The Shugborough Inscription Part 1 – et in Shugborough ego
Welcome to the Poison Room, a podcast about exactly how much utter drivel can be written about ten letters carved in stone.
I’m Silvie Kilgallon, and today we’re talking about something called the Shugborough inscription. I almost did this topic a while ago, and then didn’t, because… I just couldn’t find that many sources on my initial scout of the topic, and pretty much all the sources I could find were conspiracy websites or sensationalist news articles, and the writers of that material didn’t seem to think research or citations were particularly important. So I figured that actually, it would be a perfect episode to do whilst the country is in lockdown. I was utterly, absolutely sure that it wouldn’t take more than one episode, and that, if anything, my problem would be not having enough to say. Which should have been my first warning bell, because whenever I’ve worried about that particular issue, it has literally never turned out to be a problem. So yeah. I had a topic I thought was absolutely going to be no more than a single episode, and then research happened.
This is another topic in the more light-hearted vein, and at the heart of it is an inscription, known as the ‘Shugborough inscription’ the meaning of which is still unknown. Today’s episode is going to be all about the historical context and background info, and finish with talking about just one theory as to the meaning of the inscription, and the induction of a new member to the hallowed halls of How Not To Be An Academic. Next episode we’ll cover the other major theories. So that’s the intro; let’s get started.
First of all, what is a Shugborough?
Answer: it’s an estate located in the county of Staffordshire, in the UK. There’s a Georgian mansion with accompanying gardens and grounds. It’s open to the public, and it’s actually pretty close to where I grew up. I’ve been there several times. And despite that, I have literally no memory of ever seeing the object we’re going to discuss.
Since 1624 the Shugborough estate had been the property of the Anson family. In the middle ages it had been owned by the bishops of Lichfield, but come Henry VIII and the dissolution of the monasteries, it had been sold off. It changed owners a few times until a lawyer called William Anson purchased it.
We don’t know much about what happened to it for the next hundred years, but for our purpose, we don’t need to. The house itself, known as Shugborough Hall, was rebuilt by the grandson of William Anson, who was also called William Anson. This second William married Isabella Carrier, and they had ten children together. He died in 1720, which means all these kids were born before England had decided that smallpox inoculation was a good idea, but William and Isabella’s kids had an 80% survival rate. That’s pretty damn impressive for the time. Five daughters and three sons survived him. The eldest son was called Thomas, and he was therefore the one who inherited the estate when their father died, despite the fact that he had five older sisters, because: patriarchy.
Thomas is one of the people we’re particularly interested in for this story. Another is his younger brother, George who, from the perspective of the historical record, has rather overshadowed him. But let’s talk about Thomas first. Up until a few days ago, I would have told you that we really don’t know much about him – he doesn’t even have an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Fortunately, I then encountered the work of Andrew Baker. Baker is not a historian by profession. He’s a composer. But he’s spent a lot of time tracking down historical documents and has produced the most comprehensive and well-researched biography of Thomas Anson that exists. So kudos to him.
Part of the reason that very little has been written about him is, I’m sure, the effort involved in tracking down primary sources that tell us about him – he seems to have been a very private man. The only substantial collection of writings he left behind were letters between him and his brother George (Baker 2019: 9). Frustratingly, this means that there are also no estate records from this time, which would have been very useful for any investigation of the Shugborough inscription. Also frustratingly, as Baker notes and I very much discovered when I began my research, much of what existing info there is outside of Baker’s work is just… riddled with errors. But I’ll put my gripes aside for now, at least.
Thomas was born on the 11th of April 1695. In 1708, aged 13, he entered the Inner Temple (Baker 2019: 16). Which is not anywhere near as interesting or mysterious as it sounds. The Inner temple in an ‘Inn of Court’. An Inn of Court is a place and the community associated with the courts. There are four of them in London: The Inner Temple, the Middle Temple, Lincoln’s Inn and Gray’s Inn. You can think of them as colleges equivalent to those at Oxford and Cambridge – you go there to train in law. You have to belong to one of these four Inns before you can be ‘called to the bar’. I.e. before you can practice as a barrister. And a barrister is a type of lawyer, and the kind of lawyer that most people think of when you just use the word ‘lawyer’.
So. 13 year old Thomas enters the Inner Temple in 1708, but he’s not training to be a lawyer right from the off. He’s saved his place at the Inner Temple, but in 1711, aged 16, he goes to St John’s College, Oxford. He gets called to the bar in 1719, which means he would be allowed to practice as a barrister, but he doesn’t seem to have ever actually done that. Probably due in no small part to the fact that his father died the following year, leaving him in charge of the estate and with a decent amount of money.
We know from an obituary that a friend wrote in his diary that in Thomas’ earlier days he spent ‘many years’ living abroad (Baker 2019: 11). Again, the records are patchy, but we know he was travelling in 1723 for at least two years, visiting at least Belgium, France, and Italy (Baker 2019: 24). This kind of travelling, done by young rich men who’d usually just finished their education at Oxbridge, was known as the ‘Grand Tour’, and I guess you could kind of think of it as a type of ‘finishing school’. Theoretically, the was an idea that it would give you experience, round off your education, and prepare you for whatever political job was awaiting you based on your credentials of having been born to the right parents. You’d be able to practice your French, network with other rich people and courts, and pick up some culture in Italy. Because this is a time period when the education of rich kids absolutely included the study of classics, and for most of the 18th century, that meant Rome and the Roman Empire. Greece wasn’t such a big deal to them. Though that attitude would start to shift as the century progressed, with the help of people like Thomas Anson and the Society of Dilettanti, who started supporting artists and architects who went to document ancient Greek buildings and sculpture.
