Some years ago now, Steve (my husband) did the MA in Celto-Roman Studies offered by the late lamented University of Wales, Newport. He got particularly interested in the stone monuments of early medieval Wales and wrote a short article on the ways that the stone of these early monuments was reused. I never managed to persuade him to publish it, but it turned up a few days ago when we were sorting out old hard drives and back-up folders. So here it is.
I was supposed to be going to Capel-y-ffin, just north of Llanthony, back last January to make a radio programme about Thin Places – then the lockdown struck. We decided to have another go on Tuesday. In folklore (and in some pre-Christian traditions), thin places are literal doors to the Other World. Stories of shepherds who walk into a stone circle or a cave, find themselves in the land of the fairies, dance with them all night, fall asleep, and when they wake up they find that a hundred years have passed and everyone they knew is dead …
In the Christian tradition, it’s a bit different – they are places where you are particularly aware of the presence of God and the nearness of the Other. But are they inherently like that, or are they created by the prayers of the faithful – what T. S. Eliot called places ‘where prayer has been valid’? Llanthony is a bit of both. The legend is that the medieval priory was founded by a young knight of the local de Lacy family. Out hunting, he became separated from his companions and got to a little ruined hermitage. He was told it was where St David had gone in retreat. He became a hermit there, and attracted so many followers that his hermitage developed nto a community of Augustinian canons.
So did the place speak to him, or did he realise it was holy when he found about St David? And was St David ever really there? And are thin places always quiet, remote retreats? For me, the ultimate thin place is Penrhys – which is a busy and sometimes troubled housing estate on the site of a medieval shrine to the Virgin Mary. The estate church is a centre of prayer and social activism, somewhere the Gospel is really being lived – but it isn’t everyone’s idea of a spiritual refuge.
We stopped off on the way to Capel-y-Ffin at Llanthony Abbey. As well as the abbey ruins, the parish church was made out of the abbey infirmary. It has some splendid painted wall memorials – none by the famous Brute family of stonemasons but plenty to admire. Bob Silvester’s article in the current Church Monuments is a really good study of these local stonemasons My photos aren’t brilliant because I only had my phone and it was very dark, but they give you an idea.
The Trumper monument
commemorates several generations of the family. There’s a particularly good angel at the top, with the trumpet of the Last Judgement (a pun, maybe?) standing on some very fluffy clouds.
Next to this, the monument to William and Sarah Jones
has two urns at the top and a sort of bathtub with the text ‘The just shall live by faith’.
There’s an intriguing difference in the lines under their names. His reads
Time swiftly flies, and calls away
Our spirits to their home;
Our bodies mingle with the clay
And rest beneath the stone.
Resignation, and the earthly fate of the body.
Hers by contrast reads
Strong was her faith in him
who died to save
And bright her hope of joy
beyond the grave.
more of a sense of religious belief. I’ve seen the same difference between men’s and women’s inscriptions elsewhere but I’m not sure if it’s a real gendered difference.
I couldn’t get a good picture of the one above
but it commemorates an earlier William Jones with the lines ‘Remember man that die thou must, and after death return to dust’ and ‘The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.’
Next to this is a monument to Mary Davis and her husband Roger Davis, perpetual curate of the parish
with a trumpet-wielding cherub at the top and the lines ‘How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things!’ – very appropriate for a cleric.
The Lewis monument
is particularly colourful, and has something of a gendered difference in the poems. His is
Behold o mortal man
How swift thy moments fly
Thy life is but a span
Prepare thyself to die.
Extend to me thy favour, Lord,
Thou to thy chosen dost afford.
When thoui returnst to set them free
Let thy salvation visit me.
Sorting out the Joneses was tricky, but this one came from the neighbouring parish of Craswall, across the Hatterall ridge and in the next county and diocese.
An urn sitting on a bath tub (technically they are called ‘wine coolers’) this time, with the words ‘Memento mori’. Underneath is the verse
The soul prepared made no delay,
The summons comes, the saints obey;
The flesh rests here till Jesus comes
To claim the treasures from the tombs.
Really difficult to photograph, this one, on the east side of the chancel arch
Mary and William Parry of Nantycarne, a farm tucked into the hillside just north of the abbey. Both have Bible quotes. His is from the Book of Revelation: ‘Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord. Yea, saith the spirit, that they may rest from their labours.’ Hers is really unusual, lines from chapter 7 of the Book of Job. ‘The eye of him that hath seen me shall see me no more. His eyes are upon me and I am not. As the cloud is consumed and vanisheth away, so he that goeth down to the grave shall come up no more.’
