Last week I found myself coming face-to-face with a long-lost medieval incised effigial slab: a unique memorial quite possibly of an abbot of Valle Crucis. In this post I provide only a brief and interim report on this fascinating medieval mortuary monument. Newly and proudly displayed by Llangollen Museum for the first time, this stone is previously unknown to scholarship beyond brief mention 121 years ago.
An Unexpected Introduction
I was visiting Llangollen Museum to photograph the replica of the Pillar of Eliseg as part of my ongoing research as part of Project Eliseg. Gillian Smith – Llangollen Museum’s manager – introduced me to a surprising new acquisition put on display for the first time only the previous day: the fragment of a medieval grave-slab.
The monument is on loan to the museum for 2 years and anyone can see it during museum opening hours (10am to 4pm) free of charge every day except Wednesday. It was acquired by its present owner in the 1990s at auction and said to have originated from the nearby ruins of the Cistercian monastery of Valle Crucis Abbey.
After a short hesitation of awe and surprise, my colleagues and I realised we were looking at a unique monument lost for over a century. This monument appears to be unlike any before seen or studied. Notably, there is a large collection of medieval grave-slabs at Valle Crucis Abbey and many on display in the abbot’s house (open to visitors in the summer months); while many have similar texts to this monument, none have an inscribed effigy.
A basic drawing of this monument has appeared before, in the pages of Archaeologia Cambrensis for 1895, although it subsequently seems to have escaped attention and the stone ‘lost’ to the public gaze.
What is it?
The monument is the top end of a grave-slab, depicting an incised effigy of a tonsured male monastic. We have lost the left-hand edge of the stone, which might have had further lettering. Obviously, we have also lost the bottom (two-thirds to three-quarters?) of the monument and the right-hand side is worn and chipped in places obscuring some features. The lower end of the stone has been hollowed into a scoop, so we have lost details of the chest area of the image.
The head is oval, his tonsure is apparent and his head-hair is marked by 9 curling short locks. A fraction of this number appear on his chin where he displays three strands, one central created by two lines joining together, and one to each side created by single lines. This is suggestive of a small beard. His eyes are large and widely spaced, although the left is obscured by later damage. His eyebrows are slightly assymmetrical with his left eyebrow raised higher than his right. The nose is clearly depicted with a wide bridge. The ears are distinctive and large.
What is amazing is that he is smiling. His mouth is curved into a clear, contented pursed and modest smile, if somewhat lopsided.
Put these elements together and we have an individual depicted fully aware and awake, awaiting Salvation.
His neck is broad and his head is resting on a pillow, representing in two dimensions by a rectangular outline. He wears a plain collar (amice?), a diamonded orphrey, and a chasuble with a star or triple-flashed motif upon it. He is therefore dressed for the performance of mass, without his mitre and crozier.
It is not clear what he is holding, perhaps a book in his right hand. The curved lines on the right (his left) might be ludicrously elongated fingers holding the book, or perhaps they represent some other object he is holding (a very large and stumpy crozier comes to mind but I am sure others will have better suggestions than this). Williams (1895) suggests it is a paten, and this might work but I have found no parallels.
The text is in Lombardic capitals and reads as follows
…ER : HOWEL’ : ABBAS
The ‘er’ might be the end of ‘frater’, suggest Brian and Moira Gittos. Unfortunately, a scan through Gresham (1968) reveals no precedent for a word ending ‘ER’ apart from Gresham 68 from Bangor, a floriated cross with the inscription element ‘FRATER:IOH’s:DE:LANA ES’ (Brother Iohannes of Llanfaes) (Gresham 1968: 105-6), possibly the Prior of the Dominican Friary at Llanfaes and dated to c. 1300-1320. A later inscription on the same stone abbreviates ‘frater’ to FR (Gresham 1968: 106). In contrast, the William de Freney monument from Rhuddlan uses the word ‘frere’ rather than the Latin ‘frater’ (Gresham 1968: 160-61).
Might we speculate that the original inscription, if symmetrically arranged, read something like:
HIC IACET FRATER HOWEL ABBAS
Here lies brother Howel, Abbot
There is significant later damage which most likely occurred while it was exposed lying flat, including a ‘stab’ mark to the right of the head. There is an axe-shaped carved area over figure’s left ear. The left-hand-side of the slab has been cut down, possibly for architectural reuse. Meanwhile, the bottom of the surviving stone has been carved into a bowl at some stage. Might these represent the reuse of the grave-slab in some regard, perhaps as a garden feature?
The Significance of the Monument
The smiling religious is important in at least three related ways:
- this is a unique inscribed effigy from North Wales combined with a text in false relief ‘Lombardic’ capitals and therefore is a distinctive arrangement (see Gresham 1968). Brian and Moira Gittos confirmed to me that it is unlike anything they have seen from Wales and Professor Madeline Gray pointed out to me the only analogy is the late 13th-century Archbishop William de Freney effigial slab from Rhuddlan, dated by Gresham (1968: 161) to around 1290. Here we find an archbishop affiliated with a mendicant foundation (a Dominican friary), but there are few close similarities in appearance to this monument and Lombardic capitals are present but incised rather than in false relief.
- this seems to be the grave-slab of a Cistercian monastic, perhaps indeed an abbot, quite possibly of Valle Crucis Abbey. Professor Madeline Gray noted to me that there are memorials to Cistercian abbots from Tintern and Margam, but these do not have representations of the man himself on them.