Anyway. He does his Grand Tour, gets back, and in 1730 he was elected as a member of the Royal Society, but he doesn’t exactly seem to have been what you’d call an active member. He didn’t sign the charter book and he didn’t pay his admission fees. But there’s also no evidence of him being kicked out (Baker 2019: 34).
He was, according to official records, the nineteenth member of the Society of Dilettanti, which was founded in 1734. The criteria for entry was, essentially, having been to Italy on your Grand Tour. The criteria for enjoying active participation in the society, at least in its early days, was, essentially, to really like drinking and partying. The early years were just informal meetups to eat, get drunk, and enjoy each other’s company, but in 1736 they started to formalise their meetings. They came up with some rules, recorded their members, made minutes of the meetings, and kept track of finances (Kelly 2006). Though they weren’t necessarily particularly good at actually recording the minutes of meetings. The records are pretty patchy for the rest of the 1700s, and even when they did take minutes, they didn’t actually write down a full list of everyone who attended (Bristol 2013: 46). So when I say ‘there’s no evidence that Anson was active in the society in its early days’ (Baker 2029: 42), you have to bear in mind how patchy the sources are. Over the subsequent decades the society evolved from being a simple drinking or dining club and became important patrons of the arts.
Back to Thomas. We know he did more travelling beyond his initial Grand Tour – he definitely travelled more widely than the standard young rich man. We know that he was in in Smyrna in 1734 (Baker 2019: 49), but again, evidence is pretty patchy. Around this same time Thomas also started expanding his estate. Originally, there had been a village sharing the name of Shugborough, but over time Anson acquired bits and pieces of land, until the whole of the village was part of the estate. (Baker 2019: 56). He started in 1731 by buying a mill, which was separated from the manor house by most of the village. By 1741, he had acquired about a quarter of the village (Baker 2019: 56-7).
We also know that in January of 1740, Anson lost a close friend of his. The details of the incident can be found in Erasmus Darwin’s Zoonomia (Vol 2), where he relates the story that Anson himself told him. The friend was Richard Lumley, the Second Earl of Scarborough. As Darwin tells it, Scarborough considered Anson his closest friend, and had asked Anson to visit him. When he did, on a Monday, Scarborough told him that he intended to kill himself the next day. Anson had some business he needed to leave to take care of. If Anson told Darwin what that business was, he doesn’t pass that knowledge on. But Anson manages to get Scarborough to promise not to do anything before he gets back, on Friday. Scarborough tells him that if he’ll give him until 4.00 PM on the Friday afternoon. Anson got back at five.
In September of that same year, Thomas’s younger brother, George, commanded a fleet of 8 ships in an expedition to circumnavigation of the globe. When George set off, Thomas was with him. But he didn’t go the whole way. He was basically just hitching a ride and got off at Cape Finisterre (Baker 2019: 70). On this journey, we know he visited Lisbon, Gibraltar, then Egypt, and Cyprus. At least part of the reason for this second journey seems to have been to collect seed and plant specimens (Baker 2019: 72).
In April of 1742 Thomas joined another society – the Egyptian Society. Unlike the Royal Society and the Society of Dilettanti, Anson was actually more active in this group – he showed up to meetings and everything (Baker 2019: 79). Unfortunately, the club that he was actually interested in was very short-lived – the last meeting was in April 1743 – just one year after Anson had joined it.
In 1744, George successfully returns from his trip. And when I say ‘successfully’ I mean, he came back with around one tenth of the men he left with. 1854 began the expedition, 188 made it back. But he did manage to nick a lot of gold off the Spanish, and that’s the really important thing, right? So, much like Francis Drake, he’s welcomed home as a hero and a very, very rich man.
In March of 1745 Thomas joined another group – the Divan Club. This is another one he was more active in – attending seven meetings in total. George, too, became a member of this club, though not until January 1746 (Baker 2019: 80), which meant he was only a member for a few months, because this one was also very short-lived. The last meeting was in May of that year, a couple of months over a year since Thomas had joined.
In 1747 Thomas was elected as the MP for Lichfield. Now, as we all know, elections are, and always have been, entirely fair, transparent, and legal. And this one was no different. Thomas and other politicians who wanted their party to take the seat literally bought property to bribe people with, as well as just using plain only money bribes. It was an expensive business, but he won in the end (Baker 2019: 93). We don’t, however, need to go into the details of his political career. The only other thing we need to note before we start to get to the actual topic of this episode is that in 1748 the 52-year-old George married the 22-year-old Elizabeth Yorke, henceforth Lady Anson. From the surviving correspondence, it seems like Elizabeth Anson got on well with both her husband and Thomas.
Now we can start talking about the gardens and grounds at Shugborough, which Thomas was still developing, adding monuments dotted around the garden and grounds, which he also had landscaped (Baker 2019: 56). It’s one of these monuments that contains the elusive inscription that’s the subject of this episode.
The features that were added reflected the wide range of Thomas’s interests, and many of his travels, but also included some influences from his brother’s travels. There was a Chinese building, a gothic pigeon house, a sham ruin, replicas of the Tower of the Winds and Hadrian’s Arch, from Athens, a monument known as the ‘Cat’s Monument’ and another known as the ‘Shepherd’s Monument’, and other elements as well. All of these elements were added at different times as work on the gardens progressed over the years. For some of the features, we know pretty accurately when they were added. In the case of the monument we’re interested in, the Shepherd’s Monument (sorry it’s not the Cat Monument, guys), it is, of course, harder to pin down the date.
