The Llandygwydd Font

It is easy to overlook Llandygwydd, a cluster of Victorian cottages on a minor road off the A484 east of Llechryd in the Teifi valley.   Its graveyard contains members of some significant local families from the nearby gentry houses of Blaenpant, Penylan, Noyadd Trefawr and Stradmore.  But of the church there is now little trace except for its font, wreathed in brambles and standing incongruously in the open air.  This is of itself surprising.  Fonts are a bit of a problem for the church – it is generally unacceptable to re-use them as garden ornaments, and strictly speaking even the fragments of a broken font should be preserved within the church.  Thus it is more usual to see superfluous and disused fonts from demolished churches sitting in the porch of an extant church in the neighbourhood.

The font at Llandygwydd stands out of doors on the footprint of the nineteenth century church

The church which until 2000 gave it shelter was a Victorian one, built to a design by the high church architect RJ Withers, in 1856-7.  Its fortunes, from construction to demolition have been recorded in detail by Gwynfor Rees in the journal Ceredigion Vol. XIV, no 4, 2004.    The local gentry, especially the Webley Parrys of Noyadd Trefawr and the Brigstockes of Blaenpant were staunchly Anglican at a time when  Nonconformism was growing among the local people, and it was felt important that the  existing parish church,(a humble structure built in 1804 to replace a late medieval one on the same site), should be replaced by a structure of Victorian splendour, commensurate with the fashionable style of the neighbouring recently-enlarged mansions. It is recorded that the little ‘calling bell’ dedicated to St Peter, and the font, both of 15th Century origin, were incorporated into the new church. Most uncharacteristically for these parts, it was to boast a tower on the south side, surmounted by a tall timber steeple.

Over the following  years the gentry families vied in endowing stained glass windows, an ornate reredos, a Caen stone and granite pulpit, and installed commemorative plaques recording their largesse.  The church was said to have some of the finest stained glass in the county.  In 1891 five new bells donated by the Webley Parry family of Noyadd Trefawr and  Maria Brigstocke of Blaenpant in commemoration of the marriage of her niece joined the old bell from the former church.

Maria Brigstocke stands in the centre behind the five new bells. On the left side of the picture is the old bell dedicated to St Peter, from the original medieval church. see  Ceredigion Archive

Sadly this impressive church had been built at ‘an extraordinarily cheap rate’ and proved structurally unsound, the timber  steeple warped and bent, and the tower, set on insufficient foundations, cracked alarmingly.  Within  twenty years it was deemed unsafe to ring the bells lest masonry fall from the edifice, and a survey by church architects Caroe and Passmore in 1913 predicted that the bent spire might collapse onto the chancel at any time.  That year the spire was removed, and the tower strengthened, but to no avail. In 1978, after several structural reports, the bells were sold to the foundry which produced them and in 1980 the entire tower was taken down.

The church was de-consecrated and demolished in 2000, leaving its foundations and some mature yew trees among the graves. In situ inside what was once the south door, stands the font.

It might be speculated that at the time of demolition the Llandygwydd font was perceived as mid-Victorian, of no great historic importance and therefore allowed to stand as a landmark in the footprint of the church.  But closer inspection reveals this to be far from the truth.  This is a large medieval font carved out of Dundry stone from near Bristol, a source of good carve-able stone which was worked out by the sixteenth century.  It is in the perpendicular style, with an octagonal base and bowl carved with a repeating four-leaved relief.  But Mr Withers and his masons have embellished it.  They sliced it into three horizontal layers and re-assembled them like a club sandwich with a narrow layer of oolitic limestone from Painswick  between each.  At the same time they repaired, as is common in old fonts, the various damages to the rim and stem with inset pieces of Painswick stone, quite different from the original Dundry.  Resplendently reassembled and about four inches taller, it would have had a fashionably polychromatic appearance, with the yellow-brown Dundry stone layered sandwich style with white oolite.

A later repair to the rim of the font

Today, forlorn and exposed to the weather, the newer courses of Painswick stone are badly weathered, and some of the inset repairs are falling out.  Chunks are crumbling away from the Dundry stone stem.  Moss and lichen colonize the surfaces, but as a further reminder of its antiquity, the close observer will find two daisy wheel patterns (a common medieval graffiti) lightly engraved upon the bowl.

The layers of Paiswick stone have weathered away to leave deep grooves.  To the left of the four leaf carving are two daisy wheel compass-scored devices on the medieval stone

I am intrigued at these devices.  The expert belief is that they are symbols to ward off witches or the devil.  They are very commonly found on fonts and the doorway arch or porch of ancient churches, though they may be found in more remote parts of the building too.  The six petal form is easy to scratch with a compass or perhaps a pair of shears.  You just score a circle, and then with one point on the circumference draw an arc within the circle  till it touches the circumference again.  Then move the point to the  intersection of  arc and circle and repeat.  Soon six neat petals are inscribed within the circle.

The daisy wheel design

They are lightly scratched, not typical of serious masons’ work and anyone could have done them.  I do wonder though whether the evidence for their role in repelling witches is a modern over-interpretation of past behaviour.

Equipped with a geometry set we all used to draw this device on our schoolbooks, because we could, and because without any great skill we could produce perfect symmetry.  When bored we often coloured them in too.  Will future historians conclude that 20th century schoolchildren all worked to repel the forces of evil during geometry lessons?  The scholarly name for these devices  on medieval structures is apotropaic graffiti.    But for me and my schoolfriends the same images were meaningless, but very satisfying,  doodles.

