THE PRIORY CHURCH in Christchurch (Dorset) is all that remains intact of the Priory of the Holy Trinity, one of many monastic institutions dissolved by King Henry VIII. The king allowed the cathedral-like priory church to be preserved and used as Christchurch’s parish church. The rest of the priory was demolished. The church’s construction began in the Norman era, the nave being completed by about 1150. The church contains many fine Norman architectural and decorative features. On the north wall at the west end of the building, at the bottom of the square bell tower, there is a 19th century monument that commemorates one of England’s great poets and his equally famous wife, a novelist.
In 1816, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) married the novelist, author of “Frankenstein”, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851). Six years later, Percy was in Italy, where he met Leigh Hunt and Lord Byron to discuss establishing a new journal to be called ‘The Liberal’. During this trip, Shelley died at sea (on the 1st of July 1822). His body was washed up near Viareggio ten day later. It was cremated on the beach. However, his heart resisted burning (possibly because it was highly calcified due to a tubercular infection). His ashes were buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, and his heart was eventually buried either at St Peters Church in Bournemouth or at the Priory Church in Christchurch, Mary, Percy’s wife, died in her home in London’s Chester Square, but was buried at St Peter’s Church in Bournemouth, which was near her seaside home at Boscombe (now part of Bournemouth).
The monument to Percy and Mary in the Priory Church was sculpted in white marble by Henry Weekes (1807-1877) in 1853-54. It was erected by Percy and Mary’s son, who lived at Boscombe. The memorial:
“… shows Mary Wollstenecraft Shelley mourning over the body of her husband who drowned off the coast of Italy in 1822.” (https://victorianweb.org/sculpture/weekes/8.html).
After attending Sung Eucharist one Sunday morning in October (2022), we asked the cleric why the monument was in the Priory Church. He was not entirely sure of the reason, but suggested that at the time when the memorial was put up, Bournemouth was far smaller than its older neighbour Christchurch. He explained that before the arrival of the railway in 1870, Bournemouth was a smallish place, a village, and that Christchurch was a far larger and more important place, a town, in the area. Whatever the explanation, it was interesting to discover this monument to Shelley during our visit to the beautiful, venerable Priory Church.