Strata Florida and the politics of royal burial

We had a wonderful day on Wednesday looking at some of the ‘royal’ tombs at Strata Florida. The site is one of our most evocative Cistercian abbey ruins, in the hills of west Wales near the source of the river Teifi. Recent archaeological and landscape research by Jemma Bezant and David Austin of TSD in Lampeter has put the abbey in a much wider landscape setting – the precinct is massive, there’s evidence for large-scale water management, metal working and pilgrimage as well as the traditional Cistercian arable and sheep farming.

And the tombs of the royal house of Deheubarth – or are they?

Strata Florida was actually founded by a Norman marcher lord, Robert fitzStephen, in 1164. A couple of years later the great Rhys ap Gruffydd succeeded in restoring the area to Welsh control. He took over the abbey, re-established it on a better site and gave it a huge endowment of land. We know from their elegies that a number of his family were buried there, including his brother Cadell and several of his sons. It has always been assumed that theirs are the graves immediately to the east of the abbey church, where there is a row of headstones and flat slabs, some of them carved and some plain.

In 2012 a historian from East Anglia challenged this, pointing out that the designs on some of the headstones were similar to tombs of much earlier date. There could be several explanations for this –

  • The abbey is on the site of an earlier church and these really are earlier burials. This is technically unlikely as the Cistercians were supposed to settle on unoccupied sites and bring their land into cultivation themselves. However, we know that a lot of their grange farms were on earlier settlements, and at Margam the abbey itself was clearly an important early medieval church: it has a magnificent collection of early medieval carved stones, the ‘Celtic crosses’.
  • The stones have been reused (plenty of examples of this);
  • The stones – and possibly the actual burials – have been moved from elsewhere to create a royal mausoleum;
  • Dating by stylistic evidence is notoriously shaky; it is possible that these are later stones. They may have been copied from earlier styles, or we could just be looking at traditionalist stonemasons.

Looking at the key group of graves, those east of the abbey’s south transept, it also becomes apparent that they are far too close together. Digging one grave would surely have caused the uncompacted earth from the previous grave to collapse.

As well as the graves with headstones adjoining the abbey church, there are a few more headstones scattered through the area to the east. There are also twenty or more plain tomb slabs, most of them overgrown by grass. We need to do more work on the nineteenth-century excavation reports to establish whether these are all in their original locations and whether any evidence for the actual burials survived. Ideally, the whole area needs re-planning.

My purpose in visiting was to look at the designs on the tomb slabs and headstones. The whole arrangement of slabs and headstones is problematic – it is unusual at that date for deaths to be commemorated by both a flat slab and a headstone. Some of the ‘headstones’ do look later medieval. The expanded-arm cross design on this one

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Is also found on earlier stones, but this one seems to have been compass-drawn, suggesting that it could be as late as the thirteenth century. But this one

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seems to have been drawn freehand, and the simple double cross on the east face could also be earlier.

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And this one

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looks like an expanded-arm cross which has been recut to a freestanding cross shape (it’s like a damaged version of this one)

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but they both seem to have that ‘armhole’ shape that is typical of earlier crosses.

There are three more damaged freestanding crosses.

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So far, so first millennium – but some of the slabs are coffin shaped, which suggests a later date. And this one

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is very similar to one from Valle Crucis, another Cistercian abbey the other side of Wales, which is usually thought to be twelfth or thirteenth century.

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My own feeling is that these very simple crosses could commemorate leading monastics, possibly abbots, though a lot depends on their original location – and this one clearly commemorates someone with military connections.

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We could speculate about a narrative in which Cadell ap Gruffydd received a prestigious burial because of his royal status (could that slab be his?), other members of the family were buried there, some family memorials were moved there, and the style of stone carving then provided a model for later memorials. But this is sheer speculation and could easily be disproved by the excavation records. More work needed …

And then there is this one

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found in the chapter house, where a replica has been installed. But the top and bottom are two pieces of stone – was it ever a flat slab, or was it part of a tomb chest?

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