1863 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Milton

George Daniel, "The Presumed Disinterment of Milton" Love's Last Labour not Lost (1863) 89-104.



Few, perhaps, of the present generation are aware that on Wednesday, the 4th of August, 1790, a coffin, presumed to be Milton's, was disinterred in the parish church of St. Giles, Cripplegate; a "Narrative" of which, written by Mr. Philip Neve, of Furnival's Inn, was published by T. and J. Egerton, Whitehall, on the 14th of the fame month. A second edition appeared on the 8th of September following. A copy of the latter (which is only the first, "new vamped, &c., with the addition of a postscript,") from the libraries of Bindley and Heber, is in my possession. It has the autograph of George Steevens on the title-page, and is interleaved throughout, in order to introduce a variety of minute and curious notes in his handwriting, pointing out the imposture. These notes, which have never been printed, are, for the rare importance of the subject, literary relics well worth preserving.

The "Narrative" states that, it being in contemplation of some persons to bestow a considerable sum of money in erecting a monument in the parish church of St. Giles, Cripplegate, to the memory of Milton ("Credat Judaeus Apella," says Steevens, "parish meetings have other objects in view, other topics of conversation. Many stories concerning this monument have been circulated, but most of them have proved without foundation. Such a memorial, however, is begun by Bacon, the statuary, and, as it is supposed, by order of Mr. Whitbread, the opulent brewer,") certain of the parishioners determined that his coffin should be dug for, that the exact spot of his grave might be ascertained before the said monument was erected. The entry, among the burials, in the register-book, 12th of November, 1674, is, "John Milton, Gentleman, consumpcon, chancell." (Steevens says, "Melton — but altered, in fresher ink than that with which the register was written.") The tradition had always been that Milton was buried in the old chancel, under the former clerk's desk; ("It was never heard of," replies Steevens, "till stated on the present occasion;") and William Ascough, parish clerk, of Cripplegate, whose father and grandfather had filled the same offices for ninety years past, and John Poole, watch-spring maker, of Jacob's-passage (a seer of seventy), who had often heard his father talk of Milton's person, as described by the venerable and veritable authorities that had actually seen him, confirmed the statement. It was therefore thought a good opportunity (the church being under repair) to make the proposed search. Accordingly, Mr. John Cole, of Barbican, silversmith, churchwarden; and Mr. Thomas Strong, solicitor, and vestry-clerk, ordered their workmen to dig from the present chancel, northwards, towards the pillar against which the former pulpit and desk had stood, and over which the Common Councilmen's pew now stands. The result was, that on Tuesday afternoon, August 3rd, a coffin was discovered, and Messieurs Strong and Cole, by the light of a candle, descended into the vault, where it lay directly over a wooden coffin, supposed to be that of Milton's father; tradition having reported that Milton was buried next (Steevens says "near") to his father. "When I inquired," says Steevens (who was present at the second disinterment), "about this circumstance, it appeared to want confirmation. The people present at the first said that the coffin was deposited in a strong cement. This particular is denied by Mr. Strong; nor could I perceive any traces of a substance resembling cement among the rubbish thrown out on the 17th of August." The "Narrative" states that in digging through the whole space, from the present chancel, where the ground was opened, to the situation of the former clerk's desk, there was not found any other coffin which could raise a doubt of this being Milton's. To this Steevens replies, "The remains of several others were found there. I saw the handles, &c. of them, as well as two skulls, many bones, &c. Some others had been removed to the bone-house." Messieurs Strong and Cole then ordered water and a brush, and began scrubbing the coffin in search of an inscription, but none was found. The coffin is described as being much corroded, five feet ten inches long, and at the broadest part, over the shoulders, one foot four inches wide. "It was not much corroded," says Steevens, "though there was one aperture in it, probably occasioned by the stroke of a spade. When the brick piers, on which the present pews are supported, were built, many of the dead must have been disturbed. But this last circumstance was wholly suppressed by the parishioners, or perhaps was unknown to them. Bold assertion, not curious investigation, distinguishes the antiquaries of St. Giles, Cripplegate!" Messieurs Cole and Strong once thought that by removing the leaden coffin some plate or inscription might probably be found on the wooden one underneath; but they forebore to disturb it; and, having satisfied their curiosity and ascertained the fact — ("How was it satisfied?" asks Steevens. "They did not, however, easily miss what they desired to find!") — they ordered the ground to be finally closed.

