Church Monuments Society

Brecon Cathedral a post Reformation cross slab 02

Brecon Cathedral: a post-Reformation cross slab

Month: July 2014
Type: Cross Slab   Ledgerstone  
Era: 17th Century

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St Keyne’s Chapel
Brecon Cathedral,
Cathedral Close,

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Half hidden by the carpet in the St Keyne’s Chapel in Brecon Cathedral, tucked under the heating pipes on the north wall, is a seventeenth-century ledger stone. Battered and worn, with key parts of the inscription spalled off, it is nevertheless one of the most fascinating stones in a building full of interest for the student of monumental carving.

The stone commemorates a Richard John William who married Gwladis daughter of Phillip Price and died in the 1620s. The names of their children have all but disappeared. There is replacement stonework in a central panel, probably where the slab has been damaged by reuse. But the key features are plain to see. The first is that the stone has an ornate cross head. Crosses on memorials after the Reformation are extremely rare in England, but in south-east Wales they are virtually the norm on seventeenth-century ledger stones. Some are probably medieval stones recut with later inscriptions, but most are clearly later in style, with inscriptions that appear to be part of the original design.

The crosses on post-Reformation memorials in Glamorgan are plain to the point of austerity, often just parallel lines with a simple calvary base. In north Monmouthshire and south Breconshire, though, there is a range of ornate baroque styles, suggesting several schools of local stonemasons each with its own pattern book. The stone in the St Keyne’s Chapel at Brecon has a cross head with an elaborate design of interlaced hearts and square-based fleurs-de-lys. Other ledger stones in the cathedral have slightly simpler crosses with similar fleurs-de-lys. Some of the crosses in north Monmouthshire have very distinctive scrolled bases and endearingly naive figures flanking the cross shafts. Most of the Monmouthshire stones have incised text but the Brecon stones have false-relief capitals rather reminiscent of the false-relief Lombardic capitals that characterise the medieval slabs of north Wales.

The second significant feature on the Brecon stone is the IHS trigram at the centre of the cross head. The IHS trigram is common enough on later medieval stones, reflecting the increased popularity of the cult of the Holy Name of Jesus. But all the medieval examples are in blackletter script. On this stone, the trigram is in square capitals, in the form popularised by Ignatius Loyola as the visual identity of his new order the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits.

The Brecon ledger stone is clearly not that of a Jesuit: but did it commemorate a Jesuit sympathiser? IHS emblems are not as common in post-Reformation south-east Wales as cross slabs, but there are a number of other examples: at least two more in Brecon, five in Abergavenny and a scatter across northern Monmouthshire. As with the cross slabs, there are few outside south-east Wales and the western border of Herefordshire before the end of the seventeenth century. The IHS emblem was regarded by many as ‘popish’ but it had a marked resurgence in popularity in the early seventeenth century under the influence of Arminianism and the revival of ritualism in the established church. In spite of its Jesuit connections the square capitals style seems to have been more acceptable than black letter with its undertones of the medieval church. It appeared on church plate and furnishings, though much of the latter was destroyed during the Puritan resurgence in the 1640s and 1650s.

South-east Wales was one of the strongholds of Catholic recusancy after the Reformation. Some of those commemorated with cross slabs and IHS emblems were certainly Catholic, or had Catholic sympathies. One of the cross slabs in Brecon commemorates a Lewis Havard, who died in 1569. That one has a Latin inscription concluding with the prayer ‘cuius anime Deus propicietur’. The Havards were one of Breconshire’s leading Catholic families, though confessional lines were not as clearly drawn in 1569 as they would be after the bull Regnans in Excelsis in 1570. One of the IHS stones in Abergavenny commemorates a ‘RG’ who died in 1672. Could this have been one of the Gunters, Abergavenny’s leading Catholic family? But most of the people commemorated by these stones cannot be indentified in any of the lists of Catholics. One stone in the Havard chapel at Brecon has the full Jesuit emblem – IHS trigram, nails and pierced heart, set in a sunburst – but it commemorates Ann Bulcott, daughter of Lewis Morgan, who was vicar of Brecon in the 1620s. Some of the Bulcotts were Catholics but the Brecon branch of the family was ostentatiously conformist and Ann’s son served as sheriff of the county in 1679.

The stone in the St Keyne’s Chapel is if anything even more conspicuously loyalist. Much of the text has spalled off but you can clearly see, under the cross head, the words ‘Honor the King’ – the second part of the motto ‘Fear God, Honour the King’. Most of the text on the stone is in false-relief capitals, but the motto is in blackletter, which could have been intended to emphasise its separate nature: the false-relief capitals are the family details, the motto has more to do with belief.

It is particularly unfortunate that the final digit of the date is missing. The memorial dates from some time in the 1620s: and we do know that from 1621 to 1627 the bishop of St David’s (the medieval diocese covering Brecon) was none other than William Laud. He was already one of the leaders of the ‘Arminian’ group in the Church of England (though his theology was never explicitly Arminian) and of course went on to serve as Charles I’s Archbishop of Canterbury and to be executed in 1645. If the memorial dates from his period at St David’s, it could be evidence for his encouragement of ceremonialism, visual ornamentation and the ‘beauty of holiness’ combined with loyalty to the Crown and the Royal Supremacy.

However, this ledger stone is clearly in the tradition of the other memorials of south-east Wales. Some of the people who commissioned them might have had Catholic sympathies, open or covert, but in most cases one suspects they would have identified themselves as loyal members of the established church. The same kind of stubborn traditionalism can also be found in the religious practices of the period. Bishops wrung their hands and tore their hair over pilgrimages, candles, and what Robinson of Bangor called ‘lewde and indecent vigils’: but these were never a threat to the authority of church or state.

Maddy Gray and Rhianydd Biebrach are planning to organise either a study day or an excursion to Brecon to look at the medieval and post-medieval stones in the Cathedral and in Christ College (the former Domincan friary). Watch this space, as they say.

Dr Maddy Gray PhD

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