Friday, 8 September 2017

The Archaeologists and the Archbishop's teeth; Arthur Richard Dillon (1721 - 1806) Old St Pancras Burial Ground

The entry in the St Pancras burial register for Arthur Richard Dillon
It is odd that a French Catholic Archbishop fleeing from anti-clerical persecution in revolutionary France took up residence in Protestant England. Even odder that he came from a notorious family of Jacobites who were close to the exiled Old and Young Pretenders. In 1806 The London Review reported the death on 5 July  “at his house in George Street, Portman Square, [of] Arthur Richard Dillon, archbishop and duke of Narbonne, primate of the Gauls, president of the states of Languedoc, and commander of the order of the Holy Ghost.”  Archbishop Dillon had been living in exile for 15 years. With no official Catholic cemetery to bury him in he was interred in St Pancras burial ground which had become the favoured final resting place for the dead émigré community.

Arthur Richard Dillon, a portrait in the Narbonne archives

The Archbishop was the youngest of the five sons of Arthur Dillon of Roscommon and Catherine Sheldon who was from a prominent English Jacobite family. Arthur the father was a Jacobite General who had been forced into French exile at the age of 21 following the defeat of the Irish Jacobites at Limerick by William of Orange. In France he became a Maréchal de camp in the French army and encouraged his sons to follow him into the military. Arthur Richard, as the youngest, was the token clergymen. He became Bishop of Evreux by the age of 32 and Archbishop of Toulouse by 37. He was what is euphemistically known as a ‘worldly prelate’. In public terms this meant he was far more interested in temporal matters like public works than spiritual ones. He was keen on engineering and sponsored various bridges, canals, and harbours within his diocese as well as creating chairs of chemistry and physics at Montpellier and Toulouse Universities.

In his private life the Archbishop was devoted to the hunt, financially extravagant and, by all accounts, the lover of his widowed niece Madame de Roche (his sister’s daughter). The celebrated memoirist of the ancient regime, Lucie de La Tour du Pin, was the granddaughter of Madame de Roche and great niece of the Archbishop. Her memoirs paint a vivid portrait of life in her grandmother’s houses; the hotel de Roche in the Faubourg St-Germain and the Château Hautefontaine. Lucie noted that her great uncle had lived with her grandmother “for twenty years without paying a sou of rent to his niece” and commented that “the archbishopric of Narbonne, which paid him 250,000 francs a year, he had an abbey which was worth 110,000; still another which was worth 90,000; and he received an allowance of more than 50,000 francs for giving dinners every day during the meetings of the States. It would seem that with such an income he should have been able to live honourably and at his ease, but nevertheless he was always in financial difficulties.” She also remarked that he spent as little time as possible on his official duties in the provinces, preferring to return as quickly as possible to the Faubourg St-Germain “in order to live en grand seigneur at Paris and as a courtier at Versailles.” Lucie passed discretely over the exact state of relations between the Archbishop and her grandmother but did say that he was “dominated and influenced” by her and even that he “feared my grandmother too much.”

The Archbishop's teeth

Following the revolution the Archbishop fled France and the guillotine with his niece and in 1792 took up residence in London in a series of relatively modest rented houses until his death in 1806. His body lay undisturbed through the first set of exhumations from St Pancras when a large part of the burial ground was taken over by the Midland Railway Company for the mainline into St Pancras. He was not so lucky in 2006 when a team of archaeologists working for the firms Giffords and Pre-Construct were given a year to exhume 1,500 bodies that were buried in the way of a proposed Channel Tunnel Rail Link platform. The Archbishop was discovered inside a lead lined and lavishly engraved coffin. Sitting securely in his skull was a pair of almost perfectly preserved Sèvres porcelain false teeth complete with gold springs. The dentures were of exceptional quality and are believed to be the work of the Parisian dentist Nicolas Dubois de Chémant. The Archbishop’s remains were sent briefly to East Finchley Cemetery before arrangements were made to repatriate them to France. In 2007 the Archbishop was reinterred, with great ceremony, in the Narbonne Cathedral. His dentures however remained in England. They were put on public display on World Smile Day in October 2006 at the Museum of London. In 2008 they found a permanent home in the Cobbe Museum. 
Archbishop Dillon  is one of the 'illustrious dead' commemorated on the Burdett Coutts sundial in St Pancras Gardens.  


  1. Hi and thank you for this very interesting article.
    Actually, I saw you wrote a lot about that facsinating place...

    I also wrote about it - in French - in 2011 when I was living in the area...

    I see this place as "Mary Shelley's paradise'lost" where she could flee from her father's second's wife, mourn her mother, and find love with Percy Shelley... This place had a big impact on the writing of "Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus"...

    Here is the link...
    I'm not a regular blogger/writer and it was in 2011....
    So Please be indulgent... ;)

    1. Thanks for the link to your post on St Pancras. I can't read French so I was reduced to reading the google translated version - translations by algorithm are always painful to read; I'm sure the original was much more elegant. Even so I enjoyed it (and some of your other old posts). You should take up blogging again.

    2. Thanks very much for this kind comment and support.
      I'm not that satisfied with what I wrote in the old days. It's obvioulsy not very good. Yet, I worked in several museums and cultural institutions in London and, as a young french "expatrié", I constantly felt priviledged to get access to fantastic collections, learn and share knowledge about London's history...
      Anyway, your blog is rich with detailed articles. I'll keep its url among my favorites... Godspeed !

    3. Hi Sebastien. You are being a bit hard on yourself I think. I can't judge your style, not speaking French, but your posts have structure and the content is interesting. And you have almost certainly improved over the last 11 years so don't judge your more youthful self too harshly. Your post prodded me into reading up on Polidori who I knew was buried at St. Pancras. Obviously I was aware of his connections with Byron and the Shelleys but I did not know how he died - it's a good story. I might write it up....