Tintern Abbey: the commendation of souls

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

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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.

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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.

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John Rodger read much of the inscription, though in a rather garbled form.

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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

 

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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.

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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

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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

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could be his tomb chest?

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Cogan

Cogan: stone, plaster and hope for the future

The little parish church at Cogan is one of Glamorgan’s oldest churches. Probably a chapel dependent on the minster church of Llandough, it was by the 12th century the church of a manor belonging to the de Cogan family, though the church itself belonged to Tewkesbury Abbey. There is a lot of herringbone masonry in the walls:

in England this would suggest an Anglo-Saxon date but in Wales this style of walling still seems to be found in the twelfth century.

The church sits at the end of a muddy lane in what is now the outskirts of Penarth. Its village was in decline by the sixteenth century; by 1841 there were only three houses there, and the church was derelict. It was rescued by the 3rd Marquess of Bute: though a Catholic, he restored or rebuilt a number of Anglican churches. We would now regard Cogan as one of the lucky ones. Instead of a complete rebuild or a Victorian make-over, he settled for making the building weatherproof and usable. It still has traces of medieval plaster, though the original stone benches around the nave have been boxed in with Victorian wainscot. The painting over the chancel arch must have been a Last Judgement but hardly any of it is decipherable and the cost of conserving what remains is probably disproportionate.

Now the church needs more repair. Earth has piled up against the walls, creating damp problems, and the old drains are broken and clogged. There is only a small congregation but an enthusiastic band of Friends is raising money. After the necessary repairs, they have great plans. There is a lot of tumbled stone in the graveyard, possibly from older buildings. The Friends want to construct a new building in the graveyard to house a catering facility (you can’t call it a kitchen if you want the HLF on board) and toilets, and possibly a meeting room. This would mean the church could be used for concerts and other events.

First step has been to dig out and replace the old drains and lift the rotting suspended wooden floor. At this point John Davies of the Welsh Stone Forum happened by, got very excited about the stone floor this revealed, and arranged a study visit. Meanwhile, the chancel floor had been lifted, revealing these seventeenth-century ledger stones commemorating members of the Herbert family of Cogan Pill.

No cross slabs, alas, but some finely-carved heraldry and well lettered inscriptions: this is the work of one of the better local firms of stonemasons. The floor is that shelly lias that we saw at Merthyr Dyfan and Cadoxton, lumpy and laid in random slabs like crazy paving, strange material for a floor. It seems unlikely that it was hauled all the way from the coast, so there must be a local outcrop somewhere.

On the wall outside is an impressive monument under a cornice, commemorating John Davies and his wife Mary, who died in 1800. According to local tradition this was carved by none other than Edward Williams, Iolo Morgannwg, forger, polymath and radical, but we could see no evidence for this. It could be him, though.

Here is Jana surveying the  other memorials underneath it – but they are piled up against the wall and adding to the damp. Where can they go?

The Good Priest of Geddington

Not a Welsh tomb – but a tomb, and a lovely example of the way that folk traditions can develop around tomb carvings (crossed legs and Crusaders, ‘pirate’ tombs with skulls and crossbones, effigies of ‘giants’  …)

I’ve been working with Howard Williams on a carved slab which has turned up in Llangollen and which very probably depicts a c 1300 abbot of Valle Crucis (see https://howardwilliamsblog.wordpress.com/2016/10/21/smiling-abbot-part-3/ and the links from that). He seems to be shown carrying a book (quite common for priestly effigies) and something we can only identify as a paten.

So I was very excited when an old colleague sent me a link to this http://geddingtonchurch.org.uk/the-shrine-of-hagius/ with a photograph of another priest. The wonderful @Stiffleaf  has a better photo of it at http://www.ipernity.com/doc/stiffleaf/44753570/in/keyword/4985488/self and the priest is clearly carrying a paten. He has the chalice in his right hand and a book in his left, so the paten is tucked rather awkwardly under his right arm. There’s also a suggestion of something hanging from his right wrist – it could be a maniple, though that would normally be on the left. He is vested for Mass, with a chasuble over his alb. The folds of the chasuble have muddled many attempts to describe the effigy. The Northamptonshire Pevsner says he is covered by a shield, and Bailey’s Northamptonshire in the Early Eighteenth Century: the drawings of Peter Tillemans and others describes it as a semi-effigy withy the lower part of the body covered.  The effigy is badly worn, especially around the face and hands, though oddly the chasuble is still quite clearly carved.

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The Geddington priest: photo (c) Norman Hammond

So far, so good: a standard early C14 effigy of a priest, with the interesting (though not unique) feature that he is carrying a paten as well as chalice and book. Brian and Moira Gittos have sent me references to similar effigies at Barnard’s Castle and Ledbury. There is also a cross slab at Sproatley with chalice and paten touched by a disembodied hand. All this is very helpful in our efforts to elucidate the Llangollen stone.

