Monday, 2 May 2016

The parish church in Beaumaris has
a fine collection of mediaeval relics

The mediaeval parish church in Beaumaris dates from the 14th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

I am staying in Beaumaris on the Isle of Anglesey for this bank holiday weekend. On Sunday morning [1 May 2016], the Sixth Sunday of Easter, I was warmly welcomed by the Rector of Beaumaris, the Revd Neil Fairlamb, at the Parish Eucharist in the Church of Saint Mary and Saint Nicholas, the 14th century parish church in Beaumaris.

The church, which is now a Grade I listed building, was first built ca 1330 to serve the newly-founded town.

The parish church is in the heart of the mediaeval town, in a large churchyard with Church Street to the east and Steeple Lane to the west. It was built to serve the burgesses of the walled town soon after Beaumaris Castle was built.

Parts of the church were built at different times: the oldest parts are the nave and aisles, and the west tower, all of which date to the 14th century, while the chancel was rebuilt around 1500 in Perpendicular style. The west tower is of four stages, with a battlemented parapet. The upper section was remodelled in the early 19th century. The north vestry and south porch are probably 19th century. The exterior is mainly Perpendicular.

The stone tomb of Princess Joan of Wales inside the south porch (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Inside the south porch, the stone tomb of Princess Joan of Wales (Princess Siwan) is much older than the church itself. Princess Joan was an illegitimate daughter of King John of England, and in the late 12th century, when she was still only 15 – some accounts say she was only 12 – she was married to Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, or Llywelyn the Great, then Prince of Wales.

At first it was a successful marriage, by all accounts. But in 1230 she was found in bed with a Norman knight, William de Braose. Llewelyn had William hanged, and Joan was exiled for a year at Garth Celyn. Llewelyn eventually forgave her, and Joan returned to court in 1231.

When she died in February 1237, Joan was buried at the Franciscan Friary that her husband had founded in Llanfaes, just north of Beaumaris and within sight of his palace at Abergwyngregyn.

However, when Llewelyn died three years later in 1240, he was not buried with Joan. Instead, he was buried at Aberconwy Abbey, to which he had retired during the last few years of his life.

At the Reformation and the dissolution of the monastic houses, the Friary at Llanfaes was suppressed in 1537. For years Joan’s tomb was lost. Centuries later it was found in Beaumaris, being used as a water trough for horses. It was rescued and moved into the parish church in Beaumaris.

The slab is elaborately decorated with a floriate design. Her hands are drawn together, palms outwards, in a position of prayer. At her feet is a wyvern, a mythical mediaeval heraldic bird of prey, twisting to bite its tail.

The alabaster altar tomb of William and Elin Bulkeley (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

In the west end of the north aisle is the impressive alabaster altar tomb of William Bulkeley, who died in 1490 and his wife Elin, the daughter of Gwilym ap Gruffydd of Penrhyn. The tomb is made of Midlands alabaster, probably from around Derby and Nottingham, and the alabaster figures of William and Elin are shown side-by-side. William is wearing a light helmet, and his feet are resting on an heraldic lion.

Around its base, the tomb is decorated with figures representing bishops and saints, including Saint Christopher.

William Bulkeley was deputy constable of Beaumaris Castleand the ancestor of Archbishop Lancelot Bulkeley of Dublin and the Bulkeley family of Old Bawn House near Tallaght.

The misericords in Beaumaris date from the late 15th and early 16th century (Photographs: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The church also has a unique collection of misericords dating from the late 15th and early 16th century, although eight are replacements made in 1902.

The carved misericords decorate the undersides of the seats in the choir stalls. Many of the misericords carry a moral message, but others simply depict scenes from daily life.

The faces of the carvings are finely detailed and are the work of skilled craftsmen. It is likely the old misericords came from the friary at Llanfaes when it was dissolved. They include a bearded pope, a woman balancing two pints on her head, a woman in a crown with a wimple and a hood, a woman with a crown of roses on her head and another of two working women.

There is an amusing carving of a woman with a pair of tankards filled with ale balanced on her head. Perhaps she was a real person who brought drinks to the woodcarvers as they worked.

Many of the other furnishings, including the font and pews, date from a major restoration carried out in 1902.

The original East Window of mediaeval glass was destroyed by the Puritans during the Cromwellian era in the mid-17th century. The East Window commemorates a member of the Williams-Bulkeley family killed during World War I. Other members of the Bulkeley family are also commemorated in the chancel and the sanctuary, including the last Viscount Bulkeley, a generous benefactor of the church, who died in 1822.

The East Window in Beaumaris Parish Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

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