‘The Disaster of our Estate’: Anthony Kitchin and the diocese of Llandaff

posted in: Welsh History | 1

Persevering with the rescuing of articles from the Gwent County History Association’s Newsletter: this is roughly the text of a lecture to the Friends of Llandaff Cathedral based on my article ‘The Cloister and the Hearth: Anthony Kitchin and Hugh Jones, two Reformation bishops of Llandaff’ in the Journal of Welsh Religious History vol 3, 1995. The article has notes of all the sources I have used. At the end is the original Newsletter article, the rather pathetic survey of his property at the time of his death.

Anthony Kitchin is not perhaps the most auspicious of our bishops. He served as bishop of Llandaff all through the religious turmoil of the middle of the sixteenth century, under Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary and Elizabeth. He has been repeatedly accused by historians of greed, ignorance and ineptitude as well as total lack of principle. My lecture was therefore in some senses the speech for the defence.

The case for prosecution stands in the outline of his career. A monk from the great Benedictine abbey of Westminster, he rose to become abbot of Eynsham, near Oxford. He surrendered his abbey without protest in 1538, showing none of the courage in resistance offered by men like John Houghton of the London Charterhouse and the abbots of Glastonbury, Reading and Colchester. Having been made bishop of Llandaff in 1545, he clung to office through the reigns of Edward and Mary, again showing none of the brave resistance of Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley, or of the Edwardian bishop of St David’s, Robert Ferrar. He was one of only two Marian bishops to accept the Elizabethan settlement (the other, frequently forgotten, was John Salisbury of Sodor and Man). On the face of it, then, his defence is a virtually impossible task.

We cannot even claim that Kitchin was the ‘reclusive child of the cloister’ described by Lawrence Thomas in The Reformation in the Old Diocese of Llandaff – that he could not cope with the challenges of the world outside his monastery. This is a fundamental misinterpretation of the religious life in the late middle ages. As abbot of Eynsham, Kitchin managed a budget several times that of his future diocese. Indeed, his pension after the Dissolution was only a little less than the total income of the diocese of Llandaff. (He surrendered his pension when he took on the diocese – which I think incidentally puts paid to the charge of greed.)

Nor had he a naive young man when he embarked on the religious life. He was aged about 34 when, in 1511, he entered the abbey of Westminster. He celebrated his first mass in 1517, at the age of 40. By this time, his intellectual abilities had already been noticed and he had begun his studies at Gloucester College, the Benedictine college in Oxford, where he proceeded B.D. in 1525. Though a competent theologian (the charge of ignorance will not stand, either), he was always an administrator rather than an academic. The year after his graduation, he was made prior of Gloucester College, a post he held until he was elected abbot of Eynsham in 1532. He did not however take his doctorate until 1538, shortly before he surrendered his abbey to the Crown. He may have been planning for a career change: or, like many of my best students, he may have been one of those whose serious academic work was done at the end rather than the begining of his working life.

The headship of Gloucester College was a challenging post, even for a mature student like Kitchin. Then as now, university life offered unaccustomed freedom to young students, even if they were monks. They had to balance obedience to their vows and to the rule of their order, and the regular performance of the liturgy, with intellectual freedom, the demands of study and the social opportunities of university life. In addition, the 1520s presented particular challenges. Reformed theology was beginning to filter into English universities, and was being met with increasing hostility by the establishment. The prior of students needed considerable pastoral skill to guide his charges through these temptations. He also needed negotiating ability. Gloucester College was not so much a unfied institution as a loose federation, a hall with individual ‘staircases’ owned or leased by particular monasteries. Groups of students from the greater abbeys had their own superiors, but Kitchin had to exercise supervision over all of them. He was also required to impose some sort of authority over the Benedictine monks who for various reasons were studying at other colleges. This was presumably where he developed the ability to negotiate, to compromise and to give in on some issues in order to preserve his priorities, the ability which has earned him so much criticism.

In later life, Kitchin was undoubtedly conservative in his religious sympathies. At Oxford, however, he responded to the intellectual excitement of the new theology and was even involved in the clandestine trade in Protestant books. As abbot of Eynsham, he was active in the crucial Reformation parliament of 1529-36. However, the reformers’ attack on his chosen way of life may have disquieted him. There were rumours early in 1537 that he and the abbot of Osney had been involved in support for the Pilgrimage of Grace. They were accused of unlawful assembly and disrespect to the King’s commission and of associating with other supporters of the Pilgrimage. The whole story is confusing and obscure and depends on the testimony of an informer, John Parkins, who may have been motivated by personal grudges.

Kitchin surrendered his abbey with apparent willingness in December of the following year. He has been accused of cowardice in this as in other things, but it is at least arguable that he proceeded from conviction. He had evidently made his peace with the Crown: he received a generous pension and was made a royal chaplain in ordinary. This was little more than an honorary post. He was in his sixties, and could have looked forward to a blameless retirement. Instead, a new career was ahead of him.

Like the other Welsh dioceses, Llandaff had been inadequately served by its bishops for generations. They were pitifully poor in comparison with the English dioceses, and had customarily been regarded as little extras for royal servants and abbots of the greater English religious houses. It was hardly to be expected that these outsiders would spend much time in Wales, though some bishops of Llandaff are known to have visited the episcopal palace at Mathern – as near to England, geographically and culturally, as one could get while still technically in a Welsh diocese. The most extreme example is perhaps George of Athequa, bishop of Llandaff at the time of Henry’s break with Rome. He was Catherine of Aragon’s confessor and one of her most loyal servants: but he spoke neither English nor Welsh, and he may only have visited his diocese once, while attempting to flee the realm after Catherine’s death.

