Of tombs and digs (and pigs)

We are getting what could politely be termed mixed messages from Those Who Are Set In Authority Over Us. One week I am offered a professorial chair; the next week we are told our programme is being closed down. Obviously there are rumours about the fate of the Caerleon campus, and we are not really reassured to be told that no decision has yet been made. Local AMs have weighed in to support us but ironically they may only have succeeded in doing management’s job for them – for who will want to sign up for degrees on a campus which is publicly under threat?

Interesting times. But we plod on. My colleagues Ray and David Howell are back excavating a fascinating little post-medieval farming settlement just above Ray’s house in Llanfihangel Tor-y-Mynydd, between Monmouth and Usk. (More about this at http://excavate.weebly.com/ , and David’s forthright posting on the Day of Archaeology site at http://www.dayofarchaeology.com/excavating-in-the-face-of-adversity/ .) We are told by Authority that archaeology is a dead subject: but not only are History students keen to be a bit of digging, my young Gallo-French cousin Mairwen (studying Japanese and other modern languages at Grenoble) has come over to join them.

Not being much of a digger myself, I dropped Mairwen off with her sandwiches and some cake for the troops and went off looking for tomb carvings. I’m reluctantly settling for the fact that I will have to look at all the pre-industrial churches in Gwent and Glamorgan, as that’s the one corner of Wales where we don’t have an archaeological trust’s survey. I am also tracking down as many as possible of those intriguing post-Reformation cross slabs which seem to be distinctive to the area.

Monmouth has a fragmentary medieval tomb carving but I knew about that one already. The Monmouth churches and Rockfield proved to be devoid of ledger stones – or if there were any, they were inaccessible under decking and fitted carpet. But in St Maughan’s I hit gold. This is a lovely little church down narrow lanes, sitting almost in a farmyard with some endearing little pigs grazing in the next field.

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It has a wide south aisle, almost a double nave, with a timber arcade, and a timbered top to the tower. Inside, the floor is largely paved with ledger stones.No cross slabs, but several with the IHS trigram, including this one with the trigram in a heart commemorating a Thomas Turner who died in 1723.

The church guidebook identifies these as Catholic burials but I’m not entirely convinced. The area was certainly a stronghold of recusancy in the seventeenth century. Just across the Monnow river is the Cwm in Llanrothal, a ‘secret’ Jesuit college which provided a base for Catholic priests from the early seventeenth century until 1679, when several of them were executed following the ‘Popish Plot’ scare. The church guide book also mentions the first post-Reformation Catholic bishop, Matthew Prichard, who lived just down the road in Perth-hir, and the burial of two Catholic priests at St Maughans in the later 18th century.

But some of the tomb carvings in the church are surely too early for this open acknowledgement of the Catholic presence. The earliest, by the pulpit, is largely illegible but dates from some time in the 1660s.

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This one by the north door is dated April 1688, when James II and his wife were expecting their long-awaited child (possibly credited to James’s famous pilgrimage to Holywell) and the Catholics were riding high.

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But would a Catholic memorial have survived the Glorious Revolution and the final extinction of Catholic hopes later that year? I think it’s more likely that these are yet another example of the stubborn but entirely conventional traditionalism that produced cross slabs and IHS emblems all over south-east Wales in the seventeenth century.

This battered stone by the south door has lost almost all its inscription but the IHS trigram can just be seen at the top.

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No trigram on this one

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commemorating a … Lewis, possibly in 1641, but a very strange little mask-like face.

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The lettering on a lot of these stones is very poor, with words broken and letters reversed. I think we are looking at a local firm of stonemasons with very limited skills and a definite local style.

On to Cwmcarfan – even more difficult to get to, lost in the web of lanes that runs down the hill north and west of Trelech. I took several wrong turns and got some useful practice in reversing. There are lovely old farmhouses with evocative names like Great Llanthomas and Werngochen, and you can see the church in the middle distance but the road you are on just doesn’t go there! Eventually I found the right road and the vicar was still there. Bradney records two coffin-shaped tomb slabs in the chancel. One is clear

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but the other is under the carpet and very difficult to photograph.

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A third has been found since and is now in a rather undignified position at the west end of the north wall.

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All in all a good day . We have to go back in the winter, though, to inspect the ledger stones in the neighbouring church of Llangovan, part of the same benefice. The church went out of use for a while and became home to a colony of lesser horseshoe bats (more on this at http://www.ccgc.gov.uk/landscape–wildlife/protecting-our-landscape/special-landscapes–sites/protected-landscapes-and-sites/sssis/sssi-sites/llangovan-church.aspx ). It is now looked after by the Vincent Wildlife Trust. This means it is maintained and available for parochial use between Christmas and Easter when the bats are elsewhere. Bats in churches are hugely controversial at the moment. The loss of other habitats has driven many bat colonies into churches, where they are relatively undisturbed (rural churches have few services these days). But they make an awful mess and do huge damage to monuments. Some of my Church Monuments society friends clearly want rid of them. I’m fond of bats but I can see the problem. What we need is a solution that works for both sides. I’ve heard anecdotally of churches that have built ‘bat houses’ in the churchyard and persuaded the bats into them: but of course not all churches can afford this, and what if the bats simply refuse to move? They are said to dislike incense and noisy services, so both evangelicals and high church Anglicans should be in a strong position …

Meanwhile at Llangovan the bats are keeping the church going. There are some photos of the outside of the church on Flickr at https://www.flickr.com/photos/nickkaye/5065125502/in/photostream/ – that will have to do us for now.

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