Church Monuments Society


Llandaff Cathedral: a virtual study day

By CMS in Heritage

While we are in lockdown, we have been using our blogs and Twitter accounts to remind ourselves of some of our favourite churches and monuments. Last month, Sally Badham took us on a virtual study day to the church at Burrough Green in Cambridgeshire. This month, we are reminding ourselves of our visit in 2012 to the cathedral at Llandaff as part of our Welsh symposium.

Llandaff Cathedral is small for a cathedral but has had a surprisingly complex building history. It is on the site of a small early medieval monastic foundation, but this would have had one or more small oratories made of timber, wattle and daub rather than an imposing stone church. Bishop Urban (who was really a Welshman, Gwrgan, though he had trained in England) began the first stone church in 1120. It was partly rebuilt in the thirteenth century and added to over the years. By the eighteenth century, it was in poor repair: a storm brought the south tower down through the nave roof and much of the building lay in ruins for over a century. It was largely rebuilt by the Victorians, but in 1941 a German land mine took out the south aisle and the roof. Few of the tombs are in their original location, and these dramatic changes in the building make it difficult to tie up antiquarian descriptions with what we have now.

These notes take you round the Cathedral clockwise from the west door. They are based on several articles by Rhianydd Biebrach: ‘ “Our Ancient Blood and our Kings”: two early-sixteenth-century heraldic tombs in Llandaff Cathedral’, Church Monuments vol 24, 2009; ‘The medieval episcopal monuments in Llandaff Cathedral’, Archaeologia Cambrensis  vol. 159, 2010; ‘The cadaver monument in Llandaff Cathedral’ Church Monuments Society Newsletter 24(2), 2008; on her book, Church Monuments in South Wales, c 1200-1547 (Boydell & Brewer, 2017); and on M. Gray, ‘Piety and power: the tomb and legacy of John Marshall, bishop of Llandaff 1487-96’, Archaeologia Cambrensis vol. 162 (2013).

llandaffcathedralplan tombsnumbered

Llandaff Cathedral: plan with tombs numbered



  1.  Sir William Mathew of Radyr Court (d. 1528/9) and his wife Jenet ferch Henry ap Gwilym (d. 1530).This tomb is a typical product of the Nottinghamshire/Derbyshire alabaster workshops. They were turned out on an industrial scale and the effigies are ‘type’ figures rather than portraits, but the family would have chosen the overall design. Sir William is shown in armour. This does not always indicate a fighting man but William was actually knighted ( a very unusual honour for a Welshman at that date) for his support in Henry VIII’s war against the French in 1513. He wears a collar of linked Ss with a cross patty as a pendant. Jenet has a rather old-fashioned gable head-dress and an elegant dress with  ruched sleeves. She has a mutilated lozenge-shaped pendant which may have held a crucifix. You can just see two small dogs hiding in the folds of her skirt. Small dogs symbolised loyalty and devotion, while the lion under William’s feet shows his courage. Joseph Lord’s plan of the cathedral for Browne Willis shows the tomb enclosed by railings: these have long since vanished.

The inscription around the edge of the plinth reads
Orate pro animabus Gulielmi Mathew Militis qui obiit decimo die Martii AD, Mccccco viceso VIII et [repair: …?uo] Jenette uxoris eius ?quie Deo  reddidit spiritum —— die —– mensis AD Mill[esi]mo ccccc triceso quorum animabus propitietur Deus Amen
(Pray for the souls of William Mathew, knight, who died on 10 March AD 1528 [ie 1529 in modern reckoning] and [of his wife] Jenette who rendered her soul to God on the —– of —– 1530, on whose souls may God have mercy)

The Mathews were a family of Welsh landowners from the uplands of Glamorgan who had done well out of the disturbed conditions after the Glyndwr uprising. The effigy of their ancestor David is no. 5, round the corner in the Dyfrig chapel.