Robert Holgate, who replaced Athequa in 1538, was the former master of the Gilbertine order. A distinguished theologian and capable administrator and a dedicated reformer, he was also yet another absentee with heavy governmental responsibilities elsewhere. In Holgate’s case, this meant the presidency of the Council in the North, which kept him away from his diocese for most of his time in office. A conscientious man, he attempted to keep in touch with his Welsh diocese through his commissary, and appointed as suffragan John Bird, bishop of Penrith: but when Bird was sent on an embassy to Germany in 1539 and appointed to the diocese of Bangor on his return, Llandaff was left without a resident bishop again until Kitchen’s appointment.

Holgate was eventually promoted to the archbishopric of York in 1545, and it is hard to see why Kitchin was chosen to replace him. He was however appointed at the height of the conservative, Catholic revival at the end of Henry VIII’s reign. Holgate’s reforming ideas had had little or no impact on his Welsh diocese, and may even have been counter-productive. After his earlier interest in reform, Kitchin had become just the sort of moderate conservative to appeal to the ageing king. If his conciliatory abilities had been recognised, he may even have been appointed as a troubleshooter in an attempt to win over a stubborn and difficult diocese.

Kitchin’s career as bishop has been fully documented, notably by Lawrence Thomas, Glanmor Williams and J. Gwynfor Jones. It is however possible to suggest an interpretation of his policies radically different from the traditional one. The strongest criticisms have often been directed at his mismanagement of the diocesan estates. We can easily dismiss his early seventeenth-century successor Francis Godwin’s claim that Kitchin found the diocese one of the wealthiest in the land and left it one of the poorest. This seems at first sight to owe more to Godwin’s second career as a science fiction writer than to his main occupation as a church historian. It is best interpreted as an argument in support of of his plea to be allowed to retain the sub-deanery of Exeter as well as several parishes on his appointment to Llandaff. In this context, it is worth remembering that the ‘greedy’ Kitchin held no preferments in commendam and no Crown office. This makes him virtually unique among bishops of Llandaff before the last century. It is also worth remembering that he sacrificed his pension and retirement for Llandaff, and that he died in considerable poverty. Godwin was himself accused of having resorted to bribes – the dreadful sin of simony – to secure both his appointment at Llandaff (and why did he want it so much, if it was worthless?) and his eventual removal to Hereford. Most of his time at Llandaff was spent working on his ecclesiastical history and ignoring the growing problem of recusancy. Not a very reliable witness, you might think …

The mid-sixteenth century was a period of sustained pressure on the estates of the secular church. Henry VIII began the process by a series of unfavourable ‘exchanges’ which deprived the wealthier dioceses of some of their lands and left them increasingly dependent on the exploitation of parochial income. During Edward’s reign, the increasingly straitened condition of government finances led both Somerset and Northumberland to demand the surrender of diocesan estates on the grounds that they were inappropriate to a reformed episcopacy. Meanwhile, the aristocracy and higher gentry, again led by Somerset and Northumberland, were demanding grants and beneficial leases of church property for their personal benefit.

The diocese of Llandaff was abysmally poor by English standards and had little land to lose, though this did of course make it more important to retain what there was. In fact, Kitchin did this with some success. Virtually no land was alienated outright during his episcopate. Generations of largely absentee bishops had leased out the diocesan estates at rents which had become ossified by tradition. After a century during which land values in Wales collapsed in the wake of famine, plague and civil war, the sixteenth century was a period of inflation and rising rents. The worst that Kitchin did was to fail to recognise this, and it was a failing which was shared by most of his contemporaries. Even the episcopal manor of Llandaff, leased in perpetuity to the Matthews family of Llandaff in 1553, was let subject to the traditional rent. However, most of Kitchin’s leases were for fixed terms and, in effect, by leasing out his lands for long terms and at the customary rents, he made them far less attractive to the Crown and the lay aristocracy. If this was deliberate policy on Kitchin’s part, it was extremely cunning; if it was accidental, he was fortunate, though it was not a policy which would recommend him to his immediate successors.

The only major permanent loss which the diocese suffered in the sixteenth century was its London residence, Llandaff Palace in the Strand. This Kitchin was compelled to surrender to the duke of Somerset, who demolished it (along with the houses of Worcester and Carlisle) to build the original Somerset House. The London palaces were however a diminishing asset, often in poor repair and hideously expensive to maintain. Norwich Palace was described as a ‘pigsty’ in 1528. The same could be said of the episcopal palace at Llandaff, virtually in ruins as a result of the complete neglect of a series of absentee bishops. It would have taken far more than the diocese was worth to restore these two houses.

The palace at Mathern had been kept in some sort of repair as a convenient base for occasional episcopal visits, and it was here that Kitchin lived. He has been accused of leasing even this central part of his estate, but it was certainly at Mathern that he died, and his successor lived there. The lease was to his neighbour William Lewis, son of Henry Lewis of St Pierre. The traditional view of the local gentry as enemies of the church in the sixteenth century is being re-assessed, and many of the activities which have traditionally been regarded as exploitation are now being interpreted as attempts to support the church.[i] Kitchin remained close to the Lewis family, and William Lewis was executor of his will. It may be that what we have here is a collusive lease, a device to tie up the manor and lands by handing them over to a trustworthy friend to keep them safe from expropriation.

Perhaps a more fundamental criticism of Kitchin as a churchman is the apparent ease with which he acquiesced in a series of radical religious changes. He compares badly with the Marian martyrs, and with those conservative bishops who suffered various degrees of imprisonment under Edward and Elizabeth. He was not incapable of standing up for his opinions, but he was, perhaps understandably, reluctant to push his opposition to the point at which he could be removed from office. It seems to me that we should be careful in our assumptions about what we expect from people of principle. In an age of democracy and relatively free speech, we need to remember the potentially appalling consequences of arguing with the Tudor monarchs. We also need to consider whether a head-on challenge was always the most productive course of action. Men like Cranmer had no choice. For others, there were the alternatives of escape to the Continent (like William Barlow, former bishop of St David’s) or a quiet life in a country parish (like Matthew Parker, future archbishop of Canterbury). I would like to suggest that it is equally ethical (and possibly equally brave) to make a decision to remain in your post and to do what you can from a position of power to mitigate the impact of policies which you deplore.