We might well know who this effigial slab was commemorating. The name could be ‘HOWEL’. This is a name known from a number of medieval mortuary monuments from North Wales. Upon the shield of the knightly effigy from Ruabon is spelt HOVEL (Gresham 1968: 180-82) and again at Tremeirchion (Gresham 1968: 224-28). However, on the Llanrwst monument to Hywel Coetmor is spelt ‘HOWEL’ (Gresham 1968: 205-7) and again as ‘HOWEL’ on the floriated cross from Yspyty Ifan (Gresham 1968: 214-15) and teh decorated slab from Whitford (Gresham 1968: 220- 222). The ‘HOWEL’ of this newly discovered monument might equate to Hywel ap Griffin of Valle Crucis recorded around 1275 (Williams 2014: 204) and, whether a different person or the same one, the Abbot Hywel of Valle Crucis recorded in c. 1295 (Williams 2014: 204). There are other possible Hywels including: (a) one at Strata Marcella in 1215 recorded by Williams (2014: 204) although the Monastic Wales website notes a Dafydd was abbot at this date but instead there was an abbot called ‘H….’ at Strata Marcella in 1276; (b) Hywel ap Gwilym was abbot at Aberconwy in 1406-9 (perhaps too late as a contender for the commemorated individual on this stone); (c) David Crane has mentioned to me a Hywel ab ednyfed, Bishop of St Asaph 1242-47. These last three are all less geographically and chronologically likely than Abbot Hywel of Valle Crucis but they must be kept in mind, together with the possibility that this is the tomb of a Hywel hitherto unknown in the written sources. Brian and Moira Gittos confirm that their ongoing research and revised chronology for mortuary monuments in North Wales (Gittos and Gittos 2012 and forthcoming) suggest Valle Crucis is a possible core production site. They tell me that the possible dates for Abbot Hwyel’s death and commemoration fit well with the chronological focus of production in the early 14th century for memorials of a similar kind of Lombardic text. The heraldic slab of Madoc ap Gruffudd at Valle Crucis is dated to c. AD 1306 for example. If this is indeed the memorial to Abbot Hwyel of Valle Crucis, he was a predecessor of Abbot Adam who rebuilt the west front of the abbey church in the 1330s. Abbot Hywel might have died in the 1310s or 1320s since Abbot Adam is first mentioned in 1330;
Where did it come from?
Williams (1895) suggested it was purported to come from Caer Gai, near Lake Bala. However, this seems unlikely since no major monastic institution is known from this area. It might be that it went there after the Dissoultion, before making its way to Wynnstay Hall. Further information is needed regarding when and where the slab came from. Acquired 20 years ago and bought with the suggestion that it came from Valle Crucis Abbey. It might very well have derived from the locality. For example, it might have been uncovered during the 19th-century clearance of the abbey ruins.
Apparently the owners have been long trying to get experts interested in their abbot’s effigial slab but has been repeatedly ignored. It took discussions with Gillian to get this amazing monument into public display for the first time and brought to my attention.
Over 20 fragments of medieval mortuary monuments are known from the abbey (Evans 2008: 50-51; Gresham 1968), and more still have been identified by Brian and Moira Gittos (Gittos and Gittos 2012). Semi-effigies are known from the region, including Valle Crucis and St John’s Chester (Gittos and Gittos 2012: 370) but inscribed effigies are rare indeed. As noted above, here is only one 13th-century example of an incised effigy of an abbot, from Rhuddlan, and this looks very different from the smiling abbot (M. Gray pers. comm.). Also, Lombardic lettering compares well to the Valle Crucis monuments and, indeed, Lombardic copper-alloy letters, presumably inlaid on a slab, were found during Butler’s 1970 excavations at Valle Crucis (Butler 1976: 110-11). To my geologically untrained eye, the stone looks comparable to those slabs I have seen at Valle Crucis.
Please consider visiting Llangollen Museum to see this superb monument yourself! How important is this find and do you think it is Abbot Hywel of Valle Crucis?
In preparing this very provisional report, I wish to thank Gillian Smith and David Crane of Llangollen Museum and the stone’s owners, Meryl and Jerry Butler for permission to write about the memorial. Invaluable further guidance and suggestions were made by Professor Madeleine Gray (University of South Wales) and Brian and Moira Gittos. Thanks also to ‘JP’ who identified its presence in Archaeologia Cambrensis from 1895 following the posting of this blog.
Badham, S. 1999. Medieval minor effigial monuments in West and South Wales, Church Monuments XIV: 5-34.
Butler, L.A.S. 1976. Valle Crucis Abbey: An Excavation in 1970, Archaeologia Cambrensis CXXV: 80-126.
Evans, D. H. 2008. Valle Crucis Abbey. Pillar of Eliseg (revised edition). Cardiff: Cadw.
Gittos, B. and Gittos, M. 2012. Gresham revisited: a fresh look at the medieval monument of north Wales, Archaeologia Cambrensis 161: 357-88.
Gresham, C. 1968. Medieval Stone Carving in North Ales: Sepulchral Slabs and Effigies of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries, Cardiff: University of Wales Press.
Williams, D. 2014. Fasti Cisetercienses Cambrenses, Archaeologia Cambrensis 163: 185-235.
Williams, S. 1895. Notes upon some sepulchral slabs and monumental effigies in Wales, Archaeologia Cambrensis Fifth SEries Vol.XII No. XLVI, 112-133.