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Aphra Behn

Writer and Poet

The poet, writer and dramatist Aphra (Astrea or Aphara) Behn (1640?-1689) was buried in the east cloister of Westminster Abbey, near the steps up into the church. Thomas Sprat was Dean of Westminster at the time and allowed the burial and cutting of the inscription.

She was probably the daughter of a barber called Johnson and was born in Kent. Her foster brother was Thomas Colepeper. Little is known of her early life but she did spend some time in Surinam in South America. Her husband Johann Behn apparently died a few years after their marriage. She wrote many plays and poems and became associated with the circle of the Earl of Rochester. Charles II employed her as a spy or agent during the Dutch war. However her reputation was so bad that no one believed her when she warned of a Dutch raid along the Medway river but the raid actually did take place. Her most famous novel is Oroonoko, or the History of the Royal Slave.

Her gravestone reads:

MRS APHRA BEHN DYED APRIL 16 A.D. 1689. Here lies a Proof that Wit can never be Defence enough against Mortality.

The lines may have been written by Aphra herself or possibly by John Hoyle. The gravestone inscription was re-cut in 1989. A wreath laying ceremony was held at the grave in March of her tercentenary year. Professor Missenheimer, American Behn specialist, laid a wreath of blue iris and yellow daffodils and gave a short speech. Maureen Duffy, one of her biographers, added a bunch of white daffodils.

Further Reading

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004

"The Secret Life of Aphra Behn" by Janet Todd, 1996

"The passionate shepherdess: Aphra Behn..." by Maureen Duffy, revised 1989

"Aphra Behn Studies" edited J. Todd, 1995

Died

16th April 1689

Occupation

Writer; poet

Location

Cloisters; East Cloister

Memorial Type

Grave

Engraving depicting Aphra Behn
Aphra Behn

This image can be purchased from Westminster Abbey Library

Image © 2020 Dean and Chapter of Westminster

Gravestone of Aphra Behn, set in the floor
Aphra Behn grave

This image can be purchased from Westminster Abbey Library

Image © 2020 Dean and Chapter of Westminster

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I’ve worked here for over thirty years and have seen many of the major services - it’s strange to realise that you are in a small way part of history.

Pamela - Rector's Secretary

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