Dunking, Breaking, Moving, (Re)Making…: Thoughts on the inherent contests of heritage, and on Rustat

In this guest post, Simon Hunter, of 13 Old Square Chambers, muses on the inherent contests of heritage, and on Rustat


No chief has Rome so loved, nor thee so much, Caesar, as now; thee too, albeit she would, she cannot now love more.

Martial, Epigrams VIII:11. (Loeb editions 1919, translated Ker)

…those innumerable golden images [of Domitian], as a sacrifice to public rejoicing, lie broken and destroyed. It was our delight to dash those proud faces to the ground, to smite them with the sword and savage them with the axe, as if blood and agony could follow from every blow. … all sought a form of vengeance in beholding those bodies mutilated, limbs hacked into pieces, and finally that baleful, fearsome visage cast into fire, to be melted down, so that from such menacing terror something for man’s use and enjoyment should rise out of the flames

Pliny the Younger, Panegyricus, 52 (Loeb editions 1969, translated Radice)

Two thousand years ago, give or take a few decades, the poet Martial put aside his barbs and his obscenities and sang out his praise for his “Unconquered[1] Emperor, Domitian. No doubt it was expedient for a jobbing poet to do so, at least occasionally. Thanks were given for the Emperor’s mighty triumphs, for the splendour of his palaces, for the munificence of his benefactions, for the love of his adoring people. All of Gaul had, apparently, heard Rome acclaim its beloved God-Emperor.

Not even a decade later Pliny the Younger put into practice the oratorical skills he had learned from the great Quintilian and delivered to the Senate a panegyric in praise of his Emperor, his “excellent ruler[2]. In the time of Trajan, it was expedient to belittle the memory of the previous dynasty. Domitian was, by then, a dictatorial tyrant whose murder was a righteous, honourable act. By the good offices of the same emperor that he praised with such soaring prose Pliny would serve part of the year 100AD as suffect Consul, and he would later go on to be the Imperial legate of Bithynia and Pontus. Sycophancy served Pliny better than it served Martial.[3]

We are justified in being wary of accepting all of Pliny’s criticism of Domitian, just as we are wary of accepting all of Martial’s praise of him. But the contrast of the Epigrams and the Panegyric does show us a contest about heritage in action long before cancel culture had a name: how should you remember a recently deceased tyrant, and how do you praise the current one? For a Roman, chucking out a statue or two was a culturally acceptable response, at least in theory. One might reasonably suspect that a faculty did not need to issue from the Registry for the destruction of statues of Domitian in 100AD. And it is unlikely that anyone who threw one into the Tiber ended up in the Crown Court in Bristol.

Domitian, of course, was not alone. Inscriptions survive showing the chiselling away of the names of Commodus and Geta. In the 1350’s Marino Faliero, the Doge of Venice, suffered a similar fate after his failed coup attempt. In 2003 statues of Saddam Hussein were pulled down across Iraq.

Other destructive contests about heritage which do not include damning the memory of a deceased and (allegedly) unlamented ruler can be found littered through history. The Iconoclasm of the mid 8th century in the Byzantine Empire. The whitewashing of doom paintings during the Reformation. The Cultural Revolution in China in the 1960s and ‘70s. The destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban. The list is endless and as old as history itself.

Other overt contests about heritage have been less destructive. In 1983 Melina Mercouri, then the Greek Minister of Culture, gave an emotive appeal[4] for the return of the Elgin Marbles to Greece, part of a long line of such appeals: all, so far, unsuccessful. The (ab)use by sports clubs of logos based on Native American headdresses[5] also come to mind. And the growth of Welsh and Hebrew as spoken first languages shows that some contests can be positively constructive.

”Contested Heritage”

Historic England has defined contested heritage as objects or places that can be seen as “symbols of injustice and a source of great pain for many people”

Church Buildings Council and the Cathedrals Fabric Commission for England report Contested Heritage in Cathedrals and Churches, 2021[6]

Why do we care about our heritage? Is it for the sake of the past or the sake of the present and the future? I know what my answer is: heritage is only worth having if it has a place in our current worldview, and a role to play in our vision of the future. That role in the future might be celebratory or cautionary. It might be educational. It might be aesthetic. It might be all of these together and much more besides. But retention is the product of a choice about what of our past we want, and need, in our future. That future, and heritage’s place in it, is always open for contest. Keeping things for the sake solely of the past, by contrast, is hoarding.[7]