For example, in spite of his early involvement with reform, Kitchin always opposed the idea of clerical marriage, and stood out against it in the 1549 Parliament. He also opposed the Government line on the theology of the Eucharist. In 1554, again, he took his own line when, on the reconciliation of the kingdom with Rome, he was the only bishop not to seek absolution from the sin of schism. In his own mind, he does not seem to have considered himself a schismatic, and he could well have argued that he had also protected his diocese from sin.

In 1559, along with the other Marian bishops, Kitchin voted in the Lords against the restoration of the royal supremacy and the Act of Uniformity. The Elizabethan settlement is yet another area of sixteenth-century history which has been the subject of recent re-appraisal. The traditional view was that Elizabeth was pushed towards a more radical settlement than she wanted by Protestant opinion in the House of Commons. Recent studies have argued that Elizabeth and her advisers got more or less the settlement that they wanted, but that they were held up for some time by the determined opposition of the bishops in the Lords. It was not until some of these intransigents could be manoeuvred into a position where Elizabeth could remove them that the supremacy legislation could be passed. Kitchin was either sufficiently flexible, sufficiently conscienceless or sufficiently wily not to be manoeuvred, but he was eventually outnumbered. Characteristically, faced with a situation in which he could only lose, he backed down rather than fight and be defeated. Jennifer Loach has even suggested that the initial episcopal opposition to the Supremacy was counterproductive, and forced Elizabeth into dependence on more radical churchmen in order to secure her title to the throne. It would be the ultimate irony if Kitchin, who has for so long been vilified as a spineless turncoat, should now be criticised for his intransigence.

Kitchin’s willingness to compromise could thus be justified on the grounds of realpolitik. Grand gestures of defiance are all very well, but there are times when it is ultimately more fruitful to give in and live to fight another day. Kitchin also seems to have had an awareness of his pastoral duties, and of the need to preserve some sort of continuity of care in his adopted diocese. This pastoral approach is seen most clearly in his dealings with the only Marian martyr in the diocese, Rawlins White.

According to Fox’s Acts and Monuments, Rawlins White was a simple illiterate Cardiff fisherman who sent his son to school so that he could read the Bible to his father. The two studied together and the older man became a preacher and a convinced Reformer. He was arrested on Mary’s accession and burned as a heretic in 1555. There is a touching story that on the day before his execution he asked his wife to send him his wedding shirt – his best shirt, in which he would have been buried – so that he could go to his death as to another wedding.

However, if we read between the lines of this story we can see that White was no simple fisherman but but the leader of a group of extreme radicals. He was arrested in 1554, when only the most notorious Protestants were being attacked, and a long time was taken over his case. Part of the delay, though, was due to Kitchin’s extreme reluctance to proceed with the rigours of the law. He attempted to reason with White, to pray with him, and to persuade him to accept a form of words which would save him from punishment. All else having failed, he kept him under such open confinement that escape would have been easy. White was the leader of a group of Cardiff protestants, many of whom visited him in prison, but none of his associates was proceeded against. It seems that only White’s own determination brought him to the stake in spite of all Kitchin’s efforts.

Kitchin himself was always prepared to accept the face-saving compromise and the adroit verbal formulation. His refusal to take the oath of supremacy nearly cost him his diocese in 1559, but he eventually accepted a curiously-worded submission in which he promised, without details, ‘to set forth … and cause others to accept … the whole course of religion now approved in the state of her Grace’s realm’. Opinion is divided as to whether this was in effect an acceptance of the supremacy, but Kitchin apparently felt he had made his point. He was also allowed to refuse Elizabeth’s mandate to consecrate Matthew Parker as archbishop of Canterbury, a refusal which has subsequently called into question the validity of all Anglican orders. J.C. Whitebrook’s theory that Kitchin did in fact consecrate Parker in a private ceremony is intriguing but at best unprovable. It would certainly be in line with Kitchin’s other actions to refuse publicly but to act privately to ensure the continuity of a validly ordained ministry.

The extent of Kitchin’s success as a pastoral bishop, and the justification for his sacrifice of principle, is seen in the condition of his diocese at the time of his death. Llandaff was perhaps the poorest of the Welsh dioceses: the diocesan income was a little higher than Bangor’s, but individual parishes were generally poorer. And where Bangor was in a way insulated from the worst consequences of its poverty by the fact that North Wales society was generally poor, the diocese of Llandaff was in the wealthiest area of Wales, so the church suffered by contrast. The diocese was thus hit disproportionately hard by the crisis in clerical recruitment in the 1540s and 1550s, with few ex-religious and chantry priests to fill the resulting vacancies. The survey of the clergy in the winter of 1560-61 showed many gaps in the parochial ministry, caused partly by the slump in clerical recruitment and the devastating effects of the influenza epidemics of the late 1550s and partly by absenteeism. Some of the absentees were pluralists, some were studying at Oxford or Cambridge, but some at least had left their parishes because they could not accept the Elizabethan settlement. By 1563, however, the situation had improved considerably. Few parishes were without incumbents, though there was still much pluralism; several absentees had been persuaded to return; and there had been a marked upturn in recruitment. This basic resilience must owe something to Kitchin’s pastoral skills and ability to negotiate and persuade.

Kitchin died in October of 1563. He had been too old and ill to attend the parliament of 1562; oddly enough, one of the men who he asked to vote on his behalf was Edmund Grindal, the Puritan bishop of London. We have a survey of the contents of Mathern Palace made on Kitchin’s death because he died in debt to the Crown. He was responsible for collecting the taxes which the clergy of his dioces owed to the Crown and he had simply not done so. Laziness – or a recognition that the clergy for the most part simply could not afford to pay? Kitchin knew by then that he was dying; he had no dependents and precious little for the Crown to distrain on. It may have been his final act of quiet defiance. His possessions make pathetic reading. Old clothes, shabby furniture, a little silver plate, a well-equipped kitchen with huge cauldrons and roasting trays and the little dish in which his eggs were cooked. It all looks very much as though he had gone to the 1538 equivalent of a clerical outfitters and ordered one of everything, and had not done much shopping since. He may have been blind by the time of his death, but he still had forty books in his library: unfortunately, the surveyors did not think to list the titles. He also had some old vestments which he must have rescued from Eynsham at its dissolution.

