Bones Beneath a Bishop’s Palace

A Victorian dog and his master

A pleasant fifteen minute amble from Parsons Green station, Fulham Palace and its gardens is managed by a charitable trust. In continual possession of the Church of England since AD 704 (when Bishop Waldhere acquired the Manor of Fulham) it is a scheduled ancient monument – which gives it the same historic importance as Stonehenge.

For over a millennia it was the residence to the third most important Bishop of the U.K. behind York and Canterbury: but a home to bishops it is no longer. In 1973 then Bishop Stopford moved out to live in closer proximity to St. Paul’s Cathedral, after it became abundantly clear that the building was too costly to maintain as a functioning, modern abode.

All those years of existence have left a mark on the landscape – not only in the form of the physical buildings, but in its archaeology too. In October 2017 a community dig, led by archaeologist Alexis Haslam, saw trenches inserted into where it was believed that the medieval manor house and the old Tudor dovecote of the palace once stood.

The dovecote remained illusive, but a lot of animals bone from rabbit, venison and turkeys were found, – wastage from the kitchens – as well as the remains of an animal that clearly wasn’t destined for the dinner plate. This was the bones of an old, old dog.

Man’s best friend must have known, seen and lived on this site for centuries, especially seeing as human habitation on this part of the river stretches back a millennia. But in this case, further research suggested that this was likely to be a mastiff called Captain, who was the canine companion of 19th century religious leader Archibald Campbell Tait, Bishop of London between 1856 – 1868.

Archibald Campbell Tait, a Scot, would go on to become the first Scottish Archbishop of Canterbury – a role Queen Victoria personally recommended him for. Tait was formerly a headmaster of Rugby School where he was appointed in 1842 and was also a successful theological writer, penning ‘Harmony of Revelation and the Sciences‘ whilst living in Fulham in 1864.

Archibald Campbell Tait, c.1860s, Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

Children and pets often go hand in hand and it is likely that Captain was close to Bishop Tait’s daughter, Lucy, when she was a small girl. Lucy may be the same daughter who referred to the beloved pooch as ‘The Grand Old Captain’ and is just as worthy of historical note as her father. Not only did she luckily dodge a scarlet fever outbreak that killed most of her siblings in the 1850s: she would grow up to have a same-sex relationship with the wife of Tait’s successor as Archbishop of Canterbury, a woman by the name of Mary Benson – one of the more easily identifiable lesbians in 19th century society.

Pet graves are a continual source of fascination to me, from the ‘Nazi Dog’ of Waterloo Place to Hyde Park’s pet cemetery. From the biographies of Tait I’ve read, I can’t find any specific mention of Captain, although seeing the position the bones were found in it shows this animal was buried with great reverance and care – as you would expect of any beloved doggy member of the family. It’s also interesting to see another example of a historic dog, after the legendary Hatch of the Mary Rose.

Mastiffs of today look slightly different than they did in the 1860s, thanks to a century of breeding. (The change of dogs appearances over the past two centuries is another fascinating thing to deep-dive if you have a spare evening). The image above is a fairier reflection of Captain as he may have looked when he was alive compared to modern representatives of the breed today. A stately looking dog by Tait’s side as he walked around the grounds, thinking of sermons to write or how best to deal with ritualism.

The death mask of Archibald Campbell Tait, given to the National Portrait Gallery in 1929.

Master and pet however remain seperated in death – Tait would go on to be buried under an almighty cross in St Mary the Blessed Virgin after his death in 1882, close to the Archbishop’s palace in Addington. Captain, who died long before his master, now has a lovely warm home in a display case within the palace’s museum, where he is placed, as if sleeping.

The Tait family grave in Addington. © John King, via Flickr.
Photo by Sheldon K. Goodman, 2022.

Fulham Palace is available to visit daily from 10am to 4pm – more information here.

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