But let me actually describe it to you before we get into that. There are several elements to the monument. However I describe it, the best way to get an idea of what it looks like is to tap the link in the show notes (or here) and look at it, if you can, but I’ll do my best with the description.
Imagine a portico – a super fancy stone porch, with a Doric column on each side – those are the ones that are just plain at the top – they don’t have any scrolly or fancy design. On top of that is the entablature, which is the fancy name for the part you lay across the top of the columns. So if you’re looking at the monument head on, so far you’ve got two columns topped by a horizontal rectangle of stone. The entablature comprises three design elements – the lowest one is the architrave, which is literally just a plain, undecorated band of stone with a far more glamorous name than it deserves. On top of that plain band is frieze. This frieze has alternate triglyphs and metopes. Translation: there are spaces (metopes), which are separated by vertical rectangles that have three vertical grooves chiselled in them. To me, at a distance, they always look like tiny little replicas of three pillars. Anyway. You’ve got: vertical band, blank space, vertical band, blank space, vertical band, etc. etc. etc.
In the case of the Shepherd’s monument, there are six triglyphs and five metopes. So the very centre of the frieze is a metope, with triglyphs to either side, metopes on either side of those, more triglyphs, another set of metopes, and the outer edges end with triglyphs again. The metopes, however, are not actually just plain spaces. Very frequently the metopes contain sculpted reliefs – if you picture something like the Parthenon marbles from the Athenian Acropolis… well, you’re picturing something way more detailed and ornate that what’s on the Shepherd’s monument, but they’re metopes. The decoration on the metopes of our monument are pretty simple – the outer metopes are simply laurel wreaths, and the centre design is a laurel wreath with two wheat sheaves crossing in the centre. The metopes in between those each contain a face. One seems to be a stern-looking Pan-like or satyr figure, with small horns, pointed ears and a tufted beard. The other is a bald, grinning man with, I think, a wreath on his head. But I’m only looking at photos, and it’s a bit weatherworn with some healthy lichen growth spreading over it, so don’t quote me on that last detail.
Okay, so… so far: columns, plain band of stone, decorated band of stone with laurels wreaths and faces on metopes, separated by triglyphs. The final part of the entablature, the top band, is the cornice. That’s the decorated part at the top that projects out a bit, and gives an overhang. The top of the cornice on the Shepherd’s monument has a cresting, or antefix. Which is a row of... If you imagine fancy crenellations, from the battlements of a stereotypical castle, it’s like that, but fancier. It’s there for aesthetics, not function. In the case of our monument, the design of the antefix is a repeating series of anthemion, which is like an open fan design, but like… with rounded tips, like petals instead. So the antefix is a series of circles, all with that design inside them.
Updated mental image: columns, plain band, frieze with horizontal lines, laurel wreaths and two faces, fancy overhang, and a bunch of circles running around the top.
Now, if this were actually a portico on a building, this would be framing a door. But it’s not. It’s a free-standing monument that doesn’t have an interior. So it’s basically just framing… well, it’s framing an arch that’s framing a brick wall that’s supporting a relief, but let’s have a bit more detail than that. The arch inside the portico in rusticated, carved to look like it’s uncarved – weatherworn, and natural. It’s the kind of thing that you might expect to be framing the entrance to an artificial grotto, but… again, it doesn’t lead anywhere, there’s just a wall. But what it is framing is the part of the monument that everyone cares about.
Okay. Let’s take a break from describing this monument to describe a painting instead.
The painting is a pastoral setting – in the background only natural features are visible – trees, mountains, grassy meadows. In the foreground, four figures cluster around a stone tomb, on which is carved the words ‘Et in Arcadia Ego’. Three of the figures are men, at least two of them are shepherds. One shepherd is crouching, staring intently at the inscription on the tomb, finger tracing the R in ‘Arcadia’. The second stands behind him, leaning on the tomb, watching, a third man is looking towards a woman standing to the right of the group, pointing out the inscription to her. She stands there, rather serenely, one hand resting on his shoulder. I say that at least two of the figures are shepherds because interpretations differ even in the roles of the four people in the painting. Some think that the men are all shepherds and the woman is a nymph, some think that the woman and the man who’s shoulder her hand is on are lovers, and that the other two are shepherds. Some think that all of them, including the woman, are shepherds.
The painting is by an artist called Nicholas Poussin and was painted in the late 1630s. The title of the painting is the same as the inscription on the tomb – Et in Arcadia Ego. It’s Latin. It means ‘Even in Arcadia, I am’, the ‘I’ being Death itself. In the enlightenment era, Arcadia, an area in Greece, had come to represent a pastoral paradise – y’know, the same kind of place city dwellers today dream of, where they can just spend their days in leisure, returning to an age of innocence and the beauty of nature – kinda like Eden, but spelled differently and without any trees bearing fruit that give you a permanent See Alignment buff. This gives an overall meaning of the ‘Et in Arcadia ego’ as ‘Death exists, even in this beautiful paradise’. No matter how pretty the place you live in, you’re still gonna die in the end.
So that’s nice. And the reason I’ve told you about this painting is that it was the basis for the relief that held the centre spot in our Shepherd’s Memorial. It was carved by Peter Scheemakers, a Flemish sculptor who spent most of his life working in England. There are a couple of differences between Poussin’s painting and the relief by Scheemakers. The most obvious difference is that the relief is a mirror image of the first. Secondly, the relative positions of the figures in the images are different. Poussin’s painting is landscape. The relief is landscape. So the relief lost parts off the sides that showed the pastoral background – guess you don’t need it on a relief when you’re literally recreating the landscape around it - but Scheemakers also had to squish the figures closer together, too. Finally, in the relief, Scheemakers added a coffin on top of the tomb that’s absent in Poussin’s painting.