The final argument in favour of his willingness to compromise lies in the events after his death. Nearly three years passed before a replacement was appointed. This was not Elizabethan parsimony: the diocese was so poor as to be hardly worth the effort of exploitation. Rather it was that no suitably-qualified candidate could be found to take the post. Parker himself admitted that the see was ‘so impoverished .. that few who were honest and capable could be persuaded to meddle with it’. Edmund Grindal once suggested that it should be given to his old friend and mentor Miles Coverdale, the Biblical translator. It is intriguing to speculate what sort of bishop Coverdale would have made: he is certainly the most famous bishop we never had. With his linguistic skills, he would have had no difficulty in coming to terms with the Welsh language; he might even have initiated a translation of the whole Bible before William Morgan’s, and the whole grammar of literary Welsh might in consequence have leaned more on south-eastern than northern forms. Coverdale had been bishop of Exeter under Edward, but his ideas had become more radical in exile during Mary’s reign and he was not prepared to return to his diocese on Elizabeth’s accession. Although virtually destitute, he had refused several other posts, and it was with some difficulty that Grindal persuaded him the following year to take the parish of St Magnus Martyr in London. It was therefore unlikely that, even if he had been offered the diocese of Llandaff (as the Tercentenary Tracts suggest he was), he would have accepted it.

The diocese was eventually given to Hugh Jones, the rector of Tredynog in the Usk valley. It may have been an appointment born of desperation, but the new bishop was at least a local man, a preacher, and the first bishop for over three hundred years who could actually speak the language of the majority of his people. He had long been one of the senior clergy of the diocese and may have functioned as Kitchin’s unofficial deputy: he was certainly prepared to follow his policies of conciliation and compromise.

One of the great unanswered questions of the Reformation in Wales is why the people of Wales, against all the odds, failed to rebel against religious change. All the evidence suggests that the Welsh were happy with traditional Catholic piety and saw no need for reform. But faced with the destruction of shrines and monasteries and a prayer book in an alien language, they made no open protest. The consequences of such a rebellion would probably have been disastrous, in a country which was only now recovering from its last struggle for independence. By the time Jones died in 1574, the New Testament and the Book of Common Prayer were available in Welsh; fourteen years later, with the publication of the whole Bible, public opinion in Wales as articulated by the popular poets swung squarely behind the Elizabethan settlement. In spite of the localised and increasingly marginal Catholic resistance, the Reformation was well on the way to being secured: and it is at least arguable that it was the tolerance of men like Kitchin and Jones, rather than the confrontational policies of men like Jones’s more famous successor William Bleddyn, which helped to secure peace, religious stability and the future of the Anglican church in Wales.

For the inventory of Mathern’s contents on his death, click on this link: Mathern Palace in 1563

[i] see, e.g., J.A. Scarisbrick, The Reformation and the English People (Oxford, 1984) esp chs 4-7

How my grandmother chose her husband

posted in: Family | 1

Things do come in threes.

Once there was a king and he had three daughters.

There was an ewe had three lambs and one of them was black.

There was a beautiful young woman and she had three suitors.

Reading through my mother’s reminiscences, I realise I haven’t told the story of how my grandmother chose her husband. She was brought up on a farm called Llanwensan, between Peterston-super-Ely and Llantrisant in the border vale of Glamorgan. Even at the end of the nineteenth century, the children of farming families didn’t marry early: they tried to save up enough to put down on a farm tenancy if they could. So my grandmother was in her early twenties, a beautiful young woman (you can see her picture, with the man she eventually married, at http://heritagetortoise.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/reminiscences_of_farming_life_in_the_1920s1.pdf), and an accomplished housewife. She was particularly known for making cheese.

Choosing a husband in the farming community means choosing a business partner. Blue eyes and rippling muscles are all very well but what you need is a capable farmer. She had three suitors, and how could she choose?

So one Sunday she invited all three of them to tea. She set before them bread of her own baking, butter of her own churning and cheese of her own making, and she sat and watched what they would do.

The first young man took his knife and cut the rind of the cheese. She thought ‘I won’t have him – he will always be wasteful and extravagant.’

The second young man ate the cheese, rind and all. She thought ‘I won’t have him – he will always be mean.’

The third young man took his knife and scraped a little of the rind off the cheese, and that was my grandfather.

I am writing while sitting with my mother and listening to her shallow breathing. She has said she wants to go, and she is now completely sedated and pain free, but something within her still refuses to give in. It’s the same stubborn determination that took her to grammar school and university, through the war and the difficult years after.

One flew east and one flew west.

Our family are scattered all over the world now but Mum’s final days have brought us together again: we have had emails from cousins in Australia, New Zealand and France as well as all the family in England saying how much they loved her, how good she was when they were young, remembering holidays they spent with her, looking for fossils on the beach at Southerndown or playing on the farm where she spent so much time with her own cousin Lynnus. Their memories are her memorial.

The dying of the light

posted in: Family | 1

If you teach death and commemoration, it’s a very strange experience caring for someone through the end of life. My mother – 99, brain like a steel trap but everything physical is failing – has decided to move to palliative care. She’s at home with us (she has lived in a granny flat attached to our house for some years) and we are nursing her with the help of district nurses, occupational therapists, private carers and some wonderful, underpaid, overworked, wonderful young women from a care agency via Social Services. Here in Wales we have good support in nursing the elderly in their own homes (Jeremy Hunt, please note – we spend our money keeping our old people OUT of hospital!) but as she has gone down hill more of my own time and emotional energy has been involved with her.

