John Gower’s Tomb

As mentioned in my last post, only little remains of Winchester Palace in Southwark and you probably have to be a die-hard medievalist to include it in your list of things to see in London. But if you decide to go there you’ll be rewarded double because just around the corner there is Southwark Cathedral which is said to have been the first church to be built in the Gothic style in all of London. It was founded in 1106 as an Augustinian Priory dedicated to St. Mary Overie (and only became a Cathedral in 1905). The present structure was begun c. 1220 and still gives does a good impression of a 13th century church even though most of it is a 19th century reconstruction:

While the church’s medieval furnishings have long been lost and destroyed, it still contains a number of medieval tombs, most notably that of English poet John Gower (c. 1330-1408). Though highly succesful in his own time, his fame has long been overshadowed by his contemporary (and friend) Geoffrey Chaucer – like Christopher Marlowe, Gower will probably always be remembered as England’s second most important writer of his time.

Anyway, John Gower spent the last years of his live as a resident of Southwark where he became an important benefactor of St. Mary Overie and was eventually buried there when he died in late 1408. Situated in the north aisle of the nave, his tomb is a splendid piece of architecture in the Perpendicular style, consisting of “a canopy of three arches embellished with cinquefoil tracery, and supported on either side by angular buttresses surmounted with carved pinnacles” (Thompson 1906, p. 204).

Gower’s effigy, resting on the tomb, pays tribute to his high status:

“[The figure is] crowned with a chapet of four roses, originally, as Leland tells us, intermixed with ivy, ‘in token (…) that he, in his life daies, flourished fresshely in literature and science.‘ It is inscribed, ihs merci. A long robe, closely buttoned down the front, extends from the neck to the feet (…). A collar of SS., from which is suspended a small swan, chained, the badge of Henry the Fourth, hangs from his neck; his feet rest upon a lion, and above, within a pannel of the side of the canopy, a shield is suspended, charged with his arms.“ (Gower 1826, pp. 15-16)

Gower’s head rests on three large volumes which are inscribed with the titles of his most important works: Vox Clamantis [a Latin poem dedicated to political events of the day, i.e. 1381], Speculum Mediantis [a moral treatise written in French], and Confessio Amantis [an allegorical narrative about Love, written in Middle English]. An inscription on the ledge of the tomb informs the beholder: “Hic jacet J. Gower, arm. / Angl. poeta celeberrimus ac / Huic sacro edifico benefac. insignis / Vixit temporibus Edw. III. et Ric. II. et Henr. IV.” [“Here lies John Gower, Esquire, a most celebrated English poet, and to this sacred edifice a distinguished benefactor. He lived in the times of Edward III., Richard II., and Henry IV”] (translation from: Thompson 1906, p. 208).

Right above the poet’s effigy, four Latin hexameters declare:

“Armigeri scutum nihil a modo fert tibi tutum
Reddidit immo lutum morti generale tributum
Spiritus exutum se gaudeat esse solutum
Est ubi virtutum regnum sine labe statutum”

[“No squire’s shield defending will guard you from this way of ending / he has paid the unbending Death’s tax over all men impending / Glad be the soul’s wending, no more with the flesh interblending / ‘Tis where, God amending, the Virtues reign free from offending.”]

(translation from: Thompson 1906, p. 206)

It has been suggested that these verses were composed by Gower himself. This may well be the case: In the late Middle ages, it was common practice to have your tomb prepared and ready – or at least planned – at the time of your death. For example, Emperor Friedrich III. of Habsburg commissioned his own tombstone in 1467, but we know that he was already looking for a sculptor to undertake the work in 1463, thirty (!) years before his death in 1493. And, in Gower’s case, we have the testimony of Thomas Berthelette who in the introduction to his 1532 edition of the Confessio Amantis states that the poet himself “prepared for his bones a resting-place in the monastery of St. Mary Overes” (quoted from: Thompson 1906, p. 207). Admittedly, this was written long after the fact, but it is in accordance with Gower’s last will, dated August 1408, where we read that the testator wishes to be buried in the Priory of St. Mary Overies “in loco ad hoc specialiter deputato” [“in the place specially set apart for that purpose”].

Be that as it may, Berthelette’s introduction to the Confessio is one of the most important sources we have regarding Gower’s burial place because it also provides an ample description of the tomb’s upper part:

“Beside on the wall where he [Gower] lieth, there be peinted three virgins, with crownes on their heades, one of the whiche is written Charitie, and she holdeth this diuise in hir honde:

En toy qui est fitz de dieu le pere / Sauve soit que gist souz cest piere. [Through you, the Son of God the Father / Be safe who lies beneath this stone.]

The second is written Mercie, which holdeth in hir hande this diuise:

O bon jesu fait ta mercie / A lalme dont le corp gist icy. [O good Jesus, show your mercy / to the soul whose body lies here.]