Underneath that relief is a stone plaque, of the same colour as the relief, and they have their own base below that. So Image the whole structure I just described, and then imagine a fancy white tombstone in the middle. That’s the effect you get here. In fact, it looks an awful lot like a Roman funeral stele, which is basically the Roman version of a grave stone with the caveat of having the same level of variation as contemporary tombstones still have. Point is: there’s a kind of death-y vibe going on.
And this brings us to the final feature of the monument, and the reason anyone cares about it. Beyond, y’know. Specialists in Greek revival landscapes in 18th century England. On this plaque below the relief, are ten letters. The letters are split across two rows. The upper row has eight letters:
O · U · O · S · V · A · V · V D · M ·
Below that, the second row has only two letters: a D and an M. The D sits to the left of the letters on the row above, and the M sits out to the right. So there’s a huge gap between them; presumably where the cat sat on the keyboard.
If you’ve ever seen a Roman inscription before, you’ll know that individual words are separated by a dot, or an interpunct, and that Romans loved, and I mean holy crap did they love to abbreviate absolutely everything they possibly could on an inscription. Which is why even people who know some Latin might not be able to make heads nor tails of an inscription if they’ve never been taught anything about inscriptions. In the Romans’ defence, carving into stone takes time, and the longer something is, the more likely you are to make a mistake in it. Which might make it cheaper, if you’re paying by the letter, but also means you can squish more info in, providing you live in a society where the knowledge of what all these abbreviations mean is either obvious or understood. Which is a thing that absolutely happens, so, for example, writing ‘R · I · P’ instead of ‘Requiem in Pace’ is shorter, and everyone knows what it means. And that’s still true today, even if people know it as ‘Rest in Peace’.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Point is, the whole monument together is a combo of Greek and Roman elements, seems pretty funerial, and has a ten letter inscription, which no one’s actually quite sure what it means. But obviously, plenty people have theories. Oh, so. Many. Theories.
But before we discuss those, we need to try and figure out something else no one is entirely sure about: when the damn thing was built. This is complicated by the fact that the three separate parts of the monument – the relief, the rustic arch, and the columns and entablature – were built by at least two, possibly three, different people. The bas relief was done by Sheemakers, that much we know for certain. The other two potential contributors are Thomas Wright and James ‘Athenian’ Stuart, who benefited greatly from the support of the Society of Dilettanti in studying ancient Greek architecture. Both of them worked on Shugborough’s gardens. Wright first, and Stuart later. But given that we don’t have any actual records of specifically when people were working on what thing, or what part of a thing, there’s guesswork involved it trying to figure out who made what and when it happened, and that’s very much the case with the Shepherd’s monument.
Let’s talk specifically about the relief: we know it wasn’t there in 1748, and was there by 1763, because Lady Anson’s brother, Philip Yorke, visited Shugborough in those years, and wrote to his father describing the place, and mentions what’s changed since his last visit, and specifically mentions the bas relief of Poussin’s painting (Baker 2019: 149). That’s a 15 year window, but we, and by ‘we’ I mean ‘Baker’, can narrow it down a little more. A poet called William Shenstone also sent a letter to a friend that mentions the existence of the monument, including the relief, dated October 3rd 1759 (Baker 2019: 150). So we’re down to an eleven year window. But Baker can possibly do even better than that.
The earliest reference that he has found is in a letter from Lady Anson to Thomas, which contained a poem written by the poet Anna Seward. The monument isn’t actually mentioned in the poem itself, but rather, in the title: ‘On an Emblematical Basso Relievo after a famous picture of Nicholas Poussin Representing Shepherds pointing to the following Inscription on a Monument in Arcadia.’ That title is only a few words shorted than the entire poem.
Lady Anson doesn’t actually give the year in her letter, just the day and date. But the date is the 20th of September, and the day is Monday. And the years in which the 20th of September fell on a Monday are 1751 and 1756. It happened in 1762, but Lady Anson was dead by then, so I think we can rule that one out. Anna Seward, also known as ‘the Swan of Lichfield’ would have been fourteen in 1756, and nine in 1751. I’m not saying a nine year old can’t write poetry, but I think it does make it more likely that it’s 1756. Baker claims that other facts confirm these, but I’m not entirely sure what those facts are. As diligent a researcher as he is, he’s not quite as excellent when it comes to actually organising the information. So it could be that I just… missed where he explains that extra info because it’s in a part I didn’t think was relevant and was just skimming through. Anyway, likely we’re looking at an eight year window for the creation of the relief – somewhere between 1748 and 1756.
So that’s the set up. We’ve got a man we don’t know much about, who at some point between 1748-56 commissioned and installed a monument containing an inscription we know very little about.
And now we get to the theories.
Obviously there are lots of them. According to the National Trust, the charity that currently owns and maintains most of the Shugborough estate, they get emails on a weekly basis from people proposing various solutions. But every now and then someone cranks out a book about it, or has enough credentials that some media outlet or other writes an article about their theories. I’m going to focus on the ones that have received some sort of attention in that manner. But as I said at the start of the episode, I’m only going to cover one of them right now, and I’ll cover the rest next episode.
