A PLACE TO REST
1st July 2020
'That's torn it.' William Perceval said under his breath as he opened the Times on the morning of 20 April 1882 and turned to the obituary columns.
Mundane affairs rarely disturb the smooth running of a religious institution as grand as Westminster Abbey, so it is almost unheard of for the Dean's private secretary to feel it necessary to draw the Dean's attention to the contents of the daily newspapers.
On this April morning, however, William Perceval was at the Dean's bedroom door at 8:00 sharp with a copy of the day's Times.
'I thought it advisable that you see this as soon as possible, sir,' he said, handing over the paper, folded neatly to the obituaries.
The Dean looked puzzled. His duty required him to keep his finger on the pulse of likely demands on the Abbey. In a locked drawer of his desk, to which he and William alone had the key, lay a list of elderly and very distinguished Englishmen and women who were likely to require space in the Abbey in the near future. None of them was -- as far as he knew -- in imminent need.
'A customer for us, William?' He asked as he took the paper.
'Quite the reverse, I suspect, sir. But in view of your meeting with the Prime Minister today, I felt it would be as well to prepare a response to any request that is made.'
The Dean cast an eye at the obituaries printed by the Times and saw at once the complications that might arise from the death of the celebrated individual that figured most prominently on the page.
He nodded approvingly. 'Quite right, William. I'm glad you brought this to my notice. It's almost certain to come up. And I shall certainly have to have my answer prepared. Though exactly what I'll tell him, heaven alone knows.'
William found he had been unconsciously toying with the keys in his pocket, but at the Dean's reply he stopped doing so. As he had anticipated, there would be no last minute addition to The List.
As his carriage took him around Broad Sanctuary in the morning sunshine, the driver asked, 'Down Whitehall or through the Park today, sir?'
'Whitehall, I think,' the Dean told him. 'We'll take the direct route.'
As the carriage turned opposite Parliament, the Dean carefully considered the ecclesiastical avenues open to him as well. But an intuition told him that a higher power had already counselled him to be direct.
The frequency with which the Dean of Westminster met the Prime Minister, and the length of those meetings, varied with the spiritual qualities of the incumbent of 10 Downing Street.
When Mister Disraeli had been in office, the meetings were rarely more than once or twice a year and rarely longer than fifteen minutes or so. It was hardly surprising that a member of the Jewish faith took little interest in the affairs of the Church of England. But now that Mister Gladstone had taken on the task of Prime Minister, the Dean found his meetings both more frequent and more lengthy.
It's true that the meetings were merely a formality to approve the attendance and seating of the great and good at state events. But where Dizzy had been mercifully unsympathetic and brief, Gladstone could be almost unendurably interested in church affairs and the Dean found it necessary to prepare his ground carefully.
Gladstone was an intensely religious man, but he was also a believer in the power of science to liberate his fellow countrymen and women from poverty and ignorance. He would be sure to raise the matter of the Times obituary: the question of burial in the Abbey. Today's would not be an easy interview.
As he got down from his carriage and approached the best-known front door in London, the Dean silently renewed his prayer for divine guidance.
As usual, Mister Gladstone was friendly and cordial to his guest. And, as the Dean had anticipated, the question was not broached until the very end of their meeting.
'Touching the matter of today's sad death -- you've seen the papers, of course?' Said Gladstone.
'Of course, sir. All England is a sadder place today.'
'Quite. I've so far had three telegraph messages all asking for the Abbey.' He handed over three telegram forms. The Dean leafed through them and found they were from the most likely suspects: Professor Thomas Huxley at the Normal School of Science, Herbert Spencer and Joseph Hooker, director of Kew Botanical Gardens. All were unanimous in suggesting Westminster Abbey as the final resting place for England's greatest and best-known scientist, Charles Darwin.
'I feel a great difficulty, in acceding to these requests, Prime Minister,' said the Dean. 'It's true that Mister Darwin trained for the church and was for a time in Holy Orders. But it is also true that he long ago abandoned any spiritual direction and instead took up a path which is inextricably associated in the public mind with atheism.'
Gladstone made to speak, but the Dean was not ready to yield. 'Please let me finish, sir.'
'Darwin's views on mankind's origin and their inevitable contradiction of holy scripture, mark him out not as a friend of the church. Indeed, some less charitable than myself might well see Darwin as an enemy of the Church and all that it stands for.'
