Recently I went to the heart of Anglesey – a church so modest and serving a community so dispersed, it retains much of its medieval fabric.
The church and churchyard of Llanbabo is thought to date back to at least the 12th century. Today, it sits beside the road on the east-facing slopes above the reservoir Llyn Alaw. It is a grade II* listed building. Coflein images can be viewed here and the church is described on Coflein here.
The church building dates to the 12th century. It possesses a single window in the south wall. The east wall was rebuilt in the 14th century. The entire building was subject to 20th-century restoration.
Inside, it contains a 14th-century sculpted stone honouring its patron saint. This is a unique 900-year retrospective monument, described by Gresham (1968: 232-35). Sadly, I didn’t get access to the church on this visit (it was locked), so this blog utilises the Coflein image with due recognition to the source.
The stone was found in the graveyard in the later 17th century when it was broken into 3 pieces, perhaps during removal. The stone might have originally functioned as an altar tomb – freestanding or against the south wall of the church (according to Gresham 1968: 233).
The carving is low relief and depicts the saint as a king with a crown and sceptre. His head is resting on a cushion and he has an ogee-headed trefoiled arch around his head and crown.
The face of the figure is bearded, with head hair dropping down to his neck and curling. The body is robed with a border of quartrefoils. There is a rose carved by the sceptre beside the right shoulder.
The Lombardic capital text runs along the figure’s left (sinister) side of the stone, translated as
Here lies Pabo, Post Prydain
Evidently this is a 14th-century rendition of a tale of a legendary 5th-century king exiled to Anglesey and acquiring sainthood. thus a material component of the ‘old north’ in Welsh ancestry. To my knowledge, this is unique in North Wales as a monument overtly utilising a 14th-century secular effigial mode of commemoration and applying it to a saint. Perhaps Pabo was apposite as a figure of resistance to English power and influence, and/or because he was both king and saint?
Indeed, inspired by a Twitter question from Dr Francis Young, I wonder if the depiction is intended to inspire two levels of retrospection – remembering a legendary saint of the 5th century, and the Welsh princes of the 13th?
Despite my disappointment at finding a locked church, I did get to explore the churchyard.
This is worthy of note in its own right, described by the legendary Frances Lynch as:
one of the best and most attractive examples of a circular churchyard in Anglesey – a quiet and meditative spot
It is unquestionably early medieval in origin, although a precise dating cannot be established without modern investigations.
The collection of surviving historic gravestones is unremarkable and certainly far more most in scale than my favourite historic Welsh churchyard at Llangar. Still, it is an representative collection of slate graveslabs from the 18th-20th centuries and and chest tombs of the 19th century, many rendered in the Welsh language. As well as the shaking hands and weeping willow motifs, I am particularly struck again by the funerary urns, includnig the vaguely Roman/Anglo-Saxon urn design utilised in the image depicted here. I’ve seen this motif far-and-wide, clearly from a pattern book, and I wonder as its precise source and inspiration. Are those flames behind it?As usual, there are plenty of ‘mad angles’ – evidence of the slumping that occurs in many graveyards. There were also indications of the deployment of iron railings – a feature poorly surviving in many churchyards where fences have been removed over time.
In addition, there were a modest number of earlier, and fascinating, 18th-century memorials. Here are photographs of some I spotted.
Unremarkable yet special, Llanbabo deserves a visit and a revisit. I hope in future to see the 14th-century monument to the ‘Pillar of Prydain’ for myself…
Gresham, C. 1968. Medieval Stone Carving in North Wales: Sepulchral Slabs and Effigies of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries, Cardiff: University of Wales Press.
Lynch, F. 1995. Gwynedd: A Guide to Ancient and Historic Wales, Cardiff: Cadw