Archaeological Journal/Volume 1/On the Preservation of Monumental Inscriptions



In the course of my pursuits connected with genealogy it has occurred to me that, amongst the various means of "perpetuating" evidence, sufficient attention has not hitherto been given to the preservation of Monumental Inscriptions; either by legislative enactment, or by some collateral authority in the shape of government interference. We owe much to the latter species of semi-legislation in the origin of our parish registers; and, although the earlier parochial records exhibit little else than lists of names and dates without immediate personal identity, yet the progressive improvement in their character by the wholesome interference of the legislature has rendered them more useful, and more applicable to the purposes of genealogy, than in earlier times. The evidence of the Inquisitiones post mortem, and of court rolls; of funeral certificates taken under the authority of the earl marshal of England; and of the periodical visitations made by the heralds in virtue of commissions from the crown, has been acknowledged to be of signal and lasting importance. The testimony afforded by wills, and other instruments of legal transfer of property, is unimpeachable from the very nature of such documents, so as to be beyond controversy or suspicion. The genuine, and if I may use the term, unsophisticated, domestic records preserved in many families of genealogical occurrences, have been solemnly admitted in the highest courts of judicature as evidences of family pedigree; hallowed by their insertion on the fly-leaves of that holy Record, which it is presumed no man would listlessly employ to give a colouring or sanction to falsehood, while he conscientiously believes the sacred volume to contain the revealed will of his Maker, and to exhibit the means of his own eternal salvation. Monumental inscriptions too, which seem also to partake of the same sacred character as that of registering events in the family Bible, have received the sanction of judicial functionaries, as records of truth, by admitting their testimony to have the weight of legal evidence. On this branch of evidence I presume to offer a few observations as regards the importance of preserving the memorials of the dead from wanton or careless destruction. I shall take, however, the example of our Church only, for this purpose.

It may first be observed that no separate or distinct class of evidence to which I have alluded, will in itself always prove sufficiently the correctness of a genealogical descent, as it is by the combination of the various results to be derived from consulting the equally various resources of evidence that the genealogist is enabled to arrive at the truth of his propositions: thus, by taking parish registers, in the first instance, we may draw the fainter outlines of pedigree; and, from the dates which those records afford us, we are enabled to seek the depositories of the muniment chamber, or of the Courts of civil and ecclesiastical jurisdiction, for documentary dispositions of acquired wealth, which necessarily contain valuable genealogical information, and so fill up chasms which the former source left us to complete. The sacred remembrance of those who have no longer an "abiding place" amongst us, frequently suggest the terms of near and dear relationship to be inscribed on the sarcophagus; the memory of whom is perpetuated by the record of virtues in proportion as their survivors estimated their worth, or appreciated the merit due to a parent, or a friend; and such memorials frequently supply, as it were, the conclusive testimony of family connections, and are invaluable from the sanctity which surrounds them, as being dictated in moments of sad recollection, or in the brighter hopes of meeting again in futurity.

To resume:—Sometime ago I was induced, on a visit to the large and populous town of Yarmouth, in Norfolk, to amuse myself by taking abstracts of the monumental inscriptions in its venerable church; and I could not but mournfully reflect on the devastation and havoc which a few years had made amongst these memorials of the dead. I was enabled by comparing former memoranda, both in printed books and in MS. collections, to detect the loss of many valuable monuments from the church and the church-yard; and felt that if it were possible to arrest this frightful progress of destruction, it would be most desirable. But to accomplish such a measure was far beyond any power or influence of a solitary individual, and could only be reserved for a combination of men of taste and judgment to stimulate by example, precept, and encouragement, the exertions of persons interested in the locality, or in general in genealogical pursuits, to preserve these records of mortality from wanton or careless demolition. I trust a period has now arrived in which much may be done towards effecting this important end; and I would suggest as one means, that copies, or faithful abstracts, should be taken of the inscriptions on tombstones, or other monuments, by intelligent individuals in the respective localities, who should either cause printed copies to be made from time to time, or place their own transcripts in the custody of the minister; and though such transcripts would not be received in courts of justice as evidence, yet the preservation of names, dates, and circumstances affecting families, would be of the highest utility to the historian and the genealogist.