I was more concerned, though, by some of the other material on the web site. It gives him the name Hagius, which it says is recorded on an inscription on the effigy (now said to be below floor level and invisible) and in a document in the archives of the nearby Boughton Castle. The web site further claims that Hagius ‘died whilst celebrating the Eucharist. This is often considered as a significant and saintly way for God to call a person home to Him, and so it is not wonder that Hagius quickly became considered locally as a saintly individual … In this effigy, Hagius’ priestly credentials are evidenced by the chalice, paten and bible which are placed lovingly in his hands. His saintly credentials evidenced by his long neck and tonsure – signs of devout holiness.’

The idea that this was a priest who died while celebrating the Eucharist seems to be a local tradition invented to explain the chalice and vestments. The eighteenth-century antiquarian Bridges mentions the tradition in his History of Northamptonshire only to dismiss it. Apart from anything else, there are far too many priestly effigies with chalices – they can’t all have died at the altar. In fact, the only record of one that I could find was an anti-Wyclif text by Thomas Gascoigne who says Wycliffe had a stroke at the elevation and implies it was a divine punishment for his errors about the Eucharist. (I owe this one to Thomas Izbicki on the medieval-religion jiscmail group: he says see Andrew Larsen’s article in A Companion to John Wyclif (2006).) There are plenty of texts telling you how to cope if a priest dies while celebrating – at what point you take over, what you do if the bread or wine is spilled – but nothing on the fate of his soul. There is also a well-evidenced medieval belief that if you died while watching Mass you would go straight to Heaven – that one is in the Lay Folks’ Mass Book and its Welsh equivalent, ‘Rhinweddau Gwrando Offeren’ (for a Welsh article on that see https://cylchgronau.llyfrgell.cymru/view/1229967/1233814/35#?xywh=-673%2C1388%2C4153%2C2054 – thanks to Ann Parry Owen for those references). But again nothing about exceptional holiness.

The tonsure and the long neck, too, proved misleading. The tonsure simply shows he was a priest. The long neck was the style of the early fourteenth century: nothing to do with holiness.

That made me wonder about some of the other material on the web site. There is a little bit of late Saxon stonework in the fabric of the church. The web site says ‘Bones from a Saxon grave were discovered while the floor was being repaired in 1990, and it is thought that these were most likely from a Saxon priest/monk who will have served this church dutifully over 1000 years ago.’ I contacted the county archaeologist. She sent me a brief report of the 1990 excavation from South Midlands Archaeology for 1991. That said there was ‘a burial oriented east-west and located at the south-east corner of the easternmost pillar base [of the south aisle] – though no relationship could be determined. About half of the oval grave was uncovered, including the head and top left side of the body. Three limestone fragments supported the skull. The grave was a minimum of 0.14m. deep and vertically sided. No datable finds were found in its fill.’

In Requiem: the medieval monastic cemetery in Britain, Gilchrist and Sloane say stones as head supports (with and without coffins) are found across southern and western England and from C11-C16 but are more common in C11 and C12 (this is on pp 137-8 of Requiem). This burial is presumably the one referred to as ‘Saxon’ in the church web site. It could be very late Saxon but is possibly later. Traditionally, alignment with the head to the east was held to denote a priest. The idea was that at the Day of Judgement, when we would all rise out of our graves, the priest would rise facing his people and would be able to guide them. There is nothing in the grave, though, to suggest it was that of a priest. Depending on the date, it was probably someone of importance,  but burial in church became increasingly common in the later middle ages.

The web site goes on to say ‘The shrine of Hagius  would have been a place of significant pilgrimage for centuries, as the Holy Water stoup to the left of the priest’s head signifies’.

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The head of the effigy and the ‘stoup’: photo (c) Norman Hammond

Holy water stoup? None of my contacts in the Church Monument Society had ever seen a stoup as part of an effigy. They all thought it much more likely that the very worn feature to the left of the priest’s head was an angel supporting his pillow. The whole slab with the effigy on it was clearly wedge-shaped at one time and it has been trimmed down, possibly for use in building.

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Damage to the side of the effigy and slab: photo (c) Norman Hammond

There was probably another angel to the right of the priest’s head. A rough sketch of the monument by the Dutch artist Peter Tillemans in 1719 shows the surviving angel quite clearly. (The drawing is in British Library Additional MS 32467, no. 106, and it’s reproduced in Bailey’s Northamptonshire in the Early Eighteenth Century.) There is another drawing by Sir Henry Dryden in 1843 in the Northampton Central Library (https://vads.ac.uk/large.php?uid=30721&sos=0). That shows features on the effigy; the supporting angel is much less detailed but the hands on the pillow are quite clear.

