Revisiting the past

Sometimes you need an outside eye on the most cherished elements of your heritage.

The carved coffin of Princess Siwan in Beaumaris is one of the most emblematic icons of Welsh history, Here it is on the Wales Directory site with its story of ‘romance and heartbreak’.

And here,_Lady_of_Wales_sarcophagus.jpg is the detail of the face from her Wikipedia page.

To be honest the story is a rather brutal one. Siwan (Joan in English) was the illegitimate daughter of King John of England. As part of a deal with Llywelyn ab Iorwerth of Wales she was given to the Welsh king in marriage. She was only 13. Llywelyn was twenty years older and had already had one informal marriage. Nevertheless the relationship prospered and her contacts in England and France were of immense importance to Llywelyn’s nation-building strategies. There was one blip in 1230 when she had an affair with an Anglo-Norman Marcher lord, William de Breos. Llywelyn had William hanged but he and Siwan subsequently managed to rebuild their relationship. When she died in 1237 Llywelyn was said to have been heartbroken. He founded the friary of Llanfaes (near Beaumaris) in her memory and she was buried there. He then retired to the abbey of Aberconwy and was buried there a few years later. Real ‘Chanson des Vieux Amants’ stuff.

It is the story of Siwan and de Breos which has captured the literary imagination: it forms the centre of Saunders Lewis’s play Siwan, Edith Pargeter (aka Ellis Peters)’s novel  The Green Branch and Sharon Kay Penman’s novel Here Be Dragons. This has unfortunately distracted attention from her importance as a political figure behind the scenes in a crucial period of the Welsh struggle for independence.

But is the carving at Beaumaris really Siwan? At a Church Monuments Society conference in Cardiff a little over a year ago, Brian and Moira Gittos dropped a bit of a bombshell. They had looked at the coffin lid as part of a review of the work of Colin Gresham, pioneer of the study of medieval tomb carvings in north Wales. What immediately struck them was that the style of the head-dress, with the wimple drawn under the chin to give a pointed shape to the face, was one that only became fashionable in the late thirteenth century. They knew of no datable examples before the 1270s. So it is extremely unlikely that this famous carving actually depicts Wales’s famous queen.

This took us all by surprise and we took a while to sort out our ideas. The identification of the coffin and its carved lid as Siwan is a local tradition. The earliest reference to the actual coffin is in Dodsley’s History of the island of Anglesey (1775) P 24. He says ‘On the road between Beaumaris and Llanfaes is a large stone trough, close by the sea, which is supposed by modern antiquaries to have been the coffin of the said Joane, King John’s daughter’.

According to an article by Charles R. Hand, ‘Llanfaes Friary and its Mystery Monuments’, in Archaeologia Cambrensis for 1924, ‘The cover was taken from the Friary in 1538 by Thomas Bulkeley and placed by him in the church’ – but Hand gives no reference to substantiate that so it may be local tradition. An earlier article, J. O. Westwood’s ‘On certain peculiarities observable in some of the early monumental effigies in Wales’, Archaeologia Cambrensis 1847 pp. 314-21, says (on p. 316) that the carving was found early in the 19th century face down in a ditch. According to an anonymous article in theGentleman’s Magazine vol xvii, January 1842, it was for some time placed upright in the wall of the pew belonging to the Sparrow family in Beaumaris church.

Anyway, in 1810, the local antiquarian Richard Llwyd decided that the coffin and lid might belong together. They were measured and fitted exactly. In that year Richard Fenton was able to report that the lid had been in the church in Beaumaris but that Lord Bulkeley had recently removed coffin and lid to a Gothic mausoleum in the grounds of Baron Hill. It was there when Hand saw it but it was moved again to Beaumaris church in 1928 or 1929.

So it seems that the tradition that the coffin was Princess Siwan’s can’t be traced with any certainty beyond 1810. Neil Fairlamb, rector of Beaumaris, has pointed out that, according to William Willliams’ Historia Bellomarisei (published about 1669), a number of coffins were dug up on the site of Llanfaes Friary and reused as horse-troughs: there is really no reason to suppose that any particular coffin was Siwan’s. There is also some doubt about the fit between carving and coffin. Stone coffins were pretty much standard sizes so the lids would have been standardized as well. And is the carving really a coffin lid? It is very elaborate for something intended to be buried. Elite funerals took a while to organize so the bodies were usually embalmed. This meant that it was possible to sink the coffin into the ground but with the lid showing. But the Beaumaris carving may not be a lid at all. It is difficult to be sure as the edges are damaged, but it looks as though there is no moulding along one side. It may have been a semi-effigy originally carved to fit in an alcove, probably sitting on a tomb chest but with the body buried below.

