SUNDAY SUPPLEMENT: A reigning monarch, a National Trust property, Horatio Nelson, a Westminster Abbey wedding and an Archbishop of Canterbury all get a mention in DAVID MORGAN’s latest dispatch from the archives of Croydon Minster
When Croydon Parish Church was rebuilt after the 1867 fire, it wasn’t only the building that was reconstructed. Because of the fire damage and the raking out of the church’s charred contents, tombs and memorials closest to the walls also had to be repaired or relocated.
One such tomb was an exceptional construction.
Built of white polished marble and surrounded by iron palisades, it was originally placed at a distance from the church.
However, in the new arrangement, the tomb and the coffins inside it were moved to abut the south wall of the church. The exact placing of the marble mausoleum meant that it was only the thickness of the church wall away from the tomb of Archbishop Sheldon. Seven people were eventually buried in that tomb. Uncovering their stories provides some remarkable reading.
The tomb was commissioned in 1738 by John Sheldon for his wife Catherine, who died in January that year. Despite sharing the same surname and therefore being the obvious reason for the new placement of the tomb, there doesn’t appear to be any family connection between John Sheldon and Archbishop Gilbert Sheldon, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1663 until 1677.
There was, however, a Sheldon family link in the old church. Sir Joseph Sheldon, the Lord Mayor of London in 1675-1676 and a nephew of the Archbishop, was buried in St Nicholas Chapel near his uncle. This particular memorial though, was never replaced after the fire.
John Sheldon lived in Mitcham.
He appears to have had an unremarkable life, albeit that he was comfortably off. He was the second son of William Sheldon and a grandson of William Sheldon, a London draper who lived in Clapham. John’s rather uneventful bachelor life changed drastically in 1730 when he married Lady Catherine Phipps, whose grandfather had been the King of Great Britain and Ireland.
For Lady Catherine, John Sheldon was her second husband.
She had previously been married to William Phipps. They had three children: Constantine, Catherine and James. William died in 1730 after 12 years of marriage and Lady Catherine wasted little time in finding a new husband.
What was our bachelor signing up for when he married Lady Catherine?
He would certainly have needed deep pockets to help keep his newly acquired family in the lifestyle to which they were accustomed.
For a start, Catherine was a woman who had acquired a title from her father, the Earl of Anglesey. Her elder son Constantine also had a title, Baron Mulgrave of New Ross, in the peerage of Ireland. This was conferred on him by his father, who was the son of a Lord Chancellor of Ireland.
If taking on a titled Lady as a wife was a challenge, both in terms of finance and social standing, then John was to discover that his mother-in-law was a pretty formidable character too. Her view of the world was largely coloured by the fact that she was the illegitimate daughter of King James II.
James had inherited the throne in 1685. He was an unpopular monarch in many quarters, and had affairs with a number of women and fathered several children. Lady Catherine Sedley was one of his mistresses and John’s wife was her daughter.
Some of the king’s illegitimate offspring were acknowledged and supported. Others were not. The exact number of them is not known. Peerage books prefer to use the term “natural daughter” of the king.
John Sheldon’s mother-in-law was publicly acknowledged to be the daughter of the king when she was seven years old. She was given the surname of Darnley, a reference to her father’s ancestors, together with the rank of a duke’s daughter. Her privileged position in life included the setting for her wedding.
She was 18 when she married James Annesley, the third Earl of Anglesey, in Westminster Abbey in 1701. The marriage was only to last a short while, ending in a dramatic fashion. The couple were legally separated in 1701 by an Act of Parliament on the grounds of the Earl’s cruelty, with his wife claiming that her husband had tried to murder her. Annersley protested his innocence to no avail. His health was already deteriorating and he died from consumption in 1702.
John Sheldon’s bride was proud of the way he took her own children under his wing. He was “always a most kind and loving father to them”.