The effigy is now in the lady chapel but it may have been moved at least once. The church web site points to an illustration in Bridges, but this is clearly a confusion with the Tillemans sketch. The note on the back of the sketch says the effigy is ‘In the N Isle at ye upper end  under the N. wall’, but Bridges says it is adjacent to an inscription at the upper end of the south chancel. According to Bailey, the note on the back of the sketch is not in Tillemans’ hand and may be inaccurate.

And what about the inscription: Hagius ecclesiae capellanus, Hagius, priest of the church. The only record of that was in the document in the published edition of the Boughton Castle archive. This was an unsigned letter to Charles Lamotte, rector of Warkton, in about 1736. Lamotte had worked as steward for the 2nd Duke of Montagu, owner of Boughton, and seems to have passed the letter on to him. None of the antiquarians who visited the church seemed to have noticed the writing on the effigy. They made various attempts at transcribing the inscriptions in Lombardic capitals recording the priests who contributed to the rebuilding of the chancel. These inscriptions once formed the chancel steps and are now rearranged around the chancel. Bridges didn’t seem to have noticed anything on the tomb: but in what he said about the effigy there was a cross-reference to an earlier part of the book. I followed that up and found that, under the nearby parish of Lamport, he described a burial with a key and a candlestick which he thought was an acolyte. Then he compared it with effigies of priests like the one at Geddington, with the inscription ‘Hujus ecclesiae capellanus’.Not Hagius but Hujus – ‘ priest of this church’.

Much of the ‘letter’ in the Boughton archive was actually copied out of Bridges, including the bit about the candlestick and the acolyte. Clearly, it couldn’t have been copied from the printed book. Bridges died in 1724 but the book wasn’t published until 1791. So it must have been done by someone who had access to his notes and drafts. And looking at the original document in the Boughton Castle archives, it’s clear that that too says not ‘hagius’ but ‘hujus’, It was a simple mistranscription by someone unfamiliar with medieval Latin.

So what we can say is that we have in Geddington  the effigy of a priest, but that we do not know his name. He probably was a person of local repute: he was buried in the church, at a date when that was still an unusual privilege, with an elaborate tomb when most people went to the grave with only a shroud. But that is all.

There are still problems. Who copied the material from Bridges’ MSS and sent it to Lamotte? If there was ever an inscription, where was it? Jean Wilson of the Church Monuments Society has examined the effigy slab carefully and thinks it is all still visible. There is now no trace of any inscription. The lower part of the effigy is missing, as well as the angel to the right of the priest’s head. Tillemans’ drawing has only one angel. It does look as though the lower part of the slab is still there, but to be honest the drawing is so sketchy that it’s difficult to be sure. The lower part had clearly gone by the time Dryden drew the carving in 1843. So was the inscription there, or is it a confusion with an inscription elsewhere? The fact that Bridges does not mention it in the chapter on Geddington does suggest that there is something dubious about it. More work on the MSS may elucidate this as well.

And how can we explain the wear on the face and hands of the effigy, and the difference between the upper part of the body and the chasuble? Bridges said the effigy was at the upper end of the south chancel. The chancel was virtually derelict in the early nineteenth century and it is possible that the upper part of the effigy was exposed to water dripping from the roof but that the lower part was protected in some way. Alternatively, it is possible that a local cult had developed around the effigy, based on the tradition that he was carrying the vessels for Mass because of his exceptional holiness. There are plenty of other examples of post-Reformation cults forming around gravestones and effigies. The effigy of a C13 bishop in Llandaff Cathedral was believed to be that of St Teilo, founder saint of the cathedral, and his tomb was in the C18 a place for striking business deals. There is considerable hand wear around the feet of the effigy, which people touched to seal the agreement. The incised effigial slab of a local couple on the parish church of Christchurch near Newport in Gwent was widely believed to have healing powers and people laid their children on it in the hope of a cure. As a result, it has been almost completely worn away. However, hand wear does look different from weathering. It depends to some extent on the stone type, and it would need close examination, but from photographs the wear on the Geddington effigy looks more like weathering.

The sad thing is that there is of course a very interesting story at Geddington. It just isn’t the story that is on the church web site. What we have is, if you like, the Grave of the Unknown Priest. He may have been one of the men who organised the building work in the church, or he may have been another whose name is known only to God. He served the parish, out in all weathers baptising sickly babies and taking the last rites to dying parishioners. His was not the heroism of sanctity but the day-to-day heroism of a man doing his job. He said the prayers in church, even when there was no-one else to say them with him. Because of his ministry, and that of people like him, the church is still a place where prayer has been valid.

But his name wasn’t Hagius.

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.