‘One of the most valuable women that ever lived’

Bath Abbey

During archaeological works beneath the floor of Bath Abbey between 2018 and 2020 (see CA 348), Wessex Archaeology recovered a stunning piece of an 18th-century bas relief marble sculpture. It was one of approximately 4,000 fragments removed from the Abbey’s 635 monuments during George Gilbert Scott’s works between 1864 and 1874. The sculpture, which was clearly once part of a memorial, was found placed face down among a mass of broken 18th- and early 19th-century funerary monuments that had been repurposed as packing material around the Abbey’s late 1860s heating system.

Dr Oliver Taylor, the Abbey’s Head of Interpretation and Learning, immediately recognised the find as originally coming from a monument to the mysterious ‘C.M.’ (d. 1765), which is described in the Abbey’s first guidebook to the monuments, published in 1778: ‘A Monument, with a Pyramid of Dove Marble, and an Oval Tablet. Over which are two branches of Palm; beneath, in a Basso Relievo, is a boy sleeping by an urn, with a branch of cyprus in his left hand, resting his head on an hour-glass, with other statuary ornaments’.

The inscription tablet of the monument survives on the wall of Bath Abbey’s North Aisle, which describes C.M. as ‘One of the most valuable Women/that ever lived’ (above). Further research revealed her identity to be Catherine Malone, the daughter of an eccentric merchant who invested in the South Sea Company, and the mother of Edmond Malone (1741-1812), editor of the first variorum edition (that is, collating all known variants) of the works of William Shakespeare. The full story of the monument can be read in Dr Taylor’s Bath Abbey’s Monuments: an illustrated history (The History Press, 2023).

Text: Oliver Taylor and Cai Mason
Images: Rich Howman and © Bath Abbey