Iconoclasm in the Rear View Mirror

As the lyricist Jim Steinman once observed, “Objects in the Rear View Mirror May Appear Closer Than They Are.” When it comes to actual mirrors, of course, the opposite is the case: objects in the mirror are closer than they appear. But when it comes to the memory of iconoclasm in sacred spaces such as cathedrals, Steinman had a valid point. Consider the case of Bishop John Grandisson’s tomb in Exeter Cathedral.

Grandisson died in 1369 and was buried in St Radegund’s chapel, which he had himself audaciously inserted into the west entrance of the Cathedral. It seems likely that he was represented in effigy, gazing up at the image of Christ that adorns the chapel ceiling (much as his predecessor Walter de Stapledon does in his canopied tomb in the north aisle). Grandisson’s tomb does not survive, but when exactly it disappeared remains unclear.

In the closing years of the sixteenth century, the Exeter historian John Hooker recorded that Grandisson’s “tombe was of late pulled up, the ashes scattered abroad, and the bones bestowed no man knoweth where.” Some historians have taken the word “late” to indicate that the opening of the tomb occurred in the reign of Queen Elizabeth (in spite of her edict against precisely this sort of desecration). But is this necessarily the case? After all, Shakespeare in the 1590s refers to the monasteries dissolved in the 1530s as “bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang” (Sonnet 73). For aficionados of nostalgia, like Shakespeare and perhaps like Hooker, such losses are always recent or “late,” even if they occurred some decades before the writer’s birth. Given how frequent the desecration of medieval tombs was in the 1530s and 40s (and given the specific resemblance between Hooker’s account of what happened to Grandisson and reports of the destruction of Becket’s shrine and the scattering of his ashes in 1538), the likelihood is that Hooker was referring to events that took place fifty or sixty years before at the height of the Reformation?

Whether or not Hooker fell prey to the Rear View Mirror Effect in this case, subsequent writers clearly did. Writing in 1630, Thomas Westcote recorded that Bishop Grandisson “was taken up shrouded in lead, not long since, the lead melted, and the chapel defaced.” In 1677, Richard Izacke complained that “his tomb was of late ransack’d by sacrilegious hands; his leaden coffin (in hope of a prey) taken up, the ashes scattered about, and his bones thrown, I know not where.” Izacke was writing of an event that had occurred at least 90years in the past, and more probably something closer to 140. His insistence that the opening of the tomb was a “late” event led later writers to suppose that the desecration occurred in the Civil War. Thus, in the eighteenth century, John Jones, followed by Richard Polwhele, reports that Grandisson’s “tomb was broken open and ransacked by the myrmidons of Oliver Cromwell, the coffin taken up, and his remains scattered and lost.”

The fact that Izacke could describe the ransacking of the tomb as a “late” event does not prove that it happened in the Civil War era (though if we did not have Hooker and Westcote as prior witnesses, we might assume so). By the same token, the fact that Hooker uses the word “late” should not lead us to conclude that Grandisson’s tomb was opened in the 1590s. The most interesting question is not when the tomb was actually dismantled, but why writers should persist in describing events that were increasingly distant in time as if they had happened only the other day.