Contributed by Susan
Description: Edward Heldon’s Grave – The Virginia Tombstone of one of the Bard’s Pallbearers
Newspaper published in: Washington, DC
Page/Column: Page 2
Edward Heldon’s Grave – The Virginia Tombstone of one of the Bard’s Pallbearers
[Transcriber’s Note: The reference to Col. William “Boyd” should probably read “Byrd.” The quote attributed to Boyd actually comes from Col. William Byrd’s Westover manuscripts. Byrd wrote: “Besides Col. Willis, who is the top man of the place, there are only one merchant, a tailor, a smith, and an ordinary keeper; though I must not forget Mrs. Levistone, who acts here in the double capacity of a doctress and coffee woman. And were this a populous city, she is qualified to exercise two other callings. It is said the courthouse and the church are going to be built here, and then both religion and justice will help to enlarge the place.” Heldon’s tombstone likely inspired the poem “In the Old Churchyard at Fredericksburg” by F. W. Loring.]
From the New York Times.
Fredericksburg, Va., Oct 21. There are probably few more persons in this red brick town than out of it who know that, in one of the graveyards here, is a relic rarely seen and utterly neglected, though hundreds of people pass near it daily, whose possession the British Museum might covet. It is a slab of red sandstone, on which may yet be deciphered these words:
“Here lies the body of EDWARD HELDON. Practitioner in Physics and Chirurgery. Born in Bedfordshire, England, in the year of our Lord 1512. Was contemporary with, and one of the pallbearers of William Shakespeare, of Avon. After a brief illness his spirit ascended in the year of our lord 1618 – age 76.”
Fredericksburg is an oasis for epitaph hunters if nothing else. One can sit in the front window of many of the houses and copy epitaphs, that is if the window overlooks the steps and a cleansing rain has fallen long enough. In other houses one doesn’t need to look outside for the firestones are made of slabs taken from the graveyards. When St. George’s, the oldest society in the town, grew too important and numerous for its meetinghouse, a few years before the war, the edifice that was substituted lapped the old graveyard, and slabs from 100 to 150 years old were heaped in one corner of the yard, where many of them yet lie. The old Methodist graveyard, part of which was set off as a park, contributed also to the picthorn of idle tombstones, and the stock was further enlarged during Burnside’s operations here, when, in order to provide himself with plenty of roads, he cut one through the graveyard of St. George’s, No one has been buried at St. George’s of late years, but there remained in use a general cemetery and the Methodist, Masonic, and Catholic grounds, not to include the Federal and Confederate reservations.
It was to this place that Washington’s mother brought her young family in her widowhood. Enterprise was not lacking then, nor was her part in it small, for, poor as she came here, the finest mansion in all the country round – a fine house yet – was built for her daughter Molly when she became the bride of an English gentleman. Years later tradition stated here that her George was the only boy that had ever through a stone across the Rappahannock, then a sparkling avenue of commerce, ever alive with sails from the bay, making the town a brisk trade center. One can hardly believe this of the muddy serpent that now crawls along the town’s edge. But the river probably felt the drift of the times and saw that there was no use trying to rival the propensity for tombstones. Enterprise was more phenomenal in Fredericksburg, however, as will be noticed from the dates on Dr. HELDON’s slab, in Mother Washington’s babyhood than after she became a widow. The records show that this county (Spotsylvania) was not established until 1720, just 102 years after Dr. HELDON is described as having died and been buried at the county seat. St. George’s Society – in whose graveyard the HELDON slab stood until Burnside mowed it down, after which it found its way to the Masonic yard, where it now lies under a locust – was not founded until 1730 – 112 years after HELDON’s death.
It is probably that there were burials in the graveyard before the church was built, as there must have been settlement in the county before it asked to be named. But Jamestown was founded only in 1607, and for many years after that the surrounding country was too full of adventure and danger to risk stretching out the infant colony. Among the early accounts of the colony of Virginia, the most quaint and interesting is my Col. William BOYD, who had become a large land-owner here and crossed the Atlantic about 1730 to view his possessions and to write about the trip. He visited Fredericksburg in 1732 and says of it:
“Besides Col. Willis, who is the top man of the place, there are only a merchant, a tailor, a smith, an ordinary keeper, and a lady who acts both as doctress and coffee woman. A small church has just been built.”
This perhaps was the village. The pioneer settlement thereabout seems not to have been worth mention. Not a word is said of the graveyard or its historical occupant. It seems hardly possible that if the stone was here, Colonel Boyd’s attention was not called to it, or that, having seen it, he could fail to make a note of it. Nor does wonder stop with this. Dr. HELDON was seventy-four years old when Shakespeare died, in 1616,, and seventy-six years old at his own death. He had surely reached an age when it could be no object to him to seek a new country for gain or adventure. It is presumable that whatever possibilities the future had for him were at home, and extraordinary that though he might brave a slow ocean voyage to a strange and distant land he should at once thereafter, at that age, plunge into the perilous wilderness.
History, unfortunately, is very scant and unsatisfying in respect to the incidents surrounding Shakespeare’s death and burial. No detailed account of the funeral was left even by his close friends. It is hard, however, to see what motive there could be in falsifying such a matter on a tombstone. The wonder is less whether Dr. HELDON came to Fredericksburg after his last service to his poet friend and how the tombstone got here or when it came. Bishop MEADE, in his minute history of St. George’s Parish, does not allude to it. Nor does Timothy Alden, the great epitaph hunter, seem to have seen it, although he found much that was interesting for his book in St. George’s churchyard. Whatever escaped his double lenses was hardly worth finding. Yet old residents here have known of the stone ever since they could remember. They heard of it from their parents, and some of them have seen it. The old sexton at St. George’s says he has head “heaps of people talk about it.” One of the best posted men in regard to this section is Mr. Samuel KNOX, who is a vestryman at St. George’s. He is the grandson of Basil GORDON, of the family for whom Gordonsville is named. Col GORDON came here before the Revolution and made a fortune shipping tobacco. Mr. KNOW well remembers the stone. It stood, he said, probably in the life of Burnside’s road, through the graveyard. IT was considerably battered from his early recollection, and had settled quite deep in the ground, the exposed and leaning at an angle of about 45 degrees. He had not seen it since the war. How it drifted over into the Masonic grounds is one of the war mysteries, but there it is, flat on its back, under a tangle of weeds and creepers, with the upper corner chipped off and the old English lettering dim but traceable.