We have been having great fun on Twitter with @annaandthedead ‘s #31DaysofGraves – a different topic for each day in October. We have had pictures for Languages, Big, Small, Eroded, Repairs … if you can still bear to use Twitter (see what I did there – I can’t bring myself to use the new name. X just reminds me of Agnes Nitt, the apprentice witch in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld) look up the hashtag and enjoy.
Day 9 was Repurposed and today, 15 October, is Cross. Plenty of crosses on medieval tomb slabs, plenty in Victorian and more modern churchyards – but there shouldn’t be any for the early modern period. After the Reformation, such visual imagery was frowned on, even on monuments. ‘Frightful Brands of Superstition’, one 17th century author called them.
So why have we got so many of them in south-east Wales? Virtually all the late 16th and early 17th century ledgerstones in Glamorgan, Gwent and south Breconshire have crosses of one form or another, from the very simple four-line crosses of the Vale of Glamorgan to the elaborate fleur-de-lys cross heads and scrolled bases of north Gwent. How did we get away with it?
The answer may be on this one in Brecon Cathedral: an interlace cross head with the HIS trigram in the form adopted by the Jesuits, but with the second half of the patriotic saying ‘Fear God, Honour the King’.
It was this combination of traditionalism and loyalism which characterised early modern Wales, and the fact that we posed no threat to the Tudor and Stuart state meant that we got away with crosses on our tombs, pilgrimages, relics and rosaries.
Not all these crosses were new: there are also examples of reused medieval crosses. That kind of reuse is something Sarah Tarlow has written about in the context of the Western Isles of Scotland. She sees it as the same sort of traditionalism that we find in Wales, not explicitly Catholic but adhering to the old ways of doing things. Reused crosses are less noticeable in south Wales, but they do occur – and they can hide in plain sight. I thought I knew every stone in Brecon Cathedral by now, but it wasn’t until a recent visit that I realised that this
(Chris Jones-Jenkins’s photo) was not an entirely early modern cross slab but a reused medieval one. The design of the cross head is virtually identical to this one
which is clearly medieval (probably early 14th century) from the style of the lettering. A Cross and Repurposed all in one.
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