Saturday, 23 July 2011

Riding the flames of fire

St Materiana's Church, Tintagel

They say that lightening never strikes in the same place twice, but that is perhaps no comfort for Thomas Heminges of Cornwall. Once was enough for him. In 1702, just 4 years after Bryant Lewis of Norfolk died in terrible circumstances, Thomas also suffered a cruel fate, albeit in very different circumstances....

His body lies beneath a beautifully incised if somewhat worn grave slab in the windswept graveyard of St Materiana's church that sits high on the headland just above Tintagel Castle - For many the spiritual home of Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. Surrounded by many more eroded slabs and stones, some of them buttressed - Fortified against the worst of the Cornish wind and weather, the outer boarder of Thomas's slab tells the reader that he was, Dead And Buried The Twenty 8 Day of April 1702. Thomas Heminge did not Pass Away, nor did he Depart This Life, but quite simply he was Dead and Buried. I like that, for it suggests that early eighteenth century Cornish folk were inclined to speak as they find!

Thomas Heminge's Grave Slab

Detail of the slab

More interesting still though is the central inscription upon his grave. It reads....

The body that heer buried lyes
By Lightening fell death's sacrafice.

To Him Elijah's fate was given

He rode on flames of Fire to Heaven.
Then mourn no more Hee's taken hence

By the just hand of Providence.

O God the judgements of thy Seat
Are wonderous good and wonderous great.

Thy ways in all thy works appear
As Thunder loud, as Lightening clear.

Now I've no doubt that just like the family of Bryant Lewis who also suffered a violent death, Thomas Heminge's family must have suffered shock and pain. And whilst it might be true that lightening never strikes in the same place twice, then it is perhaps equally true that every cloud has a silver lining. For it seems clear that Thomas's family clearly believed the manner of his death marked him out as a pious and saved man, just like the stories of the Prophet Elijah, hand picked personally by God to join him in Heaven!

That must have been a source of some comfort to his grieving family over 300 years ago, but it also provided me with a chuckle standing there on that cold, grey, barren, yet utterly magnificent Cornish coast just three days ago. It tickled me to think of Thomas Heminges dressed in a scorched frock coat and blackened knee length breeches, with perhaps one hand pressing down a tattered tricorne hat upon his head, as red faced and roaring, he rode bare back upon a lightening bolt all the way up to his heaven!

The churchyard looking North-East towards Tintagel Hotel
It sits just above Tintagel Castle

Sturdily built graves typical of those in the Tintagel churchyard
Perhaps to protect them from the worst of the Cornish weather?

A more traditional gravestone
Buttressed against the worst of the Cornish weather

The ruins of Tintagel Castle
Taken from headland near St Materiana's

*Many thanks to the Tintagel Visitor Centre for the transcription of Thomas Heminge's Grave Slab



  1. There is a gravestone in Malmesbury Abbey of Hannah Twynnoy - a local barmaid. I came across it one day and was surprised to read the inscription which said that she was 'killed by a tiger' in the town in 1703.

  2. Thanks for this Tom. We are building up quite a collection of tragic deaths from the late 17th and early 18th centuries.

    Perhaps there is a book here entitled: Tragic Deaths of the Late Seventeenth and Early Eighteenth Centuries in England.


  3. Dear Tom Stephenson,

    What a fascinating story. Curiously, a tiger died in the late 1970s after being savaged by my mother. Tragic deaths abound!


  4. Malmesbury Abbey abounds in tragic deaths, and tragi/comic near ones. In 1125, an elderly monk called Eilmer made a pair of wings and attempted to fly from the top of the church tower.

    According to a witness (William of Malmesbury) his flight lasted about 15 seconds and covered a distance of 220 yards.

    Sadly, his flight path was not as upward as he would have wished, and the spot where he landed is marked in Oliver Street, off the present day high street. He never walked again, nor did he attempt a second flight.

  5. The world would be a dim, dull, unhappy place without the likes of Eilmer! I find myself wondering if he had taken a vow of silence and if so did he go, ARRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRGH inwardly?


  6. Eilmer the Eagle must've been a sight to behold. Huzzah to his adventurous spirit!

  7. It could have been worse - if he had left it for about 800 years, he could have landed in the garden of the two people who garden naked (they are called 'the naked gardeners'), just to one side of the abbey. Then he would have had double the reason to inwardly scream, ARRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRGH!

  8. Mother used to make father garden in nothing but an all in one leopard print lycra cat suit. She said it saved on the washing.

    More tea Tom?