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The Grenville Column

Stowe: The Elysian Fields



The Grenville Column First erected in the Grecian Valley in late 1747 or early 1748, this monument was moved to its present location in the Elysian Fields in 1756. It honors a member of the Temple family, Captain Thomas Grenville, who fell on the quarter-deck of the ship under his command, the Defiance, in action with a French frigate on 3 May 1747. The column is of the Doric order, and it is a rostral column--that is, it is decorated with sculpted prows of ships (rostra) to signify a naval occasion. Originally, the column was topped by a statue of Neptune holding a splinter of the Defiance. A view of the Column from Ancient Virtue Now it is topped by a statue of Clio, the Muse of History, who fingers a scroll which reads Non nisi grandia canto ("none but heroic deeds I sing"), and whose face is turned toward the Temple of British Worthies across the River Styx. As seen in the photograph to the right, when it was moved into the Elysian Fields, the Column was placed at the precise point where it can be seen framed by the arch of the northern door of the Temple of Ancient Virtue when one stands directly in front of the statue of Epaminondas, the greatest general of ancient Greece.

The following is the text of the letter sent on 16 May by Mr. Andrew Guthrie, surgeon of the Defiance, to Mr. George Grenville, the younger brother of Earl Temple who served as Prime Minister from 1763-65. In it one can find the significance for the original statue of Neptune atop the column to have held a splinter from Captain Grenville's ship

Sir,--As I believe it to be my duty, I, most unwillingly, beg leave to acquaint you with the nature of the fatal accident which happened to your brother, Captain Grenville, on the third of May. We were engaged near two hours before he was wounded, by a large splinter from the ship's side, on the quarter deck, which shattered the bone of his left thigh in several pieces near two-thirds of its length, and tore all the muscles about it in the most miserable manner. He was immediately brought down to me; I examined the wound, and, to my great concern, plainly saw that it was a most desperate case, but the only possible means that could be used then to save his life was to amputate it above the wounded part, which he agreed to, and immediately took it off. He bore it with surprising constancy and firmness of mind, never making the least complaint. He was afterwards moved into my cabin, where I constantly attended him; he lived near five hours, sensible most of the time, but very faint with the great loss of blood and excessive pain, until a little before he died, which happened without any struggle, sleeping as it were insensible into death.

As it was my greatest ambition to please him when living, I thought it no less my duty to take the utmost care I could of his body, that it might be carried home. The next day I opened his body, emboweled and filled it with proper things to preserve it, then wrapped it in a cerecloth, and put it into a coffin lined with lead. As I have endeavoured to do everything the best, I hope to have your approbation, which will make the great loss I have sustained by his death the easier.

If you thought proper I should be glad to have leave to come along with his body, and take care of it until it is safely delivered, as it is the last thing I can do to show my regard and gratitude to him, and hope you will be pleased to obtain me their Lordships' leave to be absent from the ship for some time, for that purpose. Hoping you will excuse this trouble, I am, with the greatest respect, &c., &c.,

Upon the plinth and pedestal of the column are the following inscriptions, the latter one being an elegy written by Captain Grenville's cousin Sir George Lyttelton, who would build Hagley Hall and develop the garden and park, of which James Thomson wrote in his poem The Seasons, memorialized at Stowe by the Seasons Fountain.

*******

DIGNUM LAUDE VIRUM MUSA VETAT MORI
The muse forbids heroic worth to die

Sororis suæ Filio,
THOMÆ GRENVILLE,
Qui, navis Præfectus regiæ,
Ducente classem Britannicam
GEORGIO ANSON,
Dum contra Gallos fortissimè pugnaret,
Dilaceratæ navis ingenti fragmine,
Femore graviter percusso,
Perire, dixit moribundus, omnio satius esse,
Quam inertiæ reum in judicio sisti:
Columnam hanc rostratam,
Laudans & mœrens posuit
COBHAM.
Insigne virtutis, eheu! rarissimæ
Exemplum habes;
Ex quo discas,
Quid virum præfectura militari ornatum
Deceat.
MDCCXLVII.

To his Nephew
THOMAS GRENVILLE
Who, Captain of a ship of war
In the British Fleet
Under ADMIRAL GEORGE ANSON,
In an engagement with the French,
Being wounded mortally in the thigh
By a fragment of his shattered ship,
Expiring said,
How much better it is thus to die
Than suspected of Cowardice to fear justice;
This naval column was erected
As a monument to his applause and grief
by LORD COBHAM.
From this animating but, alas! too rare example
Learn, when honored with command,
What becomes an Officer.
1747

Ye weeping muses, graces, virtues tell,
If, since your all-accomplished SYDNEY fell,
You, or afflicted Britain, e'er deplor'd
A loss, like that these plaintive lays record;
Such spotless honour, such ingenuous truth,
Such ripen'd wisdom in the bloom of youth!
So mild, so gentle, so compos'd a mind,
To such heroic warmth and courage join'd!
He too, like SYDNEY, nurs'd in Learning's arms,
For nobler war forsook her peaceful charms;
Like him, possess'd of every pleasing art,
The secret wish of ev'ry virgin's heart:
Like him, cut off in youthful glory's pride,
He, unrepining, for his country dy'd.

*******

Lyttelton's references to Sir Philip Sydney (1554-86) in the poem above are significant for at least two reasons. First, as Governor of Flushing in the Netherlands, Sydney took part in a skirmish against the Spanish in which his thigh bone was shattered by a musket shot. This wound eventually killed him a few weeks later at the age of 31. Thomas Grenville died from a similar wound at 28. Second, Sydney was the author of Arcadia, a long pastoral romance set in the idealized landscape of ancient Greece, the model for the landscape paintings of Claude Lorrain and for the landscape gardens of estates like Stowe. Sydney was also a patron to the young Edmund Spenser, whose pastoral poems were influential in the early Eighteenth Century and whose Shepherds Calendar was dedicated to Sydney. A story from Spenser's The Faerie Queene was depicted in paintings in the Temple of Venus in the Western Garden at Stowe.

As for the "last words" of Captain Grenville as they appear in the inscription above the poem, the Seeley Guidebooks to the Gardens beginning in the 1820s indicate in a footnote that an officer in the same squadron had, just before the action in which Grenville was killed, been tried by a court martial for cowardice.

A photograph of the muse during restoration
Clio, the Muse of History and Heroic Poetry
Photograph taken by National Trust staff during restoration

The Guidebooks also point out that from this monument one has clear views not only to the South Front of the House but also to the Temple of Ancient Virtue and the Temple of British Worthies. These views can be seen in a virtual reality panorama you can access by this link. After it was added to the Elysian Fields in 1778, the monument to Captain Cook was also visible from this spot. Please see the Captain Cook's Monument page for a discussion of the similarities between these two seafaring heroes.

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John D. Tatter, Birmingham-Southern College, jtatter@bsc.edu