EARLY IN THE morning of July 25, 1834, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the Sage of Highgate as he was sometimes called, `slipped into the dark’. According to his biographer, Richard Holmes, “he was talking almost up to the end. As he closed those extraordinary eyes… (he said) ..that his mind was clear and `quite unclouded’. Then he added, with growing interest, `I could even be witty…’”
So ended the life of arguably our greatest – some would say our only – poet/philosopher. He died in a second floor room of Number 3, The Grove, a mere stone’s throw from St Michael’s church where briefly he had worshipped, and in whose crypt 127 years later he and other members of his family were to be laid to rest.
He was there at the beginning, too. Roger Sainsbury, in his excellent St Michael’s Highgate, a History pinpoints him at the consecration ceremony on November 8 1832 by the Bishop of London… “Coleridge was present and had a long conversation with the Bishop…” He continued to worship here up until his death when he was buried close to where the present chapel of Highgate School stands. He continued to worship here up until his death when he was buried in the crypt of Highgate School Chapel. Over the succeeding years he was joined by the remains of his wife and daughter – both christened Sara – his son-in-law Henry, and their child, his grandson, Hubert.
In the long run, time, tide and the rebuilding of the school’s chapel threatened the physical integrity of the crypt itself and the five very precious coffins it held. And so, in 1961 they were transferred to the crypt in St Michael’s – the ecclesiastical term is `translated’ - in a major ceremony where once again the Bishop of London officiated. Not only that: members of the Coleridge family attended; the poet Laureate John Masefield gave an address, hundreds of boys from Highgate School, girls from Channing and members of the Highgate community, and far beyond, crammed St Michael’s in an outpouring of love and respect for one of our greatest poets and thinkers.
And what then? The coffins have rested in the crypt ever since. As time passed, Highgate people left the scene, moved on, memories dimmed… Even recently it wasn’t certain where the entombment had occurred. The original people responsible for the reinterment clearly indicated that the final resting place was below the marble, inscribed stone in the centre aisle. Others were just as firmly convinced that they were bricked up in a shallow area in the deep south western corner of the nave, just below the font and present-day children’s corner.
It wasn’t until a hands-on excavation into what is, by any account a rather dangerous, rubble-strewn area of the church was carried out that the truth emerged: the coffins are situated below the memorial slab in the centre aisle. They rest in what was the wine cellar of the original 1696 Ashurst House left untouched when demolished in the early 1830s to make way for the church we love. Covered in dust and barely distinguishable from the rubble in which they repose, the five coffins are bricked solidly into the rear portion of this wine cellar, barely visible through the grille of one of two air vents.
Neither the wine cellar, the tomb-area itself nor the crypt in its entirety are fit for the purpose entrusted to us of caring for the remains of this great poet and his family in a proper and fitting way. And, on June 2 this year, very much at the initiative of new incumbent Kunle Ayodeji, we hope to redress the balance: to launch a campaign to raise the substantial amount of money needed to refurbish the entire area both as a fitting tribute to the man and his place in Highgate’s and national and international history, and as a resource centre for the use of our own and the wider north London community.
We have worked closely with the Friends of Coleridge, The Highgate Scientific and Literary Institution, members of the Coleridge family and Highgate School (our thanks to all these) to construct a programme which will hopefully do justice to Samuel Taylor and his place in our history and culture, and to a certain extent pay tribute to that original event, 57 years ago, when the coffins were solemnly translated from their resting place where Highgate Hill doglegs into North Hill. Imagine, the scene and the procession..!
Kunle will greet our guests and conduct a service in commemoration of the poet: two distinguished authorities on Coleridge – Malcolm Guite and Seamus Perry have kindly agreed to provide addresses on Coleridge’s spirituality and his life in Highgate. Malcolm is Chaplain of Girton College Cambridge and author of Mariner: A Voyage with Samuel Taylor Coleridge Hodder 2017 Seamus is Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford and Fellow of Balliol College.
Meanwhile a distinguished local poetry performer, Lance Pearson; members of the Friends, and hopefully descendants of STC himself will recite some of his words and poems. A tour of Coleridge’s Highgate will include a visit to the HSLI’s Coleridge Room, and a limited tour of the crypt and burial area beneath our church. We do hope you can attend on that Saturday.
Eleven days before he died Sam Coleridge wrote a letter to his godson Adam concerning his faith. It was read at his funeral by the Revd Samuel Mence, the incumbent who performed the ceremony. And read once again in June 1961 at the translation.
It concludes: “Eminently blessed are they who begin early to seek, fear, and love their God, trusting wholly in the righteousness and mediation of their Lord, Redeemer, Saviour and everlasting High Priest Jesus Christ. O, preserve this as a legacy and bequest from your unseen Godfather and friend…”
With your help we will be able to help preserve Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s wider legacy and bequest, both to this church, this village and the world beyond.
Programme for Saturday 2 June
10.00 to 10.20
Arrival, coffee, registration
10.20 to 10.25
Welcome from the Rev Kunle Ayodeji
Vicar of St Michael’s
10.25 to 10.30
Welcome from Richard Coleridge, the poet’s great great great great grandson
10.30 – 10.35
Welcome from a Justin Shepherd, Chairman of the Friends of Coleridge
10.35 to 11.15
introduced by a member of the Friends of Coleridge
A Life in the church
Malcolm Guite, Chaplain, Girton College Cambridge and author of Mariner: A Voyage with Samuel Taylor Coleridge Hodder 2017
11.15 to 11.30
11.30 to 12.30
led by the Revd Kunle Ayodeji
Performance of Coleridge’s Poetry
led by Lance Pearson –
Performance of STC-related music
Recitals of Coleridge’s work, Ian Enters, Friends of Coleridge
12.30 to 13.30
Lunch - buffet of sandwiches, finger food and refreshments
13.30 – 13.50
Reflections of the Coleridge family
Rosemary Middleton-Coleridge, the poet’s great great great grand daughter
13.50 to 14.30
introduced by Professor Leonee Ormond
A Life in Highgate
Seamus Perry, Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford; Fellow of Balliol College, Fellow Librarian, and Fellow for Charity Matters.
14.30 to 16.00
Tour of Highgate, to include
Visit to the St Michael’s Crypt *
Visit to the Coleridge Room, Highgate Scientific and Literary Society
Visit to 3, The Grove, where the poet lived and died
Visit to Moreton House, South Grove
Visit to Highgate School Chapel crypt near where the Coleridges were first interred
Visit to the spot where the poet paid his respects to Lord Byron’s passing funeral cortege
* Please note access to the crypt is hazardous (low ceilings and uneven flooring). Please avoid high heels if intending to visit the crypt
Reassemble at St Michael’s,
Coffee and depart
Tickets are on sale at £40.00. This covers the whole day including refreshments, sandwich lunch and tours.
We also have £25.00 concessions for unemployed, OAPs, 16 to 21, and anyone classifying themselves as "specials". Students and under 16's are free.
If you are interested in this programme but are unable to attend and want to donate, please click here.