Brecon study weekend (1)

The Church Monuments Society study weekend in Breconshire was both informative and fun – as good study weekends should be. Heather James has kindly promised a full report for the CMS Newsletter: meanwhile here are some photos.

Lectures in the morning looked mainly at Welsh commemorative poetry. Here we are in the Cathedral deciphering one of the poems that Gwen Awbery talked about

(photo: Heather James)

The poem reads

Cofia DDyn wrth fyned heibio; Fel ty, di y finau fuo
Fel r’wyf fi tithau ddeui. Ystyr hyn mae marw wnadi

(This is the Welsh equivalent of
Remember man as you pass by
As you are so once was I
As I am so you will be
Remember Death will come to thee

but Gwen Awbery suggests that English and Welsh variants developed separately from the Latin original.)

And here we are discussing the absence of animals under the feet of post-Reformation effigies

(photo Heather James again)

Brecon has a magnificent collection of those idiosyncratic post-Reformation cross slabs: Paul Jones’s photos

Sunday was a bit more free-form: the main focus was the brightly-coloured wall memorials of the Brute family of masons at Llangattock, Partrishow and Cwm-iou

(Paul Jones’s photos again)

and this slightly different one at Llanthony.

Heather James’s photo: she wonders if the angel at the top, sounding the Last Trump, is a play on the name Trumper?

More on the Sunday field trip at .

The last field trip?

Student field trips, I have found, are not just for the students. We often get a few additional listeners – last time we went to Llandaff there were more Cathedral welcomers than students and I had to adapt what I was saying to a different audience. Our visit to Brecon turned into a rolling seminar with members of the local NADFAS group who have been surveying the Havard chapel adding their insights.

And I learn things as well. Two years ago, Gareth Kinnear and his fellow students spotted two of those enigmatic post-medieval cross slabs at Abergavenny and Partrishow. This year it was Justin Edmunds’ turn to find still more stones that I hadn’t seen before in Abergavenny ( ). To be honest I’m not sure which of us spotted the 17th century stone with a Welsh poem at Brecon (, but I wouldn’t have seen it without the students.

So it was with great hopes that I set off for Quakers Yard, just north of Pontypridd, on an exceptionally wet and windy afternoon. One of this year’s students lives there and was keen for us to see the original Quakers’ Yard, a burial ground given to local members of the Religious Society of Friends in the later seventeenth century. Friends (‘Quakers’ was originally an insulting name for them) believed that the burial practices of the established church and of many nonconformists were ‘popish’. They wanted a Biblical austerity and were prepared to suffer for it. Initially they had no memorials for their dead: but the human desire for some sort of marker led them to consider using plain stones and sometimes small semicircular stones with just the name or even the initials of the dead person. According to the documents the Friends had not one but two burial grounds in this corner of the upper Taff valley. My colleague Richard Allen is working on a study of Friends’ burial practices in Wales which he hopes to publish next year.

We started in the graveyard above the roundabout on the A470. Plenty of ‘Quaker’ style memorials – these are some of Nathan’s photos –

SAM_0480 SAM_0481 SAM_0482

But the problem is that, as we subsequently found, this graveyard was in the nineteenth century the churchyard of an Anglican church. Here it is on the Old Merthyr Tydfil web site ( ) – . So this has raised more questions than it answers. Were these monuments Friends buried in the Anglican churchyard … or Anglicans borrowing Quaker simplicity for their monuments …

We went on to the better-documented Friends burial ground just over the road from the Quakers’ Yard Inn – here’s an aerial photo . Recently restored, but then vandalised, it has lost all its minimalist Quaker memorials and just has one very conventional ledgerstone set in the grass.

Then a discussion in the pub suggested that there might be Quaker burials in the old chapel graveyard behind the Quakers’ Yard Inn. We couldn’t get in there but we are making more enquiries.

Finally, a modern take on commemoration. Near the little Quaker burial ground is a telegraph pole called the Death Post. Whenever someone local dies, their funeral times and locations are posted on there for everyone to see. One local says he “walks the dog past there every day, just to make sure he’s not dead”.

