Vaccines are being rolled out as we speak, but it’s still going to be a while before we can meet in person. It isn’t the same, but another virtual study day might help to tide us over. This one explores three churches in the Vale of Glamorgan, between Cowbridge and Llanilltud Fawr (aka Llantwit Major, where we went on our last virtual study day). There are no impressive effigies in these churches (there is one effigy, but it really has been bashed about a bit) but there is plenty of interest.
We start at Llanblethian, just south of Cowbridge. This was the old parish church for the Cowbridge area (Cowbridge itself was until quite recently a chapel of ease). The medieval parish covered what are now the modern parishes of Llansannor and Welsh St Donats as well as Llanquian, now just a farm off the roundabout east of Cowbridge. It looks feasibly like the minster church of a small Welsh commote. As such it has a good collection of medieval tomb carvings – plus the one severely battered effigy. The church itself was rather roughly handled by Victorian ‘restorers’. The walls were scraped, and the architect recorded some painted plaster which was probably a Sunday Christ. They were a little more respectful towards the medieval tomb carvings, most of which are now against the walls of the tower.
The earliest of the cross slabs is this one (click on the gallery images) –
probably twelfth century and rather awkwardly located behind a cupboard of spare choir surplices! As a result it’s difficult to photograph but we have John Rodger’s drawings to help us. He was an architect who did a lot of work for the diocese in the early 20th century. He made careful measured drawings of a number of medieval tomb carvings – some of which are now missing, or so badly worn that Rodger’s drawings are our best record.
Nancy Edwards has suggested that crosses of similar design elsewhere could be as early as the 7th-9th centuries, but the tapered slab and neatly chamfered edge suggest a rather later date. The forking of the arms and head might be intended to represent a figure on the cross, or they could just be decoration.
Llanblethian also has several late 13th and early 14th century cross slabs.
Most are in the tower, though this one
clearly cut down for use in building but with some rather elegant stiffleaf on the shaft, is in the porch.
is particularly interesting. (It was our Monument of the Month back in May 2017). The inscription commemorates Eme… the wife of Walter Torig. The full inscription reads DAME : EME..T : LA : FEMME : WATER : TORIG : GIST : ICI : D[EU : [D]EL : AME : EIT : MERCI . (There may have been a further inscription on the chamfer but it is now indecipherable.) Nothing is known about Eme… or about her husband. The stone is a tapering slab with a single chamfer. This would suggest an early date in most parts of England, but in Wales tapering slabs were still being used in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The design of the cross, with its knopped arms and large plain fleur-de-lys finials, looks early fourteenth century, and this would also fit with the large Lombardic capitals of the inscription.
The stone was actually found inverted (carved side down) in the south chapel, over a stone-lined shaft containing a skeleton. In a niche in the side of the shaft was a low-grade pewter chalice.
Priests were normally buried with replica chalices, so we can assume that the skeleton is that of a priest and not a woman. The chalice can still be seen, and from its style it is probably fourteenth century – so the tomb slab may have been used to cover the priest’s grave within the lifetime of someone who saw it laid in its original location over Eme…’s grave.
And the effigy … here it is, relocated to a niche in the south transept
It’s a thirteenth-century effigy of a civilian, quite crudely carved in fairly low relief. He has his hands clasped in prayer and there is a greyhound at his feet.
is Fowler’s drawing of it, as it was found in the 19th century restoration, from that Archaeologia Cambrensis article. The tower is fifteenth century, and the effigy was presumably defaced in order to use it in the building of the tower.
Two useful examples of medieval reuse – and there are others. One is now missing, but we know about it from Fowler’s report. His drawing of the piscina
has a miniature cross slab, inverted, as one of the side panels. It is similar to the first stone we looked at, with forked arms and head. From its size it could have covered a heart burial, buit as Sally Badham’s article in the current Church Monuments shows, not all small slabs come from heart burials – not all heart burials have small slabs – it could be a child’s burial, or it could simply be someone who could not afford a full-sized slab.
When I went round Llanblethian with the Cardiff Archaeological Society in 2019, I told them that there were 10 cross slabs and fragments in the church (plus the missing one from the piscina and the effigy) and challenged them to find them all. They did it, including finding this one
which supports a small bowl inside the medieval font. But they actually found an eleventh – this
the lintel of a window in the crypt.
The crypt has all sorts of local stories attached to it. When the church was ‘restored’ in 1896 the crypt was found to be full of skeletons, together with some coffin lids, presumably those now placed in the tower and porch. Local tradition says that the skeletons were those of soldiers killed at the battle of Stalling Down in 1405. It seems more likely, though, that this was the parish charnel house, and that it held skulls and bones found in the course of grave-digging: these are the bone-holes through which they would have been shovelled. The bones were reburied in a common grave in the churchyard, and it seems unlikely that it will ever be possible to re-excavate and examine them.
In normal times, the church is open every day, but you have to make special arrangements to go into the crypt. We don’t have time on the virtual study day to look all round the churchyard, but there are a couple of particularly interesting stones there. Some readers will remember Gwen Awbery’s lecture on Welsh poetry on tombstones at the Brecon study day in 2017 (and it will be published in a forthcoming Church Monuments). Llanblethian was traditionally and English-speaking part of the Vale of Glamorgan but it does have a couple of examples of Welsh poems on gravestones. My sharp-eyed French cousin spotted them, and Gwen Awbery has now been to look at them – so this is based on her report.
