Church Monuments in South Wales

Church Monuments in South Wales, c.1200-1547

Rhianydd Biebrach

RHIANYDD BIEBRACH has taught medieval history at the universities of Swansea, Cardiff and South Wales and edited the journal Church Monuments. She currently works for Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales.

Many thanks for agreeing to take part in this issue of the Medieval Herald. May we begin with a potted history of your career in medieval studies and what first drew you to the subject?
I’ve been interested in history in general, and the middle ages in particular, ever since I can remember. I hold the 80s TV series Robin of Sherwood responsible in part as I was at a very impressionable age when Michael Praed’s Robin came into my life, and I’ve never quite got over it/him.

As an undergraduate at Bristol I took as many medieval modules as I could and specialised in Henry V in my third year. After university I went into secondary teaching, where the only contact I had with the middle ages was on a very superficial level in Year 7, so when I took a career break and began my MA with Swansea University in 2004 I jumped at the chance to pursue my interests further.

The MA turned into a PhD on the commemoration of the dead in the medieval diocese of Llandaff, during and after which I taught on a first year introductory medieval module. School history is overwhelmingly modern in its focus, especially at GCSE and A Level, so first year History students are often completely unfamiliar with the medieval period. I stayed on at Swansea in a part-time capacity for a few years, teaching first and second years, and got similar part-time work in the University of South Wales, and later Cardiff University. In my current role at Amgueddfa Cymru I am working on a project concerned with archaeological objects from prehistory to the early 18th century, which is a bit of a departure for me, but I can still use my medieval background when the opportunity arises.

Do you remember when you first decided to write your new book?
It was probably sometime towards the end of my PhD, in 2009-10. At that time I wanted to pursue a career in academia, and knew I would need to have a monograph to my name if I was to be offered a permanent contract.

It was far from easy, however, as I needed to earn money, so I had to prioritise paid teaching work over research and writing. Consequently, I was spending all my time preparing lectures and marking, with no time to spare for a book, so it was put on hold several times until I took it up again in earnest in 2016.

Can you tell us a little about how you researched it? We imagine lots of field trips.
Yes, there were lots of field trips. I must have visited the majority of the medieval churches in southeast Wales, and maybe 50% of those in the southwest. I visited every one that contained an effigy, as well as those with decent collections of cross slabs, but it would have been impossible to see them all with the time restrictions I had.

There are relatively few documentary records associated with medieval Welsh monuments, and so I did not need to make many archival visits. The trickiest part of my research was in identifying the stones that monuments were made from, which became a crucial aspect of my thesis. Fortunately, I was put in touch with Dr Tim Palmer, a palaeontologist from Aberystwyth University, at an early stage, and he was good enough to accompany me on several field trips to tutor me in the dark arts of stone-type analysis. Unfortunately, I was never very good at it, but his help really was invaluable.

What did you enjoy most about this period and did your research uncover any surprises?
I loved all of it, the field work, the reading and the writing. It was an enormous task though, and rather took over my, and consequently my family’s, life. We’ve only recently been able to use the dining table for its intended purpose as it was my work desk for about 10 years and I wouldn’t let them clear the books away.

I would say that there were two important findings uncovered, or confirmed, by my research. Firstly, was that the monumental culture of north and south Wales are quite distinct from each other, although that was already relatively well understood.

The most surprising thing, however, was the differences between practices in south Wales and in England from the later 14th century until the end of the period. The commissioning of monuments took a tumble in both regions immediately after the Black Death, but in most parts of England it recovered well and by the end of the 15th century even quite lowly individuals were commissioning small brasses and other kinds of lower-end memorials such as incised slabs.

In south Wales, however, the opposite happened. Native production more or less came to an end (especially of effigies) and commissioning became restricted to the powerful lay and clerical elites, who went for big, showy alabasters. You’ll have to look hard to find a medieval Welsh brass (though they do exist), whereas you’re falling over them in places like Gloucestershire, only just over the border.