The Dean flourished the telegrams. 'Even these supporters who demand the honour of interment in the Abbey are hardly fit persons to make any demands of the church. Mister Huxley is more notorious in his antagonism to the church than Darwin himself. He has even coined a scientific term to describe his Godless state -- an "agnostic" if you please.'
'No, Prime Minister. I know I speak for the entire chapter of St Peter's when I say that to accord Charles Darwin the honour of burial in England's premier Abbey at Westminster would be for the church and state to condone all his writings. That, sir, cannot be.'
For some moments, Gladstone remained silent. It was clear he had anticipated this reaction and had intended loyally to put the case for science and for Darwin, but now the moment had come he could find no compelling argument to deploy against the honest vehemence of the Dean. All he could manage was, 'Then where will Darwin's earthly remains rest . . ?'
'I hope you will not think me unchristian, sir, if I reply to that by saying, "as ye sow, so shall ye reap". The incumbent at Mister Darwin's local church in Kent may well be prevailed upon to given him burial. But if not, then is it really the concern of either church or state?'
'I trust your interview was successful, sir?' William asked as he opened the door of the Deanery to his superior.
He could not help but notice that the Dean's face was a little flushed and there was the beginning of a smile playing about his lips.
'I don’t mind saying it was most satisfactory, William.' The Dean said. 'I prayed most earnestly for guidance and God answered my prayer in no small way. I was quite like the prophet Elijah in my fervour! And Mister Gladstone was quite -- well, quite bowled over, I think.'
'Does this mean that there will be no Abbey for Mister Darwin, sir?'
'I think, William, you can take it that there are no circumstances, positively no conceivable circumstances, that could allow a militant atheist and blasphemer such as Mister Charles Darwin ever to be interred within the walls of this or any other Abbey!'
The magnificent marble hall with its buttresses and Gothic arches was all but complete in its structure. Building work had proceeded for ten long years, each step carefully monitored by the architect to ensure that the structure came as close to perfection as the hand of mortal man can approach. All that remained now was the lengthy process of moving into place the many relics and artefacts that would be the object of veneration by the thousands who would flock through its doors.
The two figures in frock coats that strolled across the empty echoing marble floor were dwarfed by the vaulted ceiling that soared over their heads to the heavens. Both remained silent for some moments, over-awed by their surroundings. It was the taller man who spoke first.
'Has it struck you, Sir Richard, how like a cathedral this magnificent building is?'
Thomas Huxley was not a particular friend of Sir Richard Owen, director of the South Kensington Natural History Museum. Indeed, the great man had few close friends in old age. But politics makes strange bedfellows and none stranger than the politics of science.
'What this place really needs to get the public arriving in droves,' Huxley observed conversationally,' is a focus -- something that will draw them in.'
'My dear Huxley, you speak as if this were an entertainment. We're not the Zoological Gardens, you know. You'll be suggesting Jumbo the elephant next!'
'Of course not, Sir Richard. But I merely remark that it is difficult for members of the public, untutored in scientific matters, to comprehend the full importance of the Museum and that something that caught their imagination would help them gain such an understanding.'
'What kind of "something"?' Owen asked suspiciously.
'Oh it might be any one of a hundred things, if sufficient newspaper publicity were given to it. As you say yourself, it was Jumbo the elephant that put the Zoological Gardens on the map . . .'
They walked up the grand staircase and turned at the top to look back at the magnificent rows of glass cases on the ground floor where the many exhibits would soon be placed.
'By the by, Sir Richard,' Huxley ventured. 'You may have heard the news that the Dean of Westminster Abbey is refusing to allow Darwin to be buried there?'
Owen looked thunderstruck. His mouth dropped open and he stared in shock for some seconds. 'Good lord! I had no idea. On what grounds is he refusing, may I ask?'
'It seems science isn't a proper subject for national mourning. Not important enough, I suppose.'
'Does Gladstone know about this?'
'Oh certainly. Several representations have been made to him. But apparently the church is digging its heels in and there's nothing he can do to sway them.'
Owen seemed preoccupied. 'Darwin and I . . . we had our differences, certainly. But to be refused the Abbey. Why I don’t know what to think . . .'