The couple had eight years together before Catherine died, aged 38. There was no display of pomp and ceremony, nor royal aspirations, in her will. She wrote specific instructions that she “should be buried in the Parish church yard where I die and to be carried in a hearse with only one pair of horses, without escutcheons or plumes or any other ornaments. I will have no coach or attendants to follow me”.
Catherine died in Croydon, so she was buried in the Parish Church’s churchyard. No special note was made in the burial register about the interment. Quite what sort of a grave she had in mind isn’t known. John planned something special, though, and seven people ended up being laid to rest there.
John was the second person to be buried there, dying in March 1752.
Catherine’s elder son Constantine became the next person to be laid to rest in the tomb, in 1777.
Constantine is one of the first people buried in the churchyard who appears in a painting.
Hubert Gravelot’s canvas, dated 1750, showed Constantine and his wife, Lepel, with members of her family. His wife was greeting her brother, Captain The Hon Augustus Hervey, who was to become the third Earl of Bristol. The Hervey family owned Ickworth House in Suffolk. Now a National Trust property, the Gravelot painting of the family hangs on the wall there.
There is also a portrait in their collection of Constantine’s wife, Lady Lepel, painted in 1765 by John Zoffany.
Constantine married The Honorable Lepel Hervey at St James’s, Piccadilly, on February 26, 1743, in what appears to have been a Georgian society wedding.
Constantine and Lepel’s children included another Constantine.
He joined the Royal Navy as a cadet under his uncle Augustus. In 1773 he commanded an expedition to the Arctic, one of many such voyages that sought an alternative route to India and the Far East.
He sailed in HMS Racehorse, accompanied by HMS Carcass. The diaries he kept of the expedition are now held in the British Museum. Phipps was the first European explorer of that era to describe a polar bear and an ivory gull.
Among the crew of the Carcass was a teenaged midshipman, named Horatio Nelson, who would later be celebrated in a highly imaginative painting showing him fighting a fierce polar bear.
Constantine wife’s Lepel died in 1780 and she was buried with her husband in Croydon, the fourth burial in the tomb. If Lepel had died first, I wonder if she would have been buried in Croydon? I doubt it. But as Constantine wished to be buried with his mother, so she wished to be buried with her husband.
The remaining three people to be buried in the Croydon tomb were all Sheldon family members.
Richard Sheldon, a barrister of Lincoln Inn Fields died February 15, 1795, aged 72.
William Sheldon, aged 37, died December 23, 1811. He was a nephew of Richard.
Finally, Thomas Sheldon, brother of William, died February 5, 1817 in his 70th year.
There is still a lot to discover. The imbalance of wealth between John Sheldon and Lady Catherine Annersley suggests a marriage for love, not money. Did Constantine Phipps, the go-getter, ever refer to his “royal blood”?
Whose influence was brought to bear in order to move the mausoleum to the new position, next to the church wall? Croydon Minster’s archive to continues to yield snippets of information about its history, and it may yet provide the answers to some of these questions.
Also by David Morgan: Last orders for Bishop who stood up for Croydon’s refugees
- David Morgan, pictured right, is a former Croydon headteacher, now the volunteer education officer at Croydon Minster, who offers tours for groups or to provide illustrated talks on the history around the Minster for local community groups
- To read his previous articles on the history of Croydon Minster and the people connected with it, click here
- If you would like a group tour of Croydon Minster or want to book a school visit, then ring the Minster Office on 020 688 8104 or go to the website on www.croydonminster.org and use the contact page
- If you have a news story about life in or around Croydon, or want to publicise your residents’ association or business, or if you have a local event to promote, please email us with full details at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Inside Croydon is a member of the Independent Community News Network
- By having a comment section, we provide all readers with an immediate “right of reply” on all our content. Details of how this works can be read by clicking here
- Inside Croydon works together with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, as well as BBC London News and ITV London
- Inside Croydon: 3.3million page views in 2021. Seen by 1.6million unique visitors in that 12-month period