Thursday, 8 March 2018

Brontë grave

We have frequent requests to identify the exact position of the Brontë grave(s) in St Michael’s, Haworth.  Indeed, we are often pressed for access to what enquiries incorrectly assume (and often state definitively that they know) is a crypt.

The answer isn’t fundamentally difficult to work out – and may well have been worked out by others in the past – because the application for formal permission to build the present church in 1880 includes a plan which clearly shows the footprints of the old existing church and the proposed new church imposed upon one another, a plan which outlines a number of graves which might be disturbed during the building work including a neighbouring pair in the part of the church where we know the Brontë graves to be.

We are certain these graves are not a ‘vault’ in the sense of a large space under the floor but only in the sense of standard eighteenth century and early nineteenth century burials of this sort: single grave cuts often deep and often brick lined.

There is in fact some detail of the manner intended for Patrick Bronte’s burial.  It is contained in the 1857 legal document which ended general burial rights at the church

reserving, however, to the Reverend Patrick Brontè [sic] the right of interment for himself in his family vault in the Chancel, on condition that the coffin be imbedded in a layer of powdered charcoal four inches thick, and be separately entombed in brick or stone work, cemented in an airtight manner, and that no other interment shall take place within the church.

There is also a record (from the son of Patrick Brontë’s successor) that in the building of the new church

the Brontë grave was in no way interfered with, and the remains were left where they were placed at their funerals. . . . . Over their grave, as over the others, was laid a thick layer of concrete (how necessary those who knew the old church will remember!), upon which the present edifice stands ..... I will repeat as emphatically as I can, on the authority of my father spoken scores of times in my hearing, that undisturbed in their original burial place that gifted family were left.

This suggests two separate layers of concrete – that which was required at the time of Patrick Brontë’s burial and that which was added at the rebuilding of the church – both apparently intended to prevent the smell of decomposition filtering upwards.

Anyway, this morning it was local historian Steven Wood who took the initiative to bring in a friend who is the Diocesan Archaeologist and who knows the building well, and their careful measuring from the plan resulted in the suggestion marked out by tape in the picture.  The inscription on the neighbouring pillar correctly points to this area, and there is photographic evidence that the marble memorial now in the neighbouring chapel originally stood over it - but the more modern brass memorial to Emily and Charlotte in the floor nearby is slightly misdirecting.

Patrick Brontë’s wife Maria was buried here in 1821, and, in due course, two infant children of theirs, three of their remaining four adult children (including Emily and Charlotte, but not Anne who is buried in Scarborough), Maria’s sister (who helped bring the children up after Maria’s death) and then Patrick himself.

And, not untypically, while we were at work on this project this morning, among the flow of Japanese visitors there was one in tears at the emotion of finally being on the spot ('I never thought I would be, and now I am').

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