In the natural course of events we must expect the consequent dilapidation of monumental inscriptions;—a demolition of these monuments of our ancestors, as the effect of time alone, is daily taking place;—the devastation sometimes committed by the hand of the destroyer, by the ruthless arm of the inconsiderate, or by the unhallowed designs of interested delinquency, does much to obliterate the memorabilia of the dead, which have been, from time to time, erected in pious regard to departed worth. We shudder at such deliberate acts of sacrilege and impiety; but we may even be surprised that so many monuments of the dead still exist which have been exposed to the infuriated aggression of political or religious fanatics of different ages, or which have tempted the more criminal to destroy them for private and fraudulent purposes. In the utter carelessness of some, as regards the preservation of monumental inscriptions; or in the total disregard of others for the value of them as a source of evidence, either in a legal, or in a genealogical point of view, we may perhaps find something to extenuate:—their pursuits, their defective education, or want of experience in such matters, may be pleaded in their behalf. We have not all the same views; do not possess the same acquirements; or have not seen, in the same light, the importance of these records. It is a subject of the greatest regret to the genealogist and the antiquary that such memorials should fall, as it were, a sacrifice to this uncertainty of human views respecting them; but that regret is greatly enhanced when we find these consecrated monuments of our ancestors treated with every mark of disrespect, of unconcern, or of indecency; and, frequently, with open violence by those who have pretensions to respectability, education, wealth, and influence beyond their fellow men. We contemplate the devastation arising from the various causes to which I have adverted, with a holy jealousy, that these sacred memorials have not been the subject of legislative interference; and committed to the care of those whose sacred offices would well adapt them to be the custodes of such a source of evidence, by means of some effective mode of registration; such evidence being alike useful to the community at large, and of serious importance to the descendants of those persons to whose memory such monuments had been erected.

Yarmouth church has not been an exception to the numerous instances of outrage so often observable as regards monumental inscriptions; on the contrary, we find the melancholy truth recorded of the sepulchral brasses having been, in 1551, torn from their places, and devoted to the purpose of making weights for the town! Whatever motive incited the commission of this act of Vandalism, it surely could not have been one of economy merely; many an "orata pro anima" was, probably, sacrificed to the mania of the day; and this destruction of the most interesting of almost all monumental records may be attributed rather to fanatic zeal, than to the wretched parsimony of saving the expense of metal for the purpose to which those brasses were employed. Several stones now remain from which the brasses were removed, and have been devoted to recent inscriptions.

The earliest monumental inscription now remaining in this church is that to the memory of John Couldham in 1620, in the middle aisle of the chancel, upon a flat stone[1]; which is inscribed on the edge of the stone, so as not to be injured by the traffic of persons passing over it[2]. This plan is admirably adapted for preserving the inscription from injury; for many of the flat stones in the aisles, and passages between the pews, are so completely worn, as to cause the inscriptions to be entirely effaced. The oldest tablet remaining, is one to the memory of "Hanna Dasset, virgo" 1637[3]; but the inscription is becoming very illegible. The total number of flat stones within this building is above 450, of which nearly 200 are in the spacious and magnificent chancel alone; and there are also nearly 50 tablets and mural monuments, some of which are exceedingly interesting[4].

In the course of my researches I found several instances among the flat stones, of modern families availing themselves of vacant spaces upon stones to place in them inscriptions relating to events of recent date, without any regard to the incongruity of such proceeding. In one instance the decease of a party is recorded to have taken place in 1650; as in the case of "Edward Owner 4 times Bailive

Burges for
this Toune[5];" followed by a memorial of the date of 1823, preceding "the wife of Edward Owner" 1672. An instance also occurred in which the whole inscription, together with arms of a family of Felstead, was erased by the chisel; and the stone was appropriated to the memorials of deceased relations of another family now existing[6]. I could cite many similar occurrences of the former description:—that is, of strangers taking the grave-stones of other families, and using them for the insertion of their own inscriptions; but I have confined myself to the relation of the foregoing instances to shew the usefulness which a register of monumental inscriptions would be in detecting the errors which result from the confusion consequently arising from the practices adverted to. The identity of families is not only destroyed by such means, but sometimes rendered incapable of being recovered by these false lights of mixed inscriptions. The clue sometimes discernible in the genealogical pursuit is suddenly cut off, or interwoven in all the intricacies attending the developement of pedigree, in the defective or suspicious evidence of such mutilated and injured memorials. The modern insertion may be questioned in future ages; while the ancient one is also rendered unavailable by the inference which might be suggested by the recently introduced matter:—the natural conclusion that parties mentioned on the same monmnent were connected in blood.

