NANCY EDWARDS introduces one of the most significant medieval inscribed stones in Wales
WALES AFTER ROME
We still know remarkably little about Wales in the period after the final collapse of Roman rule at the beginning of the fifth century. Yet, by the early seventh century, several kingdoms had emerged, including Gwynedd in the north-west, which was to dominate the region until the Edwardian conquest in 1282. There is also evidence for Irish settlers in some parts of Wales, who had taken advantage of the Roman collapse to seek their fortunes overseas. Evidence is strongest in the south-west, where men with Irish names were counted amongst the early rulers of the kingdom of Dyfed. What evidence we have for settlement sites during the fifth to seventh century shows former Roman sites falling into ruins. However, the rural population continued to farm the land, though yields were almost certainly lower, partly because of economic collapse, but also because of a deterioration in the climate. Wealth was concentrated amongst a small elite, some of whom occupied hillforts where they were the patrons of ornamental metalworkers and other craftsmen. They also feasted and drank Mediterranean wine in delicate glass goblets which came from France. However, the legacy of Rome was not forgotten. Christianity, the official religion of the Roman Empire for most of the fourth century, did not die out in post-Roman Wales as was formerly thought, but gradually gained in strength. In addition to Welsh, and for some Irish, Latin also continued to be spoken to some extent and was maintained as the language of both literacy and the Church.
INSCRIBED MEMORIAL STONES
Around 150 inscribed stones, dating between the fifth and earlier seventh centuries, are now known from Wales and the borders, with further examples in south-west Britain and southern Scotland. These often large standing stones would originally have marked the graves of important people, usually men, but sometimes women and occasionally children. Very few of these monuments now stand in their original locations. However, there are indications that some also acted as boundary markers and signs of land-ownership. A small number are probably reused prehistoric standing stones while some others were originally sited with reference to prehistoric burial monuments, cairns and barrows, which were thought to be the graves of mythical heroes and ancestors. In other instances a memory of Roman burial customs persisted, since monuments were also erected in prominent positions beside Roman roads, where they would be seen by passing travellers, or near Roman forts which had often been abandoned three or four centuries earlier. A further group were sited to mark important graves in kin cemeteries, some of which eventually became the locations of medieval parish churches.
These monuments are most commonly found in the west of Wales and are incised with short horizontal or vertical commemorative inscriptions, most commonly in Latin. Typically, they have the name of the deceased followed by the Latin words HIC IACIT, a Christian formula, as in CVNOGVSI HIC IACIT (‘of Cunogusus, here he lies’) from Llanfaelog on Anglesey. Alternatively, the name of the man commemorated is followed by that of his father or another male relative and for a woman, her relationship to her father or husband is given, indicating the importance of kinship in early medieval Welsh society. Typical examples include CATVRVG FILI LOVERNACI (‘Caturug son of Lovernacus’), from Merthyr, and AVITORIA FILIA CUNIGNI (‘Avitoria daughter of Cunignus’) from Eglwys Gymyn, both in Carmarthenshire. Sometimes both formulae are used together and there are also a small number of longer Christian inscriptions, some of which commemorate clergy. Personal names may be Latin, Welsh or sometimes Irish. Indeed, there are nine monuments from the southern half of Wales, which are not carved in Latin at all, but in the Irish ogam alphabet, where each letter is represented by a group of horizontal or diagonal strokes or notches which are carved up the angle of the stone. The longest ogam inscription in Wales is in the churchyard at Bridell in Pembrokeshire and reads NETTASAGRI MAQI MUCOI BRIACI (‘of Nettasagri son of the kindred of Briaci’). Such monuments would have commemorated Irish settlers or their descendants. However, as integration proceeded, it was more common to have inscriptions written in both Latin and ogams, and some twenty-five of these monuments have survived, sixteen in the south-west, including that already mentioned at Eglwys Gymyn, four in the south-east and three in the north.
THE CADFAN STONE
The monument commemorating Cadfan, the ruler of Gwynedd, who died around 625, would originally have marked his grave. It is the only inscribed stone in Wales which can be comparatively closely dated since it names a historic figure, though we know very little about him. His father was Iago, who probably died in 616. His better known son, Cadwallon, died in 634 and is known to have fought the rising power of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria under King Edwin, who had attacked him off Anglesey in 629. Cadwallon is praised in a Welsh poem as ‘champion of the Britons’ but vilified by the Anglo-Saxon churchman Bede as ‘a raging tyrant’.