William and Jenet (or their families) have chosen a ‘kinship’ design for the tomb chest, with figures of knights, ladies and angels carrying shields. The paint on the shields is modern  but the original heraldry was recorded by the Lancaster Herald William Fellowes in 1531 and by Richard Symonds in 1645. Most of the shields had the heraldry of the rulers of early Wales – Elystan Glodrydd, Llywelyn Foethus, Iestyn ap Gwrgant, Cydifor ap Selyf, Marchweithan, from whom the couple claimed descent. William and Jenet were making an explicit claim to these as their ancestors. This was an important aspect of Welsh claims to gentility: in his elegy to Sir William, the poet Lewys Morgannwg spoke of ‘our ancient blood and our kings’.

There are also several bedesmen on the tomb chest. These were funeral attendants. They are carved in a range of styles. All have rosaries. Some have hands raised in prayer, others have hands to their faces. One on the west end has an open book. Look under William’s feet and you will see a ‘sleeping bedesman’ – one of the mourners has nodded off. This little joke in the face of death seems to have been the trademark of one of the alabaster workshops and you find them on several other tombs all over England. There is another very similar example on the tomb of William’s cousin Christopher (no. 7 below) and another again in a rather different style on the tomb of Richard Herbert of Ewias in Abergavenny. Rhianydd Biebrach has suggested that they were deliberately ordered from the same workshop and that other similarities in the design of the effigies reflect a consciousness of family and group identity.

The tomb is as far as we can see in its original position but it has been moved in the past, possibly as a result of the unroofing of the nave in the 18th century. An early nineteenth century engraving shows the effigies and the panels of the chest stored vertically in the cathedral chapter house.

William and Jenet Mathew



2. A thirteenth-century bishop.

This very battered effigy carved in Dundry stone, now in a modern niche, shows a bishop, vested for Mass, with a tall mitre. He is clean-shaven, with protruding ears. A very strange feature is that he seems to have a small ivy-shaped leaf against the left side of his mouth. We have no idea what this could be. It is just possible that he is holding not a crozier but an archbishop’s cross-staff and that this is one of the finials of the cross head, but this seems unlikely.

Flanking the head are two very battered angels, the one to the left swinging a censer. These censing angels are common on medieval tombs and probably refer to the censing of the body that was an important part of medieval funeral ritual. Incense was also used in anniversary commemorations.

This bishop was sometimes identified as Dyfrig, one of the dedicatory saints of the Cathedral, but there is another bishop also identified as Dyfrig in a niche in the north choir aisle. Another tradition identified this bishop as Euddogwy, the third of the Cathedral’s Welsh saints (and the one about whom least is known). Alternatively, it could be William of Radnor, bishop 1257-66. He is known to have had a tomb in the cathedral and this might just be it.

Unknown bishop



3.  A thirteenth-century bishop in a fifteenth-century niche.

This bishop has been variously identified as Edmund Bromfield, bishop 1390-93 (but the style is far too early for that) and as another Dyfrig. The effigy is carved in Dundry stone and shows the bishop vested for Mass, in alb, stole, tunic and chasuble, with a maniple over his left arm. His head sits on a plain cushion in a simple arch with censing angels to either side. He has a tall mitre with trailing infulae and a short beard. Like the bishop in no. 2, he has what looks like an ivy-leaf at the corner of his mouth. One hand supports his crozier and the other is holding a scroll. There is no footrest, which might suggest that the carving has been cut down to fit the present niche.

When Richard Symonds, a Royalist cavalryman, visited the cathedral in 1645, he saw an effigy in this niche – but was it this one? He also said there was a little naked figure with a mitre on its head coming out of the effigy’s mouth, and an angel taking hold of it. This would have depicted the dead person’s soul. It is now nowhere to be seen, though there is a similar carving on the effigy traditionally said to be St Teilo (no. 10). Did Symonds confuse the two? Or was the little figure actually painted on the back of the niche?