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Cannon Balls at the Castle

by The Curious Scribbler

The other day  I had the pleasure of handling two cannon balls, retrieved some thirty years ago from the archaeological excavations of Aberystwyth’s now rather fragmentary English castle.  The castle occupies a splendid site on the headland south of the town, but is quite difficult for the unaided amateur to comprehend.  Compared to magnificent structures like Harlech Castle and Caernarfon it is in a poor way.  This I learned is largely due to its comprehensive demolition after the Parliamentarians had routed the Royalists in 1644.  The walls were systematically destroyed by charges of gunpowder carefully placed, and large chunks of well-mortared masonry walls still lie well displaced from their original location, where they have been thrown by the force of the blast.  From 1637 the castle had been the location of the royal mint, making coins with silver from the local mines.  It also housed a great store of gunpowder for industrial use in the mines, and this is probably why the demolition, organised in 1649 by Lieutenant Colonel Dawkins and Captain Barbour, was exceedingly thorough!

Huge chunks of the inner wall displaced by demolition in 1649

Huge chunks of the inner wall fell far from the wall line when the castle was demolished with gunpowder  in 1649

The cannon balls are of stone, and were being examined for identification by a geologist. One is of limestone from Dundry near Bristol, and the other of a dense greeny-grey sandstone which could be from Somerset or South Wales.  The surface is crudely tooled and pitted and to the casual glance they look strangely like a pair of seriously decayed Galia melons. They are heavy, 5½lb and 6½lb respectively, and just under 6 inches diameter.  One has scarring on its side which could have been a result of its violent impact on the castle.

Two stone cannon balls excavated in 1977 at Aberytwyth Castle

Two stone cannon balls which were among the finds  excavated at Aberystwyth Castle under the direction of David Browne of the Royal Commission on Ancient and Historic Monuments Wales.

A search of images of similar cannon balls on the internet indicates that this is quite an ancient technology.  Stone cannon balls such as these were in use as early as the 13th century, and are found in association with Muslim and Christian castles in Europe and Asia.   (The Chinese had invented gunpowder in the 9th century and knowledge of gunpowder spread throughout the Old World as a result of the Mongol conquests of the 13th century. Cannon technology then became widespread). Stone cannon balls were employed in 1415 at Agincourt to deadly effect,  they could bounce lethally through ranks of infantrymen.  But the cannon could also explode killing the operators.

I found some marvellous contemporary  illustrations on a forum devoted to ethnographic arms and armour.  They show how these imperfectly shaped cannonballs were fired from a cannon which was not cylindrical like the later models, but widening towards the mouth, such that the projectiles could be be imperfect spheres, and of somewhat varying sizes.  Gunpowder was dropped in first, then packing material, and then the cannon ball, which was firmed into position with wedges of poplar wood, to create as tight a seal as possible. The seal could also be made with wet mud, but this needed to be allowed to dry before the cannon could be fired.

Illuminated manuscript describinghow to fire a cannon

The contributor  an enthusiast named ‘Matchlock’ is now deceased, so he will hopefully not mind me re-using his images.  He also reproduces a detail from an Italian fresco of 1340, in which the loaded cannon is shortly to be ignited.

Detail from an Italian Fresco 1340.

An American  correspondent on the same thread,‘Kronkew’  added his own synopsis from an account of a siege at Soissons, which took place during Henry V’s campaign leading up to the battle of Agincourt  in  October  1415.  The account shows that the English cannon was clearly a dangerous weapon to operate.

The French were besieging Soissons, an English defended city nominally under the rule of a French faction, the Burgundians, that sided with the English, defended by some English archers, and some mercenary gunners. it described them placing a gun in a tower overlooking the French camp.

Meanwhile the French were getting off a rapid fire from their siege cannon, a whopping three rounds per day, they had to wait for the wet clay and straw mix wadding to dry before they could fire.

Anyhow, the English cannon, described as made from forged and welded bars of iron re-enforced by hoops of iron, was apparently in a fairly rusted and pitted condition, having been stored in the basement without much care. It was ‘twice as long as a bow-stave’ and ‘hooped like an ale pot’, resting on a wooden carriage.

They mentioned it was tapered (much like the illustration) because the stone balls were of inconsistent diameter, the taper allowing the ball to get to a place where it fits, assisted by the wadding of soft loam. The gunners loaded the wadding, they waited the requisite time for the wadding to dry out before the stone ball was inserted, and wedged it in place with small wooden wedges to keep the stone ball from falling out if the rear was elevated & to ensure it was held tight against the wadding and powder charge.

The cannon was considered a demon due to its sulphurous breath on firing, so a priest was brought up to it to bless it with holy water and, to ensure no devilry ensued, he stayed. The senior gunner then primed the cannon with a stripped goose quill filled with powder, fired the cannon with a long taper, it promptly blew up, killing the crew and the priest. The city fell when one of the English lords sold out to the French and opened the gates.

The Aberystwyth cannonballs may be assumed to be of a very similar date.  CJ Spurgeon in his article Aberystwyth Castle and Borough to 1649, records the varied fortunes of the castle which withstood assaults from the Welsh in 1287 and 1295.  In 1404 after a prolonged siege Owen Glyndwr took the castle and there signed his famous treaty with Charles VI of France.   The following year Prince Henry ( later Henry V) is recorded to have brought cannon from Bristol and, in ( according to Spurgeon) one of the earliest records of their use, he recaptured the castle in 1408.  It is particularly satisfactory that the limestone cannon ball can be identified to  come from Dundry, near Bristol, where the stone for many medieval buildings was also sourced.  It was probably carved locally and brought to Aberystwyth along with Henry’s cannons.

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