Living monuments: Shakespeare’s epitaphs

The monument to Richard Vernon, with the Stanley monument behind

I’d never heard of the little village of Tong and its church until recently when some visiting relatives mentioned its Shakespeare connections. So I paid a visit to this tiny village in Shropshire to find out more.

 The church is sometimes called the “village Westminster Abbey” because of the large number of magnificent tombs it contains, mostly for the Vernon and Stanley families.  The name Stanley will ring a bell with you if you know Richard III. Towards the end of the play Stanley, who wants to fight for Richmond against King Richard, is forced to remain neutral in the run-up to the battle of Bosworth because the king has taken Stanley’s son George hostage and threatens to kill him. Young George is Richard III’s last potential victim. After the death of Richard during the battle, Richmond is proclaimed King Henry VII.

 As usual, Shakespeare is pretty casual about historical details. “Young George” was actually quite mature, and the Stanley in the play is a conflation of two members of the family. Stanley is referred to as Earl of Derby before he was granted this honour. The key elements of this story, though, are taken accurately from the play’s sources, Sir Thomas More’s Life of Richard III and the Chronicles of Halle and Holinshed.

The tomb of Henry Vernon, with the Stanley monument visible behind

Stanley did delay as long as he could before coming in on Richmond’s side, and after the battle George is released unharmed.  The new King Henry VII rewarded Stanley for his loyalty by creating him 1st Earl of Derby in 1485.

The magnificent tombs in Tong Church are not, though, of the Earls of Derby, but less prominent members of the family. They are so tightly packed it’s difficult to get clear photographs, especially of the impressive double-decker Stanley monument erected to Sir Thomas Stanley and his wife Margaret Vernon and their son Sir Edward Stanley (1562-1632).  Sir Thomas (died 1576) was the second son of the third Earl of Derby. At each end of the upper tomb are lines of poetry.

Detail of the coloured decoration on the Stanley monument

Ask who lyes heare but do not weep,
He is not dead he dooth but sleep
This stoney register, is for his bones
His fame is more perpetual than theise stones
And his own goodness with himself being gon
Shall lyve when earthlie monument is none

On the other end of the tomb:

Not monumental stone preserve our fame,
Nor sky aspiring pyramids our name
The memory of him for whom this stands
Shall outlive marbl, and defacers hands
When all to tymes consumption shall be geaven
Standly for whom this stands shall stand in Heaven.

 It’s rumoured that these lines were written by Shakespeare for this tomb, and there are links between Shakespeare and the Stanley family. The strongest comes about because Ferdinando, Lord Strange, had his own company of players who performed some of Shakespeare’s plays. One copy of the book Plutarch’s Lives of the noble Grecians and Romans, published in 1579, now owned by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, has a fascinating history. On publication it was given to Henry Stanley, 4th Earl of Derby and from him it passed to his son Ferdinando, 5th Earl of Derby, who died in 1594. Shakespeare based his Roman plays, including Antony and Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, on the stories in this book, and because Ferdinando and Shakespeare knew each other there is a strong possibility that this could be the copy he used.

 

Effigy of Edward Stanley

There is a signature in the book indicating that in 1611 it became the property of Edward Stanley, probably the man whose effigy is on the lower deck of the monument and a real Shakespeare connection.

 But did Shakespeare write the epitaph? Shakespeare might have written the words on his own grave, and there’s an old tradition that he wrote an epitaph for a Stratford neighbour, John Combe, so it seems possible. The story is made more complicated because the exact date of the tomb is unknown, though there is apparently a reference to the poem in a document dated 1620. Sir Thomas Stanley died when Shakespeare was only 12, so if Shakespeare wrote them to him they can only have been written years later, and Sir Edward Stanley died 16 years after Shakespeare’s death.

 

Tong Church

As so often with anything relating to Shakespeare, the rumours far outnumber the certainties, and the monuments in Tong Church remain a magnificent mystery.

 

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8 Responses to Living monuments: Shakespeare’s epitaphs

  1. Jo Wilding says:

    Another connection to Richard III is that Henry Stanley’s wife and Ferdinando’s mother was Margaret Clifford who was descended from two of the great medieval families, the Cliffords and the Percys, as well as from Henry VII. She was the great-great granddaughter of the Clifford memorably portrayed by Shakespeare in Henry VI Part 3 where he viciously kills Richard III’s eldest brother, the young Rutland. Margaret was in line to the throne during Elizabeth’s reign but died before Elizabeth. Her Stanley descendants were passed over for James I.

    Another literary connection at Tong is that in the graveyard there is the grave of a fictional character – that of Dickens’ Little Nell from The Old Curiosity Shop. Such was the interest in visiting Tong because of the book that a verger forged an entry in the burial register and created a fake grave in about 1910. I was taken to see the church as a child because of the Dickens connection – it was probably my first experience of figures on tombs and the result was that they caused me nightmares for some considerable time afterwards – ultimately it didn’t stop me developing a passion for medieval history and going on to do a history degree though!

    • Sylvia Morris says:

      Thanks for this extra information. The family seems to be connected to everybody who was anybody, I’ve found it really difficult to disentangle. Sorry the Dickens story gave you nightmares, but it obviously did no long-term harm!

  2. william S. says:

    Hi Sylvia,

    These epitaphs indeed sound like a youthful Shakespeare. Much more so than Oxford’s fledgling poetry sounds like mature Shakespeare! The second is reminiscent of Not marble, nor the gilded monuments of princes. And the first of Good friend for jesus sake forbear. But of course we’ll never know for sure.

    Whilst we’re conjecturing, I was unaware the birthplace had Plutarch’s Lives.. a book Sh. may have used. Any other links like this you aim to bring out in your blog, I encourage.

    Also all the local spots that say are shakespearean; like the tree behind Alveston Manor where MND was first played? That house, now hotel, down from the Dirty Duck with a plaque saying John Sh may have owned this. The Mulberry tree in SH’s orchard. Nothing is too trivial.

    Off to look around your blog some more,
    yours,
    Will

    • Sylvia Morris says:

      Hi William,
      I wasn’t very convinced by the attribution of the poems on the tombs because the timing’s so strange, but we just don’t know. I believe the story goes very far back. There’s no evidence about MND being performed at Alveston Manor, in fact it seems very unlikely to me. I’m always rather suspicious of claims by hotels and the like! Likewise I don’t think anyone can definitely link any property on Waterside with John Shakespeare (again the plaque is on a wall belonging to a hotel). Nobody can authenticate the mulberry tree story but this one does go back two hundred years at any rate. To be honest you could spend your life following up these myths and would end up being no closer to the truth. The Plutarch’s lives book is, though, very interesting and the ownership is authentic. Please keep reading the blog, I hope I uncover some more stories you find interesting!

  3. Bill says:

    Who knows, the lines could have been written by him for memorials and as no name is attached to them they were used by prominant people or some one who had worked closly with Shakespeare wrote them. Nice little mistery though.

  4. I have explained all this and more in my book “Discovering Tong” published in 2007. Visit the website
    Very recently Helen Moorwood has published a more detailed about of the connections between the Stanleys and Shakespeare in her book “Shakespeare’s Verses in Tong Church”. There is little doubt that the words are by Shakespeare.

    • Sylvia Morris says:

      Hi Robert, Thanks for your message. I have a copy of Helen Moorwood’s book and will be writing on the subject again very soon, so keep watching!