Tintern Abbey: the commendation of souls

The whole business of text on medieval tomb carvings fascinates me. I mean, why? Who was going to read it? Was it just to remind the priest who to pray for … was it fashion, an attempt to signal the importance of the person buried there … or was it meant not for a human readership but for God?

We have very few medieval brasses in Wales, and there was less scope for complex inscriptions in stone carvings. Nevertheless, we do have a few. Two of the most intriguing are in the ruins of Tintern Abbey. They were probably found during the late nineteenth-century excavations there and they have been exposed to the weather since, so that the inscriptions are all but unreadable. Fortunately, they were drawn by the Cardiff architect John Rodger for an article which he published in the Transactions of the Cardiff Naturalists in 1911. This one

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commemorating a Jenkin ap Hoell had a typical late medieval cross with flared finials and three-dimensional base and the prayer ‘Jesu mercy, Lady help’ in false-relief blackletter script.

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That little prayer was very popular in the late middle ages. It appears in wall paintings and tomb carvings, and it neatly encapsulates late medieval thinking on salvation. We are rather apt to assume that a lot of late medieval Christianity was focused on the Virgin Mary as the way to salvation. By the early sixteenth century, though, the focus had shifted back to Christ. Mary was still regarded as someone who could help you, but power was in the hands of her son. Whoever designed this tombstone – Jenkin ap Hoell or a member of his family – had a clear idea of his route to salvation.

The other stone is even more intriguing, but also more problematic. Only half of it is left, and it is now so badly worn as to be indecipherable.

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John Rodger read much of the inscription, though in a rather garbled form.

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It seems to commemorate a Thomas Phillips, though there is more to the name that Rodger could not make sense of. It could be ‘vach’ (Welsh for ‘junior’) then ‘vocatus’, then possibly a nickname.

It is the other side of the slab, though, that is the exciting bit. Rodger transcribed it as  ‘….nime ejus chi … miserere’. A bit of determined Googling – how did we ever do this kind of thing before the Internet – identified this as a fragment from the Sarum rite for the commendation of the soul. This was the liturgy that the priest was expected to say actually at the deathbed. By this stage, at a medieval death bed, the priest would have heard the dying person’s confession and granted absolution, anointed them with holy oil and given them their final Eucharist, the viaticum. Medieval woodcuts from the Ars Moriendi show the deathbed as an intensely social occasion, with friends and family ready to encourage the dying person with prayers, and demons driven back by the power of the church. Lists of the ‘Signs of Death’ were a commonplace in later medieval literature, for it was important to know when death was imminent. In that final moment, in articulo mortis, the actual liturgy for the commendation of souls began with the recitation of the Creed then continued in its fullest form with the penitential psalms and the prayer Parce domine, parce servo tuo, ‘Spare, O Lord, spare thy servant, whom thou hast deigned to redeem with thy precious blood’. This was followed by a lengthy liturgy invoking God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Virgin Mary , angels and archangels, patriarchs and prophets, and an extensive list of saints. This concluded with the clauses quoted on Thomas Phillips’ monument,

Agnus dei qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere anime eius
Christe ihesu miserere anime eius
Agnus dei qui tollis peccata mundi dona ei pacem eternamque felicitatem et gloriam sempiternam
.

After this (and in most cases, one would imagine, after the actual death) the priest began the prayer Proficiscere anima.

Go forth, Christian soul, out of this world, in the name of God the Father Almighty, who created thee; in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God, who suffered for thee; in the name of the Holy Ghost, who sanctified thee …

and continued with prayers for the release and protection of the soul and for its reception into Heaven.

This ritual has a psychologically compelling quality. Those who have attended a death bed may have felt that, once death has taken place, there is a hiatus. Even for those with no religious beliefs (and possibly more so for those with no formal beliefs) there is a reluctance to disturb the body. At the medieval death bed, the work of washing and shrouding the corpse could not begin immediately. The liturgy for the commendation of the soul was participatory, helpful to the dying but also to those attending the deathbed.

We know nothing about Jenkin ap Hoell and Thomas Phillips apart from the fact that they chose to be buried in the abbey. They were presumably local landowners, probably middle-ranking landowners, who could afford a tomb slab but not an effigy. Whether or not they were literate themselves, they recognised and understood the importance of the written word. For them, and for their contemporaries, reading was a social activity, one they could take part in even if they could not read themselves.

It is also worth remembering that these two men, presumably powerful in their local communities and well-informed, chose to be buried in the abbey. For all the negative publicity which late medieval  monasticism has received, monastic communities were clearly valued. There is even a sense of revival in monastic life in the early sixteenth century, a revival which was cut off by the events of the 1530s.

I had some more checking to do. Rodger didn’t make anything of the inscription on this one

 

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an iconographically fascinating slab with interlaced fishes. Sir Joseph Bradney in his History of Monmouthshire had a go at it and transcribed it as ‘Hic iacet Willelmus Wemted’ – this didn’t seem likely.