The niche was clearly designed to take an effigy. The bishop is looking up at a carving under the arch of the Image of Pity, Christ standing in his tomb and showing his wounds. Metaphorically, it is a perpetual prayer in stone. On the back of the alcove is a panel with the Instruments of the Passion, the artefacts from the Crucifixion story. As well as the obvious ones – the ladder, hammer, nails – you can see the palm leaves of Palm Sunday, the sword from the Garden of Gethsemane, the seamless robe, and the little pestle and mortar for the gall. This is a strange picture to modern eyes, but for a believer, it is Christ’s wounds and suffering which ensure our salvation. This was repeated again and again in the liturgy for the commendation of the soul and in the Office of the Dead: Parce domine, parce servo tuo, quem pretioso sanguine redemisti, ‘Spare, O Lord, spare thy servant, whom thou hast redeemed with thy precious blood’.

The construction of the plaque itself is intriguing. Most of the instruments are carved as part of the plaque. However, Christ’s seamless robe has been carved on a removable plug of stone which fits into the plaque like a young child’s jigsaw. The robe is less abraded that the other instruments, suggesting it is a repair, but it does show signs of some wear. Another instrument (possibly the pincers, one of the most frequently depicted of the instruments but otherwise missing from this plaque) was carved on a similar plug and has been removed: possibly a repair which was never completed. The edges of the socket are abraded, suggesting that the removal took place some time ago – possibly before part of the cathedral was unroofed in the eighteenth century.

The niche has signs of damage or rough carving at the bottom of the arch. Might it originally have been a 2-decker with a cadaver (see no. 6) below and a conventional effigy above?

The chest on which the effigy sits is reconstructed from fragments, clearly not all of them original. The tracery and the angels are fifteenth century but the small carving of Christ in Majesty is thirteenth century, the same date as the bishop.

Dyfrig (traditionally)



4.  John Marshall. bishop 1478-96.

His name does not appear on the tomb but it is where he asked to be buried, and Browne Willis’s researcher saw Marshall’s arms on the wall above the tomb in 1719.

Marshall came from Bottesford in Leicestershire and studied at Oxford University. When he was appointed to Llandaff in 1478 he was a complete outsider. A lot of our late medieval Welsh bishops had posts elsewhere and had very little to do with Wales but Marshall was different. He clearly identified with his diocese. In his will, he made a special point of leaving his soul to the dedicatory saints of the cathedral, Teilo, Dyfrig and Euddogwy as well as to God and the Virgin Mary. He left books to be chained in the cathedral, ornaments for the shrines of the saints and money and goods to a lot of his subordinates. He did not say anything about his tomb other than asking to be buried north of the altar, which suggests that the tomb was made after his death: we have no way of knowing if he left any instructions about its design.

The effigy is actually a very poor piece of carving. It is made of Dundry stone, which is what was used in the 13th century rebuilding of the Cathedral and some of the earlier bishops’ effigies. Were Marshall’s colleagues making the point that he belonged in the history of the Cathedral? Marshall is shown in his episcopal vestments, with his feet on a strange animal, probably a lion (though it also looks a bit like a boar). Marshall’s eyes are open and his hands are raised in worship. The plinth is made up of bits of tracery, and is really too wide for the effigy. Fixed on the east end is a badly-carved little plaque showing the Image of Pity and the Instruments of the Passion. It is possible that this tomb originally had a canopy over it and that the plaque was part of the canopy, so that the effigy would have been looking directly up at it.

John Marshall



5.  David Mathew of Llandaff

Only the effigy now survives, though the alabaster angels propped by the bishop’s tomb opposite may once have been part of the tomb chest. David Mathew gave money to establish a chantry, a private foundation which paid a priest to say Mass for his soul and the souls of his family at the altar to the east of where his effigy now sits. For background on this intriguing and much-misunderstood character, and photographs of the effigy, see .

The effigy is bigger than life size, which has led to the legend that he was a giant. He is also in armour, and stories are told about his prowess as a fighter. He is said to have been a marcher lord, the hero of the battle of Towton (1461 – he would have been elderly by then), to have saved Llandaff from attack by pirates and to have been killed in a riot in Neath in 1484.

