That Beaumaris effigy again

My friends in Cyfarwydd (https://twitter.com/heritagetales ) have been asking ‘if you could meet anyone in history who would it be & why?’. I had to respond ‘Llywelyn ap Gruffydd’. Our last Welsh prince of Wales, killed by the English in 1282 (bitter? Moi?). So much I would like to ask, particularly about the politics of that final struggle to defend Welsh independence – but also with a more immediate and practical purpose, to get him to identify that enigmatic effigy in Beaumaris church.

We all thought it was Princess Siwan. Then Brian and Moira Gittos of the Church Monuments Society pointed out that the style of head-dress was late 13th or even early 14th century – and Siwan died in 1237. When we looked at the evidence, the tradition that the effigy commemorated Siwan can only be traced back to the early 19th century (more on all this at http://heritagetortoise.wordpress.com/2013/09/30/revisiting-the-past/ ).

So who is it? The effigy seems to have had a coronet, though it has been badly damaged, possibly in the process of fitting the carving to the coffin base. Leading contenders are Llywelyn ap Gruffydd’s mother Senana and his wife Eleanor de Montfort. I thought Eleanor was unlikely: she died in the summer of 1282, at a time when Wales was being threatened on two fronts by Edward I. Would Llywelyn have spent time and money on a statement tomb at a time of crisis? But it does have a psychological plausibility, especially if you accept J. Beverley Smith’s hypothesis that it was Eleanor’s death that triggered Llywelyn’s decision to support his younger brother Dafydd’s rebellion against the English.

It’s a complicated story. The underlying problem was that, under Welsh law, when a king died, the kingdom was divided among all his sons. Even illegitimate sons had a claim if they had been acknowledged by their father. This made building a powerful Welsh kingdom that could resist English pressure virtually impossible. Llywelyn had tried to unite first Gwynedd then the rest of Wales under his rule but that meant challenging the rights of his brothers. One of them, Dafydd, threw in his lot with the English. After Llywelyn’s defeat in 1277, Dafydd was given control of north-east Wales, but by 1282 he had fallen out with Edward and rebelled against him. Llywelyn had to decide whether to support his brother in what was clearly a hopeless rebellion or to abandon him and be accused of betrayal.

Meanwhile, Llywelyn had married the daughter of the English rebel lord Simon de Montfort, but she died in childbirth in the summer of 1282 leaving him a baby daughter, Gwenllian. J.Beverley Smith suggests that this was what led to Llywelyn’s decision to make a last desperate attack on Edward.

The other possible candidate is Llywelyn’s mother Senana. She disappears from the record after the 1250s but she came from an Anglesey family and it was possible she was buried at Llanfaes. So I was very excited to find a reference by Andy Abram, in his chapter on ‘Monastic Burial in Medieval Wales’ in Monastic Wales: New Approaches to the fact that Senana died in 1263 and was buried at Llanfaes.

Andy’s reference was to a Sydney Ph D thesis, Gwenyth Richard’s ‘From footnotes to narrative: Welsh noblewomen in the thirteenth century’ (available online at http://ses.library.usyd.edu.au/handle/2123/1097). This was subsequently published as Welsh Noblewomen in the Thirteenth Century. But when I looked at the thesis the evidence cited for Senana’s death and burial was a Gwynedd County Council leaflet ‘Princes of Gwynedd: The Môn Trail’, published in 1996. This is not enough for academic proof! Gwenyth’s problem seems to have been that the evidence base for any study of medieval Welsh women is desperately thin. The date of 1263 fitted so well with her ideas about Senana’s crucial influence on her son Dafydd, and the suggestion that it was Senana’s death that led to Dafydd giving his allegiance to the English king, that she ignored its doubtful provenance and put it in anyway.

I’ve tried hard to find out more about this leaflet. Apparently the research was done by a John Davies – but which John Davies? Not John Davies Hanes Cymru, and not my friend John Davies of the Welsh History Forum either. Until I can track him down and try to see if he can remember what his evidence was, I can’t really use the material. I may be being cynical here, but it could just be an interesting example of how historical factoids get created. It has already been quoted on several web sites.

A side issue: the family at Penybryn, Abergwyngregyn may have been involved in this. If you want an amazing insight into Wikipedia’s editorial processes, look at the debate at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk%3APen_y_Bryn#Suggested_merger_with_Garth_Celyn.

So could the effigy still be Senana? A death date in 1263 is still a bit early for the head-dress on the effigy, though it’s probably late 13th rather than early 14th and could be as early as the 1270s. By the end of the century, effigies were being carved in that elegantly-swaying contrapposto style with hands holding cloaks or clasped in prayer. The Beaumaris effigy is straight (though most of the body is concealed by a foliated cover) and the hands are raised in the ‘orans’ pose.

The possibilities are:

  1. A retrospective for Senana, commissioned by Llywelyn or even (politically even more interesting) by Dafydd
  2. We have no record of Senana after the 1250s – but we have precious few records of anything from that period. It’s possible that she lived on into the 1270s and the effigy commemorates her immediately after her death (and did her death actually trigger Dafydd’s next political blunder in 1274?)
  3. The effigy isn’t Senana – which leaves Eleanor de Montfort as the prime candidate.

My own instinct is that 1, a retrospective by Llywelyn, is most likely – but without being able to identify the John Davies who was responsible for suggesting the 1263 date for her death and saying she was buried at Llanfaes, I can’t be sure.

So there the story rests.

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