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Archive - Monday, 12 August 2002
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Giants of history find a place to rest in Coxwold
There can be few small villages which produce fascinating mysteries about the supposed final resting places of two famous, historic and important people.
Coxwold, the most southerly village of the North York Moors National Park and one of the prettiest and most stylish in the country, is one village in question.
It lies amid some of North Yorkshire's most beautiful countryside - not far from Byland Abbey, the White Horse of Kilburn and the workshops of the woodcarver Mousey Thompson, which are also at Kilburn.
In 1978, Coxwold won the Yorkshire Rural Community Council's Best Kept Village trophy which was not awarded for its beauty, but for the tidiness and general upkeep of this delightful place.
Easily accessible from the A19 between Thirsk and Easingwold, it contains a wealth of handsome buildings including its 15th century parish church with an octagonal tower, the mellow Colville Hall, an old grammar school dating to 1603, a pottery, a lovely inn called the Fauconberg Arms and some almshouses dating from the time of Charles II.
In addition to these assets, it also boasts the home and grave of the father of the English novel, Laurence Sterne (1713-1768) and a large country house, Newburgh Priory, which, according to legend, houses the mortal remains of Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), the so-called Protector of England and king in everything but name. But is Sterne really buried in Coxwold churchyard, and does Oliver Cromwell really lie undisturbed in
The links between Sterne and Coxwold date from 1760 when he was appointed vicar of the parish, later adding that he was as happy as a
prince in Coxwold.
He lived alone in the curious 15th century house which is near the church and which is called Shandy Hall. Although he rented the house from the Fauconberg Estate, he set about altering it to suit his own rather strange tastes. It now boasts around 20 tiny rooms, all differing in size and shape, along with some corridors full of corners and a massive leaning chimney.
Sterne's fame came through his writing. He came to Coxwold from nearby Sutton-on-Forest where he had written the first two parts of his classic novel The Life and Times of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman; this was completed at Coxwold. He followed it with A Sentimental Journey and his books were a huge success, even if they were described as bawdy, humourous and zestful.
It was not the sort of work expected of a vicar but he won a huge readership and enjoyed his fame, both as a novelist and as an entertaining preacher. He could fill York Minster, for example.
In 1768, Sterne went to London to visit his publisher but died from pleurisy whilst there, aged only 54. His funeral was at St George's Church, Hanover Square, and he was buried in a new graveyard near Bayswater Road. Only two days later, his remains were stolen by body snatchers and sold for research but were identified whilst actually undergoing anatomical research at Cambridge. The lecturer had already sawn the top off the skull but orders were immediately given for the demonstration to be concluded and the body of Laurence Sterne to be re-interred.
In 1969, the graveyard was sold for development as flats and the Laurence Sterne Trust learned of this, immediately seeking permission to
exhume his body for re-burial at Coxwold.
However, the grave contained five skulls and several bones, but one skull had the top sawn off, evidence of the body-snatching. Further proof was provided when the measurements matched those of a bust of the author, and so the remains were taken to Coxwold and re-buried.
Sterne now has two tombstones at Coxwold; a white one with black letters which is full of errors, while a second one now corrects those. I'm sure he would have been amused by all this.
When Oliver Cromwell died, he was buried in Westminster Abbey but royalists later exhumed his body, cut off the head and buried the remains near Tyburn gibbet. Cromwell's daughter, Mary, was married to Thomas, Lord Fauconberg, who lived at Newburgh Priory, Coxwold, and she travelled secretly to London with friends to recover her father's headless remains.
Using little-known routes, she brought his body to Newburgh Priory where a special brick-built tomb was concealed high in the roof.
Later, when the roof was raised, the tomb was revealed and a small plaque tells of its remarkable contents; a copy of Cromwell's death mask is
on top of the tomb and some of his other belongings are on display in the house which, like Shandy Hall, is periodically open to the public. Before
visiting either, please check opening times.
The family at Newburgh has always resisted pressure to open the tomb although one attempt was made by no less a person than King Edward VII (1841-1910). As Prince of Wales, he was a guest at Newburgh and persuaded the estate carpenter to try and open the tomb, but they were caught and
stopped. So do Oliver Cromwell and Laurence Sterne both lie in peace at Coxwold? We may never know.
Updated: 07:47 Wednesday, August 07, 2002