Unfortunately, there is no evidence for this, and what evidence we have tells a very different story. David was born about 1394, could have served at Agincourt and may have been the Davy Mathew who served as a man-at-arms in France in 1417 and 1421 but there his military career ended. He inherited a small landed estate himself and ran the local estates of the bishops of Llandaff and the abbot of Tewkesbury, as well as doing business for other local landowners. He did well enough to afford this impressive effigy, which shows him in armour not because he was a soldier but because he was a leader of his local community. He was probably dead by 1470.

The other interesting thing about the effigy is his face. Effigies usually show the dead at the ‘ideal’ age of 32, the age Jesus was when he died and the age at which it was believed we would be resurrected. But David Matthew’s face is lined and his hair is receding. We can’t assume it is an exact portrait, but it was commissioned by someone who was not afraid to show David’s age.



6.  Cadaver tomb: a rare example of the macabre in Wales.

These strange carvings were popular in the fifteenth century. They depict corpses in the process of decay. Some of the English and European examples are covered with worms, toads and other vermin, but the Welsh ones are simply bodies.

The body is wrapped in a simple shroud. Cadavers are often found on the tombs of churchmen (the tomb of Archbishop Chichele in Canterbury is a striking example). However, senior churchmen were usually buried in their vestments, but their cadavers are shown naked but for a shroud. This may reflect the humility that is part opf the thinking behind the depiction of the dead person as a cadaver, though it is a rather ostentatious kind of humility: what might now be termed ‘humble-bragging’. Alternatively, the cadaver may be meant to represent not the individual dead person but death in general. The dead figures in depictions of the Three Living and the Three Dead say ‘As you are, so once were we’: but now they are dressed in the rotting remains of their shrouds.

The legs of the Llandaff cadaver are missing, but where they would have been you can see several wooden dowels. Either the original legs were carved separately and fitted using the dowels, or (perhaps more likely) this is evidence of early damage and repair. It doesn’t seem to fit the niche where it is now.

Cadaver tombs are part of the tradition of macabre art, like the Dance of Death. This became more popular after the Black Death in the fourteenth century. The cadaver tomb is a memento mori, a reminder of death. Medieval thought had a strong focus on the importance of the ‘good death’. It was something you could prepare for and even practise for. The cadaver tomb was a reminder of the need to prepare, and it was also a help. Confronting a carving of death meant that you were less likely to fall into the sin of despair when you had to face the real thing.

A cadaver tomb would also encourage people to pray for you. This was important as it helped your passage through Purgatory, a place of suffering where you expiated sins that you had confessed but for which you had not made recompense in your life. An effigy showing you in fine clothes or armour might not get so many people to pray for you, but a tomb showing your naked body with only a shroud would encourage people to pity you.

Cadaver tombs elsewhere can have very hopeful imagery. Alice de la Pole’s magnificent tomb at Ewelme shows her above sumptuously dressed in effigy, and beneath as a rotting corpse. Above the head of the cadaver are paintings of the Annunciation, Mary Magdalene and John the Baptist. The Annunciation represents the Incarnation, the beginning of the story of human salvation. John the Baptist was often shown as part ot the Last Judgement. Having fallen and been forgiven by Jesus, Mary Magdalene is a comforting reminder that forgiveness is available to all sinners. She was often shown in woodcuts in books advising you on how to die a good death: she was one of the saints who would help you against the sin of despair.

The Llandaff cadaver does not really fit the alcove in which it now lies. Might it originally have been elsewhere – eg in the alcove where the Dyfrig effigy is now?

There are only two other cadaver tombs in Wales, in Tenby and St Dogmaels. The alabaster tombs of the White family in Tenby have panels representing miniature figures completely wrapped in shrouds apart from their faces: these could be dead children of the family, or the Whites themselves, father and son and their wives. There is also a wall painting of Death and the Gallant, Death dragging a fashionably-dressed young man out of the church to the graveyard, at Llancarfan in the Vale of Glamorgan. However, the art of the macabre does not seem to have made a powerful impression in Wales.

