|John Aubrey in his prime.|
|Old St Paul's in flames during the Great Fire of London|
I saw Bishop Braybrook's body. It was like a preserved fish: uncorrupted except for the ears and pudenda, or genitals. It was dry and stiff and would stand on end. It was never embalmed. His belly and stomach were untouched, except for a hole on one side made by the falling debris. I could put my hand in the hole and could see his dried lungs.
|Bishop Braybrook's tomb|
This afternoon going towards Westminster, Creed and I did stop, the Duke of York being just going away from seeing of it, at Paul’s, and in the Convocation House Yard did there see the body of Robert Braybrooke, Bishop of London, that died 1404: He fell down in his tomb out of the great church into St. Fayth’s this late fire, and is here seen his skeleton with the flesh on; but all tough and dry like a spongy dry leather, or touchwood all upon his bones. His head turned aside. A great man in his time, and Lord Chancellor; and his skeletons now exposed to be handled and derided by some, though admired for its duration by others. Many flocking to see it.
Barbara Villiers, Lady Castlemaine, mistress of King Charles II (who was the father of no less than 5 of her children) and ‘curse of the nation’ according to John Evelyn, also paid her tuppence to see the body of the desiccated prelate. The wanton bribed the guardians of the corpse to leave her alone with it for a few minutes and shortly afterwards it was discovered that the late Bishop’s shrivelled penis was missing. A witness was later quoted as saying that “although some ladies of late have got Bishopricks for others, I have not heard of any but this that got one for herself.”Braybrook’s remains may have been dehydrated and inoffensive but according to Scurr’s Aubrey this was not true of the William Herbert, the 1st Earl of Pembroke, “a mad fighting fellow” according to Brief Lives, who was buried beneath an elaborate monument in Old St Pauls when he died in 1570:
I spoke to some of the labourers clearing the rubbish in St Faith’s Church, which was ruined by the collapse of St Paul’s. They tell me when they took up the leaden coffin of William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, whose sumptuous monument was among those tumbled in to the church, the stink was so great that they took a week to scour themselves of it.
|The Earl of Pembroke's tomb in Old St Pauls|
|Sir Thomas Browne composing Urne Buriall - from an engraving by Gwen Reverat|
Aubrey was not the only 17th century figure fascinated by the process of putrefaction. As well as Ruth Scurr I have also been reading Hugh Aldersley-William on Sir Thomas Browne. He reminds us that the author of Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or, a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk is credited with the first mention of grave wax or Adipocere. This is a waxy organic substance produced by the chemical process of saponification, the anaerobic bacterial hydrolysis of fatty acids in the corpse, which instead of rotting away, produces a wax like cast of body parts, even entire corpses in some circumstances. Browne’s mention comes in the middle of a passage of in which he notes that despite the commonly held view that we all end up as food for worms, the earthworm is not easy to find in a churchyard at any depth below a foot; it goes without saying of course that all burials take place much deeper than this:
Urnall enterrments, and burnt Reliques lye not in fear of worms, or to be an heritage for Serpents; In carnall sepulture, corruptions seem peculiar unto parts, and some speak of snakes out of the spinall marrow. But while we suppose common wormes in graves, 'tis not easie to finde any there; few in Church-yards above a foot deep, fewer or none in Churches, though in fresh decayed bodies. Teeth, bones, and hair, give the most lasting defiance to corruption. In an Hydropicall body ten years buried in a Church-yard, we met with a fat concretion, where the nitre of the Earth, and the salt and lixivious liquor of the body, had coagulated large lumps of fat, into the consistence of the hardest castle-soap; whereof part remaineth with us.
|The tomb of John Colet, Dean of Westminster in Old St Paul's|
Scurr rewrites a celebrated passage of Aubery which describes the indignities practiced by a pair of his acquaintances, Ralph Greatrex and Mr Wyld, on the corpse of John Colet, Dean of Westminster and friend of Erasmus, who had died of the ‘sweating sickness’ in 1519 (see below for the original of this passage, comparison of the two gives you a better idea of her method of composition than any description);
A little before the Great Conflagration, somebody made a hole in the lead coffin of Dean Colet, which lay above the ground beneath his statue. I remember my friend Mr Wylde and Ralph Greatrex, the mathematical instrument maker, decided to probe the Dean's body through the hole with a piece of iron curtain rod that happened to be near by. They found the body lay in liquor, like boiled brawn. The liquor was clear and insipid: they both tasted it. Mr Wylde said it had something of the taste of iron, but that might have been on account of the iron rod. This was a strange and rare way of conserving a corpse. Perhaps it was a pickle, as for beef. There was no ill smell.
They had no fear of microbiological contagion in the 17th century. Infectious disease was thought to be the result of miasma; if something didn’t smell bad they were surprisingly willing to stick it in their mouths, no matter where it came from. The medical professions saw no need to arbitrarily restrict examinations of patients to the senses of sight, hearing, touch and smell and would often take a swig of their patients urine or lick their sweat in their efforts to arrive at a diagnosis. It would have seemed natural enough to have a little taster of corpse pickle if the chance arose; how disappointing it must have been to find that it tasted ‘insipid’. The stalwart men of the 17th century were less squeamish than their descendants, that much is clear. We shall finish with Samuel Pepys’ famous account of how he spent his 36th birthday, the day he “did first kiss a queen.” Living queen’s being notoriously choosy about whom they snog Samuel had to gain his initial experience of regal labial osculation with a dead one, Queen Catherine of Valois. The wife of Henry V and mistress of Owen Tudor had died in 1437, 232 years before Samuel, in front of his wife, fondled the upper parts of her body and gave her a playful peck on the mouth:
|Catherine of Valois' funeral effigy - |
but you wouldn't be kissing a queen
 “After the Conflagration (his Monument being broken) somebody made a little hole towards the upper edge of his Coffin, which was closed like the coffin of a Pye and was full of a Liquour which conserved the body. Mr. Wyld and Ralph Greatorex tasted it and t'was of an insipid tast, something of an Ironish tast. The Coffin was of Lead, and layd in the Wall about 2 foot 1/2 above the surface of the Floore. This was a strange rare way of conserving a Corps: perhaps it was a Pickle, as for Beefe, whose Saltiness in so many years the Lead might sweeten and render insipid. The body felt, to the probe of a stick which they thrust into a chink, like boyled Brawne.”