Oh, one more thing before we get started. If you’ve heard this story elsewhere, you may have heard the claim that Josiah Wedgewood, the founder of the pottery company, Charles Darwin, and Charles Dickens all tried, and failed, to solve the inscription. I tried to solve the mystery of what evidence there is for this claim, and as far as I can tell, there is none. The earliest reference I can find for this claim is a 2004 article in the Daily Telegraph, a publication well known for its commitment to accuracy, as testified by the MediaBias/FactCheck website’s rating of ‘mixed’. That rating, by the way, is one below ‘mostly factual’. So the Daily Telegraph can come at me if they want, but I’m going to rate this particular claim an ‘unproven’ and probably ‘false’, and add their article to the list of dangerous texts for propagating bs, given the amount of times I’ve seen and heard that claim repeated, even in academic articles that were supposedly peer reviewed and are published in actual academic books. Curiously, the books and articles that make this claim tend to be written by… cryptographers, rather than historians. Specifically, cryptographers who seem to think that this in just an issue of solving a cipher, and that no contextual knowledge is needed. Should you know something about Thomas Anson? Nah. Unimportant. Should you know something about the Greek Revival in England? Nah. Why would you. Should you know something about Latin inscriptions since that’s very clearly the tradition this inscription is drawing on? No? Oh, okay. Of course not.
Point is, the whole ‘Wedgewood, Dickens, Darwin’ thing is a claim I’ve only seen repeated by people who haven’t done any actual historical research, and doesn’t seem to have existed before an article written for the Daily Telegraph in 2004. And if it turns out that article was right, I’ll happily accept that information. But I’ll still be mad at them for not giving a bloody source. Cite. Your. Sources. people, it’s not hard. The other point is: I think the idea that you can solve this without any understanding of the man who commissioned it, or the historical traditions he was drawing on, is incredibly arrogant and also stupid.
Anyway. The one I want to talk about this episode is one that I want to include mainly because… it’s just so… Oh my gooooood. The drama. It’s by a man called A. J. Morton, a self-described ‘expert in graves and monuments’ (a claim which I think is highly dubious, for reasons that we’ll get to next episode). The first source I found for his claim was one from the Daily Telegraph, with a headline ‘Shepherd's Monument 'code' was 19th century graffiti’.
But before we get to the actual content of the article, I need to tell you about… well. When I was searching around to see if there were more reputable sources than the Daily Telegraph one of the first hits was the talk page for wikipedia’s article on the Shugborough inscription (which is crap, by the way, but currently a little less crap than it was 2 weeks ago). It started with an edit war. Someone had added the info about Morton and an editor – let’s call them Alex – came along and decided it was being given too much prominence, wasn’t objective, and deleted it. Another editor – let’s call them Charlie – came along and restored the info, implying Alex had suspect motivations for making their changes. Alex reverted the page back to their version and threatened to report Charlie to admin if they reverted the changes again. Guess what Charlie did? On top of restoring the info about Morton’s theory, they directly accused Alex of having an agenda because they’d left stuff about the Holy grail connection up (more on that theory next episode). Alex undid the changes, accusing Charlie of being part of the “green-ink brigade” (i.e. pseudo-history/conspiracy theory fans) and reported them to a mod. They carry this on for a while, accusing each other of unfairly giving pride of place to the various theories. At one point a mod had to step in and temporarily protect the page from their edit war.
And about that time Charlie and Alex took it to the talk page. Like, literally 95% of the talk page is these two people arguing with each other. Charlie thought Alex had some secret agenda to promote the grail theory, as if that was the only other theory on the page at the time. Alex thought too much prominence was being given to Morton’s theory, and ended up suggested that Charlie was actually A. J. Morton himself, since Morton is, or was, at the time, living in Germany, and that’s where Charlie’s IP address was from. Charlie – the person who literally jumped in from the get-go suggesting Alex had some ulterior motive – accused Alex of looking like a conspiracy theorist. Honestly, at that point, even without the IP thing, I can see why Alex was starting to think Charlie might actually be Morton. Alex keeps trying to explain that no one has given a justification for why the Morton theory should be given more prominence than the others, and Charlie keeps responding by saying that it’s clearly the right solution, that’s why, and the only reason you’d deny that is if you were in favour of the grail theory. But also they totally understand that the Wikipedia article shouldn’t reflect their personal opinion so isn’t it just lucky that their personal opinion happens to match the actual truth because Morton’s theory is so obviously ,obviously right and if you don’t accept that it’s just your opinion and has no place on the page. Then Charlie decides they’re not getting enough support from the moderators and starts attacking them, too. Accusing them of blahblahblah pseudo-history.
At one point a mod comments that Charlie has sent them pretty good proof that they’re not Morton, but damn is Charlie invested in his theory. Charlie’s argument for why it deserves more prominence than everything else is that it’s clearly the real answer, and they’re pretty condescending to Alex for not agreeing with them.
And this epic squabble goes on across like, 5 different talk topics all just between these two editors over how much prominence one frickin’ theory deserves. And it carries on so long, that Morton himself actually pops up near the end, just to let everyone know that he doesn’t care about the article and is totally looking into what he can do about Alex’s totally libellous claims. Of… suggesting Morton was editing the page himself to give prominence to his own theory? I don’t know. It’s a hilarious trashfire where Charlie seems to be doing most of the cranky insulting, and accusing Alex person of being mean and just some fanatical grail-theory conspiracy fan who’s super dodgy and can’t be trusted, and Alex counter-accusing Charlie of being Morton. Guys, it’s genuinely the best thing I have read on Wikipedia.
Oh, and no. I didn’t find a more reliable source than The Telegraph. I found the Daily Mail instead.
