Saturday, 17 December 2011

Where's Henry?

When, in the 1980s, I first started working for the sculptor, Simon Verity, he was just completing the enormous, Portland stone table top tomb for Henry, 10th Duke of Beaufort, who is buried at the church of Badminton House, Gloucestershire. You will have some idea of how grand this house is when I tell you that the picture above is of it's back gate - several miles gallop away from the front door.

Henry was the epitome of the English hunting man, and the Beaufort Hunt was the hunt of all hunts, so it is not surprising that the Duke was the prime target for all the hunt-saboteurs of England. When they first buried him in the church of Badminton House (yes, it's big enough to have it's own church), some anti-hunt demonstrators crept in during the middle of the night and dug the poor Duke's corpse up, leaving it on show above ground for people to discover in the morning. When they reburied him, they made sure that this could not happen again by covering the spot with a six foot by six foot by six inch thick pad of concrete. That would keep the old boy down. It may also explain why I cannot find any pictures of the elaborate tomb on Google - they do not want to attract any attention, I suppose.

I arrived at Simon's workshop just as he was putting the finishing touches to the table-top tomb, and it stood next to a full-size plaster mock-up in the little room. Next to the mock up was a velvet cushion on which was placed the actual red and gold coronet of the Duke, so that Simon could copy it in Portland stone - including cushion with tassels - to sit like a cherry on top of the cake-like monument in the churchyard. He had to go to Badminton and borrow the coronet, which was given to him by the current Duke's butler, who told him to take good care of it, as this was the only one in existence, and it had existed for about 300 years. It was covered in cling-film to protect it from the dust.

Coming from a sound and sensible masonic background, it was to be my job to oversee it's installation at the church, and this little job was not without incident - some of which were hair-raising in the extreme, and almost involved the loss of even more lives than the Duke's.

When I arrived at the churchyard to assess the situation, I found the massive slab of concrete which covers the Duke, and was looking at the wall of the church where I could just make out the sprayed graffiti words, "BEAUFORT ROT IN HELL" which had been put there by the grave-robbers and partially cleaned off by the flower ladies, when a car pulled up sharply and two men in suits got out and challenged me.

I told them who I was and they relaxed, but I asked them how they knew I was there so quickly, and they pointed to an antennae scanner on the roof of the church. They said that it used to go off every night, and they would rush to the grave expecting to find it being attacked by hunt saboteurs again, but always found nothing. After about a week, they lay - hidden - in wait, and discovered that it was being set off by a fox which trotted over the old Duke's grave at the same time every night.

The tomb is basically four five inch walls and a roof, and when I constructed it, the inside of the walls had to be reinforced with a matrix of concrete blocks, so that it could not be knocked through with a sledge-hammer - a very likely possibility at the time. When we unpacked the blocks for the walls, we discovered that the supplier of the stone had rubbed a small chamfer on all four sides of every block, which - when laid - would have given the impression that the joints in the masonry were about 4 times thicker than they actually were, and Simon (as was usual) hit the roof. Nothing could placate him, and he was furious that he could not blame me for it.

"The first person who is going to see this thing is the fucking Queen, for God's sake!" he yelled, and he was telling the truth. HRH was going to be at the dedication and memorial service for the Duke, and - given her position in society - would be the first one to lay flowers against the tomb. There was nothing for it but to rub about 2mm from the face of each and every block, putting about an extra 4 days on the job.

As Martin (his brilliant but taciturn assistant) and me began to build the finished walls, an elderly lady wandered up, looking confused and bewildered. "I'm looking for my husband. Have you seen him"? she asked imploringly, and it wasn't until a nurse came up to her to lead her back to the house that we realised that this was the Duchess - widow of the very person upon whose grave we stood and who she was looking for. Very sad, and a good example of how death is, indeed, the great leveler.

At last, the time came to lay the table block on the four walls before literally crowning it with the stone coronet. Easy-Peasy.

The piece of intricately carved stone was about 7 feet by 5 feet by 6 inches or so, and weighed about three-quarters of a ton. My plan was to bring a 'shear-leg' tripod on site and sling a chain hoist from it, pick the slab up, build a pedestal of straw bales beneath it, let it down on them, then roller it across a bridging board to the top of the tomb, move the shear-legs to over the walls, pick it up again then lay it in place. Simple - but not simple enough for Simon, who is not known for his patience when it comes to viewing the finished work. At the time he looked upon me as a clay-footed, belt and braces sort of pedestrian, and he insisted that we would pick the thing up on the tripod and simply swing it over to the tomb. Wrong, but he would not hear otherwise.

I tried - in vain - to explain to him that shear legs were made for direct lifts only, and the fact that they only had three legs was proof of this, but he was having none of it, so I began lifting the thing against my better judgement and waiting for the disaster which would inevitably occur. It did.

As he and Martin began to push and pull the huge slab over the four feet toward the top of the walls, one scaffold-pole leg fell out of it's socket and struck Simon full on the head, leaving the 3/4 ton block swinging from two spindly legs only, and Martin and me desperately trying to keep it upright as Simon reeled around the yard with blood pouring from his head-wound.

Somehow, we managed to stop it from falling flat on it's side and destroying itself, the rest of the tomb and Simon all in one go, then cranked it down onto the safety of the four walls before laying the two legs flat on the grass, seeing to our wounds and getting our breath back.

I don't think the Queen ever found out about it. I wonder if she reads this blog?


  1. Building of all great edifices is dotted with disaster. The pyramids, railways, cathedrals. All have accompanying lists of the dead or injured. Just make sure you don't join the 'many'.

  2. If Peter Ackroyd is to be believed, they used to sacrifice a child in the foundations of important churches, but that's masons for you.

  3. Wonder what kind of enemies he made that wanted Henry dug back up so badly??
    Amazing story of strength, wit, "foxiness" and injury not to mention the widow's dementia. Sad all of it but glad you were able to save the day!

  4. The sort of enemies who dress in black balaclavas, fighting blokes who dress in bright pink jackets, Donna. Sad, but funny too.

  5. If you want to know what the Queen has in her handbag - it's a royal mini laptop so that she can stay in touch with blogland at all times. She would appreciate a blog on race horses.

  6. Dozens died building the Ribblehead viaducy (see mynew header) - as Cro rightly says - all these great edifices are littered with corpses. Glad it wasn't yours as I would miss your blog tremendously!

  7. My husband and I are most interested in this story and are indebted to you. We realise that the dedication and memorial service could have been a disaster if not for your quick actions and we are now pleased to be aware of what happened.
    Philip and I are avid readers of your may well be in the New Year's Honours list now that we know how you and your fellow workers went above and beyond the call of duty !
    Lots of love,

  8. You're thinking of The Queen Mother, Iris. She had Mini-logs and miniature gins in her handbag.

    Was that the ViaDuchy of Cornwall, Weaver?

    Your majejejejejejejejejesty! I hope you have quite forgot the fart.

  9. ...a few old queens DO read the blog!

  10. Are you doing Panto this year, Jonathan? I do hope so! P.S. I am really sorry I haven't finished that card, but I have been a bit hectic, or a bit slovenly. I hope it's not a big problem. X