“Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” and “Let Me Die a Youngman’s Death” are two of my favourite poems about death.
“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
thundered Dylan Thomas.
A more light-hearted Roger McGough pleaded,
“when I’m 104
& banned from the Cavern
may my mistress
catching me in bed with her daughter
& fearing her son
cut me up into little pieces
& throw away every piece but one”
Alas, despite extensive trawling of graveyards, I have never uncovered such a beguiling epitaph. Yet, a select few have eluded what McGough stigmatised as a “clean & inbetween the sheets” death. Let me introduce you to three eighteenth century ladies whose colourful demise ensured that they did not “go gentle.”
Hannah Twynnoy was allegedly the first person killed by a tiger in England. Her story reads like the inspiration for one of Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales. In 1703 the animals from a travelling menagerie were housed in the rear yard of the White Lion Inn at Malmesbury. Hannah, a servant there, ignored repeated warnings not to tease the animals and persistently taunted the tiger. Tiring of this treatment, the latter escaped his cage and mauled her to death. The epitaph on a stone in Malmesbury Abbey Churchyard records her fate:
In bloom of Life
She’s snatched from hence,
She had not room
To make defence;
For Tyger fierce
Took Life away.
And here she lies
In a bed of Clay,
Until the Resurrection Day.
As a tribute to Hannah in 2003, on the 300th anniversary of her death, Malmesbury girls named Hannah under the age of eleven each laid a single flower on her grave. My own sympathies lie wholly with the tiger.
In Bunhill Fields Dame Mary Page draws more attention than the luminaries, Blake, Bunyan, and Defoe, with whom she shares a resting place. In 1728 she sought medical advice for a swelling of the abdomen. Her physician diagnosed a form of dropsy. The inscription which was carved upon her tomb chest at her own request describes the excruciating treatment she received:
IN 67 MONTHS SHE WAS TAP’D 66 TIMES,
HAD TAKEN AWAY 240 GALLONS OF WATER
WITHOUT EVER REPINING HER CASE
OR EVER FEARING THE OPERATION.
Unfortunately, the treatment was clearly not successful. Current medical opinion favours the suggestion that the poor lady had Meigs’ syndrome, a form of ovarian cancer.
F J Baigent and J E Millard in “A History of the Ancient Town and Manor of Basingstoke” tell the story of Alice Blunden, “a fat gross woman (who) had accustomed herself many times to drinking brandy.” In 1764 she imbibed a large quantity of poppy water, a herbal tea, which can function as a narcotic inducing a coma. She fell into a deep sleep from which she could not be wakened, and an apothecary pronounced her dead. Her relations, considering that “the season of the year being hot and the corpse fat, it would be impossible to keep her,” buried her without delay in the Holy Ghost Cemetery. A few days later boys playing nearby heard “groans and dismal shriekings” and a voice crying “Take me out of my grave.” When the coffin was opened “ the corpse puffed up as it had been a bladder and the joiner had made the coffin so short that they were fair to press upon her and keep her down with a stick while they nailed her up.” The body bore signs of self-inflicted injuries as Alice had sought to escape. Since there was now no sign of life, they returned Alice to her grave until the coroner could be summoned next day. Disinterred for the second time she had “torn off a great part of her winding sheet, scratched herself first in several places, and beaten her mouth so long that it was all in gore blood.” This time the coroner pronounced her definitely dead, and Parliament fined the town for its negligence. Alice appears in a bronze panel decorating the Triumphal Gateway, erected in 1991 at the Top of the Town leading into the old town of Basingstoke, where she hammers for all eternity on her coffin lid in a moonlit churchyard.
From an obscure castle in Switzerland in the eleventh century the Habsburg tentacles reached out across Europe and across the centuries perpetually grasping more territories. By dint of war, election, inheritance, skilful politicking, but most of all through judicious marriage, and shored up by the almost continuous presence of a member of the House of Habsburg as Holy Roman Emperor from 1438-1806, they expanded their holdings. In 1272 the Germans elected Rudolf I as their king, and his sons became Dukes of Austria in battle. In the fifteenth century Maximilian I acquired the Netherlands through marriage to Mary of Burgundy. A particularly auspicious marriage with Joanna of Castile, combined with his sister’s marriage to Joanna’s brother, enabled Philip I to claim Spain and its colonies for his son Charles V. Under the latter Habsburg power reached its apogee in the sixteenth century. In 1521 Charles’s brother Ferdinand had married Anna, the daughter of Vladislav II , King of Bohemia and Hungary, and his sister Mary had married Vladimir’s son Louis II. The marriage contract had stipulated that Ferdinand would succeed to the Hungarian and Bohemian lands if Louis died leaving no legitimate male heir. When Louis died at the Battle of Mohacs in 1526 the territories duly passed to Habsburg rule.
