Today (March 28) in London History – “the skull of Ben Jonson was freely handed about”

Two significant interments – separated by 132 years – in Westminster Abbey on March 28. They’re the subject of today’s Today in London History podcast.

First, Today in London. There can only be one recommendation. Our Westminster Abbey Tour. And when you’re in there make sure you see the final resting place of John Hunter the father of modern surgery and that of Ben Jonson, the great Elizabethan playwright. 

Ok, you ready?

The difference a syllable can make. Especially if there’s a bit of the macabre to go with it. 

So our day in London History is March 28th. 

Our date turns out to be 1859.

Wasn’t going to be. I had in mind the radical journalist and politician John Wilkes being elected to Parliament for the County of Middlesex on March 28th, 1768. He’d just returned from exile in France. He’d had to flee Britain not because of his radical politics but because a poem he’d written had been declared obscene and blasphemous. He was tried and found guilty in absentia of obscene libel and seditious libel. Anyway, he came back and won the seat. Proceeded into the City of London. He was going to turn himself in and in fact he did and was given a two-year prison sentence. But that was en route to prison, so to speak. A huge crowd of supporters accompanied him on his way into the City. They caused mayhem. At the Mansion House – the Lord Mayor’s official residence – every window was broken. And the cry Wilkes and Liberty resounded throughout London. Wonderful tale. Rich pickings. I thought, yes, Wilkes has to be in the running for this podcast. Another good candidate was the opening, on March 28th, 1980, of the London Transport Museum.

As was the interment in Westminster Abbey of Sir Isaac Newton. That happened on March 28th, 1727. He’d died on March 20th. And of course the elephant by the swimming pool when you’re talking about Newton’s death is his last significant act, his refusal, as he lay dying, to take the sacrament of the Church of England.

It’s simply impossible to gainsay the importance of Sir Isaac Newton. In the words of his biographer, There has never since his death been a time when Newton was not considered either the greatest scientist who ever lived or one of a tiny handful of the greatest. His Principia marked the culmination of the scientific revolution, which ushered in modern science, and through its legacy the work may have done more to shape the modern world than any other ever published.


So, yes, rich pickings for March 28th.

But then I saw that syllable. Together with that splendidly macabre detail.


My big three March 28th entrants – Wilkes, Newton and the Transport Museum – they were all readily to hand. They’ve made it into annals and On This Day books. The one I’ve gone with, though, was a find. I didn’t know about it. And it’s unlikely that the particulars – especially the particulars – will be on anyone else’s radar.

Ok, that’s enough of a teaser. Let’s get to the event. It was the reinterment, in Westminster Abbey, of the remains of the great surgeon, John Hunter. 

Now the word, first. That syllable. In fact, it was two syllables. Interment, as words go, is no big deal. We use it all the time. Because it happens all the time. But reinterment – that’s much more of an exotic plant, so to speak. And I was away. It’s been said that I brood over words. And sure enough, having spotted the four-leaf clover of reinterment, I started brooding. And was onto the showstopper syllable in no time. The syllable ter.

I was dead certain – extraordinary how these expressions take on a new sheen in the context of what’s being discussed here – anyway, I was dead certain that the syllable ter was cognate with the Latin word terra. As in terra firma. Meaning land. But just to make absolutely sure I looked it up. And I was right. The syllable ter in the word interment comes from the Latin word terra. So you’ve got “in” and ter or terra. Put in the earth is the literal meaning of the word interment. All predictable enough. But then we get one of those astonishing linguistic high wire acts. It turns out that the Latin word “ter” meaning earth comes from an ancient Proto Indo European root ters, meaning dry. Proto Indo European is the common ancestor of the Indo European language family. It’s the absolute bedrock – as far down as we can drill – of European languages. There’s no record of it so scholars have had to reconstruct it. It’s believed to have been spoken from about 4500 BC to 2500 BC.

