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Diocese of Ely refuses request to move Rustat memorial from Jesus College Chapel

The Rustat memorial in Jesus College’s Chapel will not be moved, the consistory court hearing of the Diocese of Ely has ruled.

The Tobias Rustat memorial at Jesus College Chapel
The Tobias Rustat memorial at Jesus College Chapel

An appeal is possible, with Jesus College saying: “We will now carefully consider our next steps”.

The verdict was weeks overdue. The three-day trial began on February 2 in Jesus College Chapel and, on the final day, the court heard that a verdict was due within one month. There was no explanation for the delay: even the Archbishop of Canterbury questioned the wait, asking: “Why is it so much agony to remove a memorial to slavery?”

The verdict implies a schism in the church. The ruling was made by deputy chancellor of the diocese, David Hodge QC, following the consistory court hearing, who stated in his conclusion that Christian “forgiveness encompasses the whole of humankind, past and present, for we are all sinners; and it extends even to slave traders”.

Both the Archbishop of Canterbury’s office, and the Diocese of Ely, were approached for comment on the issue of forgiveness. The Archbishop’s office told the Cambridge Independent: “There won’t be a comment from the Archbishop”. The diocese’s spokesperson said he was “not in a position to comment on matters of theology”.

The full statement from Jesus College read: “We are deeply disappointed and shocked by the decision. Rustat’s involvement in the slave trade has never been in question, and the widespread opposition to the presence of his memorial in the college chapel is the result of this involvement and not any false narrative apparently created by the college about the sources of Rustat’s wealth.

Jesus College Chapel. Picture: Keith Heppell
Jesus College Chapel. Picture: Keith Heppell

“This celebratory memorial to an active participant in the slave trade remains a barrier to worship in our chapel for some members of our community.

“It was right for us to have submitted this application. We will now carefully consider our next steps.”

The verdict was 108 pages long. It began with a quotation (with acknowledgement to Reinhold Niebuhr), as if to prepare the reader for what was to happen.

‘On the morning of the first day of the hearing, we prayed: “Give us, Lord, the courage to change those things that should be changed, the patience to bear those things that cannot be changed, and the wisdom to know the difference”.’

On the core issue, it stated: “Whilst the Georgian Group has considerable sympathy with the college’s thoughtful and powerfully articulated reasons for wishing to remove the memorial from the chapel, we agree with Historic England that in the case of funerary and commemorative monuments of high aesthetic and historic significance the most appropriate way of addressing the very real injustices that they can represent is by interpreting them in their original context. A response of this nature is likely to avoid causing harm to the significance of the artistic work itself, and harm to the significance of the host building for which it was designed.”

The memorial dedicated to Tobias Rustat located on the West wall of Jesus College Chapel. Picture: Keith Heppell
The memorial dedicated to Tobias Rustat located on the West wall of Jesus College Chapel. Picture: Keith Heppell

In a side swipe at Jesus College, it added: “We must respectfully suggest that the College has not given this option the thorough consideration it deserves within their submission documents.”

But Jesus College, the petitioner, spent years preparing its case, and the hearing included deputations from both the church officials based at the college – who reported that students, particularly international students, were dismayed at the monument to a slaver in a religious setting – along with academics, the bursar’s office, legal experts and Sonita Alleyne, the 41st master and first woman to lead Jesus College since its foundation in 1496. The petitioners also called the Bishop of Ely and the Dean of Chapel as witnesses.

The verdict, exact in its legal commentary, ended with a take on the Christian virtue of forgiveness.

It read: “Jesus recognised that it would not be easy to be one of his followers; yet he led by his example. The first words Jesus uttered from the Cross, as he suffered in terrible agony caused by others, were not words of anger or vengeance; incredibly, he thought of others: the very people who were hurting him, and he begged God to pardon them: ‘Then said Jesus, ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do’. And they parted his raiment, and cast lots.’”

So ended the verdict, but one key question about the process remains unanswered: what prompted the 96 alumni of Jesus College to want the memorial to remain in situ?

The questioning by the alumni’s legal team came from one of the best legal minds in the country, Justin Gau, who represented 65 of them, presumably at some expense. Professor Lawrence Goldman, an Oxford-affiliated historian and another party opponent, also appeared in person. The effort to shred the evidence of the Dean of Chapel, James Crockford, was particularly robust.

Pump Court Chambers has been approached about the motivation of the alumni group, but the decision is being seen in some quarters as a ‘victory against cancel culture’.

A statement on the Pump Court Chambers website said: ‘The deputy chancellor of the diocese, HHJ Hodge QC, accepted Justin’s submissions that the petitioners had failed to correct a false narrative that was spread through the college that Rustat had made money from slave trading and that money had been gifted to the college. The deputy chancellor was critical of the witnesses called by the petitioners and welcomed the assistance of the expert and other witness evidence called by the parties opponent.’

Tobias Rustat (1608-1694) was a courtier to Charles II, and a generous benefactor to the University of Cambridge: in 1667 he gave the University Library its first endowment, of £1,000. The university’s own records state that Rustat “derived great wealth from the Royal African Company” – the single largest-ever slave running organisation between the west coast of Africa and the Americas, which operated in the late 1600s and 1700s and carried 187,697 enslaved people on company-owned ships in 653 voyages from the English colonies in Africa to the Americas.

Appeals are heard by the Court of Arches, which is presided over by the Dean of the Arches, and is the upper court for the Province of Canterbury in the Church of England.

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Eccelesiastical court to decide future of memorial to benefactor and slave trade investor Tobias Rustat at Jesus College, Cambridge

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