When visiting The Stones Museum at Margam Abbey for filming with the BBC in September, I took the opportunity before I was required to talk to camera to explore a fabulous array of nine late 16th/17th-century alabaster funerary monuments in the chapel at the east end of the south aisle of St Mary’s, Margam Abbey Church. Together, they commemorate members of the Mansel family and are described as the finest in Wales for their time.

There is a clear and coherent bilingual interpretation panel and a fabulous guide book by D. John Adams explaining that the tombs commemorate the wealthy family of Mansels, originally of Oxwich and Penrice (Gower) who took over the Margam estates following the Cistercian house’s Dissolution in 1542 to the death of the Mansel line in 1750 and then through the female line of the Talbots to the selling of the Margam estate in 1942. Using the guide book, I wish to try and navigate around these complex three-dimensional tombs, packed in so tight that one cannot readily apprehend them without moving around and between them. Likewise, I will look up to the mural monuments on the north, east and south walls of the chapel.

The four effigy tomb-chests represent 9 individuals, 4 men and five women, their hands clasped in prayer, reclined on top of the tomb-chests. Around the fronts (west-ends) and sometimes also the sides (north and south faces) are ‘weepers’ representing the offspring of the main commemorative subjects. The tombs commemorate (in order of dates of death of the male subjects):

  1. Sir Rice Mansel (1487-1559) and his third wife Cecile Dabridgecourt (both buried in the Friars Church of Great St Bartholomew, London. Their children are depicted as ‘weepers’ – with the male children give precedent in order of birth to the front (west) and female offsprig to the side;
  2. Sir Edward Mansel (1535-1585) – son of Sir Rice – and his wife Lady Jane Somerset (mother to their 19 children!). Four sons operate as ‘weepers’ at the front of the tomb and daughters to the sides;
  3. Sir Thomas Mansel (1556-1631), eldest son of Sir Edward, is represented between his two wives Mary daughter of Lord Mordaunt (1) and Jane Pole (2);
  4. Sir Lewis Mansel (c. 1638) and his wife Elizabeth, daughter of Henry, Earl of Manchester.

The similarity of the first three tombs indicate the same sculptor. The first two must pre-date 1628, according to the guide book, while the last of the three must post-date 1631 when St Thomas died. However, see below for an alternative suggestion. The fourth tomb-chest for Sir Lewis and Elizabeth dates to after 1638.

Here is the tomb of Sir Rice and his wife Cecile:

The tomb of Sir Edward and his wife Jane:

Mary, Jane and Sir Thomas’s tomb:

Here are photographs of the Elizabeth and Sir Lewis tomb.

Around and above the effigies are mural monuments to Sir Rice Mansel, Sir Edward Mansel (which I didn’t photograph) and Sir Thomas Mansel together with those contemporanous to Sir Rawleigh Bussey and his wife (d. 1623), and their daughter Katherine Bussey.

Unless I’m getting very confused (and it is very possible), I take it that Rice, Edward and Thomas appear in this chapel on mural monuments and on the effigy-tombs. Furthermore, Edward, Thomas and Lewis each appear as weepers on their father’s respective monuments. This means that Rice is commemorated twice, Edward and Thomas are commemorated thrice, and Lewis is commemorated twice.

On the east wall is the mural monument to Sir Rawleigh Bussey (d. 1623) and his wife Cecile. Cecile was the granddaughter of Sir Rice Mansel, so if I understand it he married into the same family as his mother (second wife of Sir Thomas?). These gents and their multiple marriages can get very confusing…

The latest tomb commemorates the daughter of Rawleigh and Cecile: Katherine, who died aged 17 in 1625.

Put together, they amount to a tight cluster of cross-citing early-mid-17th century funerary monuments including late 16th-century subjects, packed in so tight that it is difficult to navigate and apprehend the many surfaces of the tomb-chests and the mural monuments, articulating multiple generations of a family who monopolised the landscape of Margam and its environs in life and – through the tombs – in death.

Moreover, the first commemorated subject, on both mural epitaph and effigy tomb, is cenotaphic. Indeed, I suspect the entire programme of tomb-building can be attributed to a narrow window of time and thus back-projecting commemoration to earlier generations.

The epitaphs to Sir Rice and Sir Thomas might be the earliest monuments. I propose that the project of a very similar triad of tombs to Sir Rice, Sir Edward and then Sir Thomas, perhaps by the same sculptor, represents a closely dated project by Sir Lewis to commemorate his father, grandfather and great-grandfather and their respective wives around 1628 or soon after Sir Thomas’s death. Alternatively, Sir Thomas might have planned this project for himself, his father and his grandfather.

Sir Lewis’s own tomb follows in a different style a decade later, following his death in 1638.

Together, they subsequently served to honour four generations of Mansels and provided material legitimisation as ancestral foci for subsequent centuries of family members on view within the parish church and paired with the evolving Talbot tombs in the north aisle during the 19th century (for those, another post is required).

I haven’t read any academic research on these monuments, so I’d be interested to learn whether this reckoning is on track or against the grain of what church monument experts think about these fabulous monuments. Still, the themes of memory – retrospective and prospective – creating versimiltude and conflation between separate generations, through high-quality and prominent monuments as a group, makes a clear point about the power of cross-generational mnemonic citation between gentry monuments in the early modern period.

Adams, D.J. nd. Margam Abbey. The Mansel-Talbots & their Tombs. Friends of Margam Abbey.