A merry-meeting ("Merry-meetings," says Steevens, "are believed to be so conducive to archeological knowledge, that even the Society of Antiquaries have, once a year, a merrymeeting of their own!") took place on the evening of that day at the house of Fountain, a publican, in Beech-street, Barbican; at which, among others, were present Churchwarden Cole; Laming, a pawnbroker; Taylor, a country surgeon, a friend of Laming; and one Holmes, journeyman to Ascough, the parish clerk and coffin-maker. The discourse having turned upon Milton's coffin, several of the company expressed a desire to see it. Under the influence of pipes, persuasion, and purl, the virtue of the churchwarden gave way, and he promised that if the ground was not already closed their curiosity should be satisfied. Accordingly, between eight and nine o'clock on the following morning, Laming and Fountain (the two overseers), and Taylor went to the house of Ascough, which leads into the churchyard ("They avoided," says Steevens, "telling Ascough the object of their visit,") and asked for Holmes. The gaunt demi-giant appeared, led them into the church, and, assisted by his myrmidons, pulled the coffin, which lay deep in the ground, ("about four feet," says Steevens, "when I saw it,") to the edge of the excavation. The overseers asked Holmes if he could open it. Holmes, with his mallet and chisel, cut open the top of the coffin slantwise from the head, as low as the breast, so that the top being doubled backward they could see the corpse. He then ripped it up at the foot. The body appeared in a perfect state, and was enveloped in a shroud of many folds, the ribs standing up regularly. When they disturbed the shroud the ribs fell. Here Steevens remarks, "Rather the winding-sheet. Had not this involucrum been torn to pieces by Laming, Fountain, &c. some mark at a corner of it might have exhibited the initial letters of the Christian and surname of the deceased, or some of their family. People were formerly buried in a sheet belonging to their bed, and consequently marked at one of its angles with thread or silk." The publican pulled hard at the teeth, which were "remarkably short below the gum, and very sound and white." They resisted until some one hit them with a stone, when they fell out! There were but five in the upper jaw. These were purloined by the publican, who presented one to the pawnbroker. The latter took one from the lower jaw, and the surgeon took two. The pawnbroker had once thought of bringing away the whole under jaw, teeth, and all! but tossed it back again. Somebody, however, must have had a fancy for it; for Steevens says, "the whole under-jaw was taken away." He then raised the head, and down fell a quantity of hair, which lay straight and even behind the head. It was wet; some of the water with which the coffin had been washed the day before having run into it. Steevens here Asks, "Why did they bring away only such hair as accorded with the description of Milton's? Of the lighter kind there was scarce any; of the dark a very considerable quantity. But this circumstance would have been concealed, had not a second examination of the coffin taken place." The pawnbroker "poked his stick against the head," and brought some of the hair over the forehead, which the surgeon carried away. He then took out one of the leg bones, but (as he had served the under-jaw) threw it back again. "The water," says the "Narrative," "had made a sludge at the bottom of the coffin, which emitted a nauseous smell." "Had this," remarks Steevens, "been the coffin of a person buried 116 years in such a dry place, there could have been no smell at all. But query if there really was any? The contents of the coffin had been absolutely deluged." The pawnbroker and the leech having pocketed their sacrilegious plunder, left the church, and the coffin, according to the "Narrative," "was restored to its original station." "How is this ascertained?" asks Steevens. "Not expecting the coffin would be a second time removed, they put it into an opening they had made, without any exact regard to its original situation." But the desecration of the corpse was not yet complete. Elizabeth Grant, the grave-digger, kept a tinderbox in the excavation, and when any visitors came, she struck a light, and exhibited it, first for sixpence, afterwards for threepence, and then for twopence, each person! The workmen also demanded a pot of porter for showing to all corners the presumed hallowed remains of the author of "Paradise Lost!"

The parish officers, according to Steevens, dismissed this ogress "from any future services." The only punishment that they received was universal execration and contempt.

The author of the "Narrative" states that on Monday the 9th of August he went to Laming's house to request a lock of the hair, when Taylor gave him a portion of what he had reserved for himself. Hearing that one Ellis, a performer at the Royalty Theatre, who had given Elizabeth Grant sixpence for seeing the body, had procured some of the hair, a rib-bone, a fragment of the shroud, and a piece of the skin of the skull (which adhered to the hair) of about the size of a shilling, he paid him a visit of inspection at No. 9, Lamb's-chapel. The rib-bone appeared to be one of the upper ribs; the piece of shroud was of coarse linen, and the hair (that portion which he had washed) was of a light colour, though taken from under the skull. To this Steevens replies, "The shroud is again confounded with the winding-sheet. A small piece of the shroud I saw. It was crimped at the edge, like such as are at present in use. This supposed bit of skin is only a bit of paper which had dropped into the coffin while it was open. The wire-marks are visible. All the hair under the skull was very dark. Such as was exhibited, &c. by Mr. Laming was of a light colour." The player had tried to reach down as low as the hands of the corpse, but without success. ("The right arm and hand had been taken away before the 17th of August," says Steevens). Being "a very ingenious worker in hair," and anticipating a merry market for Milton's, he lost no time in returning to the church for a fresh supply, but was refused admittance. "By this time," says Steevens, "the overseers, &c. began to reflect a little seriously on their own conduct; for one of them asked Mr. Neve, with seeming apprehension, if any descendants of Milton were alive?" The author of the "Narrative" was profuse in his purchases; for, in addition to his former acquisitions, he gave Hawkesworth (another of Ascough's men) two shillings for a tooth and a bit of the leaden coffin; and the same sum to one Haslib, a Jewinstreet undertaker, for one of the small bones. All the teeth were now gone, though the overseers would have made the public believe that some of them must have fallen among the bones, as they very readily came out after the first were drawn. "Not a word of truth in this supposition," says Steevens. "Do we usually call the knocking out teeth with a stone, drawing them? These overseers were but rough dentists."