What’s the particular significance of your study’s start and finish dates?
Very simple, there are no monuments in my area of study which can be securely dated to before c.1200, whereas the reign of Henry VIII ushered in changes which were to irrevocably change monumental culture, so the end of his reign in 1547 seemed like a sensible place to conclude.

350 years is a long time to cover and must surely have presented some challenges.
Actually, it was helpful. There are relatively low numbers of medieval monuments in south Wales, for several reasons, especially from the post-Black Death period. Because of this a long-time frame was necessary to get a big enough dataset. If I had restricted the timeframe I would have been less able to draw statistically valid conclusions.

How – and why – do the monuments of South Wales differ from what you call the 'native Wales' of the north-west?
There was a very distinctive North Wales ‘style’, explored by Gresham in the ‘60s and more recently by Brian and Moira Gittos. This was characterised by low relief carving, and other quirky features such as placing inscriptions around the edge of knights’ shields instead of along the edge of the slab.

In the south however, although it may be possible in some cases to link monuments stylistically together and suggest a common workshop origin, on the whole they look just like what you would expect to find in a southern English context. A good proportion of them are English imports, of course, but even the ones that were made locally would probably look at home in Somerset or elsewhere.

Was the funding of monuments restricted only to the rich?
It was definitely an elite pursuit in the very early part of the period, but by the end of the 13th century we see monuments to parish priests, merchants and other civilian groups. As I suggested earlier, though, this tendency for the market in monuments to become more democratic reversed again from the 15th into the 16th century.

With cross slabs, as opposed to effigial monuments, it’s more difficult to say, as they are so often anonymous. We know some members of knightly families were commemorated by cross slabs, but on the whole they were probably being commissioned by a lower status group than this. Typically, a physical memorial like this would not have been an option for the poor.

What do you think your book adds to the historiography of South Wales?
It’s the first monograph on the monumental culture of the region, so I hope it adds a great deal of understanding to the nature of religious and cultural practice in the medieval march, especially among the settler elites. I’m not very good at selling myself, so we’ll have to wait until the reviews start appearing to see what its real impact is.

Maybe it’s unfair to ask, but was there a monument that particularly appealed to you, a favourite amongst many?
I have two favourites. One is the monument of an unknown mid-14th century knight at Llansannor church, near Cowbridge. The church is tiny and completely unremarkable, yet it contains this spectacularly beautiful effigy. It’s so well carved; it’s the work of an absolute master of his craft and would not look out of place in Westminster Abbey alongside John of Eltham. But even better, it’s made from a local sandstone, so it’s not an import – it was made by a craftsman working in south Wales with stone quarried just down the road, probably from somewhere near Bridgend.

My absolute favourite is the late-15th century alabaster effigy of David Mathew in Llandaff Cathedral. I wouldn’t call it beautiful, but at over seven feet long it’s striking and enigmatic. There are a few unlikely local legends connected with ‘sir’ David Mathew, for example he was supposed to have been a strapping 6 foot 2, saved the life of Edward IV at Towton in 1461, and was then eventually killed in a riot in Neath in 1484, when he would have been in his 90s. The reality is that he was probably just a successful and ambitious local gentleman bureaucrat (although a poem written about him by the bard Guto’r Glyn does describe him as a tall man). Certainly his armoured effigy exudes such charisma that it is easy to see him as a swashbuckling warrior, despite the documentary evidence to the contrary. I’ve never come across another monument that has such presence, hence putting it on the front cover of the book.

May we ask what you are working on now?
I am writing another book, but it’s very different from Church Monuments in South Wales, so no more about that for now.

Finally, we’re asking all our contributors how they buy their books: online, favourite bookstore, conferences? Don’t buy, borrow? Electronic or print?
I buy if I have to, generally online.

Buy the book

Church Monuments in South Wales 4 colour, 48 black and white & 9 line illustrations;
224 pages
978 1 78327 264 8
Hardback: £60/$90
Boydell Studies in Medieval Art and Architecture
Boydell Press

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