I went to the 19th-century church of Llanbedr Dyffryn Clwyd and came across a wonderful fragment of medieval grave-slab.
In Archaeologia Cambrensis for 1982, Colin Gresham, author of the 1968 book Medieval Stone Carving in North Wales, wrote a short note about this discovery: hence it doesn’t appear in his ’68 book. In his account it was found in the old parish church, abandoned in the mid-19th century. In 1981, this fragment was discovered among a recently fall of masonry from the east window of Perpendicular style.
His description is rather limited: noting it is light-grey stone, probably limestone, and re-cut for building purposes. Measuring 1 foot 10 inches by 9 inches (56cm x 23cm), he regards the carving as elaborate within an ‘almost plain narrow border’ and with no weathering evident. The man’s head is in the bottom corner, ‘blowing a musical instrument, very probably a hunting horn’. This is held in his right hand but most is missing. Above is a winged dragon biting its own tail. Around the dragon and human figure are ‘stylized leaves’ typical of early 14th-century monuments. Gresham’s note is accompanied by a good b&w plate of the monument situated outside on grass, with an inch scale and slit by natural light falling from top-left.
Gresham then notes the similarity to another monument from Valle Crucis – his No. 124 – which came in 6 pieces and that the two slabs might come from the same workshop, if not the same carver. He even suggests that the stone might actually come from Valle Crucis – 10 miles south – at the Dissolution and more of it may remain in the walls of the ruined church of Llanfair.
Gittos and Gittos (2012, 376) note the discovery of a fragment of an early 14th-century grave-slab from Llanbedr Dyffryn Clwyd and summarise it as:
‘believed to be in the new parish church by discovered in the old church in 1981. Fragment of the lower part of a grave cover with an overall design. The composition resembles 124 at Valle Crucis Abbey’.
As noted above, Gresham saw a close similarity to the depiction of a male face, holding a horn with distinguished rim mount in his right hand, on Gresham 124 from Valle Crucis Abbey. This monument was found at the west end of the Choir during the 1851 excavations and the slab comprises 6 pieces, although there remain doubts as to whether they come from the same stone. If they do, the section ornamented with text-edged shield with lion rampant and spear – the head-end of the stone – commemorates ‘Edwardus son of Iorwerth’. At the bottom of the slab, we see the horn blower described as a ‘human head blowing a hunting horn, which is grasped by fingers and thumb’. Important to note is that this appears opposite a hound – perhaps chasing its quarry – and the spear dividing these two scenes can evidently be associated with a hunting theme.
What Gresham fails to make clear is that the hornblowers would be presented on opposing sides of the stones, ‘dexter’ (left-hand-side for the viewer) on the Llanbedr DC fragment, ‘sinister’ (right-hand-side for the viewer) on the Valle Crucis Gresham 124 slab.
Now Gresham 124 is far more worn, and there are clear differences: the man’s head is longer and the horn is clearer. Still, the hair styles are similar. The ‘horn’ isn’t fully clear on the Llanbedr monument and it is foreshortened in this instance given the small space available. Still, it does appear as if a similar exagerrated (?ringed) thumb clasping it from above. A pronounced rim-mount can be discerned. So I would confirm this as a horn-blowing ‘huntsman’.
The dragon has three parallels that are worthy of note in the regionand Gresham fails to mention them in any regard.
First, there is a wyvern on Gresham 1 – the 13th-century semi-effigial slab. This slab was considered by Gresham to commemorate Princess Joan, daughter of King John. The dragon here bites the vine and has a knotted tail. Likewise there is one at the base of a floriated cross slab from Bangor Friary (Gresham 9).
Second, and far closer, is the early 14th-century Maruret slab from Valle Crucis – Gresham 39 – which has the only dragon biting anything from north-east Wales in Gresham’s 1968 corpus. In this case, the pellets of grapes are beside its head in the similar fashion they appear on the Llanbedr D. C. monument. Also, while it is clear the dragon is biting a vine in this instance, not its own body, and its ears are backward facing as opposed to the single visible ear on the Llanbedr D. C. monument which heads out sideways from the left of the head, there are five important similarities:
- The dragon is seen from above;
- its body is scaled in the same fashion;
- while worn on the Maruret monument, the eyes appear similar in size and position;
- the snout is longer and marked by an arcing line on the Maruret slab, but otherwise they are very similar;
- the proximal grapes on both monuments need noting as a parallel.
