- The Friend
The late Alan Bray's study of friendships between persons of the same sex who chose to be buried together with the blessing of the English church began to take shape twenty years ago when Bray noticed that two men, Sir John Finch and Sir Thomas Baines, shared a striking seventeenth-century tomb in the chapel of Christ's College, Cambridge. Intrigued by this oddity, Bray set out to discover what lay behind their curious decision to be buried together, especially since Baines had died in Constantinople in 1681 and Finch had taken the enormous trouble to have his remains brought back to England, only to join him in the tomb the following year. On the joint monument to the two men, Finch described their relationship as an animorum [sic] connubium, or marriage of souls,which no doubt explains the curious knotted cloth that joins the busts of the two men.
His curiosity aroused, Bray began to search for other examples of such joint burials. Over nearly two decades he ran across surprising numbers of them, especially from the period between the fourteenth and the seventeenth centuries, for the practice survived the religious upheavals of the sixteenth century and continued to be practiced in the Anglican Church following the Reformation.
Bray soon realized that these peculiar arrangements reflected the practice of sworn brotherhood (and, more rarely, sisterhood), about which John Boswell wrote in his controversial 1994 book Same-Sex Unions in Premodern [End Page 312] Europe. Bray also discovered a Latin Catholic Ordo ad fratres faciendum in a fourteenth-century manuscript in Croatia, which he edits and translates into English (pp. 130–33).
Although the practices of sworn brotherhood and joint burial of friends of the same gender seem to have grown increasingly uncommon after the end of the seventeenth century, they did not entirely disappear. Bray argues that they ceased to be considered acceptable because of changes in the ways that people conceived of civil society, friendship, and kinship, commencing in the eighteenth century. Even so the custom survived at least into the late nineteenth century. Bray's surprising final example is the last resting place of Cardinal Newman,who at his express, indeed insistent, request was laid to rest in August 1890 in the same grave with Father Ambrose St. John, a fellow-Oratorian.
What is one to make of the evidence that Bray presents? Were these fervent friendships, blessed by churchmen, often solemnized through joint reception of the Eucharist by the parties, in some sense same-sex marriages? It would be difficult to avoid the conclusion that some of these couples evidently thought of their relationship in those terms.The evidence that Bray presents, however, does not imply that all, or even most of them, did so. In the mid-nineteenth-century relationship between Anne Lister and Ann Walker,encoded passages in Lister's diaries pretty clearly attest that their union included a sexual component.
Bray's closely argued book, as he clearly realized, is certain to spark renewed debate over these matters. [End Page 313]