As far as I can tell, The Telegraph and Daily Fail picked up this story from an article in a small local newspaper for Morton’s hometown, the Irving Times. They don’t have the full article online, and shockingly I cannot find a physical copy of it. And I also can’t find any, like… actual publication by Morton himself. No announcement on his website, no blog article about it, no nothing. But the other few sites that picked it up seem to have mainly just copy/pasted from the Irvine Times article, so I can tell you that he said (or wrote). His theory involves the immediate descendants of Thomas Anson:
"It is very likely that 'M'ary 'V'enables-'V'ernon of 'S'udbury Hall, the Baron 'V'ernon of 'D'erbyshire, the honourable Edward 'V'ernon-Harcourt and the 1st 'V'iscount 'A'nson of 'O'rgreave (a hamlet 'U'nited with 'O'verley) and 'S'hugborough were somehow involved in the creation of the original 'Shugborough Code'."
That’s a lot of names and titles, so let’s unpack it a bit.
Mary Venables-Vernon, of Sudbury Hall, was the daughter of Lord Vernon, George Venables-Vernon, aka the Baron of not Derbyshire because that is not a title that actually exists. Baron’s aren’t named after the places they own, it’s just their surname. He might be a Baron who comes from Derbyshire, but he isn’t Baron of Derbyshire, nor does he own Derbyshire in any way, shape, or form. He was owner of Sudbury Hall in Derbyshire, but that’s it. There was no rank at all involving ‘Derbyshire’, as far as I can tell. So like, we are not off to a great start, here.
Anyway, Mary was the daughter of Baron Vernon. The ‘honourable Edward Vernon-Harcourt’ was Mary’s brother, and why he’s important here is a mystery unto itself. The ‘1st Viscount Anson’ is the son of Mary, via her husband, George Anson, Thomas Anson’s heir. George’s original surname was Adams, but there’s this thing that happens where if you inherit someone’s estate you get to also start using their surname? So when Thomas Anson died, in 1773, he changed his surname to Anson. Mary and George’s son was called… Thomas Anson because of course he was. He was given the title of 1st Viscount Anson in 1806.
So if Viscount Anson is involved, the inscription cannot have been made before 1806, because, y’know. There was no Viscount Anson before then. So that’s all the people names covered, and we know about Sudbury Hall and Shugborough, but what’s this ‘Orgreave, a hamlet united with Overley’ stuff?
Well… good question. Again, I can’t find Morton’s actual argument, but here’s what I can tell you: both of them are tiny towns or hamlets depending on who you ask. But in Orgreave there is a hall. Called Orgreave Hall. Bear with me, I know that part was complicated.
Thomas’s brother, George Anson, had bought Orgreave Hall at some point before he married Elizabeth to use as his permanent seat (Baker 2019: 57). When George Anson died, Thomas inherited Orgreave Hall. When Thomas died, George Adams inherited it. So… Orgreave is a small hamlet/township where there’s a hall owned by George Adams.
Overley is a hamlet near Orgreave, that is included within the… village or township of Orgreave, and both were part of the parish of Alrewas. So in a National Archive record from 1841, you see the… parish/township of Fradley and Orgreave with Overley. I am not going to pretend I fully understand this part. This record is from 1841, and is one of only four hits that google returns when you search specifically for ‘Orgreave with Overley’, so I don’t know if it was ever referred to in that way prior to then, or if it’s ever been referred to that way since. The dearth of information would, at least, I think, suggest that there’s nothing significant about the fact that the hamlet of Overley was included as part of Orgreave. I cannot find anything that would justify making a big enough deal over this as to dedicate a letter specifically to “uniting” them. It’s just not a big deal. It’s weak.
Anyway. In the quote from Morton, the words ‘Mary’, ‘Venables’, ‘Vernon’, ‘Sudbury’, ‘Vernon’ (again), ‘Derbyshire’, ‘Vernon’ (again), ‘Viscount’, ‘Anson’, ‘Orgreave’, ‘United’, ‘Overley’ and ‘Shugborough’ all have little quote marks around the first letters, presumably indicating that they’re the ones that are part of the code, and I say ‘presumably’ because what those words give you is:
Which is 13 letters. That is too many letters.
It also doesn’t make sense in terms of the separation of the D and the M. If you put the code in order – as much as is possible, given that there are too many letters, you get:
Mary. Orgreave United Overley, then, uh… Shugborough or Sudbury, take your pick. Then… Viscount Anson, I guess? Which gives you two letters for Venables Vernon if you count one V as representing all three instances of ‘Vernon’, and finally: Derbyshire.
Mary. Orgreave United with Overley, Shugborough/Sudbury, Viscount Anson, Venables Vernon… Derbyshire.
Which at least gives you the requisite 10 letters, but a compelling suggestion it is not.
You might also be wondering what happened to the ‘H’ in the name of Edward Vernon-Harcourt. That part, at least, I can explain: Edward picked up the Harcourt surname in 1831, so it wasn’t there to be incorporated when Morton claims the inscription was made. The thing I can’t explain is why Morton thought he needed to include him at all in the first place. I’m sure there’s an explanation in the article, but I’m equally sure that Edward is inessential to Morton’s theory, because he quite promptly drops him from his theory weeks after it’s first published.
Now, as I said, Morton doesn’t seem to have a blog post or anything on his (now offline) website that announces his proposed solution, but in a different post he ‘reminds’ us that his “solution” is: ‘Orgreave United with Overley and Shugborough Viscount Anson Venables Vernon’ (Morton 2011b).
