Monday, 7 June 2010

The children buried at Reigate Priory

Memorable features in the Priory grounds are the tiny graves for some cherished pet dogs that belonged to Lady Henry Somerset's grandchildren.

Now we know from archaeological evidence that some children are buried in the grounds of Reigate Priory, too - since, after all, it was consecrated ground. A colour leaflet about the archaeology includes a photograph of two skeletons, with the following information:"A trench revealed these juvenile burials."

It goes on to make a guess as to why: "It seems likely that they were children of citizens of the town, for whom burial in the monastic cloister would have been a symbol of status."

Actually it is much more likely that the children were residents of Reigate Priory, as novices.
Take a look at this carefully preserved worksheet from the days when my mother, Audrey Ward, was setting up the educational museum in collaboration with other expert history teachers at the school. Yes, in her own handwriting, she shows that children did live at the Priory, even in medieval times, long before the building became a stately family home. I would think it is even possible that they had died of the Black Death.

As she explains in the text, "Children were 'given' to the church at a very early age: one way of poor parents ensuring their child a safe future. Cardinal Wolsey, a butcher's son, became a novice at the age of eight and rose to be Henry VIII's Chancellor".

In her authoritative book, Discovering Reigate Priory - the place and the people, she explains that "Augustinian canons took in local boys and taught them to read and write - so Reigate Priory was a school even then!"

This worksheet is the first in a series of 6 which I have kept for future use.

The second one is especially charming, illustrating young Lord Charles Howard holding a toy wooden galleon just like the ones he would later use in master-minding the defeat of the Spanish Armada!

I wonder, would the Lord High Admiral turn in his own grave (or should I say, family vault at Reigate Parish Church) if he knew that Council staff actually refer to the wonderful galleon in the children's playground mistakenly as a Pirate Ship - yes, sad but true.

So, grown-ups and children, as you career around the paths and walkways on your bikes and scooters, please spare a thought for those much-loved children whose mortal remains are not visible beneath your feet, but whose memory lingers on and certainly deserves some respect.

To illustrate the Black Death, this medieval illuminated manuscript shows plague victims being blessed by a priest.