‘Mabli, abbot of Cwm-hir’?
Visit this monument
St Mary's Church
Abbey Cwmhir, Llandrindod Wells LD1 6PH
St Mary's Church
Abbey Cwmhir, Llandrindod Wells LD1 6PH
A medieval cross slab, found in the abbey ruins: but does it really commemorate an abbot?
For St David’s Day, another Welsh Monument of the Month – and this one is a bit of a puzzle. Found in the ruins of Cwm-hir Abbey in Radnorshire, it is now in the parish church. It is generally described as the 13th century tomb of Mabli, abbot of Cwm-hir. But the more you look at it, the odder it looks. The narrow coffin-lid style is early but the style of the cross is nearer fifteenth- than thirteenth-century. The script is odd, too, and quite unlike anything I’ve seen elsewhere in Wales, though those double-lined letters also crop up on memorial brasses. Sally Badham (who is among other things a leading expert in the lettering on medieval tomb carvings, particularly brasses) points out that it has elements of both Lombardic and blackletter (or ‘Gothic’) script. This would suggest either a date in the fourteenth century when blackletter was taking over from Lombardic capitals, or possibly a date later in the sixteenth century when blackletter seems to have been regarded as somehow ‘popish’ and Lombardic returned to fashion. The inscription with its prayer for the soul looks pre-Reformation but similar inscriptions can be found in later sixteenth-century Wales (see for example http://heritagetortoise.wordpress.com/2013/10/19/brecon-cathedral-again-and-again/ ).
The tomb is said to commemorate an abbot, one about whom we know nothing. This is not unusual for Welsh abbots, as the documentary sources are so scanty. Nevertheless, if we don’t know anything about him, how do we know he is an abbot? Indeed, looking at the carving, why do we think it commemorates an abbot at all? Mabli is more usually found as a female name.
It proved difficult to track the history of the stone. According to a letter published in the Transactions of the Radnorshire Society vol. 4 (1934) pp. 60-1 , online at http://welshjournals.llgc.org.uk/browse/viewpage/llgc-id:1191402/llgc-id:1191602/llgc-id:1191664/get650 , the stone was found covering a coffin in the abbey church. The letter was from J. Bagnall Evans, son of the former curate of Abbey Cwm-hir, W. Evans, to the Rev. E. Hermitage Day, and dated January 1895. In it, the writer describes how
In 1836 while laying out some flower beds amongst the ruins, the coffin lid you refer to was found, I think in the nave of the Abbey. When it was raised a perfect skeleton was disclosed in a stone grave, quite close to the surface of the ground. It was that of a tall man, and under the middle age, for the teeth were all quite perfect and beautifully white. In a few moments of exposure to the air only the teeth remained – all the rest was dust – and these my Father carefully collected and carried home …
My Father placed the inscribed lid inside the old Church onthe S. wall, and I was sorry to see it had been moved out into the yard, when I last visited the place some years ago.
The letter was sent to the Radnorshire Transactions by a Miss Phillips of Ivy Lodge, Hereford: how it came into her possession is not explained. She went on to describe how the tombstone became the focus for literary imagination:
Mr. Thomas Wilson, who was present at the discovery of the stone, wrote a long poem of 63 verses, weaving an imaginary story around Mabli, a lady. He makes Ririd the Abbot leave the Abbey, and marry a beautiful lady he had met on a pilgrimage to Rome. They live in Antwerp, but his conscience makes him go to Rome and confess to the Pope, who sends him back to the Abbey, in a lowly place as a penance. His wife dies of grief, and the two sons die in the Crusades. But on his death the Pope allows his wife’s remains to be brought over and buried next him. Mr. Wilson makes Mabli into this lady.
Attached to this long poem there is this note by Thomas Wilson.
The Abbot of Coombe Heere. A Tale,’ By Thomas Wilson.
‘In the year 1210 Ririd was Abbot and Honorius occupied the Papal See. The Author considers himself wholly responsible for the incidents of the story. In 1827 the Author cleared the ruins of the Church and discovered in the Nave, a lid of a stone coffin, the burial place of a lady, with a very ancient abbreviated Latin inscription recommending her soul to God. Not far from that spot were also the remains of several monks and the leaden seals of the Bulls of two Popes Honorius the 3rd and 4th addressed to the Abbey.’
From this it seems that the theory that the stone dated from the 13th century may originate in the fact that it was found in conjunction with the two bullae of Honorius III and IV.
We no longer have the skeleton so we can’t check whether it was male or female. Wilson seems to have assumed female but Evans said male, presumably because of the height. (Women could be tall in the past: Mary Queen of Scots was nearly 6’.) The assumption that it was an abbot was presumably because it was such an elaborate stone and found in the monastic church. From the style of the carving and the epigraphy it could date from the fourteenth or even as late as the sixteenth century. Women were buried on Cistercian sites, and with impressive tomb carvings (there are examples at Valle Crucis including a gorgeous fragment commemorating a Maruruet who probably died in the early 14th century: it was later cut down and built into a fireplace). By the fourteenth century, though, it would be unusual for a woman’s tomb slab not to give at least some of her family pedigree. Looking carefully at Maruruet’s stone, you may just be able to see the downstroke of the next letter, which could be ‘f’ for ‘filia’, ‘daughter of’.
So we don’t have a final answer to this puzzle. Like Brian and Moira Gittos’ revision of Gresham’s work on north Wales tomb carvings, it is a cautionary tale: we have all gone along repeating each other’s descriptions without actually looking for ourselves. We need to remember to LOOK.
(Cwm-hir is traditionally said to have been the burial place of our last Welsh Prince of Wales, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd – or of what was left of him, after his body had been mutilated by the English and his head put on Traitor’s Gate. But that, as they say, is Another Story.)