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Staunton on Wye: the heraldic plaque

By CMS in Heritage

As well as the medieval carvings, the church at Staunton-on-Wye has found this

Staunton on Wye St Mary Plaque Face

The Staunton on Wye heraldic plaque (all photos are John Steer’s)

a marble plaque about 10″x 10″, found inside the church and presenting quite a nice little heraldic problem. Working with several of the parishioners, we eventually concluded that it probably came from a monument but that it might have come from something decorative in the nearby big house. The heraldry and the notes on the back suggested that it commemorated the marriage of members of the local Griffiths and Powell families. More research is needed when record offices and libraries reopen. However, the process by which we reached these tentative conclusions has been interesting and informative in itself.

The style of the painting looked eighteenth-century. No-one seemed to know exactly where it came from – it had just been lying on one of the pews. The most likely source would be a wall monument, possibly one that was lost in the C19 restoration of the church or even since. There was a small hole on the back of the plaque which could have been part of the fixing.

Staunton on Wye St Mary Plaque Reverse

The reverse of the plaque

Most of the back was smooth but the roughness above the diagonal line might suggest it was fixed at an angle.

Staunton on Wye St Mary Plaque Reverse Side Lit

Reverse of the plaque side lit to show the different textures

The pink plaster adhering to the back was probably part of a later attempt at mounting it to something. It was clearly quite a prestige product, with gold on the border.

Staunton on Wye St Mary Plaque Face Upper Right 1 resized

Detail of the border.

John Steer’s original feeling was that some of the gold had peeled off, suggesting it was gold leaf, but careful examination showed a few small smudges of gold on the side of the plaque, proving it was actually paint.

The heraldry was a bit tricky, and we had long discussions with several of the parishioners, including Henry Verwey (the conservation project co-ordinator), John Steer, who was advising on conservation, and Sue Hubbard. The dexter side (the left as you look at it) had a silver background with three animal heads which looked more like wolves but had rather idiosyncratic tusks so were clearly meant to be boars. They were neither couped (cut off with a straight line) or erased (cut off with a jagged and forked line) but somewhere between the two. The colouring seemed to be an attempt at realistic painting with shading in brown and grey, and long red tongues. They were all slightly different and seemed to have been deliberately individuated – something we initially thought a professional heraldic painter would not have done. We were aware, therefore, that other details might not be quite according to heraldic convention. They are however delightful, and very confidently painted.

Argent three boars’ heads couped sable is a familiar Welsh device, the arms of the heirs of Elystan Glodrydd. This could cover many families in Wales and the March. The most likely for Herefordshire would be Cradock and Evans (John Steer suggested the Evans family of the Byletts in nearby Pembridge), or possibly Gwyn of Breconshire. Sue Hubbard pointed to the Bythells (Ab Ithels) of Mansell Gamage. Papworth’s Ordinary of Arms says Cradock and Evans can also be Argent three boars’ heads couped sable langued gules (those lovely long red tongues), but they should also be ‘armed or’ – in other words, their tusks should be gold. We wondered if it was possible that there was gold paint or gold leaf and it has worn off?  But these boars are not really sable – so did the attempt at realistic painting mean they should be described as ‘proper’? According to Papworth, Argent three boars’ heads erased proper is a family called Hogg (Papworth doesn’t say where they were based, but they do not seem to have any local connection). I wondered, though, whether they had been painted in that very realistic way, with the black shading on brown, just because the artist thought that looked better than plain black.

The sinister side, Azure a chevron between three spearheads argent, was equally puzzling. Here again, the painting was accomplished. John Steer pointed out that an attempt had been made to use grey and black shadowing to give  a 3-D effect to the spear heads and the chevron. The spear heads were lower than the boars’ heads on the dexter side and I wondered if there was something else in chief, but close examination suggested this was just damage and paint splashes.