Now, some heritage is presently openly contested, and some has been so for a long time. We humans have long memories and bear long grudges. One might have thought that the domineering theft, in 1296, of the Stone of Scone by King Edward I would be old news (indeed, relatively ancient history) by the mid 20th century. But in 1950 the Stone was repatriated, or stolen depending on your political views, by four students of the University of Glasgow and returned to Scotland, albeit only for a season. In a not-quite-as-longstanding grudge, King Charles I is seen by some in the Church of England as a martyr for his faith. And the judgment in the Rustat case[8] shows us that there are some people who are incensed by the late Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer (ob. 1556).

Other heritage, although not presently openly contested, is the product of contest. The wild beauty of parts of the Scottish Highlands, their timeless grandeur, is the product of the highland clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries. Similarly, Capability Brown-style landscapes around country houses often hide the forced movement, even the wholesale destruction, of villages that had existed since time immemorial.

Yet more heritage may well be the focus of contest in the future. Who knows what it will be next? Perhaps it will be some industrial heritage, a relic of our less environmentally-aware past. Maybe it will be something as unexpected as the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol. Only the hopes, dreams, and values of the future will decide.

It is for this reason that I have a problem with the phrase “contested heritage”. The problem is this: the word “contested” is otiose. All heritage is or has been contested, or is contestable.

Now it will be said against me that this objection is just petty pedantry, or (worse) an attempt to return to a time[9] when heritage could be loved and enjoyed uncritically. But it is not that. The implication inherent in the phrase “contested heritage” is that there is somewhere another category of heritage which is outside that first category. That suggestion, though, is worse than a phantom: it suggests that there is some heritage that is uncontestable, that has a past, present and future that are so clear that none should touch it.

For as long as we say that “contested heritage” is a relevant category, we blind ourselves to the truth that all heritage is contestable, and much is contested, often by those who our society is not predisposed enough to listen carefully to. Our heritage management, of all our tangible and intangible heritage, should take into account the contests of history, the injustices of the past and the present, the tragedies of those whose voices are and have been written out of grand-scale History. But more importantly, our heritage management should be guided by our needs in the present and our hopes for the future.


Why is it so much agony to remove a memorial to slavery?

Archbishop Welby, General Synod February 2022

What, then, of the memorials on the walls of our churches? There is honour and integrity in saying that we should keep them solely for their artistic value or because they improve the architectural significance of the church as a building.[10] But if we do so, we should remember that we are also commemorating the person or people named in those monuments. We are setting up their lives as an example.

The siting of those monuments is meaningful. They overlook our present, active worship, and our mission to the world. Where the continued commemoration of the person interferes with the message of our Christian gospel as we understand it, we should not be afraid to say that it is the monument, not the message, that needs to be changed.

All of which brings me to the issue de jour, the monument to Tobias Rustat in the chapel of Jesus College, Cambridge. Others will comment in more detail on the thoughtful judgment produced by HHJ Hodge QC, Re the Rustat Memorial, Jesus College, Cambridge, [2022] ECC Ely 2. Myself, I think that the learned judge got it wrong. It seems to me that he places too much emphasis on retaining the supposed aesthetic ‘integrity’ (my word not his) of the monument in its current context[11] and not enough emphasis on the pastoral effects of it being there, or on the wording of the monument itself.

That monument, erected in the chapel only after Rustat died, must be taken to refer to the whole of his life. Given that it is undoubted that Rustat made at least some portion of his wealth from the slave trade, the words “the greatest part of his estate he gathered by God’s blessing…” is unambiguously saying that the money he received from slaving was a blessing from God. That is, in the present day, a problematic statement both theologically and pastorally. The fact that none of the money Rustat gave to the College was from slaving is irrelevant: this is a monument to the life of the man, not to his donations to the College.

I came to the issue with no prior views. I had, before this case, never heard of Tobias Rustat or his monument. I thought that the Archbishop was unwise to comment (see the quotation at the head of this section) on matters that were sub judice. But the Archbishop got it right: why is it so much agony to remove a memorial to slavery? If the Rustat monument has intrinsic aesthetic value, send it to the V&A where more people will see it and can compare it to other art of its era outside of an active worship space. And Jesus College Chapel had architectural and historic value before the Rustat memorial was put on that wall in 1922, so it will have such value after the removal of that memorial.

