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Historic Welsh pillar that's shrouded in mystery

Published date: 26 January 2010 |
Published by: Rob Bellis
Read more articles by Rob Bellis


Eliseg’s Pillar as it stands today 

An inscription on the replica of Eliseg’s Pillar 

 

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WITH a low lying mist over the hills all around, the Valley of the Cross seems a particularly mysterious place on this chilly morning.

While the elements – and the Roundheads, who apparently toppled it during the civil war – may have taken their toll, Eliseg’s Pillar remains a majestic sight on the horizon as you approach.

The monument from which the valley and the famous Cistercian Abbey, Valle Crucis, takes its name stands silently as it has for centuries.

The pillar has been the subject of renewed interest in recent years as archaeologists from the likes of Bangor and Chester universities have joined historians in looking at its significance.

In fact, a small archaeological study of the site is set to take place later this year.

These days the pillar stands at about eight feet tall, with a few extra feet afforded by its stone plinth and the base that was built by the man who re-erected it in 1779, Trevor Lloyd of Trevor Hall, who then owned the land.

Imagine then that when this incredible monument was first erected, some 1,200 years ago in the ninth century, it would have stood at more than 20 feet tall. That is if the earliest known account that mentions the pillar is to be believed.

“The earliest account we have of the pillar describes it as being 21 feet tall,” explained David Crane, manager of Llangollen Museum. “Edward Lluyd, an antiquarian who recorded the original inscription in 1796, reports that the pillar was knocked down in the civil war and was on the ground in pieces. The bit we see today is the top part – what happened to the lower part is unknown.”

Eliseg’s Pillar gives an important insight into the appropriately named ‘Dark Ages’ – a period when very little was recorded and thus little is known about.

This is largely because the ninth century inscription which, though now completely worn away, was thankfully recorded by Lluyd for future historians to puzzle over.

And puzzle over it they do – not just the inscription but the pillar itself as well as the mound it stands upon.

Could it be that the famous cross that gives the valley its name may not have been a cross at all?

David points out that the earliest description of the pillar says it is just that – a pillar, or to be precise a column – and that account was made in the early part of the 17th century, before the civil war.

“If it were a cross at that time you would presume that he would describe it as ‘a cross’ but he doesn’t. That isn’t to say that the top might have been knocked off it before that,” he added.

The inscription, recorded by Lluyd, reveals that the pillar was erected by Cyngen, King of Powys, in memory of his great-grandfather Eliseg who had won an important victory against the English, saving the kingdom of Powys.

Its position is also almost certainly significant.

“That type of monument is out of place in Powys (what would have been Powys then),” said Sue Evans, chairman of Llangollen Museum. “It was placed there as a piece of propaganda.

"It is on what would have been the border of old Powys at the base of the Horseshoe Pass and would have stated these are our lands, they have been our lands for a long time so don’t try anything.

"The land it is on should be important but whatever significance that land once had has been lost.

“There was a geophysics survey carried out on the site recently which showed what looks like evidence of prehistoric activity.”

David also pointed out that prior to the building of nearby Valle Crucis Abbey, about 400 years after the Cross was erected, there had been a township located there whose inhabitants were relocated to the old townships of Stansty and Northcroft (Wrexham) to afford the Cistercian monks privacy.

There are theories that the mound on which the pillar stands may pre-date the pillar itself. One is that it is a Bronze Age burial mound and it has been suggested that the pillar may have been erected on top of it in order to suggest the contemporary rulers’ superiority over their predecessors.

In any case, when Trevor Lloyd re-erected the remains of the pillar at the end of the 18th century he took the opportunity to do a little digging.

“Trevor Lloyd re-erected the pillar and at the same time asked for the mound to be opened up,” Sue continued. “He found bones that, according to the account of W. T. Simpson (1827) who met two people present at the opening, ‘broke like gingerbread’ and a silver coin. They are supposed to have gilded the skull to preserve it and put it back before re-erecting the pillar.”

Trevor Lloyd’s decision to re-erect the pillar may have had something to do with a renewed, romantic interest in Welsh history – interestingly, the fashionable if controversial Ladies of Llangollen are known to have visited to see the work Lloyd had done.

Dai Morgan Evans, visiting professor in archaeology at Chester University who will be among the team from Bangor, Chester and Llangollen planning to study the monument in greater depth later this year, believes there was more to it.

“What I’ve been interested in is quite why he (Lloyd) re-erected the pillar. The answer is that he claimed to be descended from those mentioned on the pillar.

"He was a relatively small landowner by comparison to the likes of the Williams-Wynns and was probably under a bit of pressure from these big landowners so he wanted to boast that he was descended from this line of Welsh kings. In the 18th century there was this battle between the new order and the old order in Wales.

"Trevor Lloyd had also erected a summer house at Valle Crucis Abbey alongside various gardening works and put in a cascade which was disapproved of by so-called tourists of taste. The summer house is still there and the pillar has been erected on a dry stone base so that it can be clearly seen from its windows.”

Eliseg’s Pillar gives us a fascinating insight into the time when it was carved, a period which we know all too little about, as well as into a thousand years of history. However, while it gives us a glimpse into the past, to a large extent the pillar itself remains shrouded in mystery.

Lluyd’s record of the inscriptions are invaluable yet incomplete. An earlier record by antiquarian Robert Vaughn is known to have existed but is presumed to have been lost.

When did the cross that lends its name to Pant y Groes (Valley of the Cross) cease to be a cross? What happened to the cross itself, if indeed there ever was a cross, and what happened to the lower section which was almost certainly there when Edward Lluyd visited? Apart from being close to the border of the old kingdom, what is the significance of the site and when or why was the mound it sits on constructed?

There are many questions still to be answered.

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