To preclude rival dynasties from emulating their tactics and to secure their position the Habsburgs, when not marrying into new possessions, intermarried. But this successful strategy came at a price and their consanguineous unions brought a range of physical and mental disabilities, miscarriages, still births, neonatal deaths, and the famous Habsburg Jaw, a protruding lower jaw with a bulbous lip, and Hapsburg Nose, long with a hump and hanging tip. Between 1516 and 1700 88% of marriages in the Spanish branch of the Habsburg family were consanguineous: where most people have sixteen great great grandparents, Charles II of Spain had only nine. His mother was the niece of his father, his grandmother was also his aunt. Known as el Hechizado (the Bewitched) the poor man was short, lame, had congenital heart disease and epilepsy, suffered from depression, was impotent, and so developed was his Hapsburg Jaw that he struggled to eat and speak. Extended periods of ill health dogged his life and when he died in 1700 leaving no heirs Habsburg rule ended in Spain with a Bourbon victory in the War of Spanish Succession.
In the Austro-Hungarian territories of central and eastern Europe however the Habsburgs clung to power into the twentieth century. Maria Theresa survived potential disaster, despite the loss of Silesia to Prussia, and defended her right to inherit the rest of the Habsburg lands in the War of Austrian Succession. In 1804 Francis I, although forced to accept the demise of the Holy Roman Empire under pressure from Napoleon, declared himself instead Emperor of Austria and in 1867 established the Dual Monarchy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire with Hungary as a nominal co-equal in response to Hungarian nationalism and growing Austrian weakness. Franz Joseph’s attempt to reverse declining fortunes and increase Habsburg territory with the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908 however proved disastrous. Serbia, closely related geographically and ethnically to these territories, was outraged. Serbian nationalism was inflamed and in 1914 a Serbian nationalist movement the Black Hand sought the removal of Austria-Hungary from Bosnia Herzegovina and the formation of a southern Slavic state. Under their influence a group of Bosnian Serbs assassinated the Archduke Ferdinand, nephew and heir of the Emperor Franz-Joseph. Austria-Hungary responded by declaring war on Serbia and through systems of alliances Germany, France, and Britain were drawn into war. By 1918 the Empire had collapsed in defeat: the Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, and Slavs all declared their political independence; Austria and Hungary sought to determine their own future. Karl I of Austria, IV of Hungary, the grandnephew of Franz-Joseph who had succeeded him in 1916, refused to abdicate, still believing himself the rightful Emperor, but Austria and Hungary became republics, and the Habsburg Law of 1919 banished the Habsburgs until they renounced all claims to the throne. Karl went into exile in Madeira and spent his remaining years trying to restore the monarchy, making two unsuccessful attempts to regain the Hungarian throne in 1921 . At his death in 1922 his son Otto, raised by his mother to see himself as the rightful heir, became the pretender to the throne, making several attempts to promote Habsburg restoration in the 1930s. Not until 1961 did he reluctantly renounce his claim.
Given such tenacious seeking and clinging to power in life, the Hapsburg way of death did not surprise me. In the stygian gloom of the Kaisergruft, the Imperial crypt beneath the Capuchin church in Vienna, scions of the House of Habsburg lie entombed. Established under the terms of the will of Anna of Tyrol in 1617, she and her husband the Emperor Matthias were the first incumbents. Since then, they have been joined by the bones of almost 150 other Habsburgs. Before entry into this grandiose burial chamber the Habsburg organs are removed as part of the embalming process for display before the funeral. Between 1654-1878 the mortal remains were then dispersed between three separate crypts: the heart placed in a silver urn went to the Herzgruft, a burial chamber in the Augustinian church in Vienna; entrails in copper urns went to the Duke’s crypt in the catacombs of Saint Stephen’s cathedral; and the bones were first placed in a wooden coffin lined with silk, black with gold trim for rulers and red with silver trim for others, which was then enclosed in a metal coffin with two locks. One key was kept by the Capuchin guardian of the crypt and the other in the Treasury of the Hofberg Palace. The baroque metal sarcophagi in the sprawling crypt are embellished with secular emblems of power, and although there is a tradition of battering the face of the corpse to make it appear more humble in the sight of god and an elaborate ritual whereby the funeral cortege abases itself before being granted entry to the church, these bombastic tombs speak of a dynasty unwilling surrender power even in the face of death.
And after a morning in the company of the Austrian Habsburgs it’s time for coffee and cake in the Cafe Central.