The Llanblethian crypt

The church at Llanblethian in the Vale of Glamorgan is the old parish church for the borough of Cowbridge. In the Middle Ages the parish included as chapelries the modern parishes of Llansannor and Welsh St Donats as well as Llanquian, now just a farm off the roundabout east of Cowbridge. It looks feasibly like the minster church of a small Welsh commote. As such it has a good collection of medieval tombstones – I counted ten, plus the little one that was once built into the piscina but is now missing, and a savagely mutilated effigy that was built into the 15th century tower.

Some of the stones are difficult to spot, so when I went there with the Cardiff Archaeological Society I challenged them to find them all. They did it, and even found an extra, reused as a lintel in the crypt.

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The visible part of the stone measures 55 x 40 cm maximum, but it is clearly built into the wall with a full length of at least 90 cm. Here is a view of the window

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The crypt at Llanblethian has all sorts of stories attached to it.

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When the church was ‘restored’ in 1896 the crypt was found to be full of skeletons, together with some coffin lids, presumably those now placed in the tower and porch. Local tradition says that the skeletons were those of soldiers killed at the battle of Stalling Down in 1405. It seems more likely, though, that this was the parish charnel house, and that it held skulls and bones found in the course of grave-digging: these are the bone-holes through which they would have been shovelled.

 

The bones were reburied in a common grave in the churchyard, and it seems unlikely that it will ever be possible to re-excavate and examine them.

As well as the communal crypt, the church had a separate stone-lined shaft which contained a skeleton and a small low-grade pewter chalice. This was presumably the grave of a much-respected parish priest, with the chalice as his emblem of office.

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Covering the shaft, though, was a reused tomb stone commemorating a woman, Eme…t wife of Walter Torig.

 

The carving on the stone was late 13th century in style and the priest’s grave was probably fourteenth century, so the stone must have been reused quite soon after it was laid in its original position. Medieval people were quite relaxed about reusing tomb carvings – they crop up as door and window lintels and they made particularly good steps.

The detailed study of what was found in the church in 1895 is in Archaeologia Cambrensis for 1898, available online at https://journals.library.wales/view/2919943/3011708/16#?xywh=-1218%2C-1313%2C4256%2C3507 .

Brecon (again)

A trip to Brecon always seems to produce something new, especially with my sharp-eyed cousin Amy. To be fair, these are a bit niche – but is this

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a medieval cross slab? From the floriated base

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and the lack of any visible inscription it could well be. There’s a bit of one fleur-de-lis finial on the head.

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Not totally convinced by this one –

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the inscription could be hidden.

This beauty is clearly post-medieval

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and a chilling reminder.

This in the north transept

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could be medieval from the simplicity of the stepped base.

The cathedral cat led us to some fine 20th century tombs outside.

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And finally – Amy spotted this

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as the lintel of a niche in the west wall.

But oh dear, oh dear, oh dear –

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what can we do to stop them piling seats, flower-arranging clutter and buckets on the stones?

Friends of Friendly Churches

To my way of thinking, a Friendly Church is one that is open on a gloomy Sunday in the depths of December. So with some optimism my sharp-eyed French cousin and I set off to look at a clutch of FFC churches just east of Usk. We got to Gwernesney and the door was firmly shut. Asked at Church Farm … asked at the next house … cute dogs, no idea about keys. Then Amy gave the door a good thump and it opened. O we of little faith.

And it was worth the wait. A typical Friends’ church, unassuming and full of interest.

Quite a lot of the rood screen left, with some lovely post-medieval stencilling and decoration.

     

Ledgerstones

      

with fragments of poetry

(can’t make out the inscription on this one)

and a clutch of rectors and their families in the chancel.

 

Then we tracked back to Llangyfiw.

This has the skeleton of its rood screen including the support beam.

Typical Welsh construction, very boxy, with joists rather than vaulting under the huge loft. But the great excitement here was this another of those post-Reformation cross slabs.

It has a date 1595, the IHS trigram at the heart of the cross and the scrolled base characteristic of north Gwent cross slabs of the period.

But the head is rather awkwardly done,

the lower part not carved in, and with an unusual frilled semicircular border with projecting fleurs-de-lis. Could this be the work of an apprentice who had gone on to establish his own workshop?

And finally to Llangwm, the jewel in the crown of the Friends’ churches in south-east Wales. It’s best known for its rood screen

but there is a lot else as well – green men, lovely tiles in the chancel. And outside Amy spotted this.

Just a groove made by the gate, or the remains of another tombstone?

Oh, and the King’s Head in Usk managed a vegan meal in spite of being all booked up with people for Sunday lunch. A good day.

Care of the Monuments

My friend Howard Williams (prof of archaeology at Chester University, tweets as @howardmrw, blogs as Archaeodeath: https://howardwilliamsblog.wordpress.com/)  has been tweeting some rather alarming photos of the Cistercian abbey of Valle Crucis near Llangollen (see https://twitter.com/howardmrw/status/1034021772197289986).

