The whole business of text on medieval tomb carvings fascinates me. I mean, why? Who was going to read it? Was it just to remind the priest who to pray for … was it fashion, an attempt to signal the importance of the person buried there … or was it meant not for a human readership but for God?
We have very few medieval brasses in Wales, and there was less scope for complex inscriptions in stone carvings. Nevertheless, we do have a few. Two of the most intriguing are in the ruins of Tintern Abbey. They were probably found during the late nineteenth-century excavations there and they have been exposed to the weather since, so that the inscriptions are all but unreadable. Fortunately, they were drawn by the Cardiff architect John Rodger for an article which he published in the Transactions of the Cardiff Naturalists in 1911. This one
commemorating a Jenkin ap Hoell had a typical late medieval cross with flared finials and three-dimensional base and the prayer ‘Jesu mercy, Lady help’ in false-relief blackletter script.
That little prayer was very popular in the late middle ages. It appears in wall paintings and tomb carvings, and it neatly encapsulates late medieval thinking on salvation. We are rather apt to assume that a lot of late medieval Christianity was focused on the Virgin Mary as the way to salvation. By the early sixteenth century, though, the focus had shifted back to Christ. Mary was still regarded as someone who could help you, but power was in the hands of her son. Whoever designed this tombstone – Jenkin ap Hoell or a member of his family – had a clear idea of his route to salvation.
The other stone is even more intriguing, but also more problematic. Only half of it is left, and it is now so badly worn as to be indecipherable.
John Rodger read much of the inscription, though in a rather garbled form.
It seems to commemorate a Thomas Phillips, though there is more to the name that Rodger could not make sense of. It could be ‘vach’ (Welsh for ‘junior’) then ‘vocatus’, then possibly a nickname.
It is the other side of the slab, though, that is the exciting bit. Rodger transcribed it as ‘….nime ejus chi … miserere’. A bit of determined Googling – how did we ever do this kind of thing before the Internet – identified this as a fragment from the Sarum rite for the commendation of the soul. This was the liturgy that the priest was expected to say actually at the deathbed. By this stage, at a medieval death bed, the priest would have heard the dying person’s confession and granted absolution, anointed them with holy oil and given them their final Eucharist, the viaticum. Medieval woodcuts from the Ars Moriendi show the deathbed as an intensely social occasion, with friends and family ready to encourage the dying person with prayers, and demons driven back by the power of the church. Lists of the ‘Signs of Death’ were a commonplace in later medieval literature, for it was important to know when death was imminent. In that final moment, in articulo mortis, the actual liturgy for the commendation of souls began with the recitation of the Creed then continued in its fullest form with the penitential psalms and the prayer Parce domine, parce servo tuo, ‘Spare, O Lord, spare thy servant, whom thou hast deigned to redeem with thy precious blood’. This was followed by a lengthy liturgy invoking God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Virgin Mary , angels and archangels, patriarchs and prophets, and an extensive list of saints. This concluded with the clauses quoted on Thomas Phillips’ monument,
Agnus dei qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere anime eius
Christe ihesu miserere anime eius
Agnus dei qui tollis peccata mundi dona ei pacem eternamque felicitatem et gloriam sempiternam.
After this (and in most cases, one would imagine, after the actual death) the priest began the prayer Proficiscere anima.
Go forth, Christian soul, out of this world, in the name of God the Father Almighty, who created thee; in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God, who suffered for thee; in the name of the Holy Ghost, who sanctified thee …
and continued with prayers for the release and protection of the soul and for its reception into Heaven.
This ritual has a psychologically compelling quality. Those who have attended a death bed may have felt that, once death has taken place, there is a hiatus. Even for those with no religious beliefs (and possibly more so for those with no formal beliefs) there is a reluctance to disturb the body. At the medieval death bed, the work of washing and shrouding the corpse could not begin immediately. The liturgy for the commendation of the soul was participatory, helpful to the dying but also to those attending the deathbed.
We know nothing about Jenkin ap Hoell and Thomas Phillips apart from the fact that they chose to be buried in the abbey. They were presumably local landowners, probably middle-ranking landowners, who could afford a tomb slab but not an effigy. Whether or not they were literate themselves, they recognised and understood the importance of the written word. For them, and for their contemporaries, reading was a social activity, one they could take part in even if they could not read themselves.
It is also worth remembering that these two men, presumably powerful in their local communities and well-informed, chose to be buried in the abbey. For all the negative publicity which late medieval monasticism has received, monastic communities were clearly valued. There is even a sense of revival in monastic life in the early sixteenth century, a revival which was cut off by the events of the 1530s.
I had some more checking to do. Rodger didn’t make anything of the inscription on this one
an iconographically fascinating slab with interlaced fishes. Sir Joseph Bradney in his History of Monmouthshire had a go at it and transcribed it as ‘Hic iacet Willelmus Wemted’ – this didn’t seem likely.
One of the custodians of the abbey, the other David Williams, pointed me to Harold Brakspear’s early guidebook to the abbey which transcribed it as ‘Willelmus Wellsted’ – much more likely.
And to my shame I found there was yet another tomb carving at Tintern that I hadn’t accounted for. This
is in the covered area behind the ticket counter, tucked away in the corner. I asked the other David Williams and he identified it as the head of an abbot, found during the early tidying-up job done on the Duke of Beaufort’s instructions in the eighteenth century. At that time it still had traces of gilding, though these have now gone. It looks about 1300 in date, and the abbey guide book suggests it may have commemorated Abbot Ralph (abbot c. 1295-1305) who masterminded the rebuilding of the abbey church. And this then
could be his tomb chest?