In July, I explored a site I last visited over 15 years ago. In a hidden corner of coastal Carmarthenshire, located on south-sloping ground close to where the river Cowyn flows into the Taf estuary to the south of St Clears, is an evocative church within a long-abandoned churchyard. The situation is seemingly today so isolated from a landward perspective. However, in the Middle Ages this location was keyed in to the maritime network of the estuaries and inlets of Wales’s south coast. The church would have been accessible by up-and-down-river craft, presumably also a cross-river ferry, as well as readily connected to seagoing craft for travellers, as well as pilgrims heading to and from St Davids. It is only a short hop across the Taf from Laugharne; an important Anglo-Norman and later castle with borough.
The site I’m discussing is the riverside church and churchyard of St Michael’s, at Llanfihangel Abercowyn (Llanfihangel Abercywin). St Michael’s was the parish church until 1848. The ruined building survives as a roofless nave, probably dating from the 13th century, and a narrow chancel which was remodelled when the western tower was built, probably in the 15th century. A Norman font, as often is the case the oldest piece of fabric from the church, and is now in the new church by the main road at St Clears.
The Medieval Stones
In the rectangular yard around the ivy-covered church there a scatter of surviving 18th and 19th-century memorials. There are also six ‘medieval’ stones: two coped monuments bearing crosses, and four effigies. Five of the six are arranged with head- and foot-stones.
These stones are clearly re-arranged and re-set, presumably in the late 18th or early 19th century. They are situated in two arrangements of three to the south of the ruined church.
Whilst difficult to date, and questionable that the stones are in their original arrangements, they are fascinating because they reveal an unknown family/families, presumably of the local Anglo-Norman gentry, perhaps occupying the nearby little-known Castell Aber Tav (Trefenty motte) half a mile away. There has been question as to whether they are really medieval and not post-medieval. If they are indeed medieval, they are a rare surviving as a group, ‘crude’ and ‘vernacular’ in style, and distinctive in both their ornament and the figures, as well as the head and foot stones associated with them.
Sally Badham (1999), an authority on medieval church monuments, has regarded them as medieval, and likewise they are recorded as such by Sian Rees’s Dyfed guide. I must admit, when I saw them 15 years ago, I presumed they were some kind of ‘antiquarian’ creation.
Badham (1999) reports on the folklore that these were pilgrims’ graves: they had killed each other and the last survivor pulled the stone over himself! Cheery stuff. While it is plausible that this is a pilgrim’s route, this is clearly classic folklore inspired by the materiality and form, and effigial character, of the group. Also, it is evidently inspired by their relatively humble, outdoor situation and perhaps also their ‘collective’ post-medieval arrangement in groups of three inspired a story about a shared group of travellers who met a similar fate.
The Stones as an Assemblage
Following her view of their medieval date, Badham (1999) suggested the two coped stones might be as early as 11th or 12th century. The effigies slabs are decorated in very flat relief and might be broadly dated anywhere between the 12th and 14th centuries. However, Badham notes features of the female dress of what I call the ‘Distaff Grave’ (below) – a barbette under her chin and a broad band of stiffened linen, broadening outwards at the top – which suggest a late 13th-century date for that particular stone.
What is notable is that the better preserved three effigies clearly share the same posture: recumbent figures, in two cases with legs outstretched, one evidently unshod. In the third case (the ‘Distaff Grave’), only the top-half of the body remains.
I’m also willing to suggest that perhaps the head-stones and foot-stones, if not indeed in their original arrangement, are the antiquarian creative part. The stones might indeed be medieval, and indeed, some resemble monuments of pre-Conquest date from elsewhere. They might instead be a collection of head-stones found separately and arranged in association with the recumbent stones in the post-medieval period.
The Distaff Grave
This is a half-length female figure. The slab is in two halves. In the current arrangement the lower slab is composed of a lattice rather than showing the lower half of the body. Is this original or is this an arrangement of two stones? Rees and Badham seem to think it might be original, and the use of two stones, one for the body and head, one for the lower body, does at least have the precedent of the other adjacent stone (‘A Civilian’s Grave’).
She has a rod raised up in her right hand. If not a Hogwart’s-style wizarding wand (and it isn’t), as Badham (1999) suggests, this is likely to be a a distaff: a long-running symbol of elite medieval female identity. There are two animals, one either side of her head and shoulders, with their feet facing outwards: are these crude depictions of heraldic symbols or attendant, protective hounds? Again, this feature wouldn’t be out of place if called ‘early medieval’ on other monuments.
Her arms are crossing at the waist and a large expanded-arm cross is upon her chest, framed by the arcs of her limbs.
Badham reports that in the early 19th century, this grave was removed and bones of a young person were found underneath with a dozen cockle-shells: a penitential grave-good not unknown elsewhere and associated with pilgrimage, if not necessary with the ‘graves of pilgrims’.
A Civilian’s Grave
A second grave is the flat relief image of the head and arms of a male figure, probably a civilian but so crudely depicted that it is difficult to imagine how armour might be discerned in this form. Again, an expanded-arm cross fills the space on the chest between the arms.
The Equestrian Grave
This is a possible male figure, distinctively bare foot. Again, there is a large expanded-arm cross on the chest and the arms crossed over the waist. The striking feature of this tomb are the head- and foot-stones bearing equestrian figures with lances: each is different and in the current arrangement they are positioned facing inwards, framing the effigial form.
A Child’s Grave?
The fourth effigy is of a full-length, possibly male, perhaps a child given its small size. The figure is holding a long rod or staff, although my photographs didn’t discern this very well at all given the moss-covered state of this fragment.
My photographs don’t do justice to this rare and distinctive group and Badham’s publication contains far better images. Also check out the Archwilio HER online database Llanfihangel Abercywin (PRN 2160) for further details. My point would be: the crudeness, equestrian and other characteristics of these stones make them impossible to date precisely. For me, some of the figures resemble monuments called ’10th/11th’ century elsewhere, including stones from Maen Achwfyan, Flintshire, and Neston, Cheshire. I hope more of these stones come to the fore through new research, to help place these in better context.
Badham, S. 1999. Medieval minor effigial monuments in West & South Wales, Church Monuments XIV, 5-34
Rees, S. 1992. Dyfed: A Guide to Ancient and Historic Wales, Cardiff: Cadw.