A week or so ago we had a couple of those very difficult conversations where she explained that she felt she obviously wasn’t going to get any better, she was afraid of the point where she became bedridden and could no longer manage her own body, and she wondered what she could do. She is of course at the point where virtually everything has to be done for her, and she didn’t want me to do anything I could be prosecuted for.  We talked through options like leaving the top off the emergency bottle of Oramorph and putting it where she could reach it, but she wasn’t sure she could manage to take it. She admitted she no longer wanted to eat, so I said ‘Well, don’t’. So she has gradually stopped eating, and after talking it through with the doctor she has stopped taking the medication that was propping her up. It has been a very difficult process for her, because she’s always been independent and knows exactly how she wants things done. All the family now want to come to visit and she has found it virtually impossible to let go instead of keeping strong so that she can entertain them properly.

I’ve been surprised by how common her experience is and how much help and support is available. When I told the doctor she had decided to stop eating he went immediately into end-of-life care mode and even had all the relevant paperwork. Several of her carers have also said they’ve looked after people through similar decisions. Ironically this has all happened during the parliamentary debates over assisted dying and the reviews of Atul Gawande’s book (http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/oct/22/being-mortal-medicine-what-matters-atul-gawande-review for the Guardian review). I’ve come across the idea of giving up eating as a way of hastening the end of life but newspaper reports always present it as an extreme and terrible thing to do, starving oneself to death. In fact, for a lot of people, on heavy medication for things like arthritic pain, eating becomes a struggle and it’s almost easier to give up. There are medieval parallels as well – the endura of the Cathars, the belief in the western Catholic tradition that after receiving the last rites you had to turn your back on life. The much-maligned (and much misunderstood – both by the media and by some of the people tasked with implementing it) Liverpool Pathway is actually nothing new. What we need now is to be able to talk more openly about these issues and how they can be managed. We might then be able to move gradually to a position where more could be done in the way of sedation and pain relief even if it shortened life. We have already moved on a long way since my father’s death of cancer in 1970. He died in dreadful pain with the doctors unwilling to give him enough morphine in case it damaged his health. Really … with his bones rotting under him … things are better now and they could get better again without actually confronting the difficult prospect of assisted dying.

My mother had an amazing life. I have to remind people that when this intelligent and capable woman was born in 1915, women didn’t have the vote in parliamentary elections. She was in her teens before women had the vote on the same terms as men. Her generation weren’t the absolute pioneers – more importantly, they were the wome who made good what the pioneers had achieved and made it the norm. So they were the women who insisted on the right to a grammar school education, a University degree, a profession, the right to remain in that profession after marriage, the right to return to work after having children, all those things we value but perhaps too much take for granted.

Her reminiscences of her upbringing on a farm between Newport and Cardiff, her education and her life as a teacher in Chepstow in WWII are a remarkable document. They first appeared in the Gwent County History Association’s newsletter and used to be on the Association’s web site but they seem to have vanished (probably yet another consequence of the merger) so here they are again.

Reminiscences of farming life in the 1920s

Education for the people

Larkfield Grammar School in World War II

War Years in Chepstow


Llancarfan – the post-medieval texts

Epic day at Llancarfan yesterday with Christina Welch of Winchester University and Ian Fell. Main purpose of visit was to look in detail at the cadaver in Death and the Gallant but I also photographed the post-Reformation texts. Here’s Ian’s photo of the whole wall

St George, Llancarfan 31 May 2011 I Fell

and here are the 2 texts in detail



There’s also an 18th century Apostles’ Creed, very difficult to photograph because it’s between 2 windows on a nice sunny day


and detail of the base


More on the cadaver later.



Good Friday, riding westward

posted in: Heritage Paths | 1

Pleasure or businesse, so, our Soules admit

For their first mover, and are whirld by it.

Hence is’t, that I am carryed towards the West

This day, when my Soules forme bends toward the East.


The Good Friday walk on Twmbarlwm is one of our Valleys traditions that seems to have survived into the third millennium. I wonder whether that has something to do with the fact that it goes along the old pilgrimage route to Penrhys – do the stones themselves remember?

The Twmbarlwm Society (http://www.wbarrow.co.uk/twmbarlwm/) organises a walk every year, starting at the Stony Bridge in Pontymister, and we meet with the Ancient Cwmbran Society (http://ancient-cwmbran.wix.com/publish) on top. So the Cwmbran group walk westward, as John Donne rode westward on Good Friday, meditating on the fact that he seemed to have turned his back on God’s suffering. Last year there was snow on the ground; this year the sun shone and there were lambs and early bluebells. The Twmbarlwm Society has organised some maintenance work on the top, mainly geared to trying to keep off-roading bikes and 4x4s from damaging the monument. These impressive double fences


reinforced with last year’s Christmas trees will protect the new growth on quickset hedges. There are sturdy new gates and an attempt to design stiles that will allow horses through but not motorbikes.

Here we are on the top


not just the organised groups but well over a hundred other people coming and going while we were there. Magnificent views


And walking along the ridge –


now we are the ones going westward, down to Pegwn-y-bwlch and the canal. I think this is another old trackway, one of many cutting down the hillside. We walked it last year as an alternative to the medieval route which goes through the housing estate at Ty-sign and along busy roads. This year we may try Moriah Lane and up past Dan-y-graig. We are trying to find a route as close as possible to the medieval route but one which makes a pleasant walk. The Cistercian Way project is back on track and our target is to get Llantarnam to Margam clear and waymarked for the Valleys Festival of Walking in 2015.

We had tea in the cafe on the canal and watched the ducklings


then took the car up to Danygraig to look at the family graves. Cara went to sleep in the sunshine.