Third, there is a further point to be made. Gresham in 1982 seems to forget his own account of Gresham 124, also from Valle Crucis. Regarding the ‘curious ridged object, which was described as a dragon when the slab was first discovered, and so in better condition than it is now after a hundred years of exposure to the weather and periodical scouring’ (Gresham 1968: 141). Indeed, in thinking about the parallels with Gresham 39, I would like to now revisit Valle Curcis and explore Gresham 124 again. However, based on my photographs I think I can make out a possible pair of beasts or birds (maybe a dragon and griffin/eagle biting each other) on the stone adjacent to the hornblower on Gresham 124. If so, this makes the links between with the Llanbedr D. C. monument far closer than Gresham’s 1982 note in Arch Camb makes out.
Vine and Grapes
It is fairly easy to add significantly to Gresham’s account in terms of the monument and its parallels given his lazy and partial description of the vegetal decoration. First up, the leaves around the head and dragon, plus the pellets above the dragon’s head (to the right in the photographs here) are far from ubiquitous in Gresham’s own North Wales corpus. Indeed, there are few direct parallels to showing vine leaves from above and large clusters of grapes. Indeed, I don’t know of any monuments with overlapping leaves, seen from above, as appears on Llanbedr D. C.
Still, the parallels that do exist are significant. First up, I would note a close similarity with the representation of vinescroll with grapes on Gresham 39, commemorating Maruruet from Valle Crucis Abbey (now above the fireplace in the abbot’s house: Gresham 1968: 90). In fact, this by far the closest parallel and there are only a few others. Another possible parallel, but less precise, comes from the Gresham 40 memorial slab fragment from Siambr Wen, Llangollen with its profiled intertwining dragons noshing on grapes (Gresham 1968: 90). Less precise parallels still, but worthy of not regardless, come from Gresham 122: the shield and sword with spear memorial slab honouring Madog ap Gruffydd from Valle Crucis (Gresham 1968: 138). Another, less clear, parallel might be made with another memorial fragment bearing a lion rampant within a shield and sword: Gresham 136 from Gresford church and commemorating Griffri ab Ynyr (Gresham 1968: 151). Finally I would note yet another shield and sword slab, this time from Ruabon: Gresham 138 (Gresham 1968: 151).
In short, the links with the memorials at Valle Crucis are stronger than Gresham suggests when we take into account the vegetal elements. For example, the appearance is far closer than with the representation of vine leaves and grapes upon the Llanfair Dyffryn Clwyd memorial slab with shield and hand-with-sword (Gresham 129) from close by commemorating Dafydd ap Madog, for here the leaves are shown in profile, not from above.
My principal observations are that:
- The Llanbedr D. C. monument has been poorly and partially described by Gresham;
- The hornblower is a close and unique parallel to Valle Crucis 124;
- The dragon is a close and unique parallel to Valle Crucis 39;
- Gresham doesn’t note that there might be a parallel between the Llanbedr D. C. fragment and a possible dragon depicted on Valle Crucis 124;
- The vine leaves and grapes offer a close parallel to Valle Crucis 39.
Put this together, we can confirm but also extend Gresham’s interpretation. It is likely that the Llanbedr D. C. is of similar date, and perhaps comes from the same and workshop as the Valle Crucis monuments. I invite comment on the symbolism and further parallels, but possibly we can suggest the dragon scene and hornblower are linked to celebrating Welsh local aristocratic lifestyles and identities associated with hunting and landscape, as well as expressions of faith and hopes for intercessory prayer. This might especially be the case were this part of a monument originally installed and displayed over a grave in the context of a Cistercian monastic church.
Gittos, B. and Gittos, M. 2012. Gresham revisited: a fresh look at the medieval monuments of north Wales, Archaeologia Cambrensis 161: 357-88
Gresham, C.A. 1968. Medieval Stone Carving in North Wales, Cardiff: University of Wales Press.
Gresham, C.A. 1982. Part of an early fourteenth-century gravestone from Llanbedr Dyffryn Clwyd, Archaeologia Cambrensis 131: 138-39.