Our final field trip was planned for Tuesday 24 November and we were going to Partrishow, Llanthony and Cwm-iou. The first and third churches have a splendid selection of wall monuments and ledger stones carved by the famous local famly of stonemasons, the Brutes. The wall monuments are particularly endearing, with chubby-cheeked cherubs in blue nighties, blowing trumpets and surrounded by swags of fruit and flowers. Death has seldom seemed so cheerful. I’m trying to plan a visit to Brecon and these border churches with the Church Monuments Society and the Ledgerstones Survey group, so I was particularly keen to look at the floor slabs, which I felt I hadn’t spent enough time on in previous visits.

Unfortunately, fate took a hand. We are aware that things are being run gradually down on our campus, as we will be closed at the end of the academic year. The minibus clearly hadn’t had any care and attention for some time. It failed to make the last hill up to Partrishow, and when we tried to get the students out to walk the last bit the door fell off. We did manage to get up the hill, and the church was as lovely as ever. As well as the monuments it has its late medieval rood screen and two original side altars, lots of post-medieval wall paintings including a towering Death figure and a text warning you that the powers that be are ordained of God. As well as the main church there is a ‘cell-y-bedd’, an annexe traditionally said to be over the grave of the founder saint. As a reminder that this is a remote location and seldom had a full-time priest, there is a little stone shed in the churchyard where a visiting clergyman could stable his horse and keep dry clothes. And down the road is St Issui’s well, still a site of considerable devotion. As well as the usual ribbons and decorations, we found a pair of spectacles and a miniature flip-flop sandal. Money is hammered into the trees overhanging the well.

But the minibus could not be healed – two students with motor mechanic experience got the door back on but it wasn’t safe to drive. Reluctantly we made our way back to campus.

I wrote a poem.

The minibus struggled up the hill,
Its wheels were all a quiver,
It gave a cough –
the door fell off –
and the students started to shiver.

De minibus non curat Lex, as they don’t quite say.

On the benefits of a fresh pair of eyes

We had an epic field visit to Abergavenny, Partrishow and Cwm-iou with my Art & Death Special Subject group. Highlights were two more of those intriguing post-Reformation IHS cross slabs (more on these at One was spotted in Abergavenny by Gareth Kinnair – this is his photo


The stone is tucked against the east end of the south choir stalls – Gareth says he found it by chance as we had been looking at the one on the north side and this one looked similar. I have been to Abergavenny more times than I care to count and I am still finding new things there. And next month they are going to do some work on the floor of the north chapel and lift some of the stones – watch this space!

The inscription is tantalising as well. Translated, it reads:

I know that my Redeemer liveth: Job 19, 2.
William Williams, firstborn son of Rice Williams, esquire, of Park Lettice, deceased, after that he had completed 70 years, not without the love of Christ, gently fell asleep in the Lord on the 9th day of November in the year 1633, and is buried here; to whom, with all the holy dead [or …with all the departed saints] may God grant the consummation in the last day by the merits of Jesus. Amen.

Nothing overtly Catholic – and the Biblical quotation and the reference to the merits of Christ are if anything Reformed – but is the line ‘cum sanct’ omnibus defunctis’ a reference to ‘the dead which die in the Lord’ or is it a carefully-worded hint of the cult of the saints? Park Lettice was a substantial estate in the parish of Llangatwg near Usk. The Williams family of Park Lettice do not seem ever to have been open recusants. Is this yet another example of the stubborn traditionalism of south-east Wales or is there something more to it?

The other stone – Gareth’s photo again


is in Partrishow, another church I would have thought I knew very well. All we have here is the date, but it is a significant one: March 1688, when the Catholics were riding high. A Catholic, James II, was on the throne, and after fifteen years of marriage his wife was pregnant at last. Of course, it all went horribly wrong for the Catholics. The child was born in the summer, there was a rebellion, James and his family were forced to flee the country and eventually his daughter by his first marriage took the throne as the Protestant Queen Mary, with her husband William. Ironically, after this ‘Glorious Revolution’ things did get better for the Catholics. Among other things, tombstones with overtly Catholic inscriptions and imagery become more common from the beginning of the eighteenth century onwards. But in 1688 they are still pretty unusual, apart from this corner of Monmouthshire and Breconshire where they just keep turning up.