Brecon Cathedral: history beneath your feet

Another brilliant day in Brecon Cathedral – this time with the Dean and Rachel Duthie of the Tithebarn Trust. The trust runs the shop, exhibition centre and cafe at the Cathedral. Rachel clearly knows and loves the building and has spent hours on her knees looking at history on the ground.

She led me to several more medieval memorial stones. One has been recycled as an altar slab, another miniature tomb carving now serves as a credence. Then I found some more on my own. There are two elaborately floriated crosses in the north-west corner of the north transept

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and this fragment under the Flemish cupboard in the north aisle. I spotted the lettering while looking at the next slab, which had a rather sweet cherub on it. The script looked Lombardic but all I could make out was the letters OSS. There were two lines that could be the shaft of a cross. Then looking under the cupboard (totally unphotographable) I could just see NIME : PRO – a fragment of CUIUS ANIME PROPICIETUR DEUS, May God have mercy on his soul.

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His, not her? Probably – another careful look at the lettering on the front of the stone suggested it read S : A…ROSS, probably for AP ROSSER.

But the big excitement of the day was getting distracted by some intriguing post-medieval memorials. If you follow me on Twitter (@penrhyspilgrim) you will know I have been collecting examples of tombstones with the IHS trigram. The trigram originates in a shortened form of the name of Jesus in Greek script. Devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus was an important element in late medieval spirituality. It can be seen as a sort of Catholic Reformation, an attempt to move ‘popular’ devotion away from saints, shrines and pilgrimages and back to the basic focus on Christ. The IHS trigram appears on a lot of late medieval memorials – here it is on a stone in the Cathedral museum at Brecon

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but all the medieval examples I’ve seen on tombs are in blackletter  ‘Gothic’ script.

There are a few depictions of the trigram in Roman capitals on fifteenth-century Italian paintings, but the redesign was really popularized by Ignatius of Loyola as the brandmark for his new Society of Jesus, the Jesuits. In its fullest form the Jesuit trigram also had three nails (to represent the Crucifixion) and sometimes a pierced heart, all surrounded by a sunburst.

Now, you would not expect to find a Jesuit emblem on a tomb in post-Reformation Britain. There were Jesuits active here from the late sixteenth century but they were effectively secret agents, operating under deep cover, liable to be captured, tortured and killed slowly and horribly.

So I was very surprised to be told about a tombstone in north Monmouthshire with the Jesuit trigram on it. The church at Grosmont had an elaborate eighteenth-century floor slab commemorating members of the local Springer family. The slab was taken up for work to be done on the floor. While it was stacked with its face to the wall, a local historian recognized and photographed the carving on the back.

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The stone is now fixed to the wall with the Springer side facing out, but we have the photograph as the beginning of a historical detective puzzle. The style of the cross is late sixteenth or early seventeenth century. The scrolled base is typical of other seventeenth-century tomb crosses in the area: we seem to be looking at a local firm of stonemasons with their own pattern book.

Alerted to the possibility of a Jesuit memorial, I started looking for other examples. There are several in Abergavenny. One of them may commemorate a member of the local Gunter family. They were ardent Catholics and in the 1670s the vicar of Abergavenny complained that there were more people going to the (highly illegal) mass in the Gunter house than came to his church. (This could of course be a reflection of the quality of the sermons.)

Brian and Moira Gittos sent me this photograph of an early seventeenth century cross  in Llanwytherin in north Gwent.

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There are far too many of these for them to be memorials to actual Jesuits, and most of them do not have the crossed nails and other elements of the Jesuit badge. But do they commemorate outright Catholics, sympathisers or simply traditionalist Anglicans? Robert Matthew sent me a rubbing of a tomb slab from Llangattock near Usk which can be dated to the mid sixteenth century. In their chapter on the cult of the Holy Name in Gaimster and Gilchrist’s The Archaeology of Reformation, Hugo Blake, Geoff Egan, John Hurst and Elizabeth New reported finding over 500 objects decorated with the trigram from the late medieval and early modern period, but most of them seem to have been in black-letter script.

The earliest version of the trigram in square capitals that they have found is on a memorial brass dated 1552, during the extreme Protestant reformation of Edward VI. So at that date the trigram was clearly acceptable. They suggest, though, that by the end of the sixteenth century it was seen as having ‘Popish’ overtones. Then there was a period in the early seventeenth century when its use was revived by the group sometimes called the Arminians, members of the established church who wanted to restore ritual, reverence for the sacraments and what they called the ‘beauty of holiness’ to the church in England and Wales. That may explain the carving on this stone in the Cordwainers’ Chapel, near the tomb niche in the north wall.

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It commemorates a Richard John William who married Gwladis daughter of Phillip Price and died in the 1620s. The IHS trigram is in the middle of an elaborately interlaced cross head which almost looks as though it represents interlaced hearts.  Beneath it in blackletter script are the words ‘Honour the Kinge’ – presumably the earlier part of this patriotic saying, ‘Fear God’, was on the top of the slab, which is now missing. So this carving is a determined attemptto link religious traditionalism with patriotic loyalism. The date may be significant: from 1621 to 1626 the bishop of St David’s was william Laud, who later became Charles I’s Archbishop of Canterbury and was regarded as the architect of the Arminian revival in England. At that time, Brecon was part of the diocese of St David’s, so the combination of IHS trigram and patriotic sentiment on Richard John William’s memorial could just possibly reflect his influence.

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But this third stone is something else entirely. With its nails, pierced heart and sunburst, it is full-on Jesuit – but the slab commemorates a woman. Her name was Anne,  and her surname begins Bulco… . She had family connections with the aldermen of Brecon  and she had a daughter Anne and possibly a son Lewis.

Like the other IHS carvings, this one seems from the style and the script to be seventeenth century.

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This is yet another intriguing stone, the memorial to a John Tayler who died in 1618. He seems to have been Tayler by name and by occupation, to judge by the scissors on the left side of the cross shaft. By the early seventeenth century the image of the Agnus Dei, the lamb (representing Jesus as the sacrificial Lamb of God) and the banner of the Resurrection, was regarded as dangerously ‘popish’. Here again we have someone who was important enough to be buried in the parish church and who (or whose family) wanted to be commemorated by imagery that other people found suspect.

So we have three IHS carvings in Brecon (plus the Agnus Dei), four in Abergavenny , one in Grosmont and one in Llanwytherin. I think I saw one in Gwenddwr, between Brecon and Builth, but it was a long time ago. Most of these areas had known recusant families, but that does not prove that the tombs were those of recusants. Part of the problem is that there are virtually no comparable examples in England, so we are working in a bit of a vacuum. Mind you, there are apparently very few cross slabs in England between  the Reformation and the eighteenth century, and in Wales our churches are full of them. Are the IHS carvings just part of the same pattern of stubborn traditionalism, or is there more to them than that?

And how should churches like Brecon be treating them – they are part of the paving of the floor, and inevitably they are being damaged. But if they are taken up and put on the walls or in a museum, they have lost their context and at least part of their meaning.

No easy answers.

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