Lady Elizabeth & Joseph Nightingale

In St Michael's chapel, off the north transept of Westminster Abbey, is a remarkable monument commemorating Lady Elizabeth Nightingale and her husband. She was born in 1704, the eldest of three daughters of Washington Shirley, Earl Ferrers and Viscount Tamworth (d.1729) and his wife Mary. Her sisters were Selina, Countess of Huntingdon (d.1791 aged 83) and Mary, Viscountess Kilmorey (died 1784).

On 24th June 1725 Elizabeth married Joseph Gascoigne (1695-1752), son of the Reverend Joseph Gascoigne, Vicar of Enfield in Middlesex. He assumed the surname of Nightingale on becoming heir to his kinsman Sir Robert Nightingale. Of their three sons, Washington, Joseph and Robert, only Washington survived his father but then only by two years. Elizabeth died on 17th August 1731 following a premature birth caused by the shock of a violent flash of lightning. This child, also called Elizabeth, survived and later married Wilmot Vaughan, 1st Earl of Lisburne and died (also in childbirth) in 1755.

The monument was not erected until 1761, and gives an incorrect date of death for Lady Nightingale. The inscription reads:

Here rest the ashes of JOSEPH GASCOIGNE NIGHTINGALE of Mamhead in the county of Devon Esqr., who died July the 20th 1752 aged 56. And of Lady ELIZABETH his wife, daughter and coheir of WASHINGTON Earl Ferrers; who died August the 17th 1734 aged 27. Their only son WASHINGTON GASCOIGNE NIGHTINGALE Esqr. deceas'd, in memory of their virtues, did by his last will order this monument to be erected.

Elizabeth and Joseph are buried in a vault in the north ambulatory nearby. The monument is by the sculptor Louis Francois Roubiliac. It depicts a skeleton of Death emerging from his prison to aim his deadly dart at the dying figure of Elizabeth above. She is held up by her husband who, in horror, tries to ward off the stroke of death. The idea for this image may have come from a dream that Elizabeth's brother in law (the Earl of Huntingdon) had experienced when a skeleton had appeared at the foot of his bed, which then crept up under the bedclothes between husband and wife. The figure of Death has lost its lower jaw and the spear is a later wooden replacement.

John Wesley called the monument one of the finest in the Abbey, saying 'the marble seems to speak'. The famous American writer, Washington Irving, declared it 'among the most renowned achievements of modern art'. It is said that one night a robber broke into the Church but was so horrified at seeing the figure of Death in the moonlight that he dropped his crowbar and fled in terror. The crowbar was displayed for many years beside the monument but it no longer remains.

Further Reading

D. Bindman and M. Baker "Roubiliac and the Eighteenth Century Monument", 1995

A terracotta model of the memorial by the sculptor is on display in the new Queen's Diamond Jubilee Galleries in the Abbey triforium.


17th August 1731


St Michael's Chapel

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Lady Elizabeth & Joseph Nightingale
Lady Elizabeth & Joseph Nightingale monument

This image can be purchased from Westminster Abbey Library

Image © 2021 Dean and Chapter of Westminster