It doesn’t ever quite seem like Christmas until I’ve been to the Christmas Eve Carol service at Derby Cathedral, but until this year I’d never taken the time explore St. Katherine’s Chapel.
The outer part of the Cavendish burial vault was converted into this tranquil space for private prayer and quiet contemplation in the 1970s, but it is down here that the fascinating trio of the 5th Duke of Devonshire, his wife, Georgiana, and mistress, Bess Foster, are interred alongside generations of the Cavendish family. Visiting in 1811, five years after Georgiana’s death in 1806, the prolific diarist Nathaniel Wraxall was told how Lady Bessborough had been too distraught to enter her beloved sister’s final resting place:
‘As I stood contemplating the coffin which contained the ashes of that admired female, the woman who accompanied me pointed out the relics of a bouquet which lay upon the lid, nearly collapsed into dust. ‘That nosegay’, said she, ‘was brought here by the Countess of Bessborough, who had designed to place it with her own hands on her sister’s coffin; but, overcome by emotion on approaching the spot, she found herself unable to descend the steps conducting to the vault. In an agony of grief, she knelt down on the stones, as nearly over the place occupied by the corpse as I could direct, and there deposited the flowers, enjoining me the performance of an office to which she was unequal. I fulfilled her wishes.”*
Even the cold reserve of the 5th Duke was shaken by his wife’s untimely demise, and is said to have been ‘hysterical’ when he usually found it utterly impossible to show his feelings. Georgiana had died from an abscess on her liver, but the years of worry over her ever-mounting gambling debts had also taken their toll. Three years after her death the 5th Duke married his mistress, but their time as man and wife was to be short. He died in 1811, to be followed by Bess in 1824. In accordance with Bess’s wishes, and in spite of their often strained relationship, Georgiana’s son Hart – now the 6th Duke of Devonshire – arranged for his stepmother to be interred in the family vault with his parents. Whatever Bess’s faults, it seems apt that three people who were inseparable in life should remain side by side for eternity.
Today the brass coffin plates of various members of the Cavendish family line the Cathedral walls – with names of note including the eminent scientist Henry Cavendish (1731-1810). There is also a grand memorial to Bess of Hardwick (c. 1527-1608), the matriarch who rose from relative obscurity to found a dynasty. Bess was responsible for the great building projects at Hardwick and Chatsworth – but it was only with the 6th Duke of Devonshire that members of the family came be buried in Edensor churchyard on the Chatsworth estate. His ancestors are all here – and an information board notifies you that as you stand reading the brass memorials, the people themselves lie directly beneath your feet. Now, standing on a dead Duke sounds more than a little disrespectful and makes a rather macabre thought! However, descending the steep flight of stone stairs to enter the crypt is far from creepy. St. Katherine’s chapel is an enclosed oasis of calm – the perfect spot to escape the hoards of Christmas shoppers crowding the city streets outside!
*Wraxall, Vol. III, p.343