The English in Rome
If I led another life, I think I would spend some convivial time compiling the tale of the English in Rome, constructed as a guide book for those weary of the usual trails. And, so, this is witness to a book that will not be written.
The guide would certainly include the monastery of San Gregorio Magno, which could boast — if only the Camaldolese monks in whose tutelage it is would stoop to such folly — of its views of the Palatine. It is not surprising that a foundation dedicated to the pope who despatched Augustine to Canterbury should be the resting place of Englishmen, but as it happens it was at a particular moment in the history of England that two men came to remembered there. Their monuments now stand near each other in the atrium, creating a corner that is forever English. The two men were both diplomats and died within eight years of each other, in the 1560s. Their service to Philip and Mary is particularly recorded — and that is the context for their spending their last years far from their homeland, dismayed at yet another turn of events that came with the death of Mary and the accession of her half-sister, Elizabeth.
The finer tomb is of the older man, Sir Edward Carne, who represented the English court at the papal curia in the mid-1550s. He was summoned home by Elizabeth, but, despite his own protestations, he may not have been too disappointed to be kept in the sun of Rome by Pope, Pius IV’s decision to appoint him warden of the English Hospice. He retired from that post the following year, in 1560, but he lived on for less than a year. There is an interesting detail to his tomb: if you look at the very bottom, you will see a coat-of-arms with a pelican pecking its breast to feed its young with its own blood. That is a symbol of piety and of Christ’s selflessness but it also has a particular English connotation: it is the image chosen by Richard Fox, bishop of Winchester, for his Oxford foundation of Corpus Christi College. Carne himself was an Oxford man, but slightly too old to have been educated at Corpus. Perhaps, though, that image remained in his mind with nostalgic resonances in his final days.
That, of course, is to assume that he had some say in his tomb — and that may be an unwarranted assumption. It is an interesting element of the inscriptions on both monuments that they record two friends of the deceased who acted as their executors and took on the task of commissioning the monument. Those name-checks perhaps intentionally give a sense of a small, close-knit group of Englishmen in Rome, showing their virtue by their care for one another, at a point when their loyalties to crown and to religion were pulled asunder.
It is the second tomb which has the more illustrious names, because it cites as an executor a bishop, Thomas Goldwell of St
Asaph’s, though he was very little there and rather more in Milan, with Carlo Borromeo, and in Rome. The person whose monument he oversaw was called Robert Peckham, who died in 1569. He was the son of a diplomat and had himself been on missions. His tomb declares his determination to die a catholic and thus in exile. But there is a final irony that he did not break with England completely: in the medieval tradition of dividing one’s body to be buried in different places one held dear, his heart was removed and returned to England, to be interred in the church of St Mary’s, Denham, Buckinghamshire. Even if in life, Peckham, like Carne, consciously distanced himself from his homeland, in death he effected a sort of miracle of being both absent and present in two places at the same time.