Papworth gives Azure a chevron between three spear heads argent as the arms of Hywel Coetmor, but he lived in the Conwy valley and died in the early C15. They are more likely to be the arms of Bleddyn ap Maenarch of Breconshire – but which of his descendants this is, we still don’t know. I had great hopes that some of the splashes of red paint might turn out to be deliberate because Azure a chevron argent between three spearheads embrued (ie bloodstained) is the Gwinnett family who had a branch at nearby Moreton Hall, but in the end we decided they were just splashes.

John Steer’s conservation report is now available at https://www.modellinghistory.com/pdf/staunton_plaque.pdf (more about his work at https://www.modellinghistory.com/index.html). The report is being updated as more information becomes available.

He feels that the artist who painted the plaque was clearly competent and knew how paint on marble worked. While there are superficial scratches and dirt, the colours have only dulled slightly and the paint adheres well to the surface (not easy with marble). The painting of the boars’ heads is free and confident but the spear heads were painted using masking templates to create the outlines. He has wondered if it is possible that the work was done in the workshop with different painters for different features – as was done in the pottery industry by the late C18. The splashes of red on the shield look later, as though they were the result of something done when the monument had been dismantled and the shield relocated. Otherwise, as John Steer says, it is in good condition apart from some scratches (which are actually quite useful as they gave him a stratigraphy through the paint).

Meanwhile …

the writing on the back is faint but just about decipherable, and is clearly an attempt to blazon the heraldry. The style of the letters looks 19th century – could it date from when a tomb was dismantled during the restoration of the church? There is a rough sketch of the shield with the names Griffiths and Powell above. It seems to have been drawn as if looking through the plaque. Griffiths is on the dexter side, Powell on the sinister. Siddons’ Development of Welsh Heraldry gives versions of Argent three boars’ heads couped sable as the arms of several branches of the Powell family, but the boars are on the dexter of the painted side. Beneath this is written ‘3 boars’ heads’ and what looks to me like ‘… the Crest’. This raises the intriguing possibility that the person who made these rough notes saw the whole monument and that it had a full heraldic achievement with supporters and crest as well as the shield and presumably a panel with an inscription underneath. Now all we have is this tantalising fragment. John Steer read the word as ‘the Coat’, which usually means just the shield but could also be used to describe the full achievement. The pink plaster on the back overlays the pencil writing, suggesting that the monument was dismantled, the notes made, then the pink plaster used to fix the shield somewhere. We did consider the alternative, that the pencil writing was an instruction to the painter, but it would have been difficult to use notes on the back while painting the front.

A contact at the College of Heralds said “The shield bears two Arms, those on the left (as you look at them) would have been those of the husband whilst those on the right of his wife. Both Arms are impaled (ie side by side) so the wife was the daughter of an armiger but not an armorial heiress.”

This was helpful in giving us more of an idea of the marriage we were looking for. Since the heraldry looked as though it could be Welsh, we contacted the Wales Herald Extraordinary. Thomas Lloyd was his usual helpful and informative self. He confirmed that the plaque is typical South Powys heraldry – he thought possibly as late as c 1800 and that the Powell and Griffiths identifications on the back are likely to be correct, though it isn’t possible without more detail to say which branch of the multifarious Powell family we are looking for. The boars’ heads he said should be black, but at this period – the late Georgian’ Romantic Age’ – heraldry was caught up in a spirit of naturalism and so real colours do appear for animals. The description of a heraldic animal painted thus is “of the colours”.

Puzzlingly, though, Thomas Lloyd then found examples of both the boars’ heads and the spears between a chevron being held by branches of the Powell family. He says ‘Different Powell families bore both of these coats. But the chevron between the three spear heads (ie: the coat of Bleddyn ap Maenarch of Breconshire) is the coat of Powell of Castle / Castell Madoc, Llanfihangel Fechan, Breconshire. They were formerly a prominent family and no doubt produced plenty of minor branches. They gave their ancestry to Burke as being “descended through Llewellyn ap Einion Sais, the brother of the renowned David Gam, from Bleddyn ap Maenarch, Lord of Brecon”. We are on safe ground here, as this is the only Powell family recorded with the arms of Bleddyn.’

