The Genius six feet under Clerkenwell | Bunhill Fields
Just a few feet from the urban cacophony that is Goswell Road lies a small oasis of green and calm, Bunhill Fields Burial Ground. With its mature trees and park benches, it’s a favourite lunchtime spot for Clerkenwell’s office workers, but few of them probably realise just how significant their place of brief escape really is.
It is a Grade I Listed open space with mature and unusual trees and, today, the largest ancient burial ground in London. It is not consecrated ground, and there’s no church or religious establishment attached to it – though the chapel built by Methodism founder John Wesley is not far away, on City Road. The site has been used for burials for more than a thousand years, the name “Bunhill” being thought to have derived from “Bone Hill”. During the Plague in 1665-1666, there was a great need for additional places to bury the dead, church graveyards becoming rather full. Bunhill was earmarked for this role – but ended up being used to bury other bodies instead: those of “dissenters”.
AN AGE OF DISSENT
There were many people considered to be “dissenters” in those days, thanks to an Act of Parliament under Charles II, the 1662 Act of Uniformity. This prescribed the doctrine, rites and ceremonies for the Church of England (and led to 2,000 clergymen leaving the church in what became known as The Great Ejection). It also classed anyone who didn’t recognise the new rules, or Charles II as head of the church, as non-conformist and unable to be buried in church grounds. They needed to be buried somewhere, of course, and Bunhill became an obvious choice, not least because, after the Great Fire of 1666, the nearby village of Shoreditch had greatly expanded and become a stronghold of non-conformity. So Clerkenwell, known in history for its association with rebels and radicals, was true to form here.
Among the many dead in the small space (there are 123,000 burials registered here and 15,000 surviving grave markers) are Baptists, Plymouth Brethren, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Quakers and non-believers. Wesley’s mother, Susanna, is here; she had 19 children and died in 1742 in a house just across the road. Her grave marker, like many at Bunhill, is very simple, in keeping with non-conformist principles. But don’t be fooled – despite the plain stones, Bunhill boasts some of the UK’s most famous literary names.
One of them is John Bunyan, the 17th century preacher and author of what some regard as the first great English novel, the Christian allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress. His memorial, fittingly, is not simple but elaborate, erected in later years by enthusiastic Victorians. Bunyan lived most of his life in Bedford and was once imprisoned for unlicensed preaching. In 1688, at the age of 60, he died suddenly on a rare visit to London for a preaching engagement, after being caught in a shower of rain and developing a cold. At the time, he was staying at the house of John Strudwick, who had already reserved his spot at Bunhill, and it was decided that Bunyan would be buried in his place.
Nearby is another 17th century writer, Daniel Defoe. Though he’s best known for Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders, he was a prolific writer, and, besides novels, produced hundreds of essays, political satires and pamphlets. Like Bunyan, he also had a spell in prison, at nearby Newgate, for sedition and libel after the publication of his 1702 pro-non-conformist essay The Shortest Way with the Dissenters. He was born simply Daniel Foe but added the “De” in middle age because he thought it would create a good impression. Despite this, and his success, he was not good with money and ended up in a pauper’s grave. His tall, imposing memorial was, like Bunyan’s, erected at a later date.
Also buried in a pauper’s grave, and with a humble gravestone still today, is the 18th century creative genius William Blake, whose poems, drawings, paintings and prints went unrecognised in his day. He was most definitely a non-conformist, having idiosyncratic beliefs and influences, suffering strange dreams and visions and being considered mad by many of his contemporaries. It is perhaps ironic that his poem Jerusalem, criticising the “dark Satanic mills” of the Industrial Revolution, forms the words to what is considered to be the nation’s most patriotic hymn today. He died in 1827 and is buried with his wife Catherine, who – again, perhaps ironically – was illiterate when he married her.
TWO MORE NAMES
These three literary greats aside, there are two friends buried in Bunhill who are seldom mentioned in the history books but whose influence on our lives today merits worldwide recognition. Richard Price, a philosopher, preacher and political writer, published a paper in 1770 that set out the basic principles on which the insurance industry became based. He then wrote, in 1776, a bestselling pamphlet in support of American independence, and corresponded with the likes of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin until his death in 1791.
His friend Thomas Bayes, a London-born Presbyterian minister and stat-istician, published a paper in 1736 entitled An Introduction to the Doctrine of Fluxions. This heralded the beginning of a lifetime dedicated to probability theory and is regarded as the spark that ignited what eventually became the modern computer industry. He died in 1761.
Bunhill closed as a burial ground in 1853, to be re-opened a few years later as a public open space – and as such, as well as place of significant historical interest, it is still enjoyed by many today.
Sandra Lea and her fellow City of London parks’ guides run tours of Bunhill Fields every Wednesday at 12.30pm, from April to October – visit www.cityoflondon.gov.uk.
For information about other Clerkenwell-specific guided walking tours, contact the Clerkenwell & Islington Guides’ Association, www.ciga.org.uk
With author Hilary Mantel’s much-anticipated sequel to Wolf Hall coming soon (see feature, page 22), now’s a good time for some Cromwell appreciation. It’s also another famous name linked with Bunhill, as well as with Clerkenwell as a whole. Mantel’s books feature Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540), the great Tudor statesman who had a meteoric rise in the court of Henry VIII, only to be executed by him after helping to arrange Henry’s disastrous marriage to Anne of Cleves. Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658), he of parliament/civil war fame, was a great-great-grandson of Thomas’ sister Katherine. He owned a house in Clerkenwell Close. Two of his sons are buried at Bunhill: Richard (1626-1712), who succeeded his father in becoming Lord Protector of England, and Henry (1628-1674), a politician who was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Oliver Cromwell, of course, was buried at Westminster Abbey but exhumed after the Restoration, his body strung up at Tyburn and his head stuck on a pole outside Westminster.