The Cadfan stone is located in the church at Llangadwaladr, near Aberffraw, in south-west Anglesey, which may have been the heartland of the early medieval kingdom of Gwynedd. The site of the church was probably originally a place of royal burial. The church is still dedicated to Cadwaladr, Cadfan’s grandson, who was likewise a ruler of Gwynedd, but also seems to have been regarded as a saint.
The inscribed stone, and its association with King Cadfan of Gwynedd, is first mentioned by the famous Welsh antiquarian Edward Lhuyd, Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. In 1699 Lhuyd and his assistants travelled through Anglesey on their way to Ireland recording archaeological monuments and were probably shown the inscribed stone by the Reverend Henry Rowlands, a local antiquarian of some repute. At that time, as Lhuyd’s drawing makes clear, it had already been trimmed down for reuse as the lintel of the church door. This may well have been the reason why it has survived, but it means that we do not know its original height. It is now 1.23m tall and is built horizontally into the internal fabric of the north wall of the church.
Near the top of the stone is a simple incised cross and below is a unique Latin inscription which originally read vertically downwards: CATAMANUS REX SAPIENTISIMUS OPINATISIMUS OMNIUM REGUM (‘King Catamanus, the wisest, most illustrious of all kings’). But, why is this short inscription so interesting?
CATAMANUS is the Latin form of the Welsh name Cadfan. He is not commemorated using the characteristic Latin formulae described above since by the earlier seventh century these were falling out of fashion. Instead he is described as rex, a king, the most common term for a ruler in early medieval Wales. An alternative, a form of the Welsh term tywysog (‘prince, leader’), is also recorded on the Latin and ogam inscribed stone from Clocaenog in Denbighshire.
Cadfan is then praised using superlative adjectives describing him as ‘the wisest, most illustrious of all kings’. This may be compared with another Latin-inscribed stone from Yarrow in southern Scotland which commemorates two ‘most distinguished princes’, Nudus and Dumnogenus. It has been argued that the adjective sapiens (‘wise’) was used as a mark of intellectual distinction amongst both churchmen and rulers at this time. Indeed, the use of the term here is, in all likelihood, derived from concepts of kingship in the biblical Old Testament where it is said that ‘King Solomon exceeded all the kings of the earth in riches and wisdom’. It therefore seems that Cadfan is being remembered as having the wisdom of Solomon and underlines the characteristics of a Christian king. The fact that Cadfan was regarded as ‘the wisest, most illustrious of all kings’ may also indicate that he was an over-king who held authority over lesser rulers of smaller territories in north Wales. Indeed, like his son Cadwallon, who probably set up the stone, his ambitions may well have stretched beyond the modern border into the lands controlled by the Anglo-Saxon rulers of the kingdoms of Northumbria and Mercia, which were growing in power.
It has sometimes been thought, wrongly, that Wales was largely cut off from Continental influences. Indeed, archaeological evidence in the form of imported pottery and glass testifies to the existence of a luxury trade, probably in return for raw materials, including minerals. The wording of the inscription also suggests links with the Continent and may indicate that the kings of Gwynedd in the earlier seventh century had ambitions to be seen as the equals of barbarian rulers and even late Roman Emperors. Surviving Latin inscriptions recording building works in Rome, Switzerland and Spain all give the names of the rulers responsible and use superlative adjectives to describe them. For example, King Theoderic of the Ostrogoths, who mended an aqueduct outside Rome, is described as ‘most glorious and famous’.
CARVING THE STONE
The stone for the monument, a Carboniferous quartz arenite, would have been obtained locally and was ideal for carving. Furthermore, the lettering of the inscription is remarkably well preserved. As a result it is still possible to tell how it was carved. The inscription is most likely to have been composed by a churchman who would have been expected to be able to both read and probably write Latin. The letters themselves, which are occasionally run together, strongly suggest that he originally wrote it with a sharp metal stylus on a wooden tablet which had been coated in wax. This was the most common material for writing in this period since books with calf-skin pages were very expensive to produce. Several wooden waxed tablets, still inscribed with Psalms, were found waterlogged in a bog in northern Ireland in the early twentieth century. The next stage was to copy the inscription onto the stone while it was still lying flat on the ground. The forms of the letters suggest that they were painted with a brush. Then the sculptor cut round the outlines of the letters before carving out the centres more roughly. Finally, it is likely that the inscription was originally picked out in paint to make it more clearly legible, though no traces survive today. The monument would then have been ready to set upright in the ground to mark the grave of King Cadfan.
