On my visit to Tintern Abbey last year, I was interested – from both archaeological and heritage perspectives – regarding what the funerary monuments tell us.

As traces of medieval mortuary and commemorative practice, they are a sparse record of the role of the Cistercian monastery as a focus of patronage, prayer and burial by lay elites from the abbey’s foundation in 1131 to its dissolution in 1536. In heritage terms, they can be seen (again) as evidence of concerted heritage death-denial and funerary neglect. They are allowed to be fragmentary and worn traces of death in the monastery, yet they are unlabelled and inexplicable to visitors, both those displayed dislocated near the visitor centre and those displayed seemingly in situ within the church, book room and eastern cloister walk (whether in their original position or some semblance of what might have been their original position).

See my discussion of Mellifont Abbey by way of comparison.

The Cadw guide is almost entirely architectural in focus, and I struggled to find any mention of these grave-slabs in the ‘History of the Abbey’ sections beyond a half-page text-box (Robinson 2011: 14) and a two-third page text-box (Robinson 2011: 23). The text, images and maps fail to allow you to connect up the discussions to specific slabs.

The Tour section of the guide seems exclusively about ‘life’ in the monastery, and the funerary dimensions of many of the spaces – church, cloister, chapter house etc. – are omitted. Hence, whilst situated in relation to the monastic ruins, I suspect their texts, ornament and significance is probably not at all apparent to visitors. In terms of their conservation, they are exposed to the elements and most have no protection from the feet of thousands of visitors each year: they are slowly discovering oblivion in the heritage environment.

Context

In medieval Wales, most lay burials took place in parish churches. In the 13th century, at least four Marshals were interred at Tintern (Robinson 2011: 23). Perhaps belonging to one of the Marshal brothers – Walter or Anselm – Biebrach (2017: 183) mentions a military effigy propped against a pillar in 1819 when it was still discernible in detail; its head alone survives and ‘worn so smooth as to be virtually unrecognisable’ (I confess I didn’t note the exact whereabouts of this monument on my visit).

Later on Tintern received burials of further members of the lay elite, including the Herberts – notably William Herbert, earl of Pembroke – in the late 15th century (Biebrach 2017: 34; 55; 136; 160). The tomb of William and his wife Anne was a grand chest tomb near the high altar, destroyed following the Dissolution. Another tomb to its north commemorated his son, William Herbert, earl of Huntingdon and his wife Mary Woodville (Robinson 2011: 23). There are sculpted stones near the visitor centre that might well be parts of a chest tomb.

Here’s what I know at present about the cross-slabs. They include black letter script which suggests some examples date to the late 14th and early 15th centuries (Biebrach 2017: 84). Others at Tintern might date to the late 15th and early 16th centuries (Biebrach 2017: 58). They bear floriate crosses and some have an IHS motif (Biebrach 2017: 128, note 31), and surviving names include Jenkyn ap Howell (see below), William Vilemaydo, John Willifred and William Wellsted [although Heritage Tortoise thinks ‘Willelmus Wellsted’ is more likely] (Robinson 2011: 23).

Another is dated to the 15th century and has additional fish decoration on the cross shaft, perhaps trade symbols or symbols of the early Christian symbol for Christ: the three intertwined fishes representing the Trinity (Biebrach 2017: 122).

Biebrach (2017: 129) discusses the cross slab of Jankyn ap Hoell in more detail, which she says ‘eschews the more conventional ‘Orate pro anima’ requests for prayer for the florid script either side of a cross head with the exhortion: ‘Ladi help, Mercy Jhesu’. Biebrach explains that this is the paraphrasing of the opening line of the early 15th-century poem ‘Passion of Christ Strengthen Me’ by John Audelay. She explains how it is unique monument for South Wales and thus perhaps a conscious choice on the part of the deceased or survivors (executors) and shows familiarity with devotional literature. She points to the parallel of short prayers appearing within scrolls as if uttered aloud on contemporary English brasses (Biebrach 2017: 130; see also Heritage Tortoise for a commentary).

Heritage Tortoise also discusses a further monument, seemingly to a Thomas Phillips with ‘nime ejus chi… miserere’ which comes from the Sarum rite for the commendation of the soul.

The Monuments

Without labels and careful examination, it wasn’t possible to fully match this academic discussion to the monuments I saw. Far more detail is afforded by Heritage Tortoise here. Also, within the ruins, in the church, the chapel of the north transept, and the north transept itself, the eastern cloister walk, there are grave slabs.

Some are framed with kerbs, presumably 19th-/early 20th-century features, to mark them out.

The trio in the north transept have very low Victorian/Edwardian railings to afford them some protection.

Meanwhile, the aforementioned grave-slab with the fishes is on display vertically in the abbey church.

Finally, by the visitor centre there was a coffin, part-covered by a fine cross-slab with memorial text, as well as the possible effigy of an abbot mentioned in a previous post.

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References

Biebrach, R. 2017. Church Monuments in South Wales, c. 1200-1547. Woodbridge: Boydell Press.

Robinson, D. M. 2011. Tintern Abbey, 5th edition, Cardiff: Cadw.

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