“You have five minutes,” the vicar said, as he led us through the foyer of St. Mary’s church in the Battersea section of London. “I’m sorry I can’t give you more time, but we have a meeting down there that’s about to start.”
From This Story
And with that, we descended a flight of stairs to see the tomb of America’s most infamous turncoat.
I was on a London “Tory Tour” —an afternoon-long look at sites associated with the 7,000 American Loyalists who fled to England’s capital during the Revolution. Our tour guide, Tom Sebrell, a young historian from Virginia currently living and teaching in London, made the crypt of Benedict Arnold the first stop. Our group included a couple of American expats, an Oxford-educated Brit who confessed to knowing little about the Loyalists or Arnold; a young Chinese graduate student; and two American-born professors of journalism at Concordia University in Montreal, both in London for a conference.
“In Canada, the United Empire Loyalists, as they’re called there, are well respected,” says Brian Gabrial, one of the Concordia professors. “I’m interested to see how they’re remembered here.”
So was I. In particular, Arnold who, though not technically a Loyalist (he fought for five years on the side of the rebels), was certainly among the most prominent Americans in exile after the Revolution.
Instead of crypt-like shadows, we emerged into the glare of fluorescent lights. St. Mary’s Sunday school is held in the basement level; during the week, it’s rented by a private kindergarten. On this Saturday, a meeting was indeed underway. Folding chairs gathered in a circle, plastic foam cups and minutes in hand, a group of parishioners looked curiously at the group of eight who came traipsing past them, led by the apologetic vicar, the Rev. Paul Kennington. In a corner on the far side of the room, we found the ceiling festooned with colorful balloons. There were crayon drawings by the children; a fish tank—and Benedict Arnold.
While a church has been on this spot since the Middle Ages, the current St. Mary’s was only 18 years old when the general and his family arrived in London in 1795. Arnold—embroiled in controversy, as always, this time over bad investments in Canada—spent the last five years of his life here as a member of St. Mary’s. His remains, and those of his wife, the former Margaret Shippen, and their daughter lie here. The headstone, we notice as we cluster around it, looks surprisingly new and identifies Arnold as the “Sometime General in the Army of George Washington …The Two Nations Whom He Served In Turn in the Years of their Enmity Have United in Enduring Friendship.”
Very diplomatic; but who would have put up a new headstone of Arnold down here? “An American,” answered the vicar.
We looked at each other, dumbfounded. An American erecting a monument to one of the most infamous villains in our history?
Upon investigation, we learned that this benefactor, Bill Stanley of Norwich, Connecticut, was a former state senator, president of the Norwich Historical Society, and an oft-quoted, indefatigable defender of Norwich native Benedict Arnold (“If we can forgive the Japanese for Pearl Harbor, can’t we forgive him?” Stanley once said to a reporter).