Last year I visited St Dogmaels Abbey, Cardigan, after about a decade’s hiatus. Before last year, I had previously visited numerous times to see the ruins of the abbey when I lived and worked in Carmarthen. I recall my last student field trip there was from Trinity College Carmarthen (now Trinity St Davids) where I was Lecturer, and then Senior Lecturer, in Archaeology (1999-2002). I recall the last trip dissolved into a social outing involving tea and chow chows when visiting one of my student’s parents house in the village: dogs at St Dogs…
Anyway, this time around I failed to realise that the Coach House by the duck pond had been converted into a museum, so I didn’t get to go around that and see the stone tombs and architectural fragments hitherto exposed and on display in the north transept.
I need to go back this year and explore further! You can view pics of the exhibition I didn’t see here.
Here I report on the ruins which I explored. This is a unique Tironian – austere Benedictines – for England or Wales. St Dogmaels was founded 1120 by Robert fitz Martin, lord of Cemais and spawned two West Welsh daughter priories at Pill and Caldey (a third was at Glascarreg, Ireland). Supplanting the clas church of Llandudoch, we know next to nothing about the site prior to the 12th century, but Early Christian inscribed stones hints that this might have been an early focus of worship and burial far earlier in the Early Middle Ages.
Few records about the abbey’s history survive but its library was famous. Still, we rely on understanding the site’s history from the surviving ruins. Perhaps reflecting the failing fortunes of the abbey in the face of Welsh resurgence, the 12th-century church was remodelled and narrowed in the early 13th century and there is evidence of three further stages of rebuilding, in the 14th, 14th/15th and 16th centuries respectively. Post-dissolution phases include the late 16th-century rector’s house remodelling the monks’ kitchen and abbot’s house.
The ruins today are most monumental in the north transept and the infirmary. Still, the layout of the church and cloister, and post-dissolution buildings are readily discernible. Notable is how the buildings adapt to the relatively steep location topography.
From an archaeodeath perspective, there are numerous mortuary dimensions to the site.
- There are the early Christian inscribed stones visible inside the adjacent parish church to the north of the ruins and in the new Visitor Centre.
- There is also a late medieval cadaver tomb in the Coach House which I failed to see this time around (see above).
- Amidst the ruins are the remains of two tomb recesses in the north transept (which I failed to photograph due to fences to protect and area of restoration work).
- There is also the crypt beneath the Presbytery (now obviously exposed to the elements.
What is perhaps the most striking mortuary dimension to the ruins are post-medieval. The 19th century displaced gravestones, no longer safe or convenient to manage the churchyard have been systematiclaly moved to the edges of the parish churchyard and yet remain on display. This is a common practice in many churchyards. See, for example, my post about Talley Abbey here and my post on Gresford church here.
At St Dogmaels, the memorials so re-positioned wrap around the outside of the northern wall of the Presbytery, North Transept and Nave in a striking fashion. They are also found around the edge of the original churchyard boundary on its west, now extended so they mark a striking curvilinear topographical boundary within the churchyard. Check out the pics below.
In short, this ‘practical’ arrangement of dislocated memorials show their unduring ‘undead’ mnemonic power. For while their role in marking graves has been lost, individually and collectively these displaced gravestones project community identity and memory. Somewhere between barrier and decorative surface and retaining their memorial functions, these memorials have been regenerated in commemorative terms rather than obliterated through displacement.