The cadaver tomb



7.  Christopher Mathew of Llandaff (d. after 1531) and his wife Elisabeth (d. 1526/7).

Like the tomb of their cousins William and Jenet in the nave, this is a typical assembly-line product of the Midlands alabaster workshops but with subtle differences. Christopher is shown in armour but we have no record of any military service by him. Instead, like his grandfather David (tomb no. 5), he was an administrator, surveyor of the lordship of Glamorgan and deputy sheriff in 1518  – like his cousin’s knighthood, an unusual honour for a Welshman.

The tomb is carefully positioned between the Lady Chapel and the side chapel where Christopher’s grandfather David had established his chantry. Christopher and Elisabeth were thus in a way able to participate in services at the chantry altar and at the altar in the Lady Chapel.

Look carefully at the effigies (you may need to use a mirror). Christopher is wearing a
St Christopher pendant. This is partly because Christopher was his name saint, but also because in the middle ages Christopher was the saint who could protect you from a bad death, making sure you had time to confess your sins and receive the last rites. Elisabeth has a heart-shaped pendant: possibly a love token but more likely the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Also, if you look under Christopher’s feet, you will see another sleeping bedesman.

The inscription reads ‘Orate pro a[n]i[m]ab[us] [Christ]oferi Mathew armigeri et Elisabeth uxoris sue  que quid[am] Elisabeth obiit ultimo die januarii anno d[om]i[n]o a[nno] [millesim]o [quing]entesimo XXVIto et p[re]dict[i] [Christ]oferus obiit die ——- anno d[om]i[ni] [anno] [millesimo quingen]tesimo —— quo[rum] a[n]i[m]ab[us p[ropit]iet[ur] D[eus] Ame[n].
(Pray for the souls of Christopher Mathew esquire and Elisabeth his wife, which Elisabeth died the last day of January in the year of our Lord 1526 [ie 1527 in modern reckoning] and the said Christopher died the ——– in the year of our Lord ———– on whose souls God have mercy. Amen.)

The date of Christopher’s death  is blank, probably because he commissioned the tomb after his wife’s death but before his own. He has chosen another kinship design for the tomb chest, but it is subtly different from William and Jenet’s. There are fewer bedesmen, and more male and female figures. Only the knights and the ladies have shields, suggesting that their heraldry was originally painted to represent the family’s current relationships and alliances, rather than their ancestry.

There are some very similar tombs to these two Mathew tombs in St Woolos Cathedral (Sir John Morgan of Tredegar and his wife) and Abergavenny (Sir Richard Herbert of Ewias). Was this a locally preferred style, or was it just that they all ended up ordering from the same workshop?

Christopher and Elisabeth Mathew



This has taken us up the north side of the cathedral to the Lady Chapel. Here we will take a break as this has been quite a long session! We will meet again in the Lady Chapel tomorrow and work our way down the south side of the cathedral.

Comments (4)

  1. Splendid use of Lockdown Time. I dont know f any one can help with this query. I am following the memorials of John Evan Thomas the Brecon sculptor.
    In Pevsner Glamorgan 1995 it says “Thomas supplied marble figures of Wisdom and Religion for the gothic Wall monument to John Nicholl 1853 in llandaff Cathedral.

    A I am in lockdown I cant verify this. I sounds more like the work of John Thomas of Bristol.

    William Gibbs

  2. Sorry it’s taken me a while to catch up on this. I’m asking around.

    Best wishes


  3. Very interesting – was the second day, starting in the lady chapel, also published?

    Howell Huws

  4. Hi William I have an picture of this monument from my viit a few years ago so happy to confirm it doed exist.
    There are references on the web which says the monument is to Sir John Nicholl father of John but this must be an error unless there is a second Nicholl moument which I missed which I don’t think is the case.


    Peter Cockerill

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