Which at least explains what the S stands, but magically makes the D and the M disappear. Weird, huh? And also implies that Orgreave, Overley and Shugborough were all brought together at the same time. Which… they weren’t. Orgreave with Overley was (possibly) a thing when Admiral Anson bought Orgreave Hall. Orgreave with Overley was then added to the property of Thomas Anson when Admiral Anson died, and George Adams just happened to inherit them. So… if anything it should be Orgreave with Overley United with Shugborough’? But obviously, that doesn’t work because it gives you O O U S, not O U O S. It’s almost like this theory is just a bit sketch, y’all.
This new formulation comes from a post in which Morton is griping about a response that appeared in the Staffordshire Newsletter seven days after it ran an announcement about Morton’s theory, on the 10th of February. The reply was written by… Andrew Baker – the guy who literally wrote the book on Thomas Anson. He wrote in to point out that Morton’s theory didn’t work, because there’s evidence that the inscription was there in Thomas’s lifetime. He points to a letter, dated 7th July 1767, that mentions the inscription. Well, it’s a letter containing a poem that mentions the inscription. Here it is:
You will most likely be surprised at the inclosed fantastical inventory of certain of your goods and chattels. If it sho’d amuse You for half an hour, the author of it will have fully obtained his end. He is under no apprehensions of your suspecting who he is: but, if he keeps his own council, he is sure You can never convict him. Certain as he is of remaining concealed, he has so insuperable an objection to anything of his composition appearing in print, that he most seriously enjoins You by no means to let it escape to the press. This request he is confident You will comply with, as Your doing otherwise wo’d give him real uneasiness.
He has nothing further to add but to assure You he thinks all he says, tho’ said in verse,
& is very sincerely
your obedient humble Servant.
I know what you’re thinking ‘half an hour’s amusement’? How long is this poem??’ 276 lines. That’s how long it is. And here, for your amusement, is the entire thing. Just kidding. Here’s the 22 lines concerned with the Shepherd’s monument:
Observe you rising hillock’s form,
Whose verdant top the spiry cypress crowns,
And the dim ilex spreads her dusky arms
To shade th’ARCADIAN Shepherdesses tomb:
Of PARIAN stone the pile: of modern hands
The work, but emulous of ancient praise.
Let not the Muse inquisitive presume
With rash interpretation to disclose
The mystic ciphers that conceal her name.
Whate’er her country, or however call’d
Peace to her gentle shade.
The Muse shall oft
Frequent her honour’d shrine, with solemn song
Lyric, or elegiac: oft when eve
Gives respite from the long days weary task,
And dewy HESPER brightens in the west,
Here shall the constant hind, & plighted maid
Meet, & exchange their tokens, & their vows
Of faith, & love.
Here weeping Spring shall shed
Her first pale snowdrops, bluebells, violets,
And Summer’s earliest roses blossom here.
That ‘Let not the Muse inquisitive presume/ With rash interpretation to disclose/ the mystic ciphers that conceal her name’ is the part concerned with the inscription, if you missed it. I’ll talk about the poem more next time, ‘cause it’s gonna come up again. But, Baker thinks, the fact that it was written during Thomas Anson’s lifetime disproves the theory that the inscription was added later by a multiplicity of Vernons.
Morton is not at all impressed with this. His blog post implies he thinks the letter is a hoax or something similar – he refers to the date on the poem as when it was “allegedly” written. Which rather suggests he has proof that it was written some other time. Unfortunately, he doesn’t share it anywhere. In another post he claims that ‘the evidence has already been produced and given away free to the international press.’ Unfortunately, wherever he gave it away for free, it wasn’t his own website. Perhaps it’s in the £4.00 pamphlet that was available at some point on his now defunct website that bills itself as “a partial solution” to the Shugborough Code.
But even if the poem is somehow “authenticated” (he’s literally the only person I can find who’s raised the suggestion that it’s not authentic) Morton claims that:
A "dull" poem with a single reference to "mystic ciphers" does not in my opinion necessarily describe the carved initials on the monument. Few serious historians would accept this as a relevant detailed description of this particular set of initials. (Morton 2011b)
To which I would enquire: what else do you think it refers to? What do you think a cipher is, exactly? On the supposition that the inscription is a name as the poem suggests, made up of, y’know, letters, as I think we can safely assume, it seems that this reference is very much a relevant description – detailed or not. But hey, I’m a classicist, not a historian, and can in no way be described as serious. I do still prefer actual reasoning, though, rather than just a suggestion that anyone who doesn’t agree with you isn’t a serious historian.
All that aside, even if the letter does indicate the inscription was there in 1767, it just doesn’t matter! Because Mary Venables-Vernon:
appeared on the scene in 1763 - when she married into the family - she was already around, albeit in the background, when the poem was (allegedly) written. In the unlikely event the poem becomes associated with the letters formally, I'd simply lose the meaning of one letter (the first V - since there was no Viscount Anson in '63). (Morton 2011b)
Which I think translates to ‘I’m totally not wrong but even if I was, losing the ability to explain one letter totally doesn’t compromise the meaning of my solution even though it can no longer account for thirty percent of the text’. Because he’s already mysterious misplaced two letters, remember. And I think at that point you have to admit that you’re more committed to your pet theory than any facts there might be.
Because if you accept that the inscription has to have been added before 1767, then you also have to accept that it was added whilst Thomas Anson was alive. Which, like… sure, maybe he was totally fine with his heir adding some letters to a monument contemplating the existence of death even in a picturesque pastoral haven, but I’d really want some evidence to support that. Like, why add it there, to a monument about death, rather than to a different monument? Why even add it in code? Why write it at all? I’m guessing at least some of those questions were addressed in the missing article.
