The main heritage board

Hospitals and healing are integral parts of my Archaeodeath remit. I try to avoid them, however, since dying isn’t as fun as death itself.

I’ve previously posted about the awesome bishop’s castle of Llawhaden, Pembrokeshire, here. Recently, I got to revisit and this time I also took the opportunity to explore the nearby site of the Llawhaden hospital. The hospital precinct is located at the western end of the ridgeway borough laid out on the approach to the castle which in turn is situated on a promontary overlooking the Eastern Cleddau. This was the key land route focusing on a ford of the Eastern Cleddau, including the route of pilgrimage, to St David’s. The hospital likely served as a hostel for travellers as well as a place for caring for both sick pilgrims and local people.

Detail from the main heritage board

The hospital was founded by Bishop Bek (of St David’s) in 1287, when he was creating the borough of Llawhaden and enlarging the castle into a fortified residence with extensive residential elements. The hospice was dedicated to St Mary the Virgin and St Edward the King.

The chapel doorway with nice stalagtites

There may have been an earlier chapel, and the possibility of earlier activity on the site must be entertained.  The hospice was under the monastic rule of friars but declined with the borough itself during the 15th century. The hospital closed in 1501 and all that remained at the Dissolution in 1535 was a free chapel dedicated to Mary.

All that remains is a stone-vaulted structure with a north entrance and only two small splayed windows, one each in the north and south walls towards the eastern ends of the building. There is a piscina in the south-east corner. This structure was possibly the chapel of the hospice (10m by 7.5m). There are awesome limestone stalagtites above the doorway.

The surviving ‘chapel’, from the north-west

Excavations by Dyfed Archaeological Trust, directed by Murphy, Ramsey and Crane, identified an infirmary hall at least 28m long and 9.5m wide. They also found an earlier chapel on the same spot that extended to the extant structure’s east, demolished in the mid-14th century. Red-and-black-painted plaster and window glass painted with a foliated design were revealed, together with an altar dais. Window lead was widely recovered. Artefacts included a silver finger ring, a silver coin of Edward III (1344-51) and copper-alloy objects, iron nails and a weed-hoe.

dsc08846Moreover, a northern range or gate house seems to be have been tentatively discerned to the north of the site.

The low bank of prominent earthworks around the site can be seen, although it is unclear if these are medieval or later.

Looking south to the south-east corner of the precinct

The grounds of the medieval hospital and its post-medieval successor houses have been transformed into a children’s playground, with a view point with one bilingual heritage board explaining the historic significance of the ridgeway. Meanwhile, a large second bilingual heritage board outlines the significance of the hospital and a discussion of healing in the medieval world, laid out around a body representing elemental concepts of the body and the zodiac.

The site is well-kept and the displays are striking and distinctive. However, within the extant building, a metal spiral staircase has been randomly dumped and litter strewn over the floor.

Within the ‘chapel’
Swings, with chapel behind
Looking out, south, over the landscape from the ridgway