In The Rustat Memorial, Jesus College, Cambridge  ECC Ely, the college authorities proposed to remove a memorial to a seventeenth century benefactor, Tobias Rustat, from the grade I listed chapel. The concern was Rustat’s involvement in the slave trade, as an investor in two companies, and the effect which retaining his memorial in the chapel would have on its users.
I ought to start with a confession. Whilst I was a student at Jesus College for four years, I was wholly unaware of the memorial. That will say something about how often I went into the chapel, but Rustat was simply not contentious 30 years ago. I have had no involvement in the present controversy.
In 2019 the college established the Legacy of Slavery Working Party to undertake an inquiry into legacies of slavery at the College. Its terms of reference included exploring how the College might have benefited historically from slavery and coerced labour through financial and other donations and bequests. The working party said that Rustat’s links to slavery were well-established and proposed the removal of a large memorial from the chapel.
Tobias Rustat (baptised 1608, died 1694) was a principal benefactor of the college. He had commissioned the memorial, almost certainly from the studio of Grinling Gibbons, to be installed in the chapel following his death. The memorial remained the property of Rustat’s heirs-at-law (see para 40 of the decision). The memorial comprised hand-carved marble, 2.6 metres high and 1.6 metres wide, weighing about 3.5 tonnes and containing a portrait and inscription.
Whilst contained in a secular college, the chapel is included in the list of places of worship (a list maintained by the Church Buildings Council under Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction and Care of Churches Measure, s. 38) and so subject to the faculty jurisdiction and the ecclesiastical exemption. This meant that removal had to be authorised by the Consistory Court, rather than on a listed building consent application. The judge, David Hodge QC, emphasised that the secular heritage principles are not applied in precisely the same way as ‘a church (or a college chapel) is a house of God and a place for worship: it does not belong to conservationists, to the state, or to the congregation, but rather to God.’ (at para 5) The importance of the beauty and history of churches had earlier been emphasised in Re All Saints, Hooton Pagnell  ECC She 1 at para 20 per Chancellor Singleton QC.
The college contended that any harm caused to the significance of the Chapel as a building of special architectural and historic interest by the removal of the Rustat memorial was substantially outweighed by the resulting public benefits, in terms of pastoral well-being and opportunities for mission. The college’s petition was dismissed. The removal would cause considerable harm to the listed building (at para 123) and the removal of the memorial was not necessary to enable the Chapel to play its proper role in providing a credible Christian ministry and witness to the College community, or for it to act as a focus for secular activities and events in the wider life of the College (at paras 6, 125, 126). The judge found that the opposition to the memorial was based on a ‘false narrative’ that Rustat had amassed much of his wealth from the slave trade, and that it was moneys from this source that he used to benefit the College (at para 129). In practice, according to the view adopted by the judge, he had little return from his investment in two slave trading companies, and that was long after his contributions to the college. Rustat is buried in the chapel.
The judge suggested that appropriate interpretation and explanation would enable ‘the Rustat memorial [to be] employed as an appropriate vehicle to consider the imperfection of human beings and to recognise that none of us is free from all sin; and to question our own lives, as well as Rustat’s, asking whether, by (for example) buying certain clothes or other consumer goods, or eating certain foods, or investing in the companies that produce them, we are ourselves contributing to, or supporting, conditions akin to modern slavery, or to the degradation or impoverishment of our planet.’ (at para 8, and see also para 133)
* The photograph above of the Rustat memorial was taken by Chris Loades and appears in the November 2020 report of the Jesus College Legacy of Slavery Working Party. *