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One of the custodians of the abbey, the other David Williams, pointed me to Harold Brakspear’s early guidebook to the abbey which transcribed it as ‘Willelmus Wellsted’ – much more likely.

And to my shame I found there was yet another tomb carving at Tintern that I hadn’t accounted for. This

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is in the covered area behind the ticket counter, tucked away in the corner. I asked the other David Williams and he identified it as the head of an abbot, found during the early tidying-up job done on the Duke of Beaufort’s instructions in the eighteenth century. At that time it still had traces of gilding, though these have now gone. It looks about 1300 in date, and the abbey guide book suggests it may have commemorated Abbot Ralph (abbot c. 1295-1305) who masterminded the rebuilding of the abbey church. And this then

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could be his tomb chest?

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Tintern Parva

Off to Tintern to check finer points of detail on two tombs in the Abbey – the one with ‘Jesu Mercy, Lady Help’ and the one with a line from the Order for the Commendation of the Soul.

But first to the little church of Tintern Parva, just upstream. I went there with Andy Delmege in 2016 when he had resumed his great trek tound Wales on the Cistercian Way. We had a service there and lunch in the pub. Milling around afterwards I noticed this

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in the nave floor but didn’t really have time to look at it properly.

The church is open daily and they have great plans for a kitchen and toilets to cater for walkers on the Wye Valley Walk. Several walkers came past while I was there and they clearly get a lot of visitors already. I think the Cistercian Way really ought to go that way – it means a road section from there to the Abbey Mill (and the only alternative is a long plod up hill to Barbadoes Wood) but the church is really worth a visit. It was there long before the abbey. A church is documented in the eighthcentury in the Book of Llan Daf but the foundation must go back earlier, possibly to the days of King Tewdrig and the spread of Christianity in rural south Wales. According to legend, Tewdrig himself had a hermitage nearby – was his little oratory the origin of the church?

I was lucky enough to meet the church warden, Alan Hillard, and his wife doing the flowers.

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(Purple, green and white. Very appropriate.) He’s an enthusiastic historian and told me a lot about the background to the church.

First up: the medieval cross. Described in the church guidebook as a broadsword (possibly someone had seen all those north Wales tomb slabs which really do have sword + shield and spear?) but it’s clearly a cross. The flared finials and the complicated 3-D base are very similar to the ones at Tintern Abbey.

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The false-relief blackletter inscription really isn’t legible but is similar in style to the one on Jenkin ap Hywel’s tomb, in the style and size of the lettering. Was this a local stonemasons’ workshop, possibly based in or near the Abbey?

Also in the nave floor is this

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commemorating Elizabeth Phillips the wife of William Fielding, a relative of Henry Fielding the novelist.

‘She was the best of house wives, & ye tendrest Wife,
Who nere Lovd Babling,  ever hated Strife
Religious, Modest, prudent, And yet free,
Abhorring Sloth she still helpd Poverty.
To moane her Losse her friends she left behind
Her body is unto this grave confind
But she (With Joy) her soul to heaven resignd.’

Family tragedy on the south wall:

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julia Roberts clearly never got over the birth of her little son and her grief at his death. The family lost other young children. John moved away and married again (the churchwarden had traced him on the census) and some of the children died after he moved, but he chose to commemorate his children by his first wife here at their home.

Another family tragedy.

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Caleb Coy was the custodian at Tintern Abbey at the beginning of the twentieth century. His son Herbert went to Cananda and then to the United States in search of work. When war broke out in 1914 he was working in a New York hotel. He came home as soon as he could, enlisted in the Welsh Regiment and was killed at Ypres. His body was never found.

So Tintern Parva was not one of the ‘Thankful Villages’ – but it has no war memorial. The adjoining parish of St Mary, Tintern has some Commonwelth War Graves tombstones in the churchyard, though the church is now disused and in ruins. There is a local campaign to get a memorial at Tintern Parva to the war dead of the combined parishes.

And on a happier note: here in the churchyard

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is the tomb of John Lorraine Baldwin, one of the founders of ‘I Zingari’ the cricket club which developed into the MCC. He wrote the first standard rules for cricket, badminton and whist. There is a lovely ‘Spy’ sketch of him

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on Wikimedia.

The adjoining tomb is that of his wife Elizabeth. Apparently they didn’t really live together. As warden of Tintern Abbey he lived at St Anne’s, the house which used to be the abbey gatehouse chapel, but she lived elsewhere – a very modern solution!

On to the abbey … that needs a separate post.

Brecon study weekend (2)

Inspired by Gwen Awbery’s lecture on the Saturday, we spotted some more Welsh poems on tombstones. This one was at Llanhamlach.

Eich cryfder ir, a’ch glendid hardd,
Fel llysiau gwiw a blodau gardd
Ar fyr a dorir oll i lawr
Gan gystudd hir neu glefyd mawr

Your fresh strength and your lovely beauty
Are like plants and garden flowers
And will soon be cut down
With long tribulation or great sickness.

