Llanfrynach is a little church in the fields just west of Cowbridge. Access is down a narrow, rutted lane; there is no parking space, no electricity, no loos. It was clearly the centre of a dispersed settlement but by the seventeenth century most people were living to the north in Penllyn. The journey they had to make across the fields for funerals is marked by a line of coffin stiles, double stiles with a central support to rest the coffin while the bearers clambered over. A church was built in Penllyn in the nineteenth century and Llanfrynach is little used now, but it is still clearly much loved. There are recent burials and flowers in the graveyard. While we were measuring up the medieval carvings, two lots of visitors arrived, both with families from the area.
Llanfrynach is one of those churches you keep coming back to. I went there first in the mid 1990s when I was working on churches in the landscape. There was a suggestion of a Roman site just to the north of the church, so this could have been an example of an early church deriving from a late Roman house or estate church. There were Welsh poems on some of the gravestones in the churchyard so Gwen Awbrey came there with me. Our daughters were in the Welsh primary school together, so while Gwen deciphered the poems and I looked at the surrounding fields the girls made rubbings of tomb carvings. Apparently they were designing tombstones for their friends in school the next week. Gwen and I waited in some trepidation for a call from the headmaster, and planned to blame each other.
The church itself is a fascinating building. Much of the original 12th century building survives. There is a narrow chancel arch and a stone bench all round the nave. There are faint traces of medieval wall paintings to the south of the altar – a crown of thorns or a vine trail, with bunches of grapes. But it was not until my third visit, with a young French student who was working on Welsh wall paintings, that I realised that the east end of the church is virtually paved with medieval tombstones.
Even the doorstep is a late 13th century cross slab.
There are also some of those enigmatic post-Reformation cross slabs so typical of south-east Wales and so rare elsewhere. To complicate the picture still further, some of the medieval stones have lettering suggesting they were reused in the seventeenth century, and others are so battered it’s difficult to put a date to them.
Planning out and analysing this jumble of medieval and post-medieval slabs was clearly going to take some doing. My French cousin Amy is here for Christmas and happy to spend a day on her knees with tape measure and note pad. The church key lives in the Cross Inn, just up the road. Yes, they could do lunch for a vegan. We were in business.
The cross slabs date from the thirteenth to the seventeenth centuries. Probably the oldest is this one
If you saw it in Yorkshire you would probably say 12th century but in north Wales it could be as late as 1300. The lettering MT 1670 is a later addition.
Then there are a number of floriated crosses in circles and quatrefoils. As well as the doorstep, there is one built into the roof of the rood loft stairs
a tiny cross head, 30 x 26 cm, which may have covered a heart burial
and this splendid one,
137 x 70 cm, with an elaborate head
and lovely detailed oak leaves springing from the shaft.
There are traces of writing incised round the border but all we could identify was a capital G. It looked Lombardic in style, so it may have been contemporary with the cross.
This very plain cross set in the chancel floor
is probably late medieval, and this stumpy base
could also be early 16th century. We thought long and hard about the two very plain crosses in the sanctuary floor. Both are in the very simple four-line style of the post-medieval crosses in Llantwit Major and elsewhere in the Vale of Glamorgan. We thought this one
might be pre-Reformation. The wedge shape would mean an even earlier date in England but you still find this coffin-lid shape in Wales in the seventeenth century. But the absence of any inscription seems to suggest earlier rather than later. This one on the other hand
is so very crudely carved, with space for a lengthy inscription below the cross, that we eventually decided it was post-medieval. It could even be as late as the date carved on it, the letter M and a date beginning 16… .
Then there are the clearly dated post-medieval stones. A little cross slab which has clearly been repositioned (it now forms part of the southern sanctuary step)
WILLIAM THE SONNE OF CHRISTOR TURBERVILL AND ELINOURE HIS WIFE AO DNI 1613
(Orrin has transcribed this as commemorating William and Elinor but the reading above is quite clear.)
Against the south wall of the sanctuary, and possibly in its original position, is a sizeable slab
with a cross whose design I have not seen elsewhere. Orrin describes it as ‘a cross moliné with fishtail base’ but the base seems feathered like wings.
What the symbolism could be, either the fish or the wings, we can only guess.
The cross commemorates two more members of the Turberville clan:
HERE LYETH THE BODY OF
ESQR DECESSED THE 18TH DAY
OF MARCH AO DNI 1678
REQUIESCAT IN PACE
HERE ALSOE LYETHE BODY
OF CHRISTOPHER TURBERVILL
ESQR DECEASED THE 5TH DAY
OF DECEMBER AO DNI 1700
The Turbervilles held the Penllyn estate in the seventeenth century and were connected to the Turbervilles of Sker. Both families were at one time defiantly Catholic: the Jesuit priest St Philip Evans was arrested at Sker in 1678 and it was at the Turberville house in Penllyn that St John Lloyd was arrested in the same year. Both men suffered the horrific death of hanging, drawing and quartering the following year. In this case, then, the crosses and the Latin on the second slab could reflect the family’s religious standpoint. On the other hand, the older Christopher (husband of Elinor and father of William) was High Sheriff of Glamorgan in 1616, and there are plenty of examples of post-Reformation cross slabs from impeccably orthodox families.
Oh, and the coffin stile in the churchyard.
Could the coping stone on the western pillar
be part of a medieval coped grave cover?