Brecon Cathedral again (and again)

Brecon is the cathedral that just keeps giving, at least for the student of church monuments. Last time we were there, we spotted an oddity between the pews and the north wall of the Havard chapel (the one north of the chancel).  It looked like a late sixteenth-century slab with lots of heraldry but the inscription (barely legible between the pews) was in Latin and part of it read ‘cuius anime …’, presumably to be followed by ‘deus propicietur’. May God have mercy on his soul – not something you’d expect on a post-Reformation monument.

Brecon was not of course a cathedral until the twentieth century. The church had been part of the priory of St John and was converted to parish use at the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The monuments were pretty comprehensively moved around when George Gilbert Scott restored the building in the 1860s and 1870s, and we couldn’t be sure that this tomb slab was anywhere like its original location, but it was still interesting.

So we went back for another go. The Cathedral’s maintenance staff were absolutely star, moving immensely heavy oak pews and even removing a section of panelling so that I could read as much as possible. Here it is

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Unfortunately, the section under the panelling was very badly worn and I could only make out a few letters.

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They included a capital G – Games, possibly, one of the wealthy local families? But moving the pew made the other part of the inscription fairly clear. Whoever it was died in October 1569, and the inscription clearly continued as I thought, ‘cuius anime propicietur deus’ then round the corner ‘amen’. Then we could see the beginning, something like ‘Hic sepultus …’, ‘here lies buried’ (and sepultus rather than sepulta making it clear it was a man). The Cathedral guide, Richard Camp, suggested it might be the tomb of a Havard – we were after all in the Havard chapel and one of the shields on the monument was the three bulls’ heads of the Havards – but I wasn’t convinced.

While we were doing this, we also spotted two more small crosses, one of them very battered.

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Dear old George Gilbert Scott had tucked them away under a radiator. Not the best conservation practice.

And finally there was this one

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now forming a sort of draining-board to the piscina in the St Lawrence chapel.  Was it ever a cross – was it a cross reused as a roof tile – or was it a roof tile roughly incised with the base of a cross?

At home I found Theophilus Jones’s History of Brecon on the archive.org site. And there in the plate facing page 73 of vol 2 was the cross slab we had been looking at.

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And Richard Camp was right, it was a Havard, Lewis Havard. The G I had seen was the G of Generosus.

But all was not lost because while looking for it I found a description of another tomb dated 1564 with the same rather old-fashioned wording. It commemorated Edward Games of Newton, a member of another wealthy local family. That one has since been lost, but it does start to look like something of a local fashion.  This is where it gets dangerous to think of these inscriptions as ‘Catholic’. The Games and Havard family certainly had Catholic connections, though in the case of the Games the accusations may have had more to do with local politics. But there was a difference between being accused of reading Catholic poetry and being a full-on recusant.  In any case, both families were clearly part of the local establishment and, whatever their religious tendencies, qualified for burial in the parish church.

With Rachel Duthie’s help we had also spotted this

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at the base of the north rood loft stairs. With the eye of faith you can see that this too is the shaft of a cross – and it’s probably medieval simply because there is no evidence of writing.

There was no time to do more that day but we were back the next day to look at some carvings in Brecon College. So Rachel Duthie promised to arrange access to some of the other staircases. Stairs are often a good place to look for fragments of medieval tomb carving because the slabs of stone are perfect for steps. The tower steps at Conwy in north Wales are virtually all medieval tomb carvings (see Gresham for details, plus at least one more spotted by the Gittos) and there are at least two at Llanilltud Fawr.

Christ’s College, Brecon is now a public school but it’s on the site of the Dominican friary of St Nicholas, which was in the suburbs of the medieval borough of Brecon. We went there partly to see some tomb carvings which Thomas Dineley sketched in 1684 when we accompanied the Duke of Beaufort on a tour of Wales. There was another purpose too. I’m working with Ian Fell of Llancarfan on a booklet explaining the medieval wall painting of Death and the Gallant which has recently been discovered in the parish church at Llancarfan. We have been collecting other medieval depictions of Death, in Wales and elsewhere. Some of the choir stalls at Christ’s College came from the friary, and one has a wonderfully crude carving of Death under the misericord seat.

So Ian brought his powerful lighting and we both had a go. Here is Death, with a face like a Hallowe’en pumpkin

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– and he is actually kneeling.

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This may have been because the carver couldn’t fit the feet into the misericord support. However, it’s always worth remembering that Death in the medieval morality plays is actually one of the good characters – he (or sometimes she) is God’s messenger, taking you not to the Devil but to judgement.

Then we went to look at the tomb carvings.  The college archivist kindly gave up much of her morning to accompanying us and showing us around. This is Dineley’s sketch of the tombs.

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We found one of those without too much difficulty – here it is

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And the one with the very plain cross is here, behind a very heavy and totally immobile chest of drawers

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you can make out the words AMEN + HIC at the top, but the cross has been completely worn away.

We weren’t sure about the third. There is another slab, very worn and almost completely illegible:

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The letters at the bottom are a bit clearer and don’t correspond to Dineley’s drawing.

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But I do know that a lot of the drawings in Dineley’s journal were done from notes. His drawing of the Bulkeley tomb in Beaumaris has a totally inaccurate depiction of armour and clothing and may get the heraldry wrong as well. So it is quite possible that Dineley didn’t show the lettering exactly as it appeared.

The wear on the stone is rather more problematic.  It’s hard to see how the cross and scallop shells that Dineley drew (and presumably saw) have been so completely obliterated, and how the lettering has virtually disappeared. An angle grinder would do it, but they didn’t have angle grinders in the eighteenth century. However, when we looked round the college chapel, we saw some seventeenth-century ledger stones that had been similarly worn almost flat. A college chapel does get a very heavy footfall, more than the average parish church: the pupils could be trooping in several times a day for various purposes, scuffing their feet and generally kicking around. On balance I think the third stone is the one Dineley drew – at least, I hope it is, because (a) if it isn’t, I don’t know where the other one is and (b) I can’t decipher what survives!

The chapel vestry has some other stones as well. Most are fragments of seventeenth and eighteenth century memorials. There’s this cross slab

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to a member of the Awbery family, and this very faint incised stone

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with a couple in late sixteenth-century dress.

And to our great excitement this

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– no inscription but from the detail of the head and hands with the contrast as high as it will go I think it’s mid fourteenth century.

And we had an excellent lunch in the College canteen. Boarding school food is definitely a lot better than it was in my day – no gristle or watery cabbage in sight, and they catered for a vegan without turning a hair.

So on to the Cathedral, where one of the minor canons had kindly offered to take us up the tower. This was exciting and a bit scary (I have poor balance and no head for heights) and there were no tomb slabs in the steps or the vaulting, but the glimpses of the Cathedral at ceiling level and the view across Brecon to the Beacons were stunning. And while the minor canon was looking for the tower key we spotted this

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in the steps up to the organ loft.

All in all a very productive day – now all I have to do is make sense of my notes, write it up and not get too involved with the post-medieval discoveries.

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3 thoughts on “Brecon Cathedral again (and again)

  1. Pingback: One castle a day – Brecon Cathedral part 2 | Vanadian Avenue

  2. Pingback: Tweeting tombstones #deathandcommemoration | heritagetortoise

  3. Pingback: Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the Cathedral … | heritagetortoise

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