Elite Commemoration in Early Modern England: Reading Funerary Monuments

Article excerpt

Early Modern funerary monuments are polyvalent texts -- they have artistic form, iconographic content, inscriptions conveying information and ideas. They are common in churches but overlooked by many scholars, although their equivalents from other cultures command eager attention. British funerary monuments are material objects capable of offering rich insights into the culture that produced them. They are designed to provide both explicit memorialization of an individual and, for those who understand, a subtle celebration of that person's life and achievements. In this paper I examine three monuments which feature Sir Henry Savile (1549-1622), and the ways in which these objects enhance our understanding of their cultural context.

`Most Weighty Savile'

Savile was a polymath: a pioneer in textual editing, distinguished as an historian, a mathematician, a classicist, a theologian and an academic administrator. He was tutor in Greek to Elizabeth I and served on the committees that produced the King James Bible. His monumental Works of St John Chrysostom, printed at Eton on the press he set up there to produce it, using specially cast founts (Savile 1613 -- still the standard for most of Chrysostom's writings) was the first truly scholarly edited text to be produced in England. As Warden of Merton College, Oxford he was responsible for building the Fellows' Quadrangle, and he was concurrently a reforming Provost of Eton. He cared about the deficiencies of contemporary English scholarship: his foundation of the Chairs of Geometry and Astronomy at Oxford which bear his name was designed to remedy the almost total neglect of geometry -- it is a measure of his sense of the wider academic community that he specified that candidacy should be open to mathematicians from any part of Christendom. His correspondence shows the extent to which he was aware of the need to provide support for the holders of his chairs -- he also bequeathed books for their use. He was an upholder of the highest scholarly standards, distrusting the merely flashy, and realizing that the best scholarship rests upon scrupulous attention to detail (Aubrey 1962: 328):

He could not abide Witts: when a young scholar was recommended to him for a Good Witt, Out upon him, I'le have nothing to doe with him; give me the ploding student. If I would look for witts, I would goe to Newgate: there be the Witts

(For Savile's life, see the Dictionary of National Biography, and Maxwell-Lyte 1875: 190ff.)

This admirable man died aged 73 at Eton in 1622 and features on three memorials. Although he was buried in Eton Chapel, his widow arranged for a commemorative monument to be put up in Merton. He also appears on Lady Savile's own memorial at Hurst, Berkshire. The three memorials provide texts which comment on different aspects of Savile's life, and demonstrate the differences between private and public commemorations of Early Modern elites.


In the explication of the `fair and stately honorary monument' to Savile in the chapel of Merton College (Bott 1964: 84-5,111-13, quoting Wood 1786:85(1)) (FIGURE 1), we are fortunate in possessing biographical information, but the material thus gained may be used in the treatment of other monuments where the subjects' lives are less well documented. Originally it faced the great memorial to Savile's colleague, Sir Thomas Bodley (see Wilson 1993), across the choir, Bodley on the north and Savile the south, where at services they would have looked down on the members of the College (for the idea of the image of the dead participating in church services in the form of an onlooker, see Llewellyn 1991:16-18). Those behind the choir were presented with three objects of devotion -- the central altar flanked by two monuments to Scholarship. The resiting of the memorials in the ante-chapel has thus reduced their impact.


At the centre of the monument is a half-effigy portrait of Savile wearing a scholar's gown, his left hand on a book. …