Morton ends by pointing out that Baker confessed to, many years ago having ‘a part’ in the “silly Grail and Priory of Sion stuff”. He uses this confession as an ad-hominem attack to suggest that Baker drew attention to this “mystic cipher” nonsense because… Baker used to believe some part or other about some nonsense theory, which he himself now refers to as silly and that proves something something the poem isn’t reliable and is pseudo-history. Which rather implies he thinks the entire letter is a forgery, to call it something so strong as “pseudo-history”. I sure would like to see some proof to support that claim.
There is also another piece of evidence Morton needs to address. In a book published in 1817, Thomas and Arthur Clifford briefly describe some of the art at Shugborough, and mention the Shepherd’s monument. They state that it was placed there by Anson as a meditation on death, but then go on to say ‘perhaps also as a secret memorial of some loss of a tender nature in his early days; for he was wont often to hang over it in affectionate and firm meditation.’ There’s a footnote at the end of that sentence, where they’ve added ‘This opinion is more probable from… the mysterious inscription on the top of the monument… the meaning of these letters, Mr. Anson would never explain; and they still remain an enigma to posterity.’ (Clifford & Clifford 1817: 65).
Perhaps Morton would simply dismiss it as entirely unreliable, given that they claim the inscription is at the top of the monument, when it’s actually at the bottom. But it’s hard to get around the fact that the elder of the two authors knew Thomas Anson. They were neighbours Thomas Clifford owned Tixall Hall. You could walk between the two. This is an account from a man who knew Thomas Anson saying that the inscription was put there by Thomas, and that he wouldn’t tell anyone what it meant.
Honestly, I’m not sure I would have even included this theory on the list were it not for the drama it caused. Petty academic squabbles are just… adorable. And Morton’s blog posts are such mega tantrums. Yeah. Posts. Plural. You think he’s only gonna rant once when all it takes to set him off is someone raising an objection? Lolno. When I was poking round his blog to see if I could find is actual theory, I found another post written a few days prior to his mini-tantrum about Baker bringing up the anonymous letter.
See, obviously, as journalists tend to do, they approached the staff at Shugborough Hall for a comment about this new theory. And they had the sheer audacity to say that… eeeeh. They get 5-6 theories a week, so they’re a bit wary of them now.
And Morton. Is. Outraged.
THEM? WARY OF HIM? How. Daaaaare they. He goes off on a rant about how they’re profiting off the grail narrative and I mean it’s a nice place an all, but it’s expensive and it’s all about making money and blah blah blah. Near the end of the post he complains that:
I may never have written any of this if Shugborough hadn't told the press they were "wary" of me. Like I said, that hurt. My crime: a boring solution. For this deadly serious, published, peer reviewed, journalist, columnist, historian, it's a trifle unsettling that a National Trust tourist destination, one that employs and endorses pseudo-history Grailers and other revisionists, could be so dismissive and rude. I guess I'm just wary of them. (Morton 2011a)
Guys. This… this is not a thing that reasonable people say. Reasonable people do not write whole blog posts ranting about the audacity of somone saying they’re “wary” of any new theories as if that’s actually a remotely rude thing to say. Reasonable academics don’t go ‘screw you!’ when someone suggests that they’d need more evidence. They either provide more evidence, or admit that ‘hey, this is just a theory, but personally I think it’s a pretty good one.’
Personally, I think it’s a pretty bad one. And if our wiki editor Alex saw those blog posts too, it’s even easier to see why they thought Charlie might be Morton. But I do love pseudo-academic hissy-fits. And I hope you do, too, ‘cause otherwise the last half of this episode was probably pretty boring for you!
But that’s it for this episode. Next episode: more theories about what the inscription could mean! Some far more ludicrous than Morton’s, some far more sensible than Morton’s, and maybe one that’s actually right? Who knows. Not me. I haven’t read them all yet.
Thanks for listening. If you like the show, please subscribe on whatever podcatcher you’re using. Rate and review the show, especially on iTunes.
If you have questions, comments, corrections, feedback, want to suggest a topic, have a copy of the Irvine Times from the 31st of January 2011, etc. You can find the podcast on twitter: @poisonroompod
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Alternatively, chisel the first letter from each word you want to say to me into some stone, and then wait for people to start squabbling on Wikipedia talk pages about what it might mean.
Transcripts of all episodes are available at poisonroom.com, where you can also see the references and bibliography. As always if the sources are publicly available, they’re linked to.
- The voice of the anonymous poet was: Leilah Porter.
- The voice in your ears has been: an Arcadian Shepherd.
National Archives Ref: HO 107/975
Baker, A. (2011) ‘Monument Initials Theory Cannot be True’ Staffordshire Newsletter 10/02/2011.
Baker, A. (2019) Thomas Anson of Shugborough and the Greek Revival, (unpublished, available online).
Bristol, K. (2000) ‘The Society of Dilettanti, James “Athenian” Stuart and the Anson Family’ Apollo Apollo 152(461):46-54.
Britten, N. (2011) ‘Shepherd's Monument 'code' was 19th century graffiti’ The Telegraph. 01/02/2011.
Clifford, T. & Clifford, A. (1817) A Topographical and Historical Description of the Parish of Tixall, in the County of Stafford, M. Nouzon.
Kelly, J. M. (2006) ‘Society of Dilettanti’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford Online.
Morton, A. J. (2011a) ‘The Shugborough Code’ MR Blog (Blogpost) 30/01/2011.
Morton, A. J. (2011b) ‘Morton’s Theory Cannot be True’ MR Blog (Blogpost) 11/02/2011.
Tweedie, N. (2004) 'Letters Remain the Holy Grail to Code-breakers' The Telegraph.