Side by side, their faces blurred,
The earl and countess lie in stone,
Their proper habits vaguely shown
As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,
And that faint hint of the absurd –
The little dogs under their feet.
Larkin’s dead couple come from the fourteenth century. In the church in Coxwold there’s a similar, though much later monument. A man of importance lies still in stone, side by side with his wife. But there the similarities end. For one thing their faces are not blurred, but sharp and well-defined, and ‘the plainness of the pre-baroque’ is hardly how you’d describe this huge and magnificently ornate wall-memorial to Sir William Belasyse (or Bellasis) and his wife Margaret, daughter of Sir Nicholas Fairfax of Gilling.
When I visited, a local woman in the church explained that a comprehensive restoration of the stone monument had been completed only a few weeks ago. The restorers have done a wonderful job. New gold, red and black paint have been applied, and the whole statue has been cleansed of the dust and dirt of four centuries.
William Belasyse was the nephew and ward of Anthony de Belasyse, a lawyer and priest who was fortunate or wily enough to be granted the lands of Newburgh Priory by Henry VIII in 1540 following the king’s dissolution of the monastic houses. William received his uncle’s estate in 1546 and by the time of his death on 13 April 1604 at the age of 81 he seems to have succeeded in improving and extending it so that it became one of the largest estates in north Yorkshire.
William was buried in Coxwold church. He took great care to make sure that he’d be remembered there by something more than a brief inscription on a simple headstone. Thomas Browne was employed to sculpt a huge and elaborate confection out of magnesian limestone, transported all the way from Tadcaster. Browne took care to immortalise his own name by adding a couplet to the base of the monument:
Thomas Browne did carve this tome
Himself alone of Hessalwood [Hazlewood] stone
Pevsner, in his best grumpy mood, isn’t impressed by Browne’s masterpiece: ‘rather fussy, i.e with many columns, many shields, obelisks, strap-work, and inscriptions’. he writes in his North Yorkshire volume of The buildings of England. He fails to convey the sheer size of the thing – it extends from the floor of the chancel almost to the top of the wall – and the child-like exuberance of Browne’s imagination. It’s as if he’d ransacked every style-book of Renaissance designs and insisted on reproducing, somewhere or other in his plan, every one of them: brightly ornamented columns with Corinthian capitals, elaborate friezes, giant volutes, an arch, armorial bearings, numerous inscriptions, obelisks and figures carved in relief. The whole thing ascends in a stepped pyramid towards the ceiling.
At the centre of the design are the recumbent figures of William and Margaret. Both clasp their hands in prayer. William, echoing the Arundel tradition, displays his military masculinity, being togged in armour from neck to foot (his feet rest on a stag, Margaret’s on a lion – isn’t that the wrong way round?). He has a longish beard and moustache and a rather surprised look on his face. Margaret wears a ruff, full swept back hair, a pale complexion, and the severest of expressions. Her nose is beaky and her eyes are piercing. She must have been a tough cookie. The punning family motto was ‘bonne et belle assez’, and Thomas Browne clearly felt under some duty to reproduce some of the handsome features the two may have possessed.
At their sides and in the dado below are the couple’s children, four sons and a daughter. All are in prayer for their parents’ souls. The sons wear distinctive clothing but share their father’s wide-eyed, startled look. Two of the inscriptions do their best, rather insistently, to convince the children that their parents are in a better place: ‘Better is the daye of death then the daye that one is borne’, from that jolly book Ecclesiastes.
Despite all this piety the monument hardly gives the impression that the worldly life is insubstantial and unreal. On the contrary, its unambiguous message, despite Thomas Browne’s stylistic naivety, is to remind the viewer of the overwhelming power and influence of the Belasyse family. Over two generations they had planted their aristocratic feet firmly on the landscape of north Yorkshire – and they were unlikely to relinquish their hold on its communities any time soon. Just one of their memorials would occupy a full quarter of the available wall space in the chancel of Coxwold church.
They achieved their prominence not by military prowess – William’s armour is purely symbolic – but by the new arts of making your way in the world – careful negotiation, legal chicanery and political positioning, as well as the gift of being in the right place at the right time.
Eventually the family would appropriate the whole of the chancel space. A second, simpler monument on the opposite wall commemorates William’s grandson Thomas, first Viscount Fauconberg, and his wife Barbara Chomeley, both gravely knelt in prayer, but the next family monument, of Henry, and his grandson, Thomas, throws modesty to the winds. It’s made of marble. The grandson, begowned and bewigged, fingers an enormous Earl’s coronet, while Henry, dressed as a Roman emperor, holds a large hand out towards him, to hint that he should forego it in favour of the heavenly crown offered by an angel overhead. Now the religious injunction is no more than a fig leaf, a minor distraction from the naked statement of power and oppression. The farmers, labourers and servants who filled the box pews on Sundays weren’t to be left in any doubt about who wore the trousers in this traditional society (it remains traditional and deferential today).
A fourth memorial, to Henry, the last Earl Fauconberg, who died in 1802, and his wife Charlotte Lamb, is very different again. It’s in a restrained gothic style and lacks human figures, as if the line had died out – though their descendants still occupy Newburgh Priory.
‘Time has transfigured them into / Untruth’, says Larkin of his stony couple. But the brute truths of power are still there to be read, easily enough, by the visitor: the wealthy and dominant are still with us.