He went on to look at the boars’ heads. This he says ‘ is anciently recorded for Powell of Worthen and All-Stretton, Shropshire and my bookplates show that there were plenty of this clan in later centuries. The coat is, as you know, the secondary coat of Elystan Glodrydd, attached principally to his son Cadwgan, from whom these Powells descend.

Now as to Griffith(s) with this Cadwgan coat, Burke’s General Armory records one family only, also of Shropshire, so not far away. Burke’s entry reads: “Griffiths (Dinthill, Co. Salop; of whom Samuel Griffiths Esq High Sheriff 1759 and Joseph Griffiths Esq 1771. The late representative Leighton Delamore Griffiths Esq sold the estate). Argent three boars’ heads couped sable”. I don’t know anything of this family or of Dinthill / Dint Hill, but clearly well placed county gentry in the C18th.

So in conclusion we have probably a member of a junior branch of Griffiths of Dinthill who had married a Powell, related to some degree to the main line at Castle Madoc. But I am afraid I do not have  a pedigree for either.’

This was very helpful but a little perplexing! The marriage and burial registers for the parish are in the Herefordshire Record Office which is still closed. Sue Hubbard went through the indexes on the HARC web site and the PCC wills in the National Archive and came up with a possible candidate: in 1780, Charles Griffiths of Norton Canon married Susanna Powel at Brobury by licence. (Norton Canon and Brobury are the next villages to Staunton.) However, if he was the Charles Griffiths of Staunton whose will was proved in 1818, he may be a little late for our shield. The style doesn’t look later than c 1800 and could be even earlier. Also, the more recent the monument, the less likely it is that it would have been dismantled in the later 19th century restorations.

It is of course possible that Susanna died before her husband and that the monument was commissioned to commemorate her. On the other hand, we have no way of finding out whether either of the couple was entitled to a coat of arms, or where they were buried. Antiquarian county histories are still inaccessible. John Steer went through registers on FindmyPast and Ancestry and other online sources but the indexes don’t give enough detail to be helpful: we really need the originals.

Sue Hubbard did some more work on local newspapers. She says

‘Charles Griffiths who died in 1818 is the one who has a will listed at HARC and is I think the chap who married Susanna Powell in 1780. The Hereford Journal 11 Feb 1818 says that he died at Staunton aged 72 years lamented by his family and a large circle of friends. I suspect he lived at Church House next to the church as did later generations of Griffiths but I need to check that.

One problem about Staunton is that it’s historically very short of wealthy landed “families of note” or suitable houses to accommodate them. The Kyrwoods were at Old Letton Court (mentioned on floor slabs and one wall plaque in the church) and the Duttons had Kilkington but otherwise you have moderate size farm houses with no Griffith connection I can find so far. Church House was the old Staunton Manor, a largish originally 15th century house with wings added at various later dates (now demolished) so Charles may have had pretensions to grandeur but his estate at probate was valued at only £500.’

If there is no mention of his wife in the newspaper report, does that suggest she predeceased him? John Steer makes the point that if the shield was part of a monument, the whole thing must have been large and impressive. Is it likely that someone whose estate was valued at £500 would have had the resources for a large monument?

We did wonder how reliable the details of the heraldry were – would they have been painted by a local artisan or by a professional, and would they have been painted on site or in a workshop? We clearly needed more information on this. I contacted colleagues in the Church Monuments Society. Julian Litten gave us some very valuable information on the production process. He said that there were certainly plenty of professional heraldry painters around in the 18th century. Of course, not all their work was on tombs: there was also a steady market for funeral hatchments, lozenge-shaped panels showing the dead person’s heraldic achievement, designed to be placed over the door of their house and often then taken to the parish church for display, though as most were made of canvas few have survived. The first funeral furnishers were actually herald-painters who had worked with the College of Arms and were able to offer to organise funerals at much lower rates than the College charged.