The author of the "Narrative" lays particular stress on the parish traditions — the age of the coffin, none other being discovered in the ground which can at all contest with it, or render it suspicious — ("the remains," says Steevens, "of several wooden coffins were found near it, and one leaden one,") Poole's tradition is that Milton was thin, with long hair, and the entry in the register-book is that he died of a consumption. "He died," remarks Steevens, "consumed by the co-operation of age and gout. The entry was probably made by the undertaker, who knew nothing more than that he was dead." Immediately over the common councilmen's pew is an ancient monument to the family of Smith, under which four of them are buried. The author of the "Narrative" supposes it to have been put there, because the flat pillar, after the pulpit was removed, offered a convenient situation for it, and "near this place" to be open (as it is in almost every case where it appears) to a very liberal interpretation. "We are certain," says Steevens, " that the monument was there before the pulpit was removed in the repair of the church in 1682. They projected different ways from the top of the same pillar, without the slightest interference with each other." If, argues the narrator, the coffin in question belong to a Smith, all the coffins of that family should appear, but not one of them is found. "Some of these coffins," replies Steevens, "had been wooden ones, nor was half the circuit round the pillar on which the monument stands examined. Upon a further search the remains of many of them were found. Had our great poet been interred near the sepulchre of the Smiths, Richard Smith (who is so circumstantial in his account of family burials) would not have failed to record so particular an event. The proximity of his dead relatives to the corpse of Milton was a circumstance on which an antiquary of congenial politics would have expatiated."

Holmes affirms that a leaden coffin, when the inner wooden case is perished, must, from pressure and its own weight, shrink in breadth. But Steevens declares "that the sides and ends of the wooden coffin were still in their places, though the top had been forced in. No contraction of the lead, therefore, could have happened. This Holmes," he continues, "though no reputed conjurer, is a very convenient evidence. He is ignorant of nothing which others wish to know. But all this was urged to apologise for the seeming narrowness of the coffin and the corpse over the shoulders. Will any one believe that the breadth of Milton's body, in its broadest part, was only 13 or 14 inches?" "There is evidence," says the "Narrative," "that the coffin was incurvated both on the top and at the sides at the time it was discovered." "It was not incurvated on the sides when I saw it on the 17th of August," replies Steevens, "or very little indeed."

The "Narrative" refers to Faithorne's beautiful print of Milton, taken "ad vivum" in 1670. "Observe," it says, "the short locks growing towards the forehead, and the long ones flowing from the same place down the sides of the face. The hair which Mr. Taylor took was from the forehead, and all taken at one grasp. One lock measured six inches and a half, and another only two inches and a half." "All the hair," remarks Steevens, "except such as had grown after the corpse was buried, was of the deepest brown — the very reverse of Milton's." And as to the length, he adds, "Much of Milton's hair must have been sixteen and twenty inches long. See his portrait, drawn but a few years before his death, and re-engraved by Vertue in his set of Poets. Wood says Milton had light brown hair. How does this accord with the colour of that which was found in the coffin?" "In the age of Charles II," says the "Narrative," "how few, besides Milton, wore their own hair." "Many thousands," replies Steevens, "who could not afford wigs. Nor were they then universally worn by such as could afford them. Dryden, Quarles, Withers, &c. wore their own hair."

In order to account for no inscription-plate being found on the coffin, Holmes deposes to this extraordinary fact, that at the time Milton was buried, inscription-plates were not in use; that the practice then was to paint the inscription on the outside of the wooden coffin, which in this case was entirely perished. "No such custom ever prevailed," says Steevens, "not even in the case of the poor who are buried by the parish, and consequently in a single coffin. There never has been any outward coffin, except the leaden one. Three coffins were not then in use."

"Of the teeth," says Steevens, "more than one hundred are said to have been sold. For a week after the corpse was discovered, they rattled in the pocket of many a staunch antiquary. I have not the smallest doubt but all the bones, &c. that were missing when I saw the contents of the coffin, had been converted into merchandise, and will at some future period be resold as the genuine spoils of Milton." And of the hair he adds, "The quantity taken by Laming and Ellis, by all accounts, amounted about as much as would have scantily filled a couple of lockets, or half a dozen rings."