What can have led Mary (or her family) to those strangely disturbing lines? Extracts from the Book of Job feature heavily in the medieval Office of the Dead, the night prayers said after a death and before the funeral. But that would have been in Latin, and those particular verses only appear in a couple of unusual variants of the liturgy.
The other interesting thing is that the wording isn’t exactly that of the Authorised Version, which is ‘…thine eyes are upon me and I am not’. It does sound as though the wording was given from memory, suggesting it was a text known well but not quite well enough.
But the real excitement was this
half hidden in the south-west corner. How many times have I been to the church and failed to spot it – how many groups of students have I taken there – I’ve been there with the Stone Forum, with the Church Monuments Society –
and there it was, hiding in plain sight, a medieval cross slab, trimmed on a slight slant, repurposed at least once with a later inscription.
The detail of the head
suggests a late date, probably fifteenth century. The base
has a fleur-de-lys decoration rather than a stepped base which makes me think it’s 15th rather than early 16th. And the inscription –
two family tragedies. Frederick Gwillim, Died 1 Decr 1822 aged 11 months, and Ann Gwillim, Died 18 October 1828 aged 6 months. How did they bear it.
Probably the stone came from the abbey – possibly the grave of a leading member of the community, possibly a lay person who had been generous to them. Who knows.
Llanthony was a bit disconcerting, being full of young army recruits, all spick and span in their new camouflage gear and 20 kilo overnight packs, off on an exercise in the mountains. The road to Capel y Ffin was nearly blocked by a landslide but Steve managed to get through. And the recording went well. They didn’t really want a lot of detail, and it was good to see the little church again.
The main purpose of our visit to Llanfair-ar-y-bryn was to check the memorial to the great Welsh hymn-writer William Williams Pantycelyn and his family (see https://welshtombs.wordpress.com/ ) but there was a lot else of interest in and around the church. It stands on the site of a Roman auxiliary fort, and there is Roman tile and brick in the church walls.
The church was built by the Norman Robert Fitzpons, who built the first Llandovery Castle. He established a small Benedictine priory here, dependent on the abbey at Malvern. When the area was reconquered by the Great Lord Rhys, he allowed the monks to remain, but they were turfed out by his son Rhys Gryg in 1185. (The story is that the behaviour of the monks had become scandalous. These little dependent priories could go bad, but theat may have been an excuse.)
The church was deliberately damaged by fire. It was rebuilt by Sir John Giffard when he was constable of Llandovery castle. There were later alterations – the installation of a rood screen, some new windows. The floor of the original church sloped down hill to the east, but at some point the chancel floor was raised, leaving two rather odd windows low in the east wall.
The church as it stands is big enough, but it was even bigger at one time. There was a south transept, but it was in ruins by the eighteenth century and used as a dumping ground for skulls and bones from the graveyard. There may also have been a north transept.
Inside, on the north wall, is this medieval cross slab.
Probably mid-late 13th century, measures 88.5 x 32 cm maximum. Turn it upside down
and the inscription reads …S: CVIV… (in other words, …s, cuiu[s anime deus propitietur], on whose soul may God have mercy).
There is also a strange little face with jug ears
– could this possibly come from an effigy? There are two sepulchral niches in the north wall of the chancel, one part obscured by subsequent rebuilding.
The church also has a little bit of decorative medieval paint and this
probably late 16th or early 17th century text, so far undeciphered. It could be Welsh;
the medieval font in which William Williams was baptized;
and some rather splendid hatchments of the local Gwynne family.
And the King’s Head in Llandovery does a full vegan menu including some vegan chocolate brownies.
Llanfair Cilgedin, north of Usk in Monmouthshire, is one of the loveliest of the many lovely churches in the care of the Friends of Friendless Churches. It is most famous for the sgraffito work with which it was decorated by heywood Sumner in the 1880s. The panels illustrate the Benedicite – ‘O all ye works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord’.
We used to sing that every week in Mattins but not many churches do a sung morning service any more.
Being naturally contrary, I went to Llanfair Cilgedin not to see the sgraffito but this
the early 14th century tomb of a priest. But while we were there, I noticed some medieval stained glass in the chancel (these are mostly Martin Crampin’s photos)
and high above the west door.
The chancel glass is particularly intriguing.
