TW: This article contains themes of death / graves.
On the 17th of March 1800, John Renie was born. Then, 32 years and a few months later on May 31st 1832, he died. However this isn’t where the story ends. No, his gravesite at St Mary’s Priory Church of Monmouth, Wales is a peculiar spot of interest because of what Renie chose to inscribe on his grave:
A 285-letter acrostic puzzle.
The epitaph is 19 squares across and 15 squares high and should be read from the inside letter H, outwards to one of the letters E at each corner. There are 45,760 ways to read the ‘hidden’ sentence, but each will give you the same: “HERE LIES JOHN RENIE”.
Since the letters “H E R E L I E S J O H N R E N I E” never appear in one unbroken path, readers must snake around the puzzle to find their own pathway. Although commonly called an “Acrostic Puzzle”, the grave is actually an example of the “Staircase Walk” mathematical problem. For each quadrant of the inscription there is a 9 x 7 grid. The number of paths within one quadrant is 16!/(7!9!), giving a grand total of 45,760 possible pathways… Err, I’ve counted about 8, but after that maths I think I’ll stop.
About John Renie
John Renie was a decorative painter and glazier by trade, who married a woman by the name of Sarah Howells. Together they had three children, James, Ann and a boy also called John (I guess that was pretty common back in the day but seems strange to me now).
An interesting fact about the Renie family is that after John’s death at the age of 32, Sarah went on to live until the ripe old age of 72. It’s cited that she lived by ‘independent means’, with another woman in London named Annie Cooper.
In his life, John was active in the community, both local and political, and believed in ‘the equality of mankind’ especially with regards to the local school system. Education after all, was a great equaliser of the disparate social classes that existed back then (and heck, probably still do). In particular, his aim was to ensure the ‘common folk’ were appropriately represented in parliament, but sadly an early death brought his dreams in Monmouth to a close.
But one big thing he did accomplish was through his work with The Order of Odd Fellows (a sort of alternate Freemasons). Renie was hailed as single handedly spreading The Order throughout Wales and, on his death, The Order raised the sum of £80 (about £5,000 in today’s money, or about 2 year’s wages) for his widow.
A Reason Why
I’ve often toyed with the idea of leaving my legacy as a puzzle – one last cryptic message before I exit the world with a big bang! This might be a UV tattoo with a mysterious Morse Code riddle, or an unsolvable cipher in my Will that’ll leave people scratching their heads for months. It’s a nice way to be remembered for what you loved in life.
So a big part of me wants to believe that John Renie is just one of us, a puzzle person who spent time designing his grave with a sly smile on his face. On the other hand, writer and cleric Lionel Fanthrope believes the message has been carved to confuse the devil himself, thus giving Renie safe passage into the afterlife.
As an educated man and a member of The Order of Odd Fellows, it’s also highly likely the grave has deeper significance. Historian Charles Fairley suggests the idea that the grid is part of a larger, infinitely repeating ‘apotropaic demon trap’ filled with numbers that hold special religious significance. The grid has 285 squares but when inserted into a repeating pattern (not duplicating the 19th column and 15th row) a total of 252 letters becomes clear. From here this number can be divided into it’s roots and split out to show significance of God, the Holy Trinity, the Freemasons and more.
With the phrase HERE LIES JOHN RENIE becoming infinite, it loops forever on the word “HE”, which could either be an allusion to the self, or to God. Seems possible- no, likely! And pretty damn cool if it is the case.
The stone has since been moved from it’s original place, so the actual body of Renie now lies elsewhere. I hope he made it to wherever he was going before the stone was moved, but now it’s Grade II listed so it won’t be moving again any time soon.
As a standalone curiosity, Renie’s grave is delightful to the passer-by on a walk through Monmouth, wondering what it all means. To the historian, you might draw parallels between this tombstone and a SATOR square. To the average escape room blogger (*cough cough* me), you might spend an afternoon researching it and putting it through Photoshop to ‘mess around’ and try and divine some hidden meaning.
Maybe after all that, it’s nothing more than a prank from beyond the grave? Perhaps we’ll never know!
Header Image by Leo Reynolds on Flickr. Close up image by Robert Cutts. Infinite Word Matrix by Charles Fairley. I also thank Hermit Jim, Wales Online, and Charles Fairey whose publications helped me research the site!
Mairi is the editor-in-chief and covers escape rooms/immersive theatre in London, play at home games, and video games.