A seemingly obscure battle in an ecclesiastical court could threaten the security of every historic monument in the care of the Church of England. As reported in this column last year, Jesus College, Cambridge, is trying to extirpate the memorials (while keeping the money) of its greatest historic benefactor, Tobias Rustat. Rustat was a loyal servant of King Charles II who helped him escape from the battle of Worcester, looked after him in exile, and became his Yeoman of the Robes after the Restoration. He also gave huge sums to Jesus (as to St John’s, Oxford, the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, St Paul’s Cathedral and the University of Cambridge). His sin was investing in the Royal African Company, one of whose activities was trading in slaves. The college has found it easy to take down Rustat portraits, rename Rustat feasts etc, but it is harder to fulfil its wish to remove the 14ft Grinling Gibbons Rustat memorial from the Grade I-listed college chapel. Such a move requires legal sanction — what is called ‘a faculty’ under the church equivalent of planning laws. Jesus is seeking this from the diocese of Ely. However, growing numbers of Jesuans (college alumni), many of them donors, are disturbed by their college’s campaign against its benefactor and the attack on its heritage that this involves. They love their college: they want its Fellows to pause and ask themselves whether what they are doing is wise. Last week, a 33-strong group of them, in which senior lawyers are prominent and for which a senior ecclesiastical lawyer is retained, lodged with the diocese a legal objection to the college’s application to prise the memorial off the chapel wall and stick it in a former wine cellar nearby.
The faculty system is intended to ensure that church memorials of artistic or historic importance should generally stay in place.