The word Credo suggests a set of the Apostles with their clauses of the Creed. This
must be the feet of the crucified Christ. The word Sanctus on a plinth must belong to a saint – possibly one of the apostles – but what to make of the text to the right? And the English words at the bottom here –
‘schall do no …’ The glass looks medieval: is it possible that there might have been English text in a window by the early 16th century? And what might it be? My first instinct was a version of the Ten Commandments – ‘thou shalt do no murder’, maybe? Recently, I tweeted the photo of the magnificently-bearded man above and asked for ideas. Angela Graham suggested it might be a version of Isaiah 11, which also has the prophecy of the rod from the stem of Jesse. The bearded figure could be a king of Israel from a tree of Jesse. I can’t find an early translation with that exact wording, though.
The head in the west window looks like Christ, and this
could be God the Father. We have so little medieval stained glass in south Wales (there is a lot more in the north) that these remnants seem worthy of more thought.
I do have to go back, to look for another tomb carving. Bradney drew this
in the churchyard. Medieval and reused, or another of those post-medieval cross slabs that are such a feature of the area? The scrolled base certainly looks like other post-medieval examples from north Monmouthshire, including the Grosmont one that first got me thinking about post-medieval cross slabs.
I’ve wanted to get here for years – ever since I saw it over the wall from a bus. Houses of the dead
Modern mausolea at the northern end
this one designed by William Burges for a friend
a bit of orientalism: Major-General Sir William Casement of the Bengal Army
and the showman and equestrian Andrew Ducrow
Some Welsh memorials – ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’
some more modern …
And Julian Litten is going to be buried there – hopefully not for some time
Mostly photos for the next few blogs – a wonderful week in London spent mostly in https://heritagetortoise.files.wordpress.comyards, with a meeting of the Church Monuments Society for light relief.
Old St Pancras: the Hardy Tree
this lovely little angel on a ‘tea-caddy’ tomb
and inside the church this gorgeous winged death’s head
Where to go on a Sunday morning in London? It was International Women’s Day (what? A whole day just for us – just so the blokes can be all blokey on the other 364 – oh, never mind, be grateful for what you’ve got) so it had to be Southwark Cathedral, where I first received communion from a woman, back in the early 1990s. Later that day, Libby Lane was to be installed as England’s first woman bishop, in Chester Cathedral. We actually voted for women as bishops in Wales earlier than the English, but we have yet to appoint one (but we do have a woman as Archdruid, which I think trumps the English – they haven’t got a woman as Archbishop yet).
But on the way to Southwark, something else. Just along the road from the Cathedral, through the Borough Market, is Redcross Street. And here, in the 1990s, archaeological excavation in advance of Transport for London building work found a strange and moving burial ground. A few Roman burials, many of them children, then a huge number of women, girls and babies from the medieval period. Redcross Street was in the infamous Liberty of the Clink, on land belonging to the Bishop of Winchester and outside the jurisdiction of London and of the county of Surrey. Here was freedom – but at a price. This is where the early theatres were, along with bull-baiting and bear-baiting pits. Bizarrely, the bishop had the power to license brothels: the bodies buried in Redcross Street were prostitutes (the ‘Winchester Geese’, many of them no more than children) and their babies.
There were later burials as well, of workhouse paupers and people too poor to afford churchyard burial.
These were the ‘Outcast Dead’ now commemorated by a plaque on the gate to the burial area.
Somehow, this story of rejection and despair struck a chord in the local community. The area was supposed to be cleared for use in the Thameslink 2000 project development, but a passionate local campaign has persuaded Transport for London to lease it to the Bankside Open Spaces Trust to create a ‘meanwhile garden’. There is a whole range of conservation activities and training including drystone walling and wood carving as well as gardening.
Monthly vigils commemorate the people buried there, paupers and prostitutes.
The garden fence has become a shrine with memorials to the women and to other people as well.
Lots more on the web site at http://www.crossbones.org.uk/#
And after Southwark we went on to Kensal Green, the first of London’s Magnificent Seven out-of-town cemeteries. A complete contrast to Redcross Street, this was a privately-run cemetery for those who could afford to pay more than a farm labourer’s annual wages for a plot. More on that one later.
I take my Art & Death group to Cathays every year (it’s my idea of a day off because Steve actually does the leading). Here we are listening to him (all the photos are Andrew Brown’s).
Cathays Cemetery was Wales’s first out-of-town municipal cemetery. When it was established in 1859, London had its ‘Magnificent Seven’ cemeteries on the edge of the built-up area and Glasgow had its Necropolis, but many urban burials were still taking place in graveyards like the ‘tiny churchyard, pestiferous and obscene’ in which Lady Dedlock’s late lover was buried in Dickens’s Bleak House.