I have been induced, from a review of these facts, to submit these remarks in connection with what, I believe, was suggested to the legislature a few years since upon this subject:—that all monumental inscriptions should be registered. Numerous difficulties necessarily arose in viewing the adoption of such a measure retrospectively; but it is to be regretted that some arrangement towards a registration of these important testimonies of family circumstance, and genealogical events, was not attempted to have a prospective effect, under proper restrictions so as to exclude the possibility of fraud; and so stamping with legal authority these records of departed worth; the utility of which to posterity would be incalculable.

Much has been done, and I trust much may yet be effected, by the industry of local historians. No topographical work can be considered complete without a collection of monumental inscriptions accompanying it:—we have before us the labours of an Ormerod, and other great county historians of the present day; of a Weever and a Stowe of former times, replete with memorials from the cemetery; and if the exertions of the British Archæological Association be at all conducive to awaken the attention of the local clergy and gentry to a zealous and watchful care over the monumental records of families, a great object may be achieved, which even the legislature found it difficult to grapple with:—the preservation of our national sepulchral monuments from utter oblivion.


P.S. I have since been informed that several clergymen have laudably taken transcripts of the monumental inscriptions in their churches and burying-grounds, a practice which if generally adopted, would tend much to obviate the disastrous consequences to which allusion has been made. These transcripts, by being bound in a separate volume, together with plans of the church and church-yard, and appropriate references, will be invaluable. The Leigh case before the house of lords, on the claim to the barony of Leigh, in 1828, exhibits one of those instances of the want of similar care in the preservation of family sepulchral monuments, in which not only a title of peerage, but claim to property was deeply involved. It was alleged in that case that a stone affording important evidence had been removed from Stoneley church some years previously, and much conflicting testimony respecting it was given on that occasion. It may be difficult to say what regulation could be adopted to prevent the surreptitious removal of monuments, but when it becomes necessary that they should be removed for any legitimate purpose, the parties desirous of so doing should be bound under a penalty to return them to their former place within some given period, a copy of the inscription having been also previously deposited with the minister, and to remove any sepulchral stone otherwise should be made a punishable offence.

  1. Copied in Swinden's History of Yarmouth, 4to. 1772, p. 864.
  2. Another instance also occurs in this church of the inscription being cut in the same manner to the memory of the Sancroft family, 1830.
  3. Swinden, p. 865; and Le Neve's Mon. Angl., vol. i. p. 176.
  4. This chancel, which consists of three aisles, was in 1784 ordered by a vestry meeting to be pulled down; a better spirit, however, soon after prevailed, and the order for its demolition was rescinded; by which it not only survives the threatened destruction, but has received, of late years, some material repairs in good taste and keeping with its style. A short time ago the sedilia, piscina, and a reredos, which had formerly been rich in paintings, some of the colour yet remaining, were discovered; portions of which, under the excellent and praiseworthy exertions of Mr. Cufande Davie of Yarmouth, its spirited and enlightened churchwarden, have been restored. It is but justice to add, that the trustees, in whose care the fabric is placed by act of parliament, have given their aid and support in conducting the necessary repairs; and their good taste has been especially evinced by the entire restoration of the beautiful east window of the south aisle of the chancel.
  5. Edward Owner was one of the burgesses in parliament for Yarmouth in the parliaments summoned in 1620, 1625, 1639, and 1640.
  6. The Felstead inscription thus erased was probably to the memory of Thomas Felstead, in the time of Charles II.; as enough was left to detect a portion of the Christian and surnames. The name of Thomas Felstead still remains over the vestry door as one of the bailiffs of that town; while that of his coadjutor was erased, as inimical to the restored government of 1660. My first notice of this stone was in 1839; since which it has been entirely removed.