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What Are They Doing Here?

Saint Valentine receives a rosary from the Virgin, by David Teniers III
Saint Valentine receives a rosary from the Virgin, by David Teniers III

St Valentine, a Roman priest who blessed illegal Christian marriages, was beaten to death on the orders of the Roman Emperor Claudius II in AD 269. His execution supposedly took place on February 14th, a date that has long been recognised as St Valentine’s Day.

A goodly proportion of the saint’s relics are buried not in Rome, as you might expect, but in a small church in Dublin, the Whitefriars Street Carmelite Church. They were presented as a gift by Pope Gregory XVI to the founder of the church, Dr John Spratt, in 1836, in appreciation of his charismatic preaching while in Rome. Here are some other unexpected burial places.

  • William the Conqueror’s youngest son, Henry I (r.1100-35), one of England’s greatest kings, lies neglected beneath the once vast abbey he founded at Reading in 1121. Its scant ruins are now concealed between office blocks and the infamous gaol of this uncompromisingly modern town and seldom visited.
  • Buried in a lichen-covered stone tomb beside the ruins of Eastwell church, deep in the Kent countryside, lies Richard Plantagenet, illegitimate son of Richard III and last of a royal dynasty that spanned 331 years and produced 14 kings of England. In hiding from the agents of Henry VII after the Battle of Bosworth, Richard worked here as a stone mason and told no one of his true identity until his final years.
  • In a dark corner of a small, bare attic room in Newburgh Abbey, near Coxwold in North Yorkshire, there is a rough brick tomb covered by wooden planks, where the bones of Oliver Cromwell are said to rest. After Cromwell was dug up from Westminster Abbey following the restoration of Charles II and the Stuart dynasty his head was stuck on a pole outside Parliament and ended up in Cambridge, but his bones were gathered together by his daughter Mary and brought here, to her home. You can still see the hole the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) made in one of the planks in an unsuccessful attempt to see what was inside.
  • Resting beside her father, beneath a grey tombstone in a tiny hill-top churchyard in Cockayne Hatley, Bedfordshire, is Margaret, daughter of William Henley, editor of the National Observer and friend of J.M. Barrie. She died at the age of five, but achieved immortality as the inspiration for one of literature’s most cherished little girls, Wendy in Peter Pan. Whenever Barrie visited, Margaret would fling herself into his arms crying ‘fwendy, fwendy!’

Christopher Winn is the author of I Never Knew That