'That same year Madog ap Gruffudd Maelor built the monastery of Llanegwestl in the Meadow of the Ancient Cross in Ial.'
Brut Y Tywysogyon trans. Thomas Jones(Cardiff 1952)
By the time Valle Crucis Abbey had been founded in 1201, the Pillar of Eliseg had stood in the valley for over 350 years. Indeed, the nearby Abbey took its name from the enigmatic cross, for as a cross it was raised – Valle Crucis means, ‘valley of the cross.’ In what state the cross stood on the arrival of the 12 (possibly 13) Cistercian monks is unknown, but in its more than thousand year history, the cross has suffered much, whether from the elements, religious intolerance or simple indifference. Today, the partial remains stand atop the barrow upon which is was originally raised, not a mile from the Abbey that took its name, an intriguing stump of memorial and defiance.
Originally, the cross is thought to have stood at nearly 20 feet in height, topped with a cross shaft that by all accounts would have been a commanding sight. It is, rather ironically given the nature of the inscription, Mercian in style. Other examples of this type of cross can be seen in nearby Corwen churchyard and in Cheshire and the English Midlands. Nothing of the cross shaft remains, and only eight feet of pillar stand on the barrow that pre-dates it. But, a fascinating remnant it is. Worn away to the vaguest of shadows now, an inscription in Latin was carved into its side. Edward Lluyd, the great antiquarian visited the site in 1696 and thankfully recorded that which he could see. It remains, however, an incomplete record and very intriguing. On Lluyd’s visit, the cross was a shattered thing, having been significantly damaged by the religious vandals that were the Puritans during the English Civil War.
The cross was raised by Concenn (Cyngen), who was the last of the of the medieval kings of the Kingdom of Powys. Concenn is recorded as dying in old age in Rome in 854 AD, while according to the Annales Cambriae his father died in 808. Hence, it is assumed that the cross was originally raised at the beginning of the 9th Century, a turbulent period in British history. It is both a memorial to the deeds of his great grandfather Eliseg, and a defiant declaration of Concenn’s legitimacy of rulership and ownership of the territory in which the cross stood. Eliseg (also known as Elisedd) was the 8th century king of Powys that seemingly halted and threw back the Saxon advance into his land. Given that this defence came against the fearsome King Offa of Mercia, perhaps a memorial is richly deserved. Indeed, it’s an intriguing notion that the great Offa’s Dyke was a possible Mercian reaction to a resurgent Powys under Eliseg. It is of course, quite possible that this was also a declaration of independence from the other great power at the time, the Kingdom of Gwynedd.
While the first half of the inscription lauds the acts of Eliseg, the second is a record of Concenn’s lineage. As with all kings at this time, whether Welsh or English, recorded ancestry is not so much a genuine record of lineage as legitimising a rule, anchoring it in a legendary past. What is curious about Concenn’s ancestry is that while heroes are present, he also throws in the much despised figure of Guarthigirn (otherwise known as Vortigern), blamed for bringing over the Saxons to aid the defence of his kingdom from the Picts. Why Concenn would want Powys linked to Guarthigirn is interesting, to say the least.
The inscription, probably meant to be read aloud perhaps in formal ceremony, as written down by Edward Llyud is recorded below.
+ Concenn son of Cattell, Cattell son of Brohcmail, Brochmail son of Eliseg, Eliseg son of Guoilauc
+ Concenn therefore, the great grandson of Eliseg, erected this stone in honour of his great grandfather Eliseg
+ It was Eliseg who brought together the inheritance of Powys… through force… from the power of the English… (possessions with sword and fire)
Whosoever shall read out loud this hand inscribed (stone), may he give a blessing (to the soul) of Eliseg
+ It is Concenn… with this hand… his own kingdom of Powys… and which… the mountain
… monarchy… Maximus of Britain… Pascent… Maun Annan…
Britu moreover was the son of Guarthi(girn), whom Germanus blessed, whom Sevira bore. (She was) the daughter of Maximus… who killed the king of the Romans
+ Conmarch painted this writing at the command of his king, Concenn
+ The blessing of the Lord upon Concenn and likewise upon all his household and upon all the land of Powys until (the Day of Judgement)
Establishing the ancestry of Concenn, linking him with Eliseg his great grandfather.
The inscription makes clear Eliseg's success against the English, interestingly written as 'anglo'.
This part of the inscription suggests that it was to be read aloud, and indicates a formality to the purpose of the cross.
A declaration of Concenn's legitimate power in Powys.
As Saxon kings traced their ancestry to Woden, Welsh kings traced theirs to Romans, such as here, to the Emperor Maximus in order to empower the legitimacy of their rule. There is a curious connection to Guarthigirn (Vortigern) and mention of the Saint Germanus (Garmon), a popular figure in North East Wales.
The unusual mention of the scribe is a suggestion of his importance, along with the formal Latin term for writing ~ chirografum ~ which points to the purpose of the cross as being a powerful indication of ownership of this area.
The Pillar stands today, as it always has on a barrow. Raising the very prominent cross on an already ancient site was, of course intentional and would have commanded attention on entering or leaving the Vale of Llangollen. The Pillar was re-erected in 1779 on the orders of Trevor Lloyd, the landowner, who also had the original barrow excavated in 1773. It is reported a skeleton was discovered in a long cist of blue stones, along with a mysterious ‘silver coin’ which might well have been a brooch or something similar. The skull was gilded before being re-interred and the remains of the cross later inserted in the original rectangular base. A framed Latin inscription was carved onto the Pillar to commemorate the act. Some have claimed that the grave is that of Eliseg, but this remains unlikely. Despite there being some evidence of a recycling of burial plots, the Christian practice of burial had been established. Subsequent excavations by Project Eliseg 2010-12 have dated the barrow as early Bronze Age (2000 BC), but it seems the excavations, as is often the case, raised as many questions as it answered.
A rather wonderful sketch of Eliseg's Pillar by Thomas Rowlandson (1797) - Valle Crucis Abbey, as ever, in the near distance.