These two gravestones
commemorating local farmers who died at the end of the 18th century, have verses from a poem by William Williams Pantycelyn. Wales’s best-known hymn-writer, he is most famous for the hymn Arglwydd, arwain, trwy’r anialwch , probably more familiar to most of us as ‘Guide me, O thou great Redeemer’ and pretty much our alternative national anthem. As well as a number of other hymns, he wrote an epic poem, Theomemphus, about the soul’s journey to salvation (a sort of Welsh Pilgrim’s Progress). The verses on these gravestones are from Theomemphus’s own epitaph. One has the first verse, the other the second, so they do seem to have been planned as a pair. The third verse is on Williams’s own memorial in the churchyard at Llanfair-ar-y-bryn near Llandovery.
The first of the Llanblethian inscriptions is on a rather overgrown stone that is overlaid by another stone above it. I had to clear the overgrowth to read the farm name. It commemorates William Rhys of Fyrsil Fawr in the parish of Coity who died on 25 Feb. 1794. He has the first verse of Theomemphus’s epitaph:
Wel dyma un a garwyd a gannwyd yn y gwad
Deng miliwn lawn o feiau faddeuwyd iddo’n rhad
Ei dynnu wnawd o’r danllwyth ac yntau’n mynd i lawr
Fe gadwyd hwn o uffern mae e yn y nef yn awr.
(Well, here is one who was loved, who was cleansed in blood,
Ten million sins were freely forgiven to him;
To keep him from the blazing fire and from going below,
He was kept from Hell, he is now in Heaven)
The second tombstone, to the south of the first, commemorates Catherine, wife of Jonathan Masey (elsewhere Meazey) of Llanblethian and daughter of John Thomas of Wernfawr in Ystradowen. She died on 29 September 1794, aged 32.
Her grave has the second verse of the Theomemphus poem. It was more difficult to read so I’ve taken part of it from the first edition of Theomemphus
[Fi ga] fy nghorph i fynu fel fy Anwylyd cu
Heb nwydau drwg byth mwyach [i’m blino fel y bu;]
[Does dyn] wyr is yr wybr ddedwydded [yw fy lle, ]
Ac nis gall dyn ddychmygu [dim am bleserau’r ne’].
(My body will be raised, like my dear Beloved,
With no more evil desires to weary me as I was;
No man beneath the heavens can know, blessed is my place,
And no man can imagine anything about the pleasures of Heaven.)
So what are these Welsh verses doing on a tomb in the English heartland of the Vale of Glamorgan? I can’t find out any more about William Rhys and I can’t identify Fyrsil Fawr (Furze Hill?) in Coity. Catherine and Jonathan appear on online family trees at https://www.wikitree.com/wiki/Meazey-1 and https://www.wikitree.com/wiki/Thomas-12911. Both came from Ystradowen but seem to have moved to Llanblethian by the time they married. She was his second wife and he married a third wife in 1797. This was not heartless: he was farming, he had a young family, he needed a business partner to run the house, the dairy etc and look after the next generation. Her tombstone also commemorates two of her grandchildren, Richard and Catherine, children of her son William Meazey and his wife Jane. Ystradowen is a little to the north of Llanblethian, but still in the Vale of Glamorgan, traditionally an anglicised area.
Theomemphus was first published in 1764. It was very popular in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and went through several reprints. The third verse of the poem from Theomemphus’s grave was used on William Williams’s own tomb at Llanfair-ar-y-bryn. The connection may be through his son John, who worked for a while as a schoolteacher in Coychurch (which is the next parish to Coity) with David Jones, the ‘Angel of Llangan’. So did he teach young William Rhys his father’s poem? There are some very slight differences between the published version of the poem and what is on the tombstones, suggesting that someone was working from memory rather than from the printed page.
The stone in the middle
was more difficult to decipher. Gwen Awbery identified it as one she had also found in Llansannor, just north of Cowbridge, but not anywhere else.
Gwel rhybydd beunydd yn bod
pawb edrych pob oddran su n darfod
ymaith pan el dy amod
tynnu mau at hyn o nod.
This is another memento mori poem – here’s Gwen’s translation.
See a warning every day – everyone look
every age that ends
when your promise goes away
it is approaching this target
Not great poetry, this one! It’s an englyn, in the strict Welsh verse form known as cynghanedd. This is a ferociously complex pattern of alliteration, assonance and internal rhyme and rhythm – in her Brecon lecture, Gwen said that cynghanedd makes the Petrarchan sonnet look like vers libre. This makes it difficult to translate, and a literal translation does not always make clear sense. There are problems with the cynghanedd in this one, and as it doesn’t appear elsewhere it may have been the work of a local poet operating a bit above his skillset.
The side road past the church leads to our next church, Llanfrynach. This is an almost completely unmodernised church in the middle of the fields west of Cowbridge. Access is down a muddy unsurfaced lane. The key is kept in the pub at the top of the hill, the Cross Inn. In happier times, this would be an ideal place for lunch – so we’ll take a break here and resume in a bit to plod down the lane (or drive if you are feeling brave).
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