The main purpose of my database of medieval Welsh tomb carvings is to act as a resource for people who want to study our tradition of monumental carving, for whatever reason – looking at religion and belief, social identity, geology … But how many of these carvings are really ‘Welsh’? Many were commissioned by outsiders, some were carved by English stonemasons, the lovely alabasters of the 15th and 16th centuries came from the alabaster workshops in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, probably in flatpacks for local assembly.
According to John Newman’s The Buildings of Wales: Glamorgan, the two medieval effigy tombs at Aberpergwm are ‘Two medieval effigies, brought in, it is said, from France, crudely restored and set under crocketed arches in the chancel E wall’. So for the purposes of the database I was prepared to ignore them. Then I rethought it. They are as Welsh as a lot of the ‘Welsh’ tombs of the period, and they are certainly part of that rather nebulous area of study ‘the after-life of the monument’.
There is now a possibility that the database may go online on the new server of the Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies in Aberystwyth. I have to start tying up the loose ends … so many loose ends …
So in the slack period between Christmas and the New Year my French cousin and I set off to have a look. The church has had problems with vandalism and is usually locked but the churchwarden opened it for us – and moved the Christmas tree so that we could have a better look.
The effigies are a male and a female.
If his armour is part of the original and not restoration, he’s late C14. Bascinet and mail aventail
simple shoulder and elbow reinforcements
heavily riveted leg armour
sabatons; and a rather cute dog under his feet.
But how much of this is original?
The woman is more obviously restored: but again, which bits are original? If the head with its rather strange expression and the heavy veil and wimple is original, she could be late C14 but could also be a lot earlier.
The tightly-buttoned sleeves look right for the late C14, as does the mantle.
There’s a complete lack of detailing for the upper body where the mantle fastening would be.
Part of the problem is that we don’t seem to have any evidence for provenance – why the suggestion that they came from France? And crucially, what were they like before?
There is a lot else of interest in the church. It was probably a Cistercian grange chapel in origin. It them became a chapel of ease to Cadoxton near Neath and was almost completely rebuilt in the C19 by the local Williams family. Their great house at Aberpergwm is now a ruin just above the church. It was William Williams of Aberpergwm who rebuilt the church and brought the effigies in. They sit in what look like late medieval niches, again probably from elsewhere, with plaques in deliberately archaic Welsh associating them with the Williams family’s ancestors Iestyn ap Gwrgant and the Welsh lords of Glyn-neath and Afan. This really is the invention of tradition.
It was also William Williams who acquired some early C16 German stained glass for the church. It came originally from the Premonstratensian abbey of Steinfeld. Sold off during the Napoleonic wars, it came to Aberpergwm via a German dealer, John Christopher Hampp. Several more panels of Steinfeld glass are in the Victoria & Albert Museum, and more is distributed around churches, mainly in Norfolk, where Hampp had settled. More about this on the online stained glass journal Vidimus: https://vidimus.org/issues/issue-35/features/. The four panels at Aberpergwm depict members of the Premonstratensian order being presented to an array of familiar and unfamiliar saints.
More invention of family history?
The church also has an array of bits of stone carving – some may have come from the earlier church, some must have been brought in. I really need to know more about the C19 trade in antiquities, and specifically the trade in this kind of medievalizing (as opposed to classical antiques).
And in the churchyard – the ‘Wedding-cake Monument’, once much more elaborate. It commemorates Jane Williams, who died of consumption in 1832, a year after her marriage. Her broken-hearted husband had a Gothic-style monument constructed for her and placed where he coupld see it from the house. I can’t find a photo online of the monument in its original glory: here it is in 1979 on Mike Collier’s web site https://www.themikecollierarchive.com/photo_9240385.html and here as it is today, shorn of all its elaborate tracery
A good quarter of the gravestones in the churchyard are all or part in Welsh. Amy spotted two with a variant of that ‘Cofia ddyn wrth fyned heibio’ poem: these both start ‘Cofia ffrynd ….’, ‘Remember, friend …’. It’s a variant which Gwen Awbery also found in Carmarthenshire.