Thursday, 2 April 2015

Princess Elizabeth at Newport Minster

Coincidental to the recent celebrations of the discovery and reburial of Richard III, a few days ago we visited the site of an earlier royal reburial: Sts Thomas Minster, Newport, Isle of Wight, which contains the memorial and tomb of Princess Elizabeth Stuart, second daughter of Charles I.

Plaque marking new tomb below the main altar
It's a generally known piece of history that King Charles I was imprisoned at Carisbrooke Castle before his execution. It's rather less known how those of his family who didn't escape to the Continent were caught up in subsequent political machinations. His daughter Elizabeth Stuart was a prisoner of Parliament from the age of 6, and in 1650 was moved from the relatively comfortable Penhurst Place to Carisbrooke Castle, where she was held as a hostage after her brother Charles (later Charles II) became king of Scotland in the preamble to his restoration.

1856 memorial commissioned by Queen Victoria: "To the memory
of The Princess Elizabeth, daughter of King Charles I, who died
at Carisbrooke Castle on September 8, 1630, and is interred beneath
the chancel of this church, this monument is erected as a token of
respect for her virtues and of sympathy for her misfortunes,
by Victoria R., 1856".

Elizabeth, always in poor health, died of pneumonia on 8 September 1650, aged 14, and was buried in Sts Thomas, Newport, and forgotten over the next 150 years. Her coffin was rediscovered in 1793 when part of the chancel floor was lifted during excavations for the grave of one Septimus West.

"The coffin of Elizabeth"
facing page 167, Charles Tomkins' A Tour to the Isle of Wight, 1796
 There's a detailed description of the circumstances in The Journal of the British Archaeological Association:
The resolution of the house had been anticipated at Carisbrooke, her body embalmed and comfortably disposed of in a coffin of lead; and, after lying for sixteen days, on the 24th September was brought in a borrowed coach from the castle to the town of Newport, attended thither with her late servants. At the end of the town the corpse was met and waited on by the mayor and aldermen thereof, in all their formalities, to the church, where, about the middle of the east part of the chancel, in St. Thomas chapel, her highness was interred in a small vault purposely made, with an inscription of the date of her death engraved on her coffin.

The interment of the princess was long and reverently remembered amongst the townspeople of Newport for nearly seventy years afterwards. An inquiring visitor, in Church Notes in the Isle of Wight, was told that the inscription on the coffin was, 'The lady Elizabeth, daughter to king Charles the 1st, Sept. 8, MDCL.' But knowledge of the vault and its contents gradually died away, and the letters E. S., cut in the wall, were unnoticed; and this obscure resting-place of royalty would have been altogether forgotten but for its accidental discovery, in Oct. 1793, by some workmen employed in digging a grave to receive the remains of the hon. Thomas West, son of lord de la Warr, when the vault was opened and found to contain a coffin of very strong lead, ridged in the middle, and having the inscription, 'Elizabeth, 2nd daughter of the late king Charles, deceased Sept. 8, MDCL.'

In order that the spot might not be again overlooked, a plate with a simple inscription was placed on the stone covering the vault, and advantage was taken of the opportunity to remove from the wall of the churchyard, where it had long administered a silent but potent rebuke of the then very prevalent practice of burying in the church, a tablet bearing the following singular inscription, 'Here lyeth y° body of master George Shergold, late minister of New Port, who, during sixteen years in discharge of his office, strictly observed the true discipline of ye Church of England, disliking that dead bodies should be interred in God's house appointed to be interred in this place. He died, universally lamented and esteemed, January xxiii, 1707.' This old inscription being placed with the face to the stone, and economically supplying, by the reverse, the tablet for the more interesting record.

Since the discovery of the vault, the interest originally felt by the townspeople of Newport with respect to the royal remains committed to their charge, has revived, and continued in full force.
- page 274, Twelfth Annual Meeting, Isle of Wight, 1855, Proceedings of the Congress, The Journal of the British Archaeological Association, 1855.
Rickets to hide?

A contemporary assessment of the bones was made by Ernest Wilkins, MRCS, surgeon and curator of the Isle of Wight Musum, who concluded that the Princess had suffered from advanced rickets. His account seems not to have been widely circulated at the time - some later accounts even say it was "suppressed" - though summaries appear in William Henry Davenport Adams' 1856 The History, Topography, and Antiquities of the Isle of Wight (page 146) and Agnes Strickland's 1872 Lives of the Last Four Princesses of the Royal House of Stuart (page 206).

It is, however, reproduced in full in a 1918 paper: An historical case of rickets; being an account of the medical examination of the remains of Princess Elizabeth, daughter of King Charles I, who died at Carisbrook Castle, September 8, 1650, by Charles Burland, MD, Senior Medical Inspector, Board of Trade.
It is now nearly 62 years since this interesting communication from the pen of the late Ernest P. Wilkins, Esq., a gentleman distinguished for his professional skill and antiquarian research, was published in a local magazine. But the members of the town council of that day became alarmed, for reasons not necessary to mention here, and through their influence the number containing the article was suppressed. As the stained glass windows of the monument in St. Thomas's Church have, however, now become accomplished facts, there is no reason why such an important document should not become generally known. Many of those who were the cause of the suppression are now "gathered to their fathers."
- page 391, An historical case of rickets, The Practitioner, Jan-Jun 1918

Subsequently, in 1856, Queen Victoria commissioned and paid for a more ambitious memorial by the sculptor Carlo Marochetti, and this (detail above) is the one to be seen today. It depicts in romanticised form the circumstances in which the Princess was reportedly found dead, her cheek resting on the open pages of her Bible. Sir Leslie Stephen's autobiographical "Mausoleum Book" manuscript (published 1977, Oxford, Clarendon Press), says that the model for the sculpture was the 10-year-old Julia Prinsep Jackson, who later became Virginia Woolf's mother. See Julia Jackson and Princess Elizabeth.

Marochetti's miniature plaster prototype for the monument is on display in the Charles I exhibit in Carisbrooke Castle museum. I took these photos when we were there in 2014 (see Carisbrooke Castle #1).

Sts Thomas Minster is the main Anglican church of the Isle of Wight (its name refers to a dual dedication to Thomas Becket and Thomas the Apostle). Whenever we've visited previously, it's either been closed or the middle of a service, but it's generally open in the mornings, and proved to be very worth looking around.

The present church, granted Minster status in 2008, is neither very old - the current building dates from the 1850s - nor massively grand; it's a nicely-renovated example of a Gothic style similar to many parish churches of its era. But it's a central and distinctive landmark of Newport, and has a few notable features beyond the interest of the Princess Elizabeth monument. This is the earlier church, which had become dilapidated, that it replaced:

The old 12th century Sts Thomas, Newport
image source unknown, but undoubtedly old enough to be out of copyright
from Elizabeth Hutchings' A Gentleman's Tour, 1776 website

One of the two notable tombs in the Minster:
Elizabethan aristocrat and pirate Sir Edward Horsey

"This exact scale model was made by the Reverend Charles Farnsworth, Vicar from 1949 to 1957. As the church plans had disappeared, Reverend Farnsworth had first to climb to the roof and drop plumb lines to find the height of the walls and tower. The hand painted windows may be lit and the bell chiming mechanism set in motion by placing a coin in the box on the wall to your right".

See Newport Minster (official website)

- Ray

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