Nor was Cathays Cemetery only for the dead. Laid out as an arboretum with a wide range of trees and shrubs, the graves deliberately adorned with examples of sculpture and religious symbolism, it was a place for working-class self-education as well as fresh air and exercise, part of Cardiff’s network of ‘green lungs’.
So our visit there touched on a huge number of themes: trade and industry, the development of Cardiff as a social and cultural centre, perspectives on the commemoration of women and children, migration, the Catholic community, other faiths and religious groups, commemoration of war dead, the modern environmental movement …
Here we are debating the memorial to Solomon Andrews, entrepreneur and (possibly) philanthropist.
He established Cardiff’s leading tram company and built the Central Market. In his will he left money to provide everyone who came to his funeral with a suit or a coat. Of course, they came in their thousands – and all those who wanted one got a coat. We argued long and hard whether this was generosity or showiness. My own feeling is that it’s both – and that there is a lot to be said for conspicuous consumption that also benefits others. You get the same debate with medieval wills. All that money to the poor, in return for their prayers – of course, it was geared to a simple calculation of what would get your soul out of Purgatory. But at the same time, there is something refreshing about a society that actually values the prayers of the poor and thinks they have a hotline to God, just because they are poor and a bit smelly.
A bit of selfish philanthropy might have been handy during the Irish potato famine (not really a famine – there was plenty of food in Ireland but it was being exported, mainly to landlords in England). Here we are at the memorial to the victims of the ‘famine’ (better termed the Starvation).
It’s in four languages – Irish Gaelic, the Latin of their Catholic church, English (so those who were responsible can read it) and Welsh (to commemorate the very reluctant hospitality the Welsh gave the boat people of the nineteenth century, those who fled the famine). It is set in the heart of the Catholic section of the cemetery. Cathays was originally laid out with separate areas for Catholic, Anglican and Protestant Nonconformist burials. You can still see the Anglican and Nonconformist chapel near the entrance (in the background of the first photograph). There was a Catholic chapel, rather hidden inside the cemetery (which tells you a lot of what you need to know about Welsh attitudes to the Catholic church in the nineteenth century) but it was demolished because it had become derelict. The whole area round where the chapel was is a history in stone of Cardiff’s Irish Catholic community. You can see them becoming prosperous and more confident in their beliefs (it must have helped when Cardiff’s most powerful landowner, the massively wealthy Marquess of Bute, became a Catholic) but you can also see the plot in which the nuns of Nazareth House are buried. They came to Cardiff to care for the abjectly poor (really like the nuns who worked with Mother Teresa in Calcutta) and they established hospitals, care homes and the famous Nazareth House orphanage. They were helped by a local athlete, ‘Peerless’ Jim Driscoll. You can also see his memorial in the Catholic section.
Steve is particularly interested in the war graves with their distinctive Portland stone and design – here we are looking at one.
They are scattered through the cemetery – here is one in the Catholic section – but cared for by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
So you could be buried with your family or community but still have your military service recognised.
Lutyens’ design for the stones is superb – clear, tasteful, identifiable but with room for things like distinctive regimental badges and all the information – but his choice of materials was a disaster (almost as bad as his choice of reinforced concrete to build New Delhi). The stones have to be replaced on a regular basis. I have always wondered what happens to the old ones. Could you just discard them?
Here we are in pensive mood – I think this is when we were listening to the story of young Louisa Evans, killed in a ballooning accident when she was only 14.
When Tiny Tim dies near the end of Dickens’s ‘A Christmas Carol’, his family arrange for him to be buried in one of the new out-of-town cemeteries. After Bob Cratchit has been to see the place, he says to his wife, ‘It would have done you good to see how green a place it is. But you’ll see it often. I promised him that I would walk there on a Sunday.’
Cathays was planned as a public open space, for education as well as exercise – and it still has something of that about it. The Friends of the Cemetery organise regular walks, exploring Cardiff’s history and encouraging people to take gentle exercise. Part of the cemetery has been set aside for biodiversity, and the grass and wild flowers are encouraged to grow.
Of course, it still has to be managed, or brambles and scrub would take over. We did have a discussion about how families would feel if they came back from far away to visit a grave and found it in what looks like a ‘neglected’ area of the cemetery. Me, I’d like the idea of my grave providing a refuge for dormice and slow-worms but there’s no accounting for tastes.
We’ll have a lot of these issues in sharper focus when we visit Thornhill cemetery and crematorium in a few week’s time.