I can’t help taking a professional interest in the cemetery, much to Rachel’s amusement. Some of the graves have weathered old wooden markers – you have to wonder whether the family moved away, or just lost interest. Of course, the biodegradable wooden marker is now the new trend, with woodland burials and eco-funerals. I still can’t quite decide whether I want the wicker coffin and plain wood marker or the full Victorian ritual with black horses, ostrich plumes and mutes with staves. Economy will probably win in the end.

Llangybi: several generations of wall paintings

Our annual field trip up the Usk to Llangybi: we can get there, look at the medieval wall paintings and the holy well and get back within a 2-hour lecture. This year, the church was more than usually mysterious in the mist:


The south wall is full of building history:


probably a sixth-century church of wattle and daub, rebuilt in stone by the Normans but rebuilt again in the fifteenth century. Why? – partly the ravages of a century of economic crisis, partly the enthusiasm of local people for beautifying their place of worship.

Inside there is much to look at:



The stairs to the destroyed rood loft


lit at the top: the lofts were used for singing part of the liturgy, and sometimes for readings.


The famous wall painting of the ‘Sunday Christ’ is virtually unphotographable – it’s easier to understand from this sketch hanging underneath.


And why is this instructional painting, a warning against sabbath-breaking, in the chancel? Was my former student Eluned Martin right – did it mark the location of the Easter Sepulchre?

In the nave, another warning: the Weighing of Souls


but to encourage you, the Virgin Mary is shown placing her rosary in the balance beam to weigh it down on the side of salvation.

These wall paintings were limewashed over at the Reformation and replaced with texts: the Creed


and the Ten Commandments actually over part of the Weighing of Souls


Finally, at the west end, a puzzle:


the font, dated 1662 and decorated with the coats of arms of local families.


The medieval font must have been destroyed during the Civil War and this replacement celebrates the restoration of both monarchy and Anglican church in 1660. In the end, Archbishop Laud got all he wanted: but of course he had been executed in 1645.

(Many thanks to Claire Lindsey McGrath for the photos)


Off the Celtic Stones Trail

posted in: Heritage Paths | 4

Well, the attempt to find another way over Stormy Down was a complete bust – so what follows is a rant about

(a)    Fly-tipping

(b)   Motorcycle scrambling

(c)    Blocked footpaths

The first problem was that the road from Tythegston to the A48 is much too busy for a pleasant walk. But we persevered, crossed the A48 and took the track up to Stormy Down. The perennial problem of fly tipping –


all along the lane (some Christmas decorations here – I always find that particularly sad)


You can cut through the bracken and brambles to a footbridge (hallelujah!)


but the other side is a labyrinth of scrambler tracks with attendant mud and litter. This is a pity because we did find the ruins of Margam’s Stormy Grange, very atmospheric in the mist


but this is a bit niche! and not really worth the plod through the rubbish. I thought I might check out the footpath over to Laleston on the way back. It should leave the road at Ty-du Farm


but I was told very firmly by a young woman out exercising the horses that the footpath didn’t go over their land any more, her father had sorted it out with the council and I couldn’t go through the fields because all the fences were electrocuted.


Here’s the old stile – but I didn’t feel up to electrocuted fences so we went back along the road and down the path to Tythegston past Ty-erfin, even more mysterious in the mist.


The only option seems to be to repair and waymark the stile at 851 802 and hope that the people at Upper Park Farm don’t claim to have Sorted Things Out With The Council!

“Celtic Stones”

Having got the Galilee Project all wrapped up, Gareth Kiddie and the Llanilltud PCC are now working on a trail from Llandaff to Margam, linking the sites of some of our major collections of early medieval inscribed stones. The route across the Vale of Glamorgan is pretty much sorted thanks to the Valeways project, and I think we have a reasonable route from Llandaff to  St Fagans (the new home of the National Museum’s collection of stones and casts). More on that at http://heritagetortoise.wordpress.com/2013/10/06/faith-tourism-faith-in-tourism/ .

So that leaves Merthyr Mawr  (a bit more on that at http://heritagetortoise.wordpress.com/2013/07/22/llancarfan-and-merthyr-mawr-faith-in-heritage/ and http://heritagetortoise.wordpress.com/2013/08/12/on-knowing-where-your-towel-is/ ) and Margam, where the collection of stones in Cadw’s little museum is justly famous.

But how to get from one to the other? There’s the coast path … but it isn’t a good section, going through a huge industrial estate. Cara and I were sure we could do better than that …

It didn’t start too well. The lane from Candleston Castle up to Candleston Farm is still more like a river


But if you go over the little bridge opposite the castle, the bridleway up through the sand dunes is steep but easy to follow.


The shrubs are sea buckthorn, planted to stabilise the dunes. They are pretty in flower and glorious when the thickets are aflame with berries, but they are savagely prickly and really a bit too vigorous. Keep going up hill, bear round to the right and keep the trees and the line of fence to your right, go through a gate,


follow the track a little west of north, through another gate


When the track divides, go left and through a gate (or over the stile)


and turn left on a stony lane to Tythegston.

Cute calves in the field


And the view of the church from the far slope


Tythegston is a pretty village with old houses and a pottery. The church is now a wedding boutique (!) but the eleventh-century cross slab is still in the churchyard


And if you look very carefully at this stone over the north window of the chancel you can just see the shaft of the cross on a later medieval tomb slab.


Walk past the cross, turn left on the main road and right immediately along a road marked ‘Unsuitable for motor vehicles’. In a few hundred yards, where a drive goes off to the right, take the waymarked footpath sharp right.


This is stiled and waymarked across the fields – cute lambs –


past the ruins of Ty-erfin


up to the main road and turn left. (The stile here is a bit dodgy.)


The road isn’t too much of a problem – there is a pavement and a central reservation which makes crossing easy. In a few hundred yards there should be a stile on the other side and a footpath across the fields to Upper Park Farm. There has been some clearance here but the stile is heavily overgrown and unsafe.


