I am delighted to be taking part in today’s inauguration of St Peter’s as a Heritage Church. A place of worship dating back over 1000 years, which contains so many significant links with the past, fully deserves to be put on the heritage map of Southern England.
Whilst this project is about celebrating all aspects of the church’s history, I am really here to continue a family association which goes back over 400 years. I am referring, of course, to my ancestors’ monument and vault which has been situated in the South Chapel for over half of its seven-century history.
Four generations of Wriothesleys who served eight English monarchs through 150 turbulent years, and whose lives were inextricably woven into the history of Hampshire and of England, are interred here at Titchfield. So when you are feeling in a contemplative mood, stand over their final resting place and reflect upon the fact that from them, over 80 British Peers can trace their lineage; that’s quite a dynasty.
The rise of the Wriothesley family began with Thomas who in 1524, at the age of nineteen, entered the service of Thomas Cromwell and became Clerk of the Signet. Wriothesley’s services to the King were later rewarded with extensive lands in Hampshire including Titchfield and Beaulieu. Both were former abbeys, and both were converted into residences. Place House in Titchfield, Palace House in Beaulieu. He was knighted and in 1544 and became Baron of Titchfield and Earl of Southampton in 1547. His son, Henry, later 2nd Earl, was honoured by having King Henry VIII as his Godfather.
In his will of 1582, the 2nd Earl ordered that two monuments should be built, one for his father Thomas and mother Jane, the other for himself. But there was a significant delay and the result was a single monument bearing three effigies, all carved from marble and alabaster. Additionally, there is the rare depiction Henry, 3rd Earl of Southampton as a young man, kneeling and praying.
For those seeking other links with history, one cannot fail to be moved by 3rd Earl’s connection to the greatest writer of the English language. Shakespeare only dedicated his work to one man, Henry Wriothesley, to whom the poet pledged his love “without end.”
The 3rd Earl was also a leading figure in the Virginia Company. The Port of Southampton was the point of departure for the Pilgrim Fathers and the Mayflower was amongst the ships he financed, and which landed safely in the New World two years before his death in 1624.
But this isn’t just a monument to figures in history, it is also a remarkable work of stone carving; the materials, the scale, positioning and the design were all used to express status and power. The work of Flemish sculptor Gheerart Janssen and his son Nicholas, this is amongst the finest and the best preserved Elizabethan monuments in England. So whilst this church has much else to merit its heritage status, for me this is its jewel, and one which deserves to be more widely appreciated.
In the centuries which have followed since its creation, we must be grateful that the monument has been more admired than abused, and so whilst the passing years took their toll, worshippers and visitors came to acknowledge the monument as a very special piece, worthy of their care and protection. William Pavey, writing in 1719, was possibly the first to recognize this. Later, in 1839, RHC Ubsdell’s watercolours were another form of appreciation. It was the recent discovery of these which gave us the information required to produce an accurate facsimile of the 2nd Earl’s funerary achievement which now hangs in the same place as the original.
As one of the senior Wriothesley descendants, and the only remaining family member to be living in a property acquired by the 1st Earl of Southampton, my great grandfather was one of the first to take the lead in raising funds for restoration work in 1902. My father similarly initiated a campaign for repairs which were carried out in 1979. Additionally, work to the South Chapel in the 1950s was funded by grants, public appeals and fundraising under Rev. Norman Miller’s direction.
In fact, the work of maintaining historic buildings and their contents never ends, but how we present the legacies inherited from previous generations will inevitably evolve over time. This occasion represents a new chapter in that process.
For me, there are parallels with Beaulieu Abbey, a visitor attraction where we combine worship with the telling of a story about the church and its historical, religious, cultural and political role. And if we’re to do this properly, we shouldn’t just rely on ‘handed down’ accounts as there is scope to undertake new research which can help to fill in some of the gaps in our understanding. In addition to re-examining the established evidence and documentation, we have the opportunity to enlist new imaging and scientific techniques which can inform our approach to conservation while making a significant contribution to the historical record of the Parish.
It was this, combined with a growing public interest in my ancestors, that persuaded me to establish The Southampton Monument and Vault Initiative, a partnership with St Peters and the University of Southampton. It is early days but, guided by a mission of preservation, discovery, and commemoration, it is my hope that this initiative will complement the work already taking place here in rediscovering St Peter’s past and helping it to develop as a heritage attraction.
I will finish with the words of an author whose connections with Titchfield and the 3rd Earl continue to be a subject of study and speculation.
this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England
These words might also describe the spirit of what Titchfield embodies today, reaching back over 1000 years, but also welcoming the future and the opportunities it presents.