Believe it or not, this is a verse from a collection of children’s hymns, Casglidu o Hymnau Dewisiol, sef, Gwobr i Blant Da. The hymn begins ‘Ystyriwch ie’ngctyd gwych eich gwedd, Yr ewch chi bawb i rych y bedd’, ‘Remember well, young ones, you are all going to the grave’. You can read the whole thing at https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=5UxVAAAAcAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false .

The tombstone didn’t commemorate a child, though, but a man who died in the prime of life, Watkin Davies of Llechfaen, who died in 1841 aged 38.

This clearly put us in the mood to try out some re-enactment. The parish church at Llanthony seems to have been built out of part of the monastic buildings, probably the infirmary. It has a good collection of 18th and 19th century wall monuments, though oddly none by the Brutes. There is only one tomb slab in the priory ruins, this rather idiosyncratic design

with saltire cross, stylised flowers and fleurs-de-lys pointing inwards from the border.

It didn’t look big enough for a coffin lid. I tried it out. It is big enough.

(Photos are Chris Jones-Jenkin’s.)

Cogan

Cogan: stone, plaster and hope for the future

The little parish church at Cogan is one of Glamorgan’s oldest churches. Probably a chapel dependent on the minster church of Llandough, it was by the 12th century the church of a manor belonging to the de Cogan family, though the church itself belonged to Tewkesbury Abbey. There is a lot of herringbone masonry in the walls:

in England this would suggest an Anglo-Saxon date but in Wales this style of walling still seems to be found in the twelfth century.

The church sits at the end of a muddy lane in what is now the outskirts of Penarth. Its village was in decline by the sixteenth century; by 1841 there were only three houses there, and the church was derelict. It was rescued by the 3rd Marquess of Bute: though a Catholic, he restored or rebuilt a number of Anglican churches. We would now regard Cogan as one of the lucky ones. Instead of a complete rebuild or a Victorian make-over, he settled for making the building weatherproof and usable. It still has traces of medieval plaster, though the original stone benches around the nave have been boxed in with Victorian wainscot. The painting over the chancel arch must have been a Last Judgement but hardly any of it is decipherable and the cost of conserving what remains is probably disproportionate.

Now the church needs more repair. Earth has piled up against the walls, creating damp problems, and the old drains are broken and clogged. There is only a small congregation but an enthusiastic band of Friends is raising money. After the necessary repairs, they have great plans. There is a lot of tumbled stone in the graveyard, possibly from older buildings. The Friends want to construct a new building in the graveyard to house a catering facility (you can’t call it a kitchen if you want the HLF on board) and toilets, and possibly a meeting room. This would mean the church could be used for concerts and other events.

First step has been to dig out and replace the old drains and lift the rotting suspended wooden floor. At this point John Davies of the Welsh Stone Forum happened by, got very excited about the stone floor this revealed, and arranged a study visit. Meanwhile, the chancel floor had been lifted, revealing these seventeenth-century ledger stones commemorating members of the Herbert family of Cogan Pill.

No cross slabs, alas, but some finely-carved heraldry and well lettered inscriptions: this is the work of one of the better local firms of stonemasons. The floor is that shelly lias that we saw at Merthyr Dyfan and Cadoxton, lumpy and laid in random slabs like crazy paving, strange material for a floor. It seems unlikely that it was hauled all the way from the coast, so there must be a local outcrop somewhere.

On the wall outside is an impressive monument under a cornice, commemorating John Davies and his wife Mary, who died in 1800. According to local tradition this was carved by none other than Edward Williams, Iolo Morgannwg, forger, polymath and radical, but we could see no evidence for this. It could be him, though.

Here is Jana surveying the  other memorials underneath it – but they are piled up against the wall and adding to the damp. Where can they go?

Brecon study weekend (1)

The Church Monuments Society study weekend in Breconshire was both informative and fun – as good study weekends should be. Heather James has kindly promised a full report for the CMS Newsletter: meanwhile here are some photos.

Lectures in the morning looked mainly at Welsh commemorative poetry. Here we are in the Cathedral deciphering one of the poems that Gwen Awbery talked about

(photo: Heather James)

The poem reads

Cofia DDyn wrth fyned heibio; Fel ty, di y finau fuo
Fel r’wyf fi tithau ddeui. Ystyr hyn mae marw wnadi

(This is the Welsh equivalent of
Remember man as you pass by
As you are so once was I
As I am so you will be
Remember Death will come to thee

but Gwen Awbery suggests that English and Welsh variants developed separately from the Latin original.)

And here we are discussing the absence of animals under the feet of post-Reformation effigies

(photo Heather James again)

Brecon has a magnificent collection of those idiosyncratic post-Reformation cross slabs: Paul Jones’s photos

Sunday was a bit more free-form: the main focus was the brightly-coloured wall memorials of the Brute family of masons at Llangattock, Partrishow and Cwm-iou

(Paul Jones’s photos again)

and this slightly different one at Llanthony.

Heather James’s photo: she wonders if the angel at the top, sounding the Last Trump, is a play on the name Trumper?

More on the Sunday field trip at https://welshtombs.wordpress.com/2017/11/19/brecon-study-weekend-2/ .