

    Why is King Canute in a “tiny” casket ~ was he a dwarf? Or do you just mean “tiny” in comparison to Kings resting in caskets of more Kingly proportions?

    1. No, Nancy, the casket is tiny: it’s balanced on a high stone beam-like thing near the choir. I’ve never asked why its so small. My guess would be we’re looking at a box of bones there. No pretensions for Canute, you understand ๐Ÿ™‚
      there’s a picture in among all the writing here: http://www.englishmonarchs.co.uk/vikings_2.htm – but it still doesn’t get over the scale. I’ll bring a movie camera down next time I pop in on him.

  3. Lovely Kate –

    I have been to Highgate (many years ago) and found it to be a wondrous place… so many large monuments – some in various states of neglect, variously overgrown and mysterious or well kept – it was close to where my sis-in-law was living at the time and we took the babes in prams for a stroll there one evening.

    In Oxford we chanced upon a cemetery which quite out of the way and fairly neglected (not passable with prams I shouln’t think) where various well known authors have their final resting place. including Kenneth Grahame, called Holywell Cemetery: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holywell_Cemetery
    – a wildlife haven in the middle of town!

  4. I just finished reading Elizabeth George’s This Body of Death, which focuses on a murder committed in Abney Park Cemetery. Inspired–aka educated–by your post, I went online and found the monument of the sleeping lion, “proud and unforgotten,” that the victim passes on her way to an appointment. If I’d waited to read the novel, I’d have been able to soak up atmosphere rather than speed through to see who done it. But I’ll read those passages again, slowly. Thanks much.

    1. I like Elizabeth George ๐Ÿ™‚ Glad you found the sleeping lion.
      There’s a rather wonderful novelist who writes stuff set in Victorian London: it was he put me onto the fact Victorians used to use cemeteries for recreational walks. Fabulous atmosphere, wonderful detail, and all wrapped up in a detective novel. The book I’m thinking of focuses on a man made rich by the boom in funeral services. It’s called Welfare Of The Dead by Lee Jackson.

  5. I just loved this post, Kate, being a lover of cemeteries, much to the chagrin of my family, who spent hours of vacations in amongst the tombstones. I need to read up on King Canute – sounds like an interesting fellow. As for Henry VIII, well, “just one plain slab” , ha!
    I love the picture of the cemetery above.

    1. Ha indeed! If anyone ever got their come uppance it was him….If you’re ever in England, Winchester Cathedral is a must. There are other Kings up there; five, I think…I have written myself into taking a trip to the Magnificent Seven cemeteries opened in he Victorian era. There is one much nearer me which is odd: Londoners were buries there but it’s deep in the wilds of Surrey and a twenty minute drive. Project!

  6. Thanks, Kate, I really enjoyed this. I am fascinated with cemeteries, which my family finds ghoulish. It seems from other comments here that I am not alone, thank heavens.

    1. Does it say something about those who read and comment on this blog that we are all devotees of last resting places? I’d love to know how SA handles the whole cemetery business- are tombs as florid as they are here, or was that just a Victoria-Albert thing here?

  7. What an interesting post Kate, thank you. Both DH and I are lovers of cemeteries and gravestones (don’t pop the lid on that one – “lovers” of cemeteries – what a poor choice of words) – military sites in particular have me spellbound, arlington and delville wood are favourites!

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