Tom Lloyd also said that almost every town in Britain would have had a heraldic painter in it at this period, though not all of course were equally skilled, and that the artist on our plaque seemed perfectly competent for a provincial painter, probably from Hereford. One would expect them to have a stock of templates which they could use. Apart from painting on monuments, there were heraldic coach door panels to paint and many shop signs with heraldry or related art needed. It was so much more part of everyday life in those days – at the mid to upper end. Also in the early C19th, there was a lot of traditional Welsh heraldry on display at local eisteddfodau. Pub signs were another related business by this date. There was no reason why skilled monumental marble masons could not have painted too: it is a pity the associated monument does not survive, as it might have been signed.

Julian felt it was likely that small components of monuments (like our shield) would have been sent to the workshop to be painted, but that it might have been risky to try to transport larger components. However, most heraldry on tombs of that period seems to be on detachable components, so it seems more thn likely that the work was done in a workshop. In any case, we can clearly be confident that the person painting the shield knew what they were doing, and that what we see is what we are meant to see. Julian says it was in any case standard practice to give the painter a coloured example of the emblazon to copy from (which makes it less likely that the pencil notes on the back were for that purpose). It is still possible, though, that we are looking for people who were not technically entitled to coats of arms but who had decided to use something from a family connection.

We still have no idea where the monument was originally situated (and we can’t even be sure that it was part of a monument, or what kind of monument). The church did at one point have a side chapel, used in the medieval period as a chantry, but the shield must be much later than that. When the side chapel was demolished we don’t know – it could have been in the 1720 rebuilding (too early for our stone) or in the work of the 1860s and 1870s. Sue Hubbard is planning to do some more work on this.

The other possibility is that the plaque was not part of a monument at all – it could have come from a fireplace or some other decorative feature in a house. Antiquarian fragments do often end up in churches as ‘safe places’. Could Charles have installed the plaque somewhere in Church House to celebrate his marriage, maybe? Church House was pulled down in the 1950s or 1960s but it’s just possible that there may still be someone around who remembers it.

John Steer looked in detail at the plaque to see if there was anything on it that might suggest where it had been fixed. As well as the red splashes, there were some white spots of paint that seemed to have happened when the plaque was lying down. However, he spotted some white splashes on the sides.  In parts these are aerated with minute bubbles, so it looks like white Aero.  A sample has been tested and it is actually lime putty which is the sloppy stuff that is the basis for lime mortars, plasters and limewashes. There is a huge amount of detail about this in John Steer’s report – what follows is a summary.

The sample was surprisingly soft, which could indicate that there was something inefficient in the making of this lime putty, the burning or the slaking and this is not unusual in Victorian or earlier times.  Another reason for the softness, and more likely in this case, is that the putty had been allowed to dry before it had absorbed enough carbon dioxide.  This would mean it was effervescing quite violently and would have been dangerous to use. On the other hand, builders in the past were not as careful as we expect them to be nowadays. All we can say for certain is that the plaque was in the vicinity of quicklime being slaked, whatever the reason. However, the fact that the splashes are on the sides, and not on the face or back, does look very much as though the plaque was fixed to a wall that was being regularly whitewashed. It’s unlikely that by the end of the eighteenth century the house of one of the local gentry (someone with aspirations to a coat of arms) would have been cheaply limewashed by a cack-handed local builder who didn’t know how to slake lime properly. This makes the church more likely, I would think.

The sides have also become a light grey which is discernible only where the gold in the border has been erased to reveal the clean white original surface and there is a ‘tide line’ between the two.  The most likely origin for this is candle soot, but that could indicate either a house or a church before the advent of gas or electric light.

There the project rests at the moment. We need access to the original marriage and burial registers, more information on the possible limewash and an older resident who remembers what the inside of Church House looked like. Watch this space, as they say.


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