And that that Proto-Indo-European root of the Latin word terra, earth, meant dry – well, that puzzled me at first. Because we know earth has moisture. And then, voila, it hit me: dust to dust. Anyway, yes, so brooding over a single syllable, and having that flash of illumination – that pushed John Hunter’s reinterment into the Winner’s Circle for me. So here’s that London tale. And of course it’s got that splendidly macabre detail – the cherry on the sundae as it were.

John Hunter, the father of modern surgery, died at St George’s Hospital on October 16, 1793.

Basically, he dropped dead. Somebody said something at a meeting that upset him mightily. And he keeled over. An extraordinary scene followed. When they couldn’t revived him his corpse was conveyed in his sedan chair to Leicester Square. It was followed by his now empty carriage. It was interred – our word again – in St. Martin in the Fields. Until 1859. Why did they dig him up – disinter him? For Health reasons. What was called an Order in Council requiring that vaults be closed up. They weren’t exactly sure where he was. But a search party, so to speak, was sent out. And sure enough they found him. People at the scene marvelled at the coffin. Apparently it was in pretty good nick. The Times article I tracked down said it “must originally have been a very handsome coffin, covered with fine black cloth and thickly studded with gilt nails and ornaments. On it was a brass plate with the family arms encircled in a rich scroll, with the cypress entwined and bearing the following inscription: “John Hunter, Esquire, died 16th October 1793, aged 64 years.”

That “cypress entwined” is a nice touch. Cypress is of course an evergreen noted for its dense, dark foliage and durable, fragrant wood. It was an emblem of mourning for the dead. Actual cypress branches were often present at a funeral. But again you can dig deep here. Scholars think the word cypress has an ancient antecedent – the Hebrew word for the tree whose wood was used to make the ark. That’s Big Bang stuff. We’re talking the Book of Genesis here.

Anyway, it was the Royal College of Surgeons that made it all happen – that secured for John Hunter the honour of honours – a final resting place in Westminster Abbey.

To make their mark they had another brass plate affixed to the coffin. It read: “These remains were removed from the church of St Martin in the Fields by the Royal College of Surgeons of England, March 18th, 1859. 

Again, a remarkable Victorian scene. There was a procession from St Martin in the Fields to the Abbey. The remains, in the original coffin, were borne on a high bier. 

Another newspaper takes up the tale in the Abbey. It reads: Arrived at the grave, the coffin was, without further ceremony, deposited in its final resting place, where it was inspected by the crowded assembly, among whom were several ladies.”

And you can’t help but wonder were the people in attendance that day aware that exactly, to the day, 132 years previously – March 28th, 1727 – Sir Isaac Newton was laid to rest just yards from where they were interring the great surgeon John Hunter. It’s a wonderful coincidence. Shiver up the spine stuff.

So where is John Hunter’s final resting place? Yes, we know it’s in the Abbey, but where in the Abbey. Well, the great surgeon is in good company. He’s buried next to the great Elizabethan playwright, Ben Jonson. And it’s not just that Ben Jonson was a famous playwright, second only to Shakespeare in the Greatest English Playwrights Hall of Fame…

Ben Jonson has the further distinction of being the only person in the Abbey to be buried standing up. And thereby hangs another tale. But I’ll leave that to my colleagues and their Westminster Abbey Tour.

Where I’m heading is someplace perhaps even richer than that brushstroke – and certainly more macabre.

This last point – I’ll leave you with it – is yet another reminder of how important it is to be thorough when you’re digging, when you’re researching. 

I was thorough. I looked at several articles. And I’m very glad I did. Because only one of them mentioned that – and here I’m quoting – “the skull of Ben Jonson was freely handed about” on the occasion of John Hunter’s taking up residence beside him.

Just picture them. Sort of like the team that wins the World Cup handing the trophy to one another, so they each get to hold it. In an instant I added somebody to that scene. The guest of honour. William Shakespeare. I imagined him taking a bit longer with the skull. Taking a bit longer and saying, “alas, poor Ben, I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft – where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Now get you to my lady’s chamber and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come.”

And on that cheerful note – Ben having made the rounds – let’s put his head back on his spine – think of how keen John Hunter’s interest would have been at this moment – and say, “good night from London. See ya tomorrow. 

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