The letter-forms tell their own story. At first site they may appear very rough and ready but in fact they have been very carefully set out. The name of CATAMANUS in the first line is incised in the largest letters to indicate it significance. In the following lines the letters gradually diminish in size, a practice also found in seventh-century illuminated manuscripts in Britain and Ireland. The letter-forms themselves are an indiscriminate mixture of capital and lower-case letters. To us the rather odd forms of the sprawling A’s and the M in the first line, also found in illuminated manuscripts, are likewise intended to be decorative. It has recently been demonstrated that this mixed-alphabet lettering was not introduced into Wales in manuscripts from the Continent in the early seventh century, as had previously been thought. Instead the origins of such letters lie in everyday scripts in later Roman Britain. In early medieval Wales the practice of writing would have been largely maintained using wax tablets. However, we can also see the letter-forms gradually evolving on the inscribed stones during the fifth and sixth centuries.
SCULPTURE AND CHANGING FORMS OF COMMEMORATION
The Cadfan inscribed stone is almost the last monument of its kind. Indeed, the presence of the cross-symbol, which is relatively unusual on the inscribed stones, signals that fashions were changing. By the seventh century in Wales, the Church was gaining in power and authority facilitated by the support of kings and other rulers. Monasticism was expanding and major saints’ cults were beginning to develop centred on the larger sites which now attracted elite burial. At the same time there was a more general impetus towards burial in cemeteries that eventually became the parish churches of today. From the seventh century onwards we can identify these sites by the presence of simple cross-carved stones, which have often survived built into the fabric of later church buildings. Most of these originally functioned as anonymous grave-markers. This change from commemorative monuments with inscriptions to mainly anonymous cross-carved memorials was initiated on the Continent and was introduced into Wales alongside the development of continuing prayers for the souls of the dead to release them from Purgatory. Such monuments are most commonly found in south-west Wales and are likewise characteristic in Ireland suggesting continuing links between the two. By the ninth century secular rulers were also commissioning sculptors to carve large stone crosses decorated with interlace and other ornament. One example is a highly decorated cross in the church at Llantwit Major in the Vale of Glamorgan. The Latin inscription on this monument begins with a blessing before telling us that Hywel had commissioned the cross for the sake of the soul of his father, Rhys. Hywel ap Rhys may be identified as the king of Glywysing, an early name for the kingdom of Glamorgan, who died in 886. Other crosses sometimes have figural scenes, such as the Crucifixion, or hunting scenes and figures with weapons, both of which would have appealed to the secular elites commissioning them.
RECORDING, PRESERVING AND VISITING THE MONUMENTS
In all around six hundred early medieval inscribed stones and pieces of stone sculpture are now known from Wales. They remain a vital resource for understanding the period between the end of Roman control and the coming of the Normans. Over the last few years a major research project to produce A Corpus of Early Medieval Inscribed Stones and Stone Sculpture in Wales, originally a partnership between Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales, the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales and the University of Wales, has ensured that all these monuments have been recorded and analysed in detail. With the aid of Cadw and other heritage organisations, this will help to preserve them for future generations. Monuments can be seen today in museums, such as National Museum Wales in the new exhibition which will be opened at St Fagan’s National Museum of History, Bangor, Brecon, Margam, Carmarthen and St Dogmaels. However, a great many are still in the care of churches across Wales, for example Llantwit Major and St Davids Cathedral. Others, such as the Pillar of Eliseg near Llangollen, the cross at Carew Castle in Pembrokeshire, and the cross known as Maen Achwyfan (Cwyfan’s Stone’) near Whitford in Flintshire, are in the care of Cadw and still stand in their original locations.
This article originally appeared in the Western Mail, 15 May 2013, and on WalesOnline