The thyrde of them is written Pitee, which holdeth in hir hande this diuise followynge:

Pour ta Pite jesu regarde / Et met cest alme en sauve garde. [For your Pity’s sake, Jesus, look upon / this soul and keep it in safe guarde.]”

(quoted from: Gower 1826, p. 15)

If this description corresponds perfectly with the present state of Gower’s tomb it is because what we see today is actually a reconstruction based on Berthelette’s account! As a matter of fact, the monument has a long and complicated restoration history. The first recorded repairs took place as far back as 1615, and already in the course of that intervention the painted figures on the back wall of the tomb canopy were “nearly washed out and obliterated”. In 1764, the whole thing was “repaired and beautified” once more, and in a publication of 1826 we read that the “three barbarous representations of Charity, Mercy, and Pity (…) are now nearly obliterated” (Gower 1826, p. 15). On the other hand, they are still clearly outlined in a couple of engravings dating from 1809 and 1817 respectively, though it is hard to make out their exact shapes.

At the end of the day, though, it doesn’t really matter whether or not the figures were still visible in the first quarter of the 19th century, because at that time the worst was yet to come: In 1818 major restoration and reconstruction work was begun on the fabric of St. Mary Overie. When these works were finally brought to an end in the 1840s, much of the church had practically been rebuilt from scratch, and Gower’s tomb had been moved to the South Transept. It only remained there for about sixty years, however. From 1890 to 1897 yet another major intervention took place and the nave – having been newly built only in 1839 – was once again demolished and rebuilt, this time to designs by Arthur Blomfield. For whatever reason, it was also decided to move Gower’s tomb back to its original place in the North Aisle of the Nave where it was re-installed in 1894. According to William Thompson, writing in 1906, it was at that time that the painted virtues and their inscriptions vanished (as, by the way, did Gower’s bones – the tomb, today, is empty). Early photographs of the monument, even photographs dating to c. 1950 indeed show its back wall without any trace of paintings or inscriptions.

This changed in 1958, however, when the tomb was “restored and repainted (…) in an approximation to its original form” (Allen 1995, p. 147). Approximation, in this case, obviously meaning an attempt at recreating the monument’s appearance as recorded in Berthelette’s description and in the 19th century engravings mentioned above. The hardest part must have been the figures of the three virtues because there was (and is) no clear indication of their original appearance other than that they were represented as female (Berthelette) and that their bodies were entwined by inscription scrolls (engraving of 1817). So, apparently, an attempt was made to imitate the elegant, S-shaped figures of female saints so often found in paintings of c. 1400. Yet, it is also apparent that these figures were painted by someone who was also aware of Botticelli’s Primavera, Pre-Raphaelite damsels and 1950s fashion illustrations. What’s worse, the “new” virtues are crude and schematic, far from the refined elegance found in paintings of Gower’s own time.

As intact as John Gower’s tomb may seem, it must be said, therefore, that in its present state it’s merely a shadow of its former self. And, come to think of it, it’s not even intact: According to Berthelette it was once surrounded by a chantry chapel, i.e. an independent free-standing chapel or – at least – enclosure within the church:

“And the same monument, in remembrance of him [Gower] erected, is (…) in the chapel of St. John, where he hath of his own foundation a mass daily sung; and moreover he hath an obit yearly done for him within the same church on the Friday after the feast oft he blessed pope St. Gregory.”

(quoted from: Thompson 1906, p. 207)

Presumably, the whole structure would once have looked something like this:

Chantry chapel of Edward Stafford, 2nd Earl of Whiltshire, in St Peter's Church, Lowick, Northamptonshire, c. 1499 (Image © Wikimedia Commons)

So, as intact as Gower’s tomb may seem, in its present state it’s almost as fragmented as Winchester Palace – it only has been spruced up a bit more. As with so many other supposedly medieval monuments its original core is actually hidden under layers and layers of restoration and reconstruction. Yeah, I know, this kind of thing seems to become a recurring topic of this blog, which, believe me, wasn’t entirely planned. Or maybe, in some twisted sort of way, it was: After all, I did say I’d blog about whatever I stumble upon, and I certainly do stumble upon this kind of thing a lot…


Books cited:

Allen 1995 = Rosamund S. Allen, Gower and Southwark. The Paradox of the Social Self, in: London and Europe in the Later Middle Ages, ed. by Julia Boffey and Pamela King, London 1995, pp. 111-147.

Gower 1826 = John Gower, in: The Monumental Remains of Noble and Eminent Persons. Comprising the Sepulchral Antiquities of Great Britain, London 1826.

Thompson 1906 = William Thompson, Southwark Cathedral. The History and Antiquities of the Cathedral Church of St. Saviour (St. Marie Overie), London 1906.

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