6 SEPTEMBER 1997, Page 21

Mind your language

I WONDER what the poor Princess will have on her tombstone.

We all know about not being on oath in lapidary inscriptions, but I have noticed recently that the virtues prized by another age are not the ones we embrace most eagerly, and were certain- ly not expressed in the same terms.

I've been doing a bit of desultory tomb-spotting during another of my husband's so-called conferences (really, bribes from drug companies), this time at Oxford. At Woodstock, nearby, in St Mary Magdalene's church, there is a tablet to Robert Crews (died 1731): 'He was an Humble, Obsequious Son,/A Tender, Affectionate Brother,/A Peace- able, Benevolent Neighbour./He kept up the Good Old Hospitality./His Liber- al Table was Spread to the Hungry,/His Purse Open to the Necessitous,/Gener- ous without Affectation,/Just in his Actions and Sincere to his Friends,/A pattern of Patience, Humility,/Charity, Good Nature and Peace.'

Well, that sums it up nicely. I like `Obsequious'. As for 'Liberal', the same word appears in Queen Victoria's mau- soleum at Frogmore (which was open to the public over the August Bank Holi- day weekend): 'The liberal deviseth lib- eral things; and by liberal things shall he stand' (Isaiah, xxxii, 8). Considering how Victoria loathed Gladstone, it was good of her even to have the word in the place.

Up the road from Woodstock is Blenheim Palace. Its chapel is largely given up to Churchill tombs. On Lord Randolph Churchill's memorial tablet it says that his 'remarkable career/was prematurely closed in death at the early age of 45/after a lingering illness patiently bome./In his private life he was dearly loved. . . . ' These are strange funereal statements to make of a syphilitic.

Naturally, of the truly great not so much needs to be said. The 1st Duke of Marlborough has a whacking great car- een memorial in the chapel at Blenheim. It merely says: 'To the mem- ory of John Duke of Marlborough.'

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