The churchyard cross in the grounds of the now closed St Meugan’s Church in the tiny settlement of Llanrhudd is a wonder. Its survival is something of a little miracle within a miracle. Medieval crosses were at the mercy of the religious vandalism of the 16th and 17th centuries, and the continued neglect and suspicion of any remains. So the survival of this impressive, possibly 14th century churchyard cross is certainly fortunate. The 9ft high tapered shaft, with its forlorn tenon for a long lost crosshead set within a striking base stone and resting on a low mound is striking enough. But, when one then discovers that the shaft is decorated, fortune becomes miracle.
If the shafts of churchyard crosses remain at all, they are invariably undecorated, unadorned with religious imagery. The survival at St Meugan’s is probably due to its isolation here, on the outskirts of Ruthin - the town acting as a kind of lightning rod for the religious fervor that could not accept alternatives to ornamental simplicity, sparing the quiet outliers. And the decoration upon the shaft can hardly be described as ornate or ostentatious. In fact it is rather restrained, and must have been so even in its medieval heyday. With the crosshead or tabernacle removed by the authorities, the shaft must have been accepted, perhaps grudgingly, saved by those within the community unhappy to lose its cross entirely. Sometimes, the persuasive influence of a local dignitary could dampen the zealotry of those in power. Perhaps this was the case at Llanrhudd.
What remains of the decoration is slight but beguiling.
‘There are four heads in relief on the four smaller sides of the octagonal shaft, about three feet from the apex, and underneath these heads are four small flowers, similar in character to the four-leaved decorated flower.’
Elias Owen, Old Stone Crosses of the Vale of Clwyd, (1886) p.132
These stone heads, described as ‘masks’ in the Coflein entry, 'rustic' elsewhere, are weirdly wonderful. They peer at you from a different age, and challenge you to see differently, with wider eyes and a broader mind. At the base of the shaft, where it enters the large, oddly and delightfully lumpen base stone, are Owen’s ‘four small flowers’, otherwise described as, ‘decorated stops to the chamfered sides’. Decoration enough to challenge us, but not enough it seems to warrant smashing up and having a sundial stuck on it.
Curiously, despite the continued suspicion the remains of these churchyard crosses were often held in through the 17th century (Edward Lhuyd’s correspondents often ignore crosses in their parishes entirely or speak of them disparagingly), it would seem the shaft at St Meugan’s underwent some form of repair in 1677 - the date upon the stone is worn weathered vague (Owen was unsure if the date was 1677 or an earlier 1672) and is accompanied by the initials E I. It would suggest that the community of Llanrhudd maintained a respect for the cross, their feelings freed perhaps by the Restoration of the Stuart line in 1660. Owen also noticed various initials on the north facing side of the shaft, along with a curious motif.
Llanrhudd is a blink and you’ll miss it little village. So, don’t blink. Park up by the church gates and have a wander. You’ll not regret it in the least. And the magnificent churchyard cross is a wonder.
Owen, E., Old Stone Crosses of the Vale of Clwyd, Woodall, Minshull & Co. Oswestry & Wrexham, 1886
Silvester, R, & Hankinson, R, Medieval Crosses and Crossheads, CPAT Report No. 136 CPAT (2010)
Silvester, R., Welsh medieval freestanding crosses, Archaeologia Cambrensis 162 (2013)