Monday, June 2, 2008

Oxhill, Warwickshire


Samuel Beckett, as ever, puts it so well: ‘Personally I have no bone to pick with graveyards. I take the air there willingly, perhaps more willingly than elsewhere, when take the air I must.’* You will often find me taking the air in graveyards and I find their rewards – crosses, lychgates and, above all, gravestones – rich, varied, and far from musty. And so, as I probably will again, I digress in this post from buildings to their settings and surroundings, and to what can be read on one stone near a country church in Warwickshire.

Eighteenth-century gravestones are amongst the most beautiful of all, often carved in a chunky vernacular style with everything from swags to skulls. Their characterful, sometimes spindly and often lichen-covered lettering delineates the lives of many thousands of people of whom otherwise we know nothing, a faint trace caught by the rising or declining sun.

At Oxhill, another of the places near the Fosse Way that I was exploring recently, the most fascinating stone is one of the smallest. It marks the grave of Myrtilla, ‘Negro Slave to Mr Thomas Beauchamp of Nevis’, who died in 1705. The burial register refers to Myrtilla as ‘a Negro Girl of Mrs Beauchamp’s’. Thomas Beauchamp was a member of the local family that once held Warwick Castle and his wife came from nearby Idlicote. They owned land on Nevis – a document of 1744 records a Thomas Beauchamp, perhaps this one or his son, also Thomas, selling a sugar plantation there in 1744.

Not much else is known of Myrtilla, although one account alleges she was 72 when she died – this seems unlikely in view of her description as a ‘Girl’ in the burial register, and the source of this figure is elsewhere unreliable. A footstone, matching this headstone, would have recorded her age, but the footstones in this churchyard were moved in the 1970s. So all that’s left is a stone and a name – the kind of shadowy vestige that makes the traveller pause in a sunlit churchyard in the middle of England.

* Samuel Beckett, First Love (first English publication, 1973)

8 comments:

Thud said...

The higgeldy piggeldy nature of old graveyards is a constant source of fascination.

marcus said...

It's entirely possible that Myrtilla reached a grand old age and still got referred to as "Girl" — the term was not one of age, but of station, and persists (regrettably) in places where predominantly white middle classes have black servants, who are referred to, or worse addressed, as "boy" or "girl" even when they are well into their 70s and 80s. I was told recently that Afro-Americans adopted the endearment "man" (still widely used by jazz musicians both black and white) as a reaction to this demeaning practice.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Marcus - You are of course quite right. Some rich Americans used to have a 'house boy' (did they have elevator doors opened for them by a 'bell boy'?), and this kind of language persists in some places. When I began my brief office career - in the UK - the only person below me in the hierarchy was the 'post boy' who was of advanced years (and white I should add). I didn't know about that origin of the jazzman's 'man', although you may be pleased to know that its use is alive amongst my 20-year-old son and his friends.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thud - I'm glad some people like higgeldy-piggeldy graveyards. I prefer them this way too, provided that the stones haven't actually fallen over, that is.

Peter Ashley said...

This is a beautiful blog Philip, thankyou.

Neil said...

It's certainly right that a slave might have been referred to as a 'girl' or 'boy' at any age, as a linguistic marker of the power relations between owner and owned. (And don't forget, as an aside, that English schoolchildren are still encouraged to believe they will get attentive service in French restaurants by calling the waiter 'garçon', something which has been unacceptable since WWII, maybe even WWI). What's astonishing about Myrtilla is that the Beauchamp family should bury her in such a prominent place in the churchyard, and pay for a gravestone and memorial inscription. Despite the grotesque distortion of slavery itself, emotional links between masters and slaves could be close, as they can between masters and servants (just think of Princess Diana and Paul Burrell). Myrtilla may have been Mrs Beauchamp's maid, or nursemaid to her children, and/or the mistress of her husband. And of course because slave owners exercised sexual rights over enslaved women, many slaves ended up as close blood relations of their masters - daughters and sons, half-sisters and half-brothers. For instance Thomas Jefferson's slave Sally Hemings, who bore him six children, was also his wife's half-sister. It would be wonderful if some local historian could find out more of Myrtilla's story.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Yes, she's certainly buried in a prominent place (quite near the church, although you can't see this from the photograph) and this, together with the fact that she has a stone, and a good quality one at that, made me too wonder whether there was not some closer relationship between slave and master here.

David said...

Neil said... "because slave owners exercised sexual rights over enslaved women"


Simply not true. Neil may be correct about American slaves but I have never seen any evidence that any English slaves were treated as sexual chattels.