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 Rattleskull Genius and the Storeyed Urn

The church of Llanilltud Fawr in the Vale of Glamorgan (Llantwit Major to the English – St Twit, who he? Is that where Roald Dahl got the idea?) has an outstanding collection of what we now call Early Medieval Inscribed Stones – ‘Celtic’ crosses, carved pillars and inscriptions commemorating the great and the good of early medieval Glamorgan. As if that wasn’t enough, there are medieval tombs, a number of post-Reformation cross slabs, wall paintings, a Jesse tree and a stunning late medieval reredos with niches for all the saints you can think of.

Given this wealth of artistic heritage, it seems strange to get excited about this rather ordinary marble wall monument.


It commemorates Anthony Jones, who died on 29 September 1755 aged 24 and was buried ‘in the belfry under the third bell’. But the monument also mentions his sons Anthony Jones, clerk, and Daniel Jones, esq., and Daniel’s wife Louisa, all of whom are buried with Anthony and Daniel’s mother Mary in the nearby village of Llandow.

These details suggest a date of about 1800 for the actual monument. But why is it so interesting? True, Gunnis’s Dictionary of British Sculptors describes it as ‘exactly like the contemporary work of T. King of Bath’, and King was one of the best of the provincial marble-masons. But the exciting thing about this wall monument is at the bottom, the name of the mason.


E. Williams, Cowbridge, was also known as Iolo Morganwg, antiquarian, forger, inventor of the Welsh Gorsedd of Bards and the whole Eisteddfod ceremonial, and self-styled ‘rattleskull genius’. His activities as historian, poet and inventor of much of Welsh tradition and culture have been covered by the Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies in their ‘Iolo Morganwg and the Romantic Tradition in Wales’ project – . But for most of his working life he was also Williams the stonecutter. It was his work as a stonemason that supported his research and his writing (though they didn’t support it very well – he was always in debt and even spent time in prison).

Because of Iolo’s fame as a poet and cultural figure, the account books and papers of his stonemason’s business have been kept and are now in the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth. In his chapter ‘Iolo Morganwg: Stonecutter, Builder and Antiquary’ in Geraint Jenkins’s A Rattleskull Genius: the many faces of Iolo Margannwg, Richard Suggett uses these papers to give us an insight into the life and work of an ordinary jobbing mason. He and his brothers were trained by their father, a master mason whose business included limewashing and plastering as well as new building, repairs and making and inscribing tombstones. The Wathen monument on the outside of Llanilltud church is probably one of his


and there is another wall monument inside the church at Gileston which may be by him ( ).

Iolo worked in London and the West Country, gaining experience and developing his intellectual interests, then returned to Glamorgan where he tried to set up as a high-quality marble mason. His business advertisements claimed that he could produce ‘all sorts of chimney-pieces, monuments, tombs, headstones  …’ in marble and freestone, ‘in the newest and neatest manner’, as well as cleaning and polishing old marble tables and cutting inscriptions on old monuments. As well as the Llanilltud wall monument, there is a ledgerstone by him at St Mary Church ( ) and possibly a chest tomb in the churchyard at Gileston ( ). His prices were moderate: words cost 2d per letter, edge mouldings were 1s. a foot and some sculptured ornaments cost a guinea. But the business did not prosper and in 1786 he was imprisoned as an insolvent debtor. The inventory of the tools in his workshop – grits, polishers, marble carving tools, freestone firmers, saws, compasses and rules – came to just under £2. This included 3s. 6d. for his copy of Darley’s Book of Ornaments for Carvers (a book which I can’t now trace – not online, not in the British Library catalogue).

Iolo was critical of the vernacular poetry on many of the tombs he produced: ‘on how many grave-stones I have inscribed vile doggerel’, he said. His interest in landscape and the natural world led him to explore the potential of the workable stones in Glamorgan and elsewhere in Wales. When it became difficult to import marble from elsewhere in Europe during the Napoleonic wars, he suggested using the limestones of the Glamorgan coast. He was particularly taken with the Bull Cliff liassic stones. We found some tomb carvings using those at Cadoxton and Merthyr Dyfan and we need to do more work on them – that will need another blog post after our field visit at the end of the month.