Old St. Pancras church
April 4, 2011
A death's head gravestone
The Hardy Tree in St. Pancras Old Church graveyard
One of the downsides of cross casting is that sometimes, if the other production you are rehearsing opposite calls full company, you can't rehearse anything at all. This afternoon was one such time. So I headed home from Clapham, and decided to make a detour at King's Cross. I wanted to visit St Pancras Old Church behind the railway station. It was here on September 20th 1744 that Lewis Theobald was buried.
'He went off quietly' said his old friend, the prompter John Stede, 'without agonies'. Stede, who had known Lewis for nearly thirty years, was with him when he died, of jaundice, noting the remarkable fact that 'he was so composed as not to alter the disposition of his body, being in an indolent posture, one foot out of the bed, and his head gently supported on one hand.'
The old prompter left a gentle eulogy to his friend, saying: 'He was of a generous spirit, too generous for his circumstances, and none knew how to do a handsome thing, or confer a benefit, when in his power, with a better grace than himself.' The funeral took place at 6 o'clock in the evening, and Stede records rather sadly: 'I only attended him.'
A benefit performance of Double Falshood for Theobald himself had been held some three years before in May 1741, and Lewis had written somewhat pathetically to the Duke of Newcastle: 'The situation of my affairs, upon a loss and disappointment, obliging me to embrace a benefit at this late and disadvantageous season, it lays me under a necessity of throwing myself on the favour of the public, and the kind assistance of my friends and well wishers.'
There had been one late recognition of Lewis Theobald's knowledge and understanding of Shakespeare. He was asked (probably by John Rich) to contribute a prologue for a play mounted at Covent Garden to raise funds for a statue of Shakespeare to be erected in Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey. Designed by William Kent, executed by Peter Scheemakers, and paid for in part by Alexander Pope among others, the life size marble statue was finally unveiled in January 1741.
'Immortal Shakespeare, we thy fame admit
Like thy Caesar, thou art mighty yet.
Fast rise the marble, and long last the pile
O'er which thy venerable bust shall smile'
It's not great poetry, but it attests to the man's adoration 'on this side idolatry' of his beloved bard.
Theobald was 56 when he died. His nemesis, Alexander Pope, born the same year as Theobald, had died some three months before him at the end of May.
St Pancras' graveyard is still looking wintery, but here and there clumps of daffodils are beginning to break through. It was here that the Romantic poet Shelley met Mary Godwin, when she was visiting the grave of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, the advocate of women's rights.
There are a number of rather monumental looking vaults in the gardens (one by Sir John Soane provided the inspiration for the iconic red telephone box!) but the majority of the gravestones seemed to have been cleared. Then I spot a rather odd memorial under an ash tree. The tree itself provides the axel to a strange stone wheel, the spokes of which are made up of ranks of old gravestones, circled around with hedging (see image). A sign tells you that this is called the Hardy Tree and that when the novelist Thomas Hardy was a trainee architect he was responsible for the clearance of the graveyard for the expansion of the railway in 1865. I wonder if Lewis' gravestone is among them, but they look too recent to me.
Among the other people buried here in Theobald's day, are two of the celebrities featured in Gay's sensational hit show The Beggars' Opera, which opened within months of DoubleFalshood. The model for Peachum, and the star both of Henry Fielding's satire, and Daniel Defoe's novel, Jonathan Wild, the notorious kingpin of London's underworld was buried here, in 1725. He was laid next to his wife, but his body was 'fished', or snatched by tomb robbers, and sold for dissection at a local medical school. His skeleton is still preserved in the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons. And the pickpocket, Jenny Diver, hanged at Tyburn, is here too.
Then in the south east corner of the cemetery, overgrown with ivy I spot a few older gravestones. One dates back to the 1720's. You can tell by the style of the engraved calligraphy that this is much older than the rest. One headstone shows a death's head staring fiercely above crossed palm branches, and on another, a skull in profile cowers under thundery clouds (see image). I think this is more like what Lewis might have had, had he been able to afford the carving. It sums up a life beset by storms and trials.
Surprisingly, St Pancras Old Church stands on one of Europe's most ancient sites of Christian worship, possibly dating back to the fourth century. The present small church has been here since the eleventh or twelfth century. Inside, an old man has come for a quiet afternoon nap, so I tiptoe around looking at the monuments. Here is one, in the chancel to the cook to both Queen Elizabeth and King James for 29 years, and one to Samuel Cooper, the miniaturist who painted everyone from Oliver Cromwell to Mrs Pepys.
I light a candle for Lewis Theobald, and tiptoe back out, leaving the gent to his snooze.
by Greg Doran
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