In his judgment[12] Judge Hodge quotes LP Hartley’s famous aphorism about the past being a foreign country. It may be so. For myself, though, I think a more relevant quotation comes from a sermon preached in 1997 in the Chapel of Gray’s Inn by that society’s late Preacher, the Revd Roger Holloway:

Our Christian profession commits us to following the truth wherever it leads. Each generation, within the ‘sundry and manifold changes of the word’ (as today’s[13] Collect put it), can see God afresh – from a new perspective. ‘The new theology’, wrote Bishop Charles Gore, ‘but the old religion’.[14]

Rustat’s involvement with the slave trade was abhorrent, even if it was sanctioned by the mores of that other country we call the past. His continued memorialisation in the chapel at Jesus is an affront to the dignity of those who were transported from their homes to be sold as chattels. The sundry and manifold changes of the world since Rustat died should allow us to see that, whatever its aesthetic merit, the Rustat memorial should be removed. This is not Cultural Revolutionary-style vandalism. It is a hope for a better future and an atonement for the past.

Simon Hunter

[1] Epigrams VII:6

[2] Letters, III:18

[3] The two men knew each other. Martial wrote an epigram about Pliny (Epigrams X:19) and Pliny’s comment (Letters, III:21) on Martial’s death is touching.

[4] Quoted in part in Merryman, John: Thinking about the Elgin Marbles : Critical Essays on Cultural Property, Art and Law; Wolters Kluwer 2009, pages 25-26.

[5] The Washington Redskins (now renamed the Commanders, with a logo that looks like a W) and the Exeter Chiefs (still Chiefs, but now with a logo said to represent a Celtic chief), for example.

[6] In fact, the quotation from Historic England is not, in its original context, a definition of the term “contested heritage”.  The full sentence (https://historicengland.org.uk/whats-new/statements/contested-heritage/, accessed 24 March 2022) reads “We recognise that there are historic statues and sites which have become symbols of injustice and a source of great pain for many people.

[7] I overstate the case somewhat for rhetorical effect. I am not condoning wanton destruction. We should be cautious about destroying what our successors may see as valuable. We should also be wary of the sort of Prosserite Progress (“It’s a bypass. You’ve got to build bypasses.”) that led to plenty of heritage destruction in post-war Britain.

[8] Re the Rustat Memorial, Jesus College, Cambridge, [2022] ECC Ely 2, especially paragraph 44.

[9] Which time never existed. The sunlit uplands of the past were always cloudier than we are given to recall.

[10] What one might call the argumentum ex Pevsneris.

[11] A context into which it was placed, at least this time, only in 1922. Judge Hodge says (paragraph 12) only that it is “thought” that this was its original location in the chapel, although it spent the first 8 years of its life in Rustat’s Chelsea home (paragraph 11).

[12] Paragraph 7.

[13] The Third Sunday before Lent, Book of Common Prayer

[14] Holloway, Roger: Gray’s Inn Sermons, AuthorHouse 2012, pages 4-5.

Cite this article as Simon Hunter, “Dunking, Breaking, Moving, (Re)Making…: Thoughts on the inherent contests of heritage, and on Rustat”, in Law & Religion UK, 26 March 2022: https://lawandreligionuk.com/2022/03/28/dunking-breaking-moving-remaking-thoughts-on-the-inherent-contests-of-heritage-and-on-rustat/


3 thoughts on “Dunking, Breaking, Moving, (Re)Making…: Thoughts on the inherent contests of heritage, and on Rustat

  1. it’s striking that the instinct of Justin Welby is always to make the wrong call, as in the appalling case of the late Bishop George Bell the enthusiastic closing down of all public worship and the issue of church monuments.

    • As Francis Ewan Urquhart would have said, “You might very well think that; we couldn’t possibly comment”. Nor would we add the closure of churches in March 2020, and the subsequent post facto rationalization. dp & fc

  2. “Historic England has defined contested heritage as objects or places that can be seen as “symbols of injustice and a source of great pain for many people””

    The Church Buildings Council and the Cathedrals Fabric Commission for England appear entirely to have overlooked that the great majority of churches and cathedrals in England are contested heritage. They were taken from the Catholic Church in 1534, with many bishops, clergy, monks and laymen martyred along the way. It remains the view of most Catholics in England that they do not belong to the Church created by Henry VIII.

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