Burton Mausoleum

The Burton mausoleum is a curious monument hidden within the churchyard of St Mary Magdalen Roman Catholic Church, Mortlake. Carved in the form of a tent more commonly seen in the Syrian desert, it was built by Lady Isabel Burton to memorialise her husband, Sir Richard. Find out more about our restoration, education and outreach project below.

The Mausoleum

Sir Richard Burton, the famous explorer and author, died on 20th October 1890 in Trieste where he had been British Consul for almost twenty years. His wife, Lady Isabel, transported his body back to Britain to be buried in the grounds of the St Mary Magdalen Roman Catholic Church, Mortlake. A devout Catholic, Lady Isabel designed an extraordinary mausoleum that reflected her own religion whilst also skilfully representing Burton’s lifelong fascination with Middle Eastern philosophy and religion.

Shaped like a tent the couple had designed for expeditions into the Syrian desert, the cloth has been beautifully carved from sandstone to look like it ripples in the breeze. A scalloped pelmet that runs around the building is decorated with the Islamic star-and-crescent motif embossed with gold. At the very top of the tent is a gold leaf coated Star of Bethlehem. Inside, are a collection of lanterns from Syria. Camel bells have been strung from the ceiling that are purported to come from Burton’s travels across the Middle East and would have jingled when the door opened.











References to Isabel’s Catholic faith include a band of gold text on a red background from Luke that runs around the interior. It reads: stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over. Several framed paintings depict the story of Christ and on the ceiling cherubs look down to the coffins. On the rear wall is a marble altar supported by two slender pillars, atop of which is a crucifix and a framed miniature portrait of Burton.

Burton is recorded as having said to Isabel, ‘I should like us both to be in a tent, side by side’ and so it is fitting that the mausoleum holds them both – the ornately carved and gilded coffin belongs to Sir Richard Burton, and the plainer mahogany one belongs to Isabel.

It is possible to visit the mausoleum between 9am – 3pm daily, but please do check with the church ahead of your visit.

Please note that the door into the cemetery is narrow and the ground is uneven. There is a small window at the rear of the mausoleum, which is accessible by climbing a small sturdy ladder.




Burton married Isabel Arundell (1831-1896) on 22 January 1861. Isabel, a devout Catholic and fiercely intelligent, was also an author and explorer. Accompanying her husband on trips to Syria and Palestine, Isabel wrote about their travels and assisted him with many of his writings. She went on to complete a biography of Burton after his death, and her own autobiography was completed with the help of W.H. Wilkins. Lady Isabel designed the mausoleum, a lasting testament to her character and devotion to her husband.

Find out more about Lady Isabel Burton here.

Sir Richard & Lady Isabel Burton

Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890) was an explorer, linguist and scholar, lauded during his lifetime for his tenacity and intellect. However, Burton was also a highly complex figure, participating in contentious conversations and organisations that were considered disreputable even during the 19th century. As a Victorian explorer, Burton was able to take full advantage of the privileges afforded by the wealth and power of the British Empire, serving as Captain in the East India Company Army and leading expeditions commissioned by the Royal Geographical Society to the east coast of the African continent. He was the first European to reach Lake Tanganyika and is well known for his public quarrel with fellow traveller John Hanning Speke over their expedition to find the source of the River Nile.

Burton held a deep fascination with religion and spirituality throughout his life, adopting Sikhism, undergoing chilla and studying Mormonism in Salt Lake City. Burton was famed for mastering languages in order to better understand cultures and religious practices, reportedly speaking between 30 and 40 languages or dialects. Often considered to have converted to Islam, Burton undertook the Hajj to the to Mecca and Medina in 1853 in disguise.

Find out more about Sir Richard Burton here.

Burton: Exploring without Boundaries

We want to better tell the story of Sir Richard Burton, his historical context, and the impact that this continues to have on communities today. Focusing on this, we are working to create a National Lottery Heritage Fund project to conserve the mausoleum, produce on-site and online interpretation and create an educational package that will be accessible to everyone.

Donate today to help us conserve the mausoleum for generations to come.

Explore: In Conversation with Levison Wood

Burton’s passion for exploration continues to inspire explorers today. In June 2020, the explorer, author and photographer Levison Wood,  joined us outside the Burton Mausoleum in Mortlake. We discussed Levison’s adventures as well as the influence Sir Richard Burton has had on his expeditions.

You can watch the video here:

Partners and supporters of the project include the contemporary local explorer, Levison Wood, the biographer of Sir Richard and Isabel Burton, Mary Lovell, the author Diana Darke, the Mausolea and Monuments Trust and the Royal Geographical Society.

Read our article in April 2020 edition of Geographical Magazine here

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