Valle Crucis, now in the care of Wales’s heritage organisation Cadw, is not our most spectacular Cistercian ruin but it is probably the best-preserved. Tucked away in a remote valley, and in an area with plenty of good building stone, it escaped the depredations both of border fighting and of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. It also has one of the best collections of medieval tomb carvings in Wales. Most of these are in the monks’ dormitory, which has been restored but is pretty much intact. On his last visit, Howard found the whole area filthy with bird droppings and a dead bird in the corner (photos on his Twitter feed). He was subsequently told by Cadw that the area was supposed to be closed for ‘deep cleaning’. This made us sadly uneasy: we should be confident that Cadw would not be muscling around with scrubbing brushes and scouring powder, but sometimes we worry.

Now, Howard and I both have this strange fascination with tomb carvings. Not so much the hulking great effigy tombs of the medieval elite, but the humbler cross slabs and incised stones of people who were important in their own district. Priests, traders, minor gentry. And yes, a lot of these stones commemorate women. Welsh stones are more likely to have inscriptions than the English ones, so it is a little easier to track down who they commemorate and start to build a picture of the local community.

We don’t expect everyone to share this bizarre passion: but we do expect Cadw to look after the sites and artefacts in its care. The problem is that it doesn’t always seem to be happening. Tomb carvings at Tintern are also being damaged: both Howard and I have blogged about this (https://howardwilliamsblog.wordpress.com/2018/06/19/a-tintern-abbot/, https://howardwilliamsblog.wordpress.com/2018/06/24/archaeodeath-at-tintern-abbey/https://churchmonumentssociety.org/2018/07/15/tintern-and-the-heritage-of-death). At Margam, not a Cadw site but under its supervision, some particularly interesting tomb carvings have been earthed over to protect them. This isn’t ideal either, as if their locations are not properly recorded there is a danger that they could be damaged by heavy machinery going over them.

So what is to be done? Cadw is short of funds these days, as are all heritage organisations. But it seems there is still money for things like animated carvings of dragons and that disastrous Iron Ring sculpture. Another recent Twitter debate looked at yet another scheme to construct a replica Roman fort. Should we be celebrating our defeats, or should we be concentrating on the things we achieved?

Part at least of the problem is the current funding framework. Money goes not for long-term maintenance, still less for research, but for superficially exciting projects. There’s a lot of talk about engagement and ownership, and a suspicion that the money goes to those who can write good funding bids. Don’t think of a worthwhile project then cast around for funding; look at the funding streams and see what will push their buttons. Give start-up funding to worthwhile projects then pull the funding when they get going. Spend money and effort ‘engaging’ with those who really don’t want to be engaged, because working with those who are already interested is elitist.

Advertise, or go under.

Llanfair Cilgedin

A lovely afternoon at Llanfair Cilgedin, one of the Friends of Friendless Churches’ most intriguing churches. Most people go there for the C19 wall paintings, stunning sgraffito renderings of the Benedicite and other scenes (I am particularly fond of the whales and all that move in the waters).

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Our main purpose of visit was (as ever) a bit more niche. The church has some scraps of medieval stained glass which I’d seen before – see https://welshtombs.wordpress.com/2013/08/15/my-sledge-and-hammer-lies-reclined/ . This

Medieval Fragments, Church of St Mary, Llanfair Kilgeddin

is Martin Crampin’s photo of the medieval glass in the north window of the chancel. These fragments are obviously all that remains of a much bigger sequence (including a Crucifixion and the Apostles’ Creed) and possibly stained glass from at least two different hands. Of course, we can’t be absolutely sure that any or all of the glass actually originated in the church: some at least of it could have been bought as fragments by the nineteenth-century restorer, John Dando Sedding. (Sedding also restored St Cynfarch and St Mary, Llanfair Dyffryn Clwyd, which has a similar window with a crazy quilt of medieval glass – did he just like doing that, or did he have the fragments of glass in stock?)

We need to do some more work on this.

Meanwhile …

Llanfair Cilgedin also has some of those enigmatic post-medieval cross slabs (my rather learned article on them is available online at https://pure.southwales.ac.uk/en/publications/postmedieval-cross-slabs(39f0b31f-d6e5-4bc6-b255-2750950fe7ee).html ). The article does mention this one

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drawn by Bradney, who thought it was medieval. It clearly isn’t – the cross head is the same as those on securely dated late C16 / early C17 slabs. Here it is in the churchyard.

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The scrolled base looks like a cruder copy of the elegant scrolled bases which are such a feature of early modern cross slabs a little further to the north. Possibly the work of an apprentice, or simply a less skilled stonemason having a go?

But looking for it we also found this one

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on a chest tomb with the same style of cross head but a floriated base, a date of 1677 and a lengthy inscription

‘I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth’ (Job 19:25 – and a real challenge not to sing it!

and this one

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in the vestry – not really a cross slab but an illustration of the fact that cross slabs were just one of the decorative options available for C17 ledgerstones.

All in all a good day – more on the stained glass when my friend Chris has printed out the photos, cut them up and played jigsaw puzzles with them. We may also throw Llanfair Dyffryn Clwyd into the mix and see what happens.