Oldest Gravestone

I may have found one of the country’s oldest gravestones. Until last week, the oldest one I'd catalogued was from 1590 up in Banff on Scotland’s north-eastern coast. Now it’s true that there are many ancient cairns and grave mounds dotted about, and ancient stone coffins too. Actual grave markers with names and dates don’t really appear until the seventeenth century, of which there are some good examples at Colne and Altham. Last weekend, I found an Elizabethan grave marker in Preston. The stone had been broken up to make a pavement around St John’s Church in the city centre, but thankfully the name and date have been preserved. It simply states:



The name may be incomplete; she may be Mary Cowley, Cowlan, Cowan. I’ve looked up the church’s burial registers, but they only go back to 1642. Furthermore, the medieval church in the shadow of which Mary C. was buried was demolished and re-built in 1581 (and again under Victoria), so it’s a wonder her tombstone survived at all. Because the surviving piece fitted neatly into a gap next to a metal drain cover, it was deemed prudent to retain. Of course, it might be a forgery, but the lettering is correct and the numeral 5 is how an Elizabethan mason would have carved the figure. We might also query what motive one might have for creating a fake- it’s hardly a tourist attraction or money-spinner.


This is the oldest named gravestone I’ve ever seen, though of its namesake I can find out nothing. She may have been an infant, or an old lady, unhappy and fazed by the difficult times in which she lived. Will she have heard the gospel from that Preston pulpit, or was she trusting in the old ceremonies and masses to save her soul? In the following century, Lancashire was considered the most Presbyterian county outside of London, whilst also having one of the largest Roman Catholic ('recusant') populations. She may be unknown to us, but she was known to God, and He had regard for the state of her soul. Through good fortune and her estate’s surplus, she was able to purchase a little square foot of basic 'immortality'. To those who believe in Him, Christ has purchased for them an eternity of immortality, which neither sin nor death may break, wear away or cover up.

Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection. Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years.

Revelation 20:6