In a churchyard in Monmouth stands one of the most curious tombstones in the county. And one so unique that it was given Grade II listed status in 2005. As you might expect with such a memorial, it and the man it commemorates, have quite a backstory. It concerns one man’s obsession with outsmarting the devil.
His name was John Renie and he was born in Monmouth in 1799 and worked as a painter and decorator in the town until he died in 1832. He was known to be one of the town’s more eccentric characters and nothing exemplified this more than a plan he hatched to try and ease his own passage to heaven on the event of his inevitable death. The plan was simple. He wanted his gravestone to be so confusing to read, that if the devil were to ever come looking for his soul, he would not be able to work out where his body was buried. Thus allowing Renie’s soul to slip past the devil, straight to the gates of heaven.
He became concerned that he would not be able to trust any local stone mason with this job. Either because he considered them incapable of pulling off his complex instructions, or worse, that they may reveal the secret of it to Satan himself. So to make sure the job was done properly he did the engraving himself. He dedicated years to getting it right. The end result is this fascinating and intricate, stone engraved ‘acrostic puzzle’.
It contains 285 very delicately carved letters in rows and columns. To be able to read the inscription you need to begin at a letter ‘H’ in the centre of the puzzle and follow the letters in any direction. Mathematicians who have studied the stone report that there are 32,032 different ways to read the words “Here lies John Renie”. It is quite an incredible achievement.
If the devil were not yet confused enough by John Renie’s endeavours, there is one final obstacle he might encounter if he was sufficiently determined to find his soul. And It is one Renie himself could not have foreseen but would no doubt have been absolutely delighted with. Put simply, the chances are, he probably isn’t even buried here at all!
In 1851, there was a rash of unexplained deaths amongst the residents of Whitecross Street in Monmouth. The street which runs along the edge of the churchyard at St Mary’s Priory Church, where this tombstone can be found. There were also reports of a terrible stench emanating from the raised area of the churchyard. The bodies and bones of the people buried there had become exposed by ground movement and weathering. All the exposed bodies had to be reinterred else where in the graveyard, but it was an impossible job to know who was who so they just did the best they could.
If this story is not already weird enough, the church council at the time decided to wade in with their own contribution. They felt that the churchyard looked over cluttered with memorials and headstones so a decision was taken to clear them all away as part of this work, to create a park. Only a small handful of stones now remain which have been laid out in accordance with the paths rather than where people are actually buried.
The end result. John Renie’s body could be anywhere. As could his soul.
If you want to see more of this tombstone and the yard of St Mary’s Priory Church in Monmouth, as well as other stories concerning the Devil in Monmouthshire I have made this YouTube video on the subject. Just click on the link below to watch in full. And while you are there, please subscribe to my channel.
If you would like to read more Monmouthshire related folklore, you might enjoy the blog and video available on this link. It is all about the scars of the reformation to be seen to this day at The Robin Hood in Monmouth and the White Harte in Llangybi between Usk and Caerleon. And if you like ancient Welsh myths, folklore and legends in general, then you may also be interested in the books I have written on the subject available to buy on this link. or my YouTube channel which is packed with loads of videos on the subject. Just visit https://youtube.com/GrahamLoveluck.