We need to rethink this bit. After Park Farm you can cut across Stormy Down but there are no clear paths and with the bracken up in the summer it wouldn’t be easy. We eventually got back to the road to go under the M4. There is a rough stone stile into a field just beyond the M4 and a spiffy new gate on the footpath through the limeworks


but how to get to it? And how to get through the lake beyond it? We went back to the road. The bridleway north of Stormy Down looks clear – we need to see if we can get to that from south of the motorway.

Walk along the minor road and across the railway line. When a track turns sharp right, take the waymarked footpath ahead to the right.


Walk up the field, bearing slightly to the left of the hedge (and keeping to the left of the pylons) to go through a gate.


Continue up the slope with the hedge to your right, go through a kissing gate


and another farm gate. Bear left up the hill to pass to the left of the farmyard at Pen-y-castell – there is an encouraging municipal bench at the top –


Also a bench mark.


You need to keep to the left of the bench mark and bear left down the slope to a lane between the houses, then turn left on the road. In about 200 yards, just after the church, turn right down School Road. This becomes a metalled lane and goes down steps. Continue straight  on. Victoria Road becomes Crown Road. When the road bears right, take the footpath to the left, across a little bridge and up to cross the railway. Bear slightly right across the next field and follow the track along the edge of the fields up to the road.

Ahead of you is Hafodheulog Farm. This was one of the granges of the Cistercian abbey at Margam. The name means literally ‘The sunny summer farm’. Hafodheulog is on higher ground that the granges at Llangewydd and Horegrove, and you can imagine the lay brothers bringing the herds up there in the spring. In the woods behind the farm is an even more remote grange, Hafod Deca, where they could have pastured sheep in the summer. Llangewydd, Horegrove and Hafodheulog are still substantial farms but Hafod Deca is a ruin in the forestry plantation. I have a memory of finding the ruins when I was walking up there twenty years ago but they are nowhere to be seen now – did I imagine it?

Take the lane to the left of Hafodheulog, go over the stile at the end and bear slightly left across the field to a stile (heavily overgrown when we were there, and the waymark in need of attention!). From here we walked up the lane past Pentre Farm but it was very difficult to find the footpaths to the left of the road. There has been a lot of felling in the forest, and the forest roads are in poor shape after a very wet winter. You have to cross the Cynffig river and there is no footbridge, just a ford. We may have to rethink this bit as well: you could go left after the overgrown stile and walk up the lane to Troed-y-rhiw Farm. From there the track along the edge of the forest and across the fields is fairly clear, though it may need to be kept clear in the summer. The track goes behind Graig-goch and into Margam Park, and you can follow a footpath across the park and out on the road from the Crugwyllt ridge down to the church and the Margam Stones museum.


Back on the heritage trail …

posted in: Heritage Paths | 0

One fine day a fortnight ago – so we went out with Laleston Community Council, Bridgend CBC’s footpaths maintenance officer and Chris Jones-Jenkins who is doing the reconstruction illustrations, for another look at the proposed Merthyr Mawr and Laleston Stones trail. The footpath across the fields to Laleston and up to Llangewydd worked well and Chris had some very pertinent questions about the appearance and function of wayside crosses, the ‘look’ of the church and village at Llangewydd and the possible location of the ‘castle’ (was it ever more than a fortified residence?). But the walk back across the fields towards Candleston was tricky. The main road crossing was clearly dangerous (why is it so much worse crossing at that point – the crossing on the way to Laleston is usually OK?). The gates all sat in small lakes, and there was standing water across the path. Cara obligingly waded in and the water came to her shoulders so we didn’t bother. In any case there was a fence blocking the path beyond the mini lake. We decided to avoid the path to Candleston because it tends to turn into a river, but the alternative path back to Merthyr Mawr was even worse. The small ditch at the side of the field had turned into a 2-foot deep torrent. We jumped, scrambled, traversed fences … there were waymarks and stiles all the way but that isn’t much help when the stile is sitting in a foot of water!

On the other hand we all had a great time. But it clearly isn’t a walk for the inexperienced or faint-hearted. The community councillor suggested we look again at walking back along the Ffordd y Gyfraith: apparently it’s being closed to traffic at one point to enable it to be used as a walk-to-school route, so it would make a nice safe walk.

There was another fine day this week so Cara and I went out for another go. The sun shone and there were snowdrops and crocuses in the churchyard at Merthyr Mawr.




The community councillor had also suggested we use the footpath behind the church to cut off a bit of the road walking. Cara doesn’t like stiles but she has her own way of dealing with these stone stiles …


The lane to Whitton Farm has a nice new gate and stile.


This time we walked over the fields and straight on to Laleston village. The footpath goes along a very long narrow field – could this be the remains of the strip field system? The lane from the church and across the fields to the Ffordd y Gyfraith is muddy but passable – then you can continue as we did before to Llangewydd but walk straight back along the Ffordd y Gyfraith, or for an off-road route turn off at the kissing gate by the housing estate and return to the original route across the fields.

I still like the route past Candleston. You can bypass the lake and the blocked footpath, and once you get to the forest edge the path is good past Candleston Farm. But the track past the sand dunes was over a foot deep in fast-flowing water. We explored the horse track up the edge of the dunes.


It’s not a good alternative at that point because you have to climb all the way up and go over a mile to the west before you can turn left and make your way south to the car park. But you can get to the bridleway across the dunes from the top lane past Candleston Farm. It adds about 2 miles to the route but it’s a lovely walk across the dunes with views out to sea and over Ogmore Castle.

So I’ve rewritten the leaflet and sent it off, suggesting a basic circuit across the fields to Laleston, up the Ffordd y Gyfraith to Llangewydd then back down the Ffordd y Gyfraith to Merthyr Mawr, with the Candleston route as a fair-weather option. There’s still a bit of work to be done on stiles and waymarks but it should be in place by the summer.

