Cross slabs, closet Catholics and local history lectures

Lecturing to local history groups has always been part of the academic’s job (though it’s something management blow hot and cold about depending on whether Wider Impact or Income Generation are at the forefront of their minds). To be honest, there are times when you’d rather not go out on a wet Thursday evening to drive to a church hall in the middle of nowhere with a dodgy data projector … but it’s fun, it helps you to explore your ideas, and it can produce some surprising results.

Last week it was quite a high-profile lecture to the Cardiff Archaeological Society, on the subject of medieval cross slabs. Then over the weekend I had an email from Doug Knight, a member of the society who had been inspired to look again at the church in Skenfrith and thought he had found a few more for my collection. This week I was lecturing to the U3A in Brecon – post-medieval cross slabs this time, as Brecon has such an outstanding collection and they are (apparently) very rare outside south Wales. (We seem to be hip deep in them here – but never mind.) Huge audience, very vigorous discussion afterwards, I had a few offers of help with our plan to compile a detailed listing of the stones in Brecon Cathedral, plus a nice chat with the lady from NADFAS who is already doing some surveying work in the cathedral and had been struggling with the transcription of one of the stones I was talking about.

So I went the long way home and drove over to Skenfrith. Muddy lanes, daffodils, early lambs in the fields – and in the church, this, at the west end of the north aisle.


Probably twelfth or thirteenth century, and a style you don’t see very often in south Wales, though there are plenty in the north. (Gresham dates the north Wales examples to the early 14th century but Ryder says the very similar crosses in the north of England are 12th century. Without anything in the way of inscriptions to go on, dating is frankly guesswork.)

A more battered example at the east of the north aisle:


And this, the remains of a floriated cross, a little later in date.


These are all new to my database and as far as I know unrecorded elsewhere. But to be honest what really excited me was the post-Reformation cross slabs. This one greets you as you walk in through the south door:


It looks to me to have been recut, as the cross-head is so much more worn than the inscription. Frustratingly, the date is incomplete but it’s clearly 18th century and the cross head looks late 16th or early 17th.

Much of the the inscription has spalled off but what remains reads


And there it breaks off – apparently the date was never finished.

Then a poem:


(you can get the gist of that!)

Up in the chancel this magnificent IHS slab, partly hidden by the chancel carpet:


All I can make out of the inscription is


And under the east end of the south nave arcade this rather sad memorial, with a little IHS emblem but no cross



(the epigraphy looks late 17th/early 18th century)

many thanks, Doug! None of these are in Bradney, but this one is –


the magnificent chest tomb of John Philip Morgan of the Waen and his wife Ann. (The top is a bit of a disappointment, though – no effigies, just crudely incised figures.)


This one is a bit of a puzzle, and a warning to the careless researcher. John Philip was the younger son of Philip ap Morgan Watkin of Llanfair Cilgoed in north Gwent: here he is on the History of Parliament web site . John’s older brother Richard was one of the judges who condemned Lady Jane Grey to death – his biography is at . According to Holinshed he subsequently went mad and died hallucinating that he could see Lady Jane and screaming to be protected from her. John had a less spectacular career but did a lot of the Crown’s business in Monmouthshire and was three times MP for the Monmouth boroughs.

John made his will in 1557 and it was proved in 1559, so you might have assumed that he died late in 1558 or early in 1559, when religion and politics had been hurled back into the melting pot on the accession of Elizabeth I. The wording of the will is ambiguous in the extreme. He begins by leaving his soul ‘to almighty God the father my creator and maker and to his only begotten son Jesus Christ my redeemer and saviour, who by his glorious and painful death and passion hath redeemed me and all mankiind, by the effusion of whose precious blood I trust to be saved and come to the fruition of the deity’ (so far, a fairly ‘Protestant’ preamble: but then he goes on) ‘and to the Holy Ghost and to our blessed lady the most pure virgin Mary, and to all the holy company of heaven’ (pretty definitively Catholic). He goes on to ask for burial at Skenfrith with ‘the holy and blessed sacraments of the true and catholic church to be ministered to me according to the just and true institution of the same’.

Now, he made this will in the summer of 1557, when Mary was on the throne but was known to be a sick woman and was obviously never going to have a child. By the time the will was proved she had been succeeded by her sister Elizabeth, but the details of the settlement of religion and politics (virtually indivisible at that period) had yet to be hammered out. John clearly felt no need to reword the will. My initial reading, which I have now explored with untold generations of students, was that he was being deliberately ambiguous, and that the clause about the ‘just and true institution of the same’  could be read as a sort of war weariness: make your minds up, tell me what you want me to do and I’ll do it.

The problem is that, if you look at his tomb, it gives his date of death as September 1557, shortly after the making of the will. The points about ambiguity and war-weariness may still hold good. Mary was clearly not going to last that much longer and her only feasible heir was her sister Elizabeth, so change of some sort was bound to be on the horizon. Why the will took so long to prove we may never know, though we do know that there had been earlier family dispites over the estate.

But if you look at the inscription on the side of the tomb chest, it also commemorates his wife, who didn’t die until 1564: so it is interesting that the inscription is in Latin and that it includes the traditional prayer for their souls, ‘quorum animabus propicietur Deus’.


On the other hand, this phrase occurs on other tombs of the period: it’s probably evidence not of adherence to the Catholic church but of the sort of stubborn traditionalism that was so much a feature of Wales in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.

The Skenfrith visit was so exciting that I decided to stay with the same ideas and go home via Llangattock near Usk, where Bradney found the earliest Welsh version of that IHS trigram in square capitals. Here is his rubbing


And here is the actual stone


One of the most interesting tomb carvings I’ve seen, it now lies outside the east end of the church and is clearly suffering considerable damage. But moving it might make matters worse. Bradney thought it had originally been inside the church, but we are now finding more evidence for early memorials in churchyards. So should we move it to protect it – or should it be left where it is?


2 thoughts on “Cross slabs, closet Catholics and local history lectures

  1. Dear Madeleine, Very sorry I missed both your lectures: one owing to the weather (had to turn back at Abergavenny) and one because I did not know about it. Please could you let me know when you are next lecturing on cross slabs etc.? Have included your work in the new edition of the Welcomers’ Guide to Brecon Cathedral. Must re-visit Skenfrith and lift the carpet… Many thanks for your postings. Richard Camp (I met you over the Havard tomb in Brecon Cathedral)

    On Fri, Feb 28, 2014 at 10:29 AM, heritagetortoise wrote:

    > madeleinegray2013 posted: “Lecturing to local history groups has > always been part of the academic’s job (though it’s something management > blow hot and cold about depending on whether Wider Impact or Income > Generation are at the forefront of their minds). To be honest, there are > tim”


  2. Absolutely fascinating reads. I discovered you whilst looking for info on the cross slab on the Ralph De Pitchford chest tomb in St Mary’s Church Albrighton.
    We spent Easter week in Herefordshire and as always,every church we visit in this gorgeous county,we find open and welcoming.Do you know Dilwyn, a small village with a huge fascinating church with one of the most huge,solid towers ever and a lovely large open windowed porch.What might interest you even more is the collection of cross slabs in the corner next to the disused Saxon font.I should think they are medieval?I have a pic.


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