Church Monuments Society


Tintern and the heritage of death

By CMS in Heritage

Howard Williams of Chester University and I have recently been blogging about tomb carvings at the iconic Cistercian abbey at Tintern in the Wye Valley (,, Howard’s study of the ‘Smiling Abbot’, an incised effigial carving probably from Valle Crucis, was published in last year’s Archaeological Journal. There were very few effigies of Cistercian abbots for comparison. This is hardly surprising, as the earlier Cistercians discouraged ostentation in tomb carving as in so much else. In Wales, there are only the badly damaged effigy of Adam of Carmarthen at Neath (see Rhianydd Biebrach’s study in Monument of the Month for April 2011) and this

tintern abbot

the head of what is assumed to be an abbot at Tintern.

This makes it all the more unfortunate that more is not made of the Neath and Tintern effigies. Adam of Carmarthen initiated the rebuilding of the abbey church at Neath in the emphatically non-Bernardine Decorated style. The latest Cadw guidebook suggests that the Tintern effigy is that of Abbot Ralph (c 1294-1305) who oversaw the completion of the rebuilding of the abbey church. At Tintern as at Neath, it seems appropriate for the rejection of Bernardine austerity in architecture to be accompanied by a tomb which similarly defied the founding spirit of the Order. These two men were largely responsible for building the structures that Cadw cares for.

Other tomb carvings at Tintern are similarly neglected and ignored in interpretative materials. There is what seems to have been a double slab with crosses commemoration Henry of Lancaut, abbot of Tintern’s daughter house Tintern de Voto in Ireland, and a John de Lyons, possibly one of his senior monks. A John de Lyuns was one of the king’s messengers to Ireland in 1258, which would fit with Henry of Lancaut’s dates in the mid thirteenth century, but we have no way of connecting them. (This is in Calendar of Documents, relating to Ireland … vol. 2, 1252-1284, ed. H.S. Sweetman (London: Longman & Co, 1877), 96. I am still trying to sort out the antiquarian literature on this one. E. L. Cutts drew it as two slabs (the drawing is reproduced in Harold Brakspear described it as ‘a large grave slab cut to represent two coffin lids with foliated crosses’ and recorded the inscriptions in 1921, at which time it was sheltered in a wooden hut near the infirmary (H. Brakspear, Tintern Abbey (London: HMSO, 1921), 16). It has since been placed in the roofless monastic library and is almost completely eroded.

Henry of Lancaut general

This is particularly unfortunate as it is an unusual example of lettering inlaid with lead rather than brass.

Then there are the incised slabs in the abbey church. I am particularly interested in the ones in the south transept. They seem to have been found in one of the excavations. Fortunately John Rodger drew them in the early 20th century, but most of them are now eroded and damaged and virtually illegible. This one

Jenkin ap Hoell Rodger drawing
Jenkin ap Hoell general

has the little prayer ‘Jesu mercy, Lady help’ on it, and another

Thpmas Phillips Rodger drawing
Thomas Phillips

has a line from the liturgy for the commendation of the soul. This was the sequence of prayers and psalms which the priest was supposed to say at the bedside of someone who was on the point of death. Medieval deathbeds were intensely social, and the family and friends would have joined in the prayers and responses. There is a lot here that bears on modern thinking about the ‘good death’. More on these two tombs at

There are also a lot of issues to do with how we commemorate the dead, and how we manage and interpret old memorials. Should we move memorials when they are actually over the burial, even when they are at risk? This isn’t an issue at Tintern, as most of the memorials seem to have been moved about in the past. It is an issue at Margam, where some very interesting medieval tomb slabs are in the open and apparently in their original positions. Two have now been earthed over to protect them from the elements, which does look a bit like desperation.

How can we respect the wishes of those who were buried under these stones, and those who commissioned their memorials? There is an argument that ledgerstones were meant to be walked on, with the knowledge that that would gradually wear them away. And how can we best explain things like the Order for the Commendation of the Soul to a modern audience, many of whom will be a bt hazy about which one Jesus was?

Comments (1)

  1. Vey interested to read your article.
    I need a good photograph of the tomb of Henry of Lancaut, abbot of De Voto (Tintern Secunda in Ireland).

    Davie H. Williams (Author: ‘The Welsh Cistercians’).

    DavidH Williams

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