The Holy Rood of Llangynwyd

Llangynwyd is probably most famous now as the burial place of Ann Thomas, the ‘Maid of Cefn Ydfa’, and her poet lover wil Hopcyn. (More about them at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ann_Maddocks ). But in the Middle Ages it was famous as the shrine of the Holy Rood of Llangynwyd, a carving of the Crucifixion that was so vivid it was believed to be able to perform miracles. People went there on pilgrimage, the poets wrote in its praise.

We can still trace many of the routes pilgrims would have taken to get to Llangynwyd. One route came over the hills from the east, and ran between Llangynwyd and the even more famous shrine of the Virgin Mary at Penrhys. One route came from the coast at Margam, where the Cistercian monks had custody of the shrine. And one route came from the south, from the rich farmland of the Vale of Glamorgan. This was the route called the Ffordd y Gyfraith, the ‘Road of the Law’, because it was also the route that officials took, travelling from the lowlands to the wild hill country.

You can still trace these routes on the ground. They are marked by lines of hollow trails, worn into the hillsides by generations of travellers. The line of the Ffordd y Gyfraith is also marked by the bases of wayside crosses which would have shown travellers they were on the right track. There is one called Croes Antoni on Ogmore Down, one where the Ffordd y Gyfraith crosses the main road at Laleston, and one which marks where the line of the road was diverted to go round Margam Abbey’s Llangewydd Grange.

Old pilgrimage routes still make good walking. The have a sort of resonance, from all those footsteps of people travelling in hope. Looking at the hollow trails worn into the hillside on Mynydd Ty-talwrn, and the little platforms that are all that’s left of peasant cottages and bigger farmhouses, you realise that these empty hills were once home to a thriving and complex society.

I’m working with Merthyr Mawr and Laleston community councils on a circular route round their villages, looking at the heritage of early Christian carved stones and later monastic granges (more on that at https://www.heritagetortoise.co.uk/2013/11/laleston-stones-trail/ ). Part of the route of that goes along the Ffordd y Gyfraith.  More, the church at Laleston has a very strange medieval tombstone with three crosses on it which may be based on the design of the rood at Llangynwyd, showing the two thieves as well as Christ on the cross .

So taking the route north from Laleston to Llangynwyd is a good idea for all sorts of reasons. It isn’t entirely straightforward … for the first sections of the route and their problems see  https://www.heritagetortoise.co.uk/2013/11/laleston-to-parc-slip/  and https://www.heritagetortoise.co.uk/2013/11/heritage-trails-again-2/ . But it still looks doable. So taking advantage of a break in the rain on Thursday, Cara and I headed back to Parc Slip, walked up to the ridge and explored the footpaths down to Llangynwyd.

The line of the Ffordd y Gyfraith clearly went along the hollow trails you can see coming down the Glamorgan Ridgeway from the radio mast.


At this point the modern road goes west of the old track. In about half a mile you take a waymarked footpath to the right. Bear left across the first field, heading for an old gatepost. Ahead of you on the skyline are the earthworks of a big complex of ruined buildings.





This is called ‘Farmstead’ on the modern OS map but older maps call it the ‘British Residence’. When the archaeologists Cyril and Aileen Fox were surveying this area in the 1930s, they thought this and the house platforms on Mynydd Ty-talwyn were the remains of early medieval farmsteads. They eventually decided they were later, probably built in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries when the climate was better and you could farm the hills. When the climate got dramatically worse in the early fourteenth century, there were famines followed by the Black Death and most of these settlements were deserted. Recently, an American archaeologist has revived the idea that this was an early medieval settlement. My friends in the Archaeological Trust say it is much, much later, possibly post-medieval. But the hollow trails of the Ffordd y Gyfraith run through the site, and seem to go through some of the buildings –


so my guess is that it’s medieval, and that it was deserted by the time the pilgrimage became popular in the fifteenth century.

Paul Davies has sent me some splendid aerial photos which make the whole site much clearer.



Paul’s survey suggests the site was first two house platforms, one large and one small, and that the farm complex was built over these. Meanwhile, in an article in the 2019 volume of Morgannwg, Stephen Davies has identified the site as the Nant y Dulles which was the home of the medieval steward of Tir Iarll. This really needs a blog post of its own – meanwhile Paul Davis’s aerial photos are wonderful.

Walk across the next field to the head of a little valley. Walk down a rough farm track with the stream on your left, then cross the stream and walk up the track to Maescadlawr farm. Take the footpath to the left  just past the farmyard and bear right across two fields. Go through a gate and cross the metalled lane. Walk down the lane towards Bryncynan farm. Just before the farmhouse, the track bears right and goes downhill. At the bottom, cross a stream then turn left on the roughly metalled track to Gadlys Farm. At the farmhouse take the track to the right and look out for an overgrown but waymarked footpath down to the right.



This takes you across a bridge. Go over the rather battered stile to your left.


From here a faint path runs along the right bank of the stream and into the woods then bears up to a mossy and tumbledown stone wall.


When you reach the corner of the wall, turn right and follow the faint path up the field towards the top right corner, then follow the field boundaries to your right up to the minor road. Once you go under the line of pylons you will see the whitewashed tower of Llangynwyd church ahead of you.

So far, so good. Merthyr Mawr to Llangynwyd would be a good day’s walk: you could find a local B&B then walk on along the suggested Cistercian Way route to rejoin the coast at Margam. But if we want a circular walk back to Parc Slip or Laleston there may be problems. You can retrace your steps along the minor road and take an earlier waymarked footpath along a track to the right. After a few yards the footpath goes left – there’s a nice new gate


But the lane is very heavily overgrown, the fields are boggy, there are some dodgy fences …


Bridgend CBC have done good work on stiles but once the path gets into the woods it disappears. There should be a footbridge leading to the lane from Gadlys farm but I couldn’t find it. In the end we took a path to the left, and went back to Parc Slip the way we came. I need to have another look at this one from the other end. If we could clear and waymark that bit of the path through the woods, then clear the blocked lane near Ffynnon Iago, we’d have a good circular walk from Parc Slip.