At 78, Owen was reaching the end of a long and distinguished career. He had been knighted, had been entrusted with the setting up of the nation's first purpose-built natural history museum in South Kensington. He would, in the not too distant future, be joining Darwin in whatever posthumous institution he had entered.
Despite being a scientist, Owen was also deeply religious. It had never even occurred to him that he might not be buried in Westminster Abbey when the time came. In his more depressive moments, he had even picked out what he conceived to be a desirable spot.
As they resumed their walk along the first floor gallery, Huxley sounded a more cheerful note. 'Of course, there is an alternative.'
'Admittedly it is bold. Unprecedented. Requiring breadth of vision.'
'Breadth of vision? I don’t think I quite follow you, Huxley.'
'Why here, sir. In this temple of science. "If a monument you seek, look around you". Surely what is good enough for Wren at St Paul's is good enough for Darwin. And might I venture to suggest for yourself, too, sir, when the time ultimately comes.'
The weather was again clement as the Dean's carriage set him down at 10 Downing Street. Mister Gladstone was pleasant as ever. But it was obvious from the hand-written note inviting him to attend that the meeting was anything but usual.
The Dean had again consulted the almighty regarding tactics, his previous advice having been so successful, and this time had received the advice to get in first.
'I fear you may be going to attempt to influence me regarding the matter of Mister Darwin, Prime Minister. If so, I must inform you that my mind is firmer on the subject than ever.'
'My dear Dean, nothing could be further from my mind. I simply wished to inform you that the problem has been solved -- and solved very neatly.'
The Dean relaxed visibly at this announcement. 'How so?'
'You'll be aware, I'm sure, of the new Natural History Museum that has been constructed in South Kensington.'
'One could hardly fail to be aware of it. It has been almost a decade in the building.'
'Well it's now quite finished, and the exhibits are being moved there from the British Museum. The new museum will be open to the public in a matter of months.'
'I see,' said the Dean, though he couldn't see at all where this was leading.
'Yes it's quite a building I may tell you. The finest tiles, terra cotta, marble, granite -- no expense spared. There'll be nothing like it in the world. I dare to say it's almost cathedral-like in its magnificence. Yes, quite cathedral-like. I've even heard it described as a temple of science, if such a thing were possible.'
The most terrible suspicion was beginning to settle over the dean like the first symptoms of a chill.
'And what of Darwin?'
'The curator, Sir Richard Owen, has proposed a simply splendid idea. He has offered to have Darwin interred in the Museum itself. Within the marble floor of the main hall.'
For a few moments the dean was speechless. When he found his voice it was to object vehemently, 'But the Museum isn’t even consecrated ground . . .' He broke off, realising his error, but the words were already out of his mouth.
The Prime Minister smiled pleasantly and said, 'But of course, that is of no consequence as the church regards Mister Darwin as an atheist.'
The Dean rose to his feet, propelled by an involuntary agitation, and paced the floor. 'This . . . this museum. It is, you say, a "cathedral-like" building.?'
'Very much so. Why its architecture is so noble one might even venture to suggest it compares favourably with your own Abbey.'
'And the public is expected to visit it in numbers?'
'I understand that tens of thousands are expected. Possibly even hundreds of thousands. By the time the next century arrives, I dare say it will be millions . . .'
The Dean felt as though he had been given a glimpse of Armageddon. 'But, Prime Minister, if allowed this could create a national secular shrine that would . . . that would . . frankly, that would be in competition with the church itself!'
Gladstone looked like a maiden aunt discovering a fly in her soup. 'Oh do you really think so?' He asked innocently.
'I most certainly do,' replied the Dean emphatically. 'Indeed so great is the danger of such a precedent that I speak for the whole chapter of St Peter's when I say that our objections to the interment of Mister Darwin are withdrawn immediately.'
'That is really most generous of you,' said Gladstone getting to his feet and extending his hand.
'Not at all', said the Dean, warmly shaking his hand. 'Is it not written that "There is more joy in Heaven over one sinner that repenteth than over ninety and nine just persons which need no repentance"?'
The Dean thanked fate as he travelled back to the Abbey along Whitehall. Once again providence had guided his hand and he had been led to the wise decision by the inscrutable workings of the almighty.
As the carriage turned into Broad Sanctuary, revealing the sunlit façade of the Abbey he remembered the concerned face of his secretary as he had left. He must have a word with William as soon as he arrived home. About The List.