1746/15/30 Tomb of Myrtilla approximately 3 metre
23-FEB-88 s south of chancel of Church of St Law
(Formerly listed as:
HEADSTONE APPROXIMATELY 3 METRES SOUTH
OF CHANCEL OF CHURCH OF ST LAWRENCE)
This list entry has been amended as part of the Bicentenary commemorations of the 1807 Abolition Act.
Headstone, 1706 (dated 1705, in accordance with the Old Style or Julian calendar). Made of the same local ironstone as the church and most of the other gravestones in the churchyard, the design of the headstone is a fairly simple version of a local template, being rectangular with a curved scrolled top, the inscription contained within a plain moulded frame. The inscription, in Roman letters, reads: HERE / LYETH THE BODY OF / MYRTILLA, NEGRO SLAVE / TO MR THO BEAUCHAMP / OF NEVIS / BAPD OCT HY 20TH / BURIED JAN HY 6TH / 1705'. The headstone was cleaned in 1969 to make the inscription more legible.
The tomb of Myrtilla is one of the earliest known to have been established in England commemorating a person of African descent. The inscription on the headstone informs us that Myrtilla was considered to be the slave of a Thomas Beauchamp, whilst St Lawrence's burial register describes her as 'a negro girl of Mrs Beauchamps.' The history of Myrtilla and the Beauchamps is currently being researched (2007), and some evidence has emerged to augment that provided by the headstone itself.
Thomas Beauchamp may have been connected with the prominent local family who had in former centuries included earls of Warwick, the owners of Warwick Castle. The fact that Myrtilla's headstone describes Beauchamp as being 'of Nevis' suggests strongly that his business interests were centred on that West Indian island, the principal product of which was sugar. The presence of a Beauchamp family on Nevis is registered in the C18; a Thomas Beauchamp was left a share of land at Saddle Hill in 1720, and in 1744 a sugar plantation was sold by a number of people, including a Thomas Beauchamp, and the widow of a Thomas Beauchamp the Younger. It may be that the first of these Thomases is the man who had been Myrtilla's master, and that Thomas Beauchamp the Younger was his son, born in Oxhill in 1705. Myrtilla's master was married to Perletta, believed to have been the daughter of Nicholas Meese, rector of Oxhill and Idlicote. After the birth of Thomas, the couple had three more children whilst living in Oxhill.
The grave once had a footstone giving the subject's age; this can no longer be identified since all the footstones in the churchyard were moved to stand against the fence in the 1970s. However, the footstone was recorded in 1910 by the Rev. J. Hervey Bloom, a Warwickshire antiquarian; his transcription reads 'aetatis suae 72'. If accurate, this does not sit happily with the description of Myrtilla as a 'girl', unless the term was used to denote a servant. Bloom's transcriptions have not always been found to be accurate, and he may have been mistaken in this case. It was not uncommon for West Indian planters to bring back a favourite slave or slaves to work for them in a domestic capacity in England; these people were usually young. The evidence suggests that Myrtilla fell into this category - perhaps it was intended she should look after the new baby, Thomas. According to the dates given on the headstone, Myrtilla was baptised only a few months before she died. It is possible to speculate that she was baptised soon after her arrival in England (though where, we do not know - there is no record of this in the Oxhill registers) and that the shock of the English winter contributed to her demise. The fact that she was given a dignified grave with a decoratively carved headstone and footstone indicates that she was valued by the Beauchamp family.
The tomb lies in the churchyard of the Grade I Church of St Lawrence, Oxhill, approximately two metres south of the chancel. The churchyard contains the listed base of a medieval preaching cross, as well as several other listed tombs - nine headstones and two chest tombs.
SOURCES: A. Hale, 'The Slave's Grave' (notes produced by St Lawrence's Church, 2007); http://www.oxhill.org.uk/ accessed on 22 December 2007
REASONS FOR DESIGNATION
The tomb of Myrtilla is designated at Grade II* for the following principal reasons:
* An intact and legible headstone of 1706, a good example of a handsome local type
* As one of the earliest tombs known to have been erected to commemorate a person of African descent in England, the grave of this early C18 slave is of more than special historical interest.
* Group value with the church of St Lawrence, the base of a medieval preaching cross, and a number of other listed tombs
Listing NGR: SP3170145510