A report having gone abroad (originating, it is suspected, with the parish officers, who were desirous of hushing up their disgraceful doings) that the corpse, after all, was that of a woman, a second examination, under the direction of Mr. Strong, took place on Tuesday, the 17th of August, and a neighbouring surgeon (Mr. Dyson, of Fore-street) was called in to give his opinion. The corpse was found shamefully mutilated. "All the ribs, I think," says Steevens, "and the right hand, as well as the lower jaw, were gone; the only lock of light hair that remained on the forehead was not thicker than a packthread (it is in my possession), and the hair on the back of the head was of dark brown, nearly approaching to black, as was proved by Mr. Reed, Mr. Steevens, Mr. Cole, Mrs. Hoppey (Sexton), and half a dozen other people who were on the spot, and who received a part of it. It was, however, a very mortifying acquisition to those who had received the lighter hair for that of Milton." Mr. Dyson, "being cross-examined," says Steevens, "refused to pronounce absolutely on the sex of the deceased; he allowed that there was no specific difference between a male and a female skull, except occasionally, in respect to size and density, and that the condition of the pelvis was such as would not authorize any decisive opinion. He thought, in short, it was the corpse of a man; but admitted it might be that of a woman. In reference to the shape of the head, his words were: 'Take notice, Sir, that what there is of forehead, is prominent.' He was willing to have taken away the skull, but was dissuaded from it. He carried off two of the finger-bones. His opinions on the 17th of August were delivered with great modesty, diffidence, and candour."

"A man also," says the "Narrative," "who has for many years acted as grave-digger in that parish ("quite a young man, a consummate blackguard, and only an occasional assistant," replies Steevens), who was present on the 17th, decided that the skull was that of a male; and with as little hesitation he pronounced another which had been thrown up to be that of a woman." "No such opinion," rejoins Steevens," was delivered by him. If it had, I must have heard it. No woman's skull was pointed out as such by any person present. Two others had been thrown out: each of them almost twice as large as that of the pretended Milton. They were repeatedly compared with it."

"I am perfectly convinced," says Steevens, "that these worthies, among themselves, still suppose the corpse they disturbed to be that of the author of 'Paradise Lost.' 'Ah, Sir' (said Mr. Cole to me, with a sigh), 'though you came last, you are possessed of the best lock of the light hair.' And this happened after they had affected to disbelieve it was the hair of Milton. And after the black hair had discomposed his original hypothesis, he very gravely assured me that a skilful hair-merchant had told him these locks were not the produce of the human head, but were absolute mohair. On my replying that true mohair was white, he had no more to say, than that Milton, 'being an odd man, might have ordered his funeral pillow to be fluffed with some sort of hair or other.'"

After this second examination had taken place, the coffin was carefully soldered up, and restored to its former grave.

It is a consolation to have the authority of Steevens, who seems to have gone into the question "con amore," that this mutilated corpse was not Milton's. "The hair, the teeth, the bones, &c.," he says, "afford a sufficient presumption that this was not the skeleton of a man. The corpse was never supposed to be that of Elizabeth Smith, but of one of her daughters who was buried in the same spot. For some account of the Smith family, see Peck's 'Desiderata Curiosa,' Stowe, &c. I avow that the statement of Mr. Dyson's evidence, in the 'Narrative,' is partial in the extreme. Mr. Neve was repeatedly informed of the result of his cross-examination, and yet has forborne the slightest mention of it. His pamphlet is wholly founded on hearsay evidence. He was not witness to any one of the facts which he has related."

It seems that the Narrator had some compunctious visitings; for he says, "I have procured those relics which I possess only in the hope of bearing part in a pious and an honourable restitution of all that has been taken." "This," replies Steevens, "was an afterthought. In Mr. Neve's first draught of the pamphlet he has made himself 'particeps criminis.' Mr. Malone suggested this very necessary supplement." It has not transpired whether this "pious and honourable restitution" was ever carried into effect.

Let us hope that the remains of Milton still sleep in their sepulchre, unprofaned by morbid curiosity and brutal violence. It is shocking to see even the common dead rudely torn from their last resting-places; but that a corpse so supremely precious, so intensely sacred as Milton's, should suffer indignity, would be a national reproach and a disgrace — an insult offered to that high intelligence which transfigures human nature, and makes man "in action, how like an angel! in apprehension, how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!" Shakespeare has pronounced an awful, an undying curse upon the violator of his tomb, and invoked a blessing upon him who spares it. This may have alarmed the superstitious fears, and arrested the sacrilegious hands of many parish officials, who, as Bacon said of corporations, have "no souls." "Transeat in exemplum."