‘And there remains in the parish, a Latin inscription cut in rude letters, on an unhewn upright stone…Multitudes of tumuli are scattered over the neighbourhood, and one very near to it. The plain probably had been a field of battle. Whether this inscription referred to any heroine that fell on this place, I will not dare to affirm.’
Thomas Pennant, Tours in Wales Vol. II (1781) p. 76-77
It cannot have been long after Pennant’s visit to this curious inscribed stone before he had it moved to Downing Hall, his home, although it may well have been his son, David in the early 19th century. It resided there, within the garden beside a small artificial lake until 1936, when it was removed again, to St Beuno and St Mary’s Church in Whitford. While it's clear that the stone was at Downing Hall at the end of the 18th century, we are less clear as to its original position before Pennant had it removed. In Pennant’s comments of 1781, he makes no mention of the specific location of the stone, other than it being in the parish of Caerwys.
The Inscribed Stone as illustrated by Richard Gough in his edition of Camden's Britannia (1789)
In Richard Gough’s 1789 edition of Camden’s Britannia, Pennant’s assertion that the stone’s original location was surrounded by tumuli is repeated, without offering any more on its original location. And various 19th century editions of Archaeologia Cambrensis are as silent, other than the suggestion that the stone was once, ‘used as a gate post at the entrance of a field where many Roman coins were found.’ The focus was rather on the stone’s visible inscription and its various possible translations.
By the time of the Royal Commission’s visit in 1911, the question as to the stone’s original location had become a matter of some debate. Its original Caerwys location was said to be Cae’r Orsedd at Plas yn Rhos Farm, a mile or so to the north west of the town. But a Ysceifiog location was also mooted, that of Bryn Sion Farm. In a curious oddity, the Royal Commission’s Inventory of 1911 seems to argue with itself, with the commissioners at Plas yn Rhos being told by an aged John Brunnan of Minifordd, that as a younger man an elderly local had told him that as a boy he had witnessed Pennant removing the, ‘stone with letters on it…where it was standing in the middle of the field’. However, at Bryn Sion, the commissioners, possibly the same commissioners, were apt to accept the evidence of the writings of T. Pritchard Edwards in an obscure little volume by the title of, ‘Henafiaethau Caerwys’, which placed it firmly at the Ysceifiog site.
Whispering away its memory of the good wife of Nobilis.
In 1923, Ellis Davies, writing in Archaeologia Cambrensis argued strongly for Plas yn Rhos, and based his argument on Pennant’s original assertion that the stone was sited within a plain and surrounded by ‘multitudes of tumuli’. Davies argued that this description fitted well with the Plas yn Rhos locality, but not Bryn Sion. And since it was Thomas Pennant (or possibly his son) that removed the stone from its original location, it does not seem unreasonable to suggest that his description is accurate. So, as things stand, it would seem the Downing Inscribed Stone was originally brought to Pennant’s home from Plas yn Rhos. It is also worth noting the Lidar imaging for Plas yn Rhos which shows clearly that Cae’r Orsedd once had within it a barrow, now ploughed down to a shadow in the soil.
With the mystery of the original location solved, at least to a point, we should turn to another little mystery - that of the inscription itself. The problem seems not just a translation of the Roman letter Latin inscription, written across the long face of the stone and running downwards, but a clear idea as to what was actually inscribed since much of the middle of the second line is terribly faint. Pennant declares the inscription as,
Hic jacit mulier bo…obiit
And this was followed by near enough 250 years of variation on a theme, in which a little tweaking here and there, rendered such understandings as,
HIC IACIT MVLI
Archaeologia Cambrensis (Westwood) 1855
HIC IACIT MVLI
ER BONA NOBILI
Archaeologia Cambrensis, 1891
HIC IACET MVLIER BONA NOBILI
Corpus Inscriptionum Insularum Celticarum (Macallister) 1945
There have been thus a variety of translations, with Pennant shying away from an attempt, suggesting,
‘Whether this inscription referred to any heroine that fell on this place, I will not dare to affirm.’
Pennant, Tour in Wales Vol II (1781), p77
The first real attempt in print would seem to be by J.O. Westward in 1855, in which he translates his own observations as,
HERE LIES A GOOD AND NOBLE WOMAN
Macalister in 1945, translated the inscription in a variety of ways, but favoured,
Here lies the good wife of Nobilis
Perhaps though we should rest our weary heads upon the translations of Professor Nancy Edwards in her magnificent work, A Corpus of Early Medieval Inscribed Stones and Stone Sculpture in Wales, Vol III North Wales. She gives us three possible translations,
Here lies Bona wife of Nobilis (or Nobilius)
Here lies the good wife of Nobilis (or Nobilius)
Here lies the good wife Nobilis
The Lidar image of Cae'r Orsedd shows the shadow of an ancient barrow.
As for the reason for the stone being placed in Cae’r Orsedd, the obvious suggestion is that it marked the grave of the wife of Nobilis, possibly Bona. But it would be a mistake to associate the ploughed down barrow with any such grave, since while the barrow is probably around 4000 years old, the Nobilis stone is likely 6th century AD, placing it in that inky business of post Roman Britain. Then there is the possibility that the stone was being used as a gate post in the field - and here we are again, pondering the possibility that the stone was moved to Cae’r Orsedd at some point in the distant past.
You will find the Nobilis Stone in the west end of the nave of St Beuno and St Mary’s where it rests along with an assortment of old stones of various ages, whispering away its memory of the good wife of Nobilis.
Archaeologia Cambrensis, Third Series, (July 1855)
Archaeologia Cambrensis, Fifth Series, (April 1891)
Archaeologia Cambrensis, Seventh Series, (1923)
Edwards, Nancy, A Corpus of Early Medieval Inscribed Stones and Stone Sculpture in Wales, Vol III North Wales, (Cardiff 2013)
Ellis Davies, The Prehistoric and Roman Remains of Flintshire, (Cardiff 1949)
Macalister, R.A.S., Corpus Inscriptionum Insularum Celticarum, (Dublin 1945)
Pennant, Thomas, Tours in Wales Vol II (1781)
Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, An Inventory of the Ancient Monuments of Wales: Flintshire, (Cardiff 1911)
Westwood, J.O., Lapidarium Wallae, (Oxford 1876-79)