If it isn’t Siwan, who else might it be? From Llwyd’s description the head-dress was originally a crown or coronet but the upper part is now missing. It may have been damaged in transit though Hand suggests it may have been deliberately chiselled away to fix the clamps which hold the lid to the base.

We are therefore looking for someone of royal status. The Gittos’ original idea was that it could have been Gwenllian’s mother Eleanor de Montfort. I wasn’t convinced by this, as I wondered whether such an elaborate monument would have been commissioned in the difficult circumstances of the summer of 1282. Dafydd ap Gruffydd’s rebellion had broken out in March 1282 and by the time that Eleanor died in July Edward I’s army was attacking on two fronts, through Ceredigion and the Perfeddwlad. However, we do know that Eleanor was buried at Llanfaes, and Llywelyn might have had political reasons for giving her a high-profile monument.

The other likely candidate is Llywelyn’s mother Senena. We know very little about her but it is possible that she came from an Anglesey family, which makes burial at Llanfaes a possibility.

The letters patent by which Henry V re-endowed Llanfaes Friary mention several other key people buried there: as well as Siwan, he mentions the son of the king of Denmark and Lord Clifford. (This is from the Calendar of the Patent rolls, online at ). Llywelyn ab Iorwerth’s daughter Margaret was married to Walter III de Clifford and if he is the Clifford buried at Llanfaes it is just possible that she is there as well, and that as Llywelyn’s daughter she was depicted wearing a coronet. The Gittos also thought in view of the strong tradition that the carving depicted Siwan that it could have been a retrospective memorial, possibly one replacing one damaged in earlier fighting. On balance I don’t think  that’s likely as she was not Llywelyn’s ancestor and her son Dafydd had been Llywelyn’s father Gruffydd’s rival (and arguably indirectly responsible for his death). Senena and Eleanor have to be the most likely.

I got involved in all this because the Princes Gwenllian Society has contacted me about their proposal to get a virtual reconstruction of the ‘Siwan’ tomb and the coffin at Llanrwst usually said to be Llywelyn ab Iorwerth’s (don’t let’s get involved in that for the moment) installed in Bangor Cathedral. Gwenllian was Llywelyn and Siwan’s great-granddaughter, the only child of Llywelyn the Last and Eleanor de Montfort. Captured by the English after her father was killed in 1282, she was sent to the Gilbertine priory at Sempringham where she was effectively imprisoned for the rest of her life. The Princess Gwenllian Society exists to restore public awareness of her life and significance. They have installed commemorative plaques at Sempringham and on Eryri (Snowdon) and actually succeeded in getting one of the Carneddi range of mountains in eastern Snowdonia named after her. They are now widening their activities to look at her family. Their feeling was that people who saw the carving in Beaumaris and the coffin in Llanrwst would not be aware of their importance or of the link between them and the memorials to Gwenllian.

Their first idea was that the coffins should both be moved to Bangor Cathedral. This is not logistically possible and my own feeling is that it isn’t a good idea anyway. Both coffins have of course been moved already – the Beaumaris one has had quite a complicated journey from Llanfaes, while the Llanrwst one (if it is Llywelyn’s) was moved from Conwy to Maenan when Edward I moved the community of monks so that he could build his borough and castle at Conwy, then from Maenan to Llanrwst when the abbey was dissolved in 1536. The actual bodies are long lost, so we would only be moving  bits of carved stone. But moving them to Bangor would give a false impression of medieval elite burial practice. The great and the good were in fact much more likely to be buried in a monastic church rather than in a cathedral.

What is possible is a virtual representation of the coffins as they might have looked originally, with the stone painted as well as being carved. This could in theory sit on the web and be accessed from several locations – as part of the virtual reality presentation in Bangor, but also in Beaumaris, Llanrwst, Conwy and Maenan.

But in order to tell the story we do probably need a best guess as to who the carving in Beaumaris commemorates – and we probably need to think a bit more about the coffin in Llanrwst as well. Plenty of work there, I should say.


2 thoughts on “Revisiting the past

  1. Pingback: Bangor Cathedral | Say It With A Camera

  2. Pingback: That Beaumaris effigy again | heritagetortoise

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