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  • Writer's pictureGethin Thomas

Robert "Bone" Phillip

Originally published on Photoblog by Gethin Thomas January. 25, 2021

[177-365] 25th. January 2021- Who lieth at the chancel door? The chancel door that be so thin I would ne'er get in. That bit was by me, just getting you into the mood.

This is an ancient church consecrated on 26th August 1414 and next day its cemetery. St Edmund King and Martyr is on a hilltop site in Kingsbridge, Devon, and is one of only two cruciform churches in this area and was built in Early English and Perpendicular style. The central square tower has a spire.

Next to the chancel door is a memorial stone which reads.....

Here lie I at the chancel door;

Here lie I because I’m poor;

The farther in the more you’ll pay;

Here lie I as warm as they;

This is the memorial of Robert Phillip (Bone Phillip) who died July 27th 1793 aged 65 years. Here was a man who had it all worked out. No grand mausoleum for him, and so when you enter the churchyard his memorial has pride of place, the first thing you see. Maybe he had the last laugh. At the very least he sounds a lot more interesting than those with mausoleums inside. Sixty three was a grand old age for anyone back in 1793 especially a pauper. As recently as 1900 an average British man could expect to live to the ripe old age of 48, back in 1793 it would have been less than 40.

I had no idea that researching this memorial would prove so interesting so I thank Laura Sangha, a Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Exeter, for her potted history of burials and graves to explain the context of this verse. I have used more information than I normally would because I found it so well explained and enlightening.

What does this rather colourful epitaph mean, and what can it tell us about the early modern world?

We need to go back a bit to work it out. Before the reformation beliefs about purgatory encouraged the burial of the dead in proximity to the living, who were expected to pray for the souls of the departed.

Christians were joined in a community of the living and dead, and death was considered a transitional process between this world and the next – the grave was just a temporary resting place for the body until judgement day.

Traditionally burial on thresholds or across boundaries (e.g. in the porch, in aisles, or near doors) was popular because these were liminal spaces representing the soul crossing the boundary between earth and heaven. Hence we find that Bone Philip is buried in a popular spot, near the chancel door.

Before the reformation the choice of burial location was also closely linked to the ‘spiritual geography’ of the church. The chancel, where the miracle of transubstantiation happened, was the most holy and sacred space in the building. The spot where the elevation of the host was performed was especially coveted because it was believed the numinous power of the miracle could emanate to the deceased’s soul, if their body lay nearby. Thus when it came to burial in and around the church some places were considered more sacred, and were therefore more desirable than others, and the clergy were able to charge a higher rate to people who wished to be buried there.

Now Bone Philip says he is too poor to be buried within the chancel near the altar, but actually even burial near the chancel door would have been relatively expensive in comparison with an anonymous plot in the graveyard.

Chancels and the areas near them were dominated by those of the highest social status, clergymen, ladies and lords, and knights. The less prestigious nave, aisles and chapels were populated by middling sorts (merchants, tradesmen, artisans etc.). For those too poor to be buried within the church, there was a preference for burial in ground on the south side of the building (associated with light and resurrection), and graves were often orientated with the head facing west, a practice that would ensure the dead would see the angels at the moment of resurrection.

But what about after the reformation, when so much of the numinous power of the church was rejected as unscriptural? Although protestants believed there could be no spiritual benefit from burial in consecrated ground or proximity to certain places in the church, it was only the most radical protestants who actively opposed it, and traditional patterns of burial persisted.

Yet since protestants believed only Christ could intercede on the part of the soul, graves no longer needed to solicit the prayers of the living. Since no miracle happened during the mass, there was no spiritual necessity to be buried near the altar. That explains why Bone Philip says he lies as warm as those buried in the chancel proper. The location of his, and his fellow parishioners’ bodies, will ultimately make no difference to their spiritual fate. Following the reformation social status therefore came to dominate the geography of burial as the rich used it to assert their importance in life, and the power, continuity and cohesion of a family line, even after the death of one of its members.

I wasn't able to go inside the church so it joins my long list of photo subjects to visit once we are free again to roam. There is some stained glass which sounds interesting.

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