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May 2022

Vol. 164 / No. 1430

The Rustat Memorial

The Rustat Memorial

When the statue of Edward Colston was defaced and thrown into Bristol harbour on 7th June 2020 the resulting publicity was so enormous that it seemed likely that a wholesale assault on memorials to men who took part in the slave trade or were racist would inevitably follow. In fact, remarkably little has happened. In January of this year four people who helped pull down the Colston statue were acquitted of criminal damage, a case that has been referred to the Court of Appeal by the Attorney General, who is seeking clarification of what constitutes a defence to such charges when they arise from protests. In other high-profile cases, despite vociferous calls for them to be removed, the statue of Cecil Rhodes still overlooks the High Street in Oxford from the façade of Oriel College and the sculptures of John Cass and William Beckford remain on the Guildhall in London, in both cases because their owners – the college and the Corporation of London respectively – have decided on a policy of ‘retain and explain’.

Little more has been done in the case of church monuments. Applications to remove them are subject not to listed-building procedures but to the Church of England’s internal system whereby a ‘faculty’ has to be sought by anyone wishing to make an alteration to a church building in religious use. Only one such case is outstanding, an application by St Peter’s church, Dorchester, to move a late eighteenth-century wall memorial to the slave owner John Gordon from the church to Dorchester Museum. If such an application is contested the matter is referred to the judgment of a diocesan Chancellor in a Consistory Court. This was the result of the ecclesiastical case that has attracted most attention, the application by the Master and governing body of Jesus College, Cambridge, to remove the monument to Tobias Rustat (1608–94) from the college chapel, which was opposed by a group of former members of the college. The case was heard in February by David R. Hodge, Deputy Chancellor of the Diocese of Ely, who in March dismissed the application. Last month the college announced that it would not appeal against his decision. [1]

The judgment, some 108 pages long, sets out the issues with great clarity. It deserves the most careful consideration, so it is disappointing that neither the college, which regards the judgment as ‘shocking’, nor the Archbishop of Canterbury, who believes that it demonstrates contentment ‘with a situation where people of colour are excluded from places of worship’, have felt the need to engage in any meaningful way with the arguments that led to Mr Hodge’s decision. This is despite the fact that – as he emphasised – he had to comply with the guidelines for dealing with contested heritage laid down by the Church of England, which state that consideration must be given to the question whether the benefit of the removal of a memorial outweighs any resulting harm to the significance of the building. Mr Hodge concluded that it did not.

Rustat was a courtier whose loyalty to the Crown – he helped Charles II escape after the Battle of Worcester – allowed him to accumulate considerable wealth, which, since he was unmarried, he dispersed in considerable part to charity. He made substantial gifts to Chelsea Hospital, St Paul’s Cathedral, the University Library, Cambridge, and, in particular, Jesus College, Cambridge, of which his father had been a member. The college remembered his generosity in the name of an annual feast, a portrait by Godfrey Kneller and an imposing Baroque marble monument on the west wall of its chapel, where Rustat is buried. The last was commissioned by Rustat himself from Grinling Gibbons and was probably carved in Gibbons’s studio by Arnold Quellin.

The point at issue was Rustat’s involvement in the slave trade. He made investments in the Company of Royal Adventurers Trading into Africa, later reconstituted as the Royal African Company, of which he served as director for two years. He also had a financial interest in the Gambia Adventurers. Both companies traded enslaved people. Partly as a result of research carried out in consequence of the college’s wish to move the monument, it is accepted that none of the money given to the college or spent on the monument derived from the slave trade. The college contended nonetheless that the continued presence of Rustat’s memorial in a prominent position was a serious obstacle to the chapel’s ability to provide a credible Christian ministry and a safe space for secular college functions. In her evidence to the court, the Master, Sonita Alleyne, who in 2019 became the first Black person to head a college at either Oxford or Cambridge, stated that ‘at Jesus College Chapel I feel I am denied racial dignity of worship’ and she argued that that the memorial should be moved to a nearby secular building where its history and context could be explained and it ‘would no longer be venerated in this sacred space’.

The college in effect took the line that any involvement by Rustat with the slave trade negated any arguments against it being moved on the grounds of its intrinsic artistic and historic importance or the fact that it was a fixture in a Grade I listed building. Mr Hodge’s reasons deserve to be quoted at length: ‘the appropriate response to Rustat’s undoubted involvement in the abomination that was the enslavement and trade in Black Africans is not to remove his memorial from the College Chapel to a physical space to which its monumentality is ill-suited, and where that involvement may conveniently be forgotten [. . .] but to retain the memorial in the religious space for which it was always intended [. . .] where by appropriate interpretation and explanation, that involvement can be acknowledged and viewed in the context of his own time and his other undoubted qualities of duty and loyalty to his King, and his considerable charity and philanthropy. In this way, the Rustat memorial may be employed as an appropriate vehicle to consider the imperfection of human beings and to recognise that none of us is free from all sin’.

Although the college may feel that the considerable amount of money it has spent on the case has been wasted, the judgment should be welcomed for its value as a precedent that will undoubtedly be referred to in similar cases. Now that the college has accepted that it must retain the monument, can it find creative and persuasive ways of explaining it? The case is also an opportunity for art and architectural historians to reflect on how much work needs to be done to correct misapprehensions about church monuments, even in a place as well informed as a Cambridge college might be assumed to be. In particular, they are intended for commemoration, not veneration, and are not ornaments in a building that can readily be removed but are integral elements of its historical and cultural significance. There are lessons for us all in the case of the Rustat Memorial.

[1]  The full judgment, and the college’s response, are available at, accessed 14th April 2022.