Eliseg’s Pillar

Julie Brominicks (author of The Edge of Cymru: A Journey)

ABOUT a quarter of a mile higher up the vale, in the hedge of a meadow, I met with the remainder of a round column, perhaps one of the most antient of any British inscribed pillar now existing.

So wrote Pennant in ‘Tours of Wales’, 1778.

And so it almost was with me, though ‘improved’ grass would be a more apt description of the species-poor field I found myself in, rather than the richly-biodiverse idyll conjured up by Pennant’s ‘meadow’. Nevertheless the field is still hedge-bound at least.

I sit on the Bronze Age burial mound to regard Eliseg’s Pillar whilst eating my cheese sandwich and then a hard-boiled egg. Truth is, the reason for my being here at all is not out of passion for pillars or a penchant for Pennant (though a curious traveller I most definitely am). I am here because I have been commissioned by the county council to blog about places in Sir Ddinbych you can visit via an interesting walk from a bus stop – public transport being in desperate need of champions.

Having anticipated meeting Eliseg’s Pillar with a sense of disappointment, I had planned my walk here to be circuitous, to take in the wider vale. To first appreciate the landscape in which the pillar sits. Stands. So I had nipped from Llangollen up and over Castell Dinas Brân (in an earlier version of which Eliseg probably lived), scooted beneath the limestone embrace of Creigiau Eglwyseg, and rounded Fron Fawr to get here. The reverse of the walk that Pennant took. He, being a more eager antiquarian than I, had visited the pillar first. Here’s what he had to say about his route back to Llangollen:

THERE are two ways from this pillar: the usual is along the vale, on an excellent turnpike-road leading to Ruthyn; the other is adapted only for the travel of the horsemen; but far the more preferable, on account of the romantic views. I returned by Valle Crucis; and, after winding along a steep midway to the old castle, descended, and after crossing the rill of the Brán, ar­rived in the valley of Glisseg; long and narrow, bounded on the right by the astonishing precipices, divided into numberless paral­lel strata of white limestone, often giving birth to vast yew-trees: and on the left, by smooth and verdant hills, bordered by pretty woods. One of the principal of the Glisseg rocks is honored with the name of Craig-Arthur. That at the end of the vale is called Craig y Forwyn, or the maiden’s; is bold, precipitous, and termi­nates with a vast natural column.

I share his enthusiasm for Creigiau Eglwyseg. The escarpment wraps around the Vale like a limestone scarf. Dolomites in miniature. I love these crags best on a crisp wintry day, like this Tuesday in December. With flocks of fieldfares and redwings flickering in the thorn trees that cling to the scree, wheep-wheeping and gorging on berries. I was in no hurry to reach this old monument.

But here I am, considering the pillar whilst sipping tea with fieldfares still on my mind. As I reach the fruitcake part of my picnic, I concede that ‘disappointment’ is a little unfair. It was just that I knew better than to expect to find the pillar in a remote and romantic location. Llangollen is too popular these days and the pillar too famous. Why so?

Eliseg’s Pillar is the remains of what was once a much taller memorial stone erected by Cyngen (a local leader) in the ninth century, to honour his great-grandfather Eliseg, who had beaten the Anglo-Saxons in a battle and expelled them from this part of Powys. We know this from the lengthy Latin inscription engraved upon it – an important contribution to our comprehension of Welsh history.

The inscription totals thirty-one lines, broken into paragraphs separated by small crosses. Coflein, the online database for the National Monuments Record of Wales and my go-to source for any monument, has this to say about it:

‘It glorified Eliseg and Cyngen, proclaiming their lineage from Emperor Magnus Maximus and his son Vortigern (Gwrtheyrn), both celebrated figures from the end of Roman Britain. Eliseg, the inscription asserted, drove the English from the area after they had laid this borderland waste for nine years. The mason that carved the inscription was also named: Cynfarch.’

Powys was still under threat in Cyngen’s era. Perhaps the words were meant as propaganda, to boost flagging spirits. Or to be read aloud – this may have been where leaders were appointed. The original inscription is now eroded away. Even Pennant found it ‘illegible.’ We are indebted to Edward Lhuyd (who Pennant describes as ‘that great antiquary’) for copying down the text in 1696.

What is still decipherable today, is the inscription added by local landowner Trevor Lloyd when he re-erected the pillar in 1779. I like to think Lloyd was motivated to do so, by Pennant’s account in Tours of Wales, which was published in 1778. It is tempting to assume that Pennant and Lloyd met. Perhaps Pennant was there at Lloyd’s invitation.

Speculation apart, what we do know is that Lloyd also undertook an excavation of the Bronze-Age barrow, atop which he reset the pillar in its original stone setting on a new plinth. Whether this was the exact former location of the pillar we do not know, but the Coflein website claims that Lloyd could now see it from his summer house at Valle Crucis Abbey – which, post-Dissolution, was serving for a while, as a mansion. Had they met, no doubt the men would have discussed the stone’s historical significance, of which Pennant was most definitely aware.  

It is among the first lettered stones that succeeded the Meini-hirion, Meini­-Gwŷr, and Llechau. It stood on a great tumulus; perhaps always environed with wood (as the mount is at present) according to the custom of the most antient times, when standing. pillars were placed under every green tree.

I cannot, from his account, guess at the extent of woodland which surrounded the mound and the meadow in the eighteenth century. But woodland there still is, on the surrounding hills. Fron Fawr across Afon Eglwyseg, from where I have just walked and seen squirrels flowing like silver rivers betwixt the branches of old oaks, is looking particularly resplendent in this crisp December light. The hill is bordered at the base by golden oak, rising to a band of purple birch that gives to a red-bracken summit.

Pennant tells us that the stone when complete, was said to be twelve feet high, but was now just six foot eight. Despite Lloyd’s re-erection, the pillar looks somewhat mollified after centuries spent lying in the hedge. Its restraint by iron palings on top of the Bronze-Age barrow, which itself is surrounded by a plain wire fence, does not help. Nor do our messy modern habits. If you squint you can decipher Valle Crucis Abbey beyond the caravan site, but more prominent are the billboards advertising roast dinners at the nearby Abbey Grange Hotel in the field across the A542 and its grinding traffic. But the main reason for the pillar’s embarrassment is that it has taken a beating.

It was toppled, so it is said, and so Pennant said, by Cromwell’s iconoclasts in the 1640s, when the original cross was broken off the top. Pennant’s indignation at this treatment equals, if not out-strips, his enthusiasm for the stone’s importance.

‘IT was entire till the civil wars of the last century, when it was thrown down and broken by some ignorant fanatics; who thought it had too much the appearance of a cross, to be suf­fered to stand.’

As a distinctly ruffled Pennant goes onto claim, it never was a cross, or at least not in the modern religious sense. It was more memorial than gravestone. His indignation is worth repeating.

‘…It was erected at so early a period, that there is nothing marvellous, if we should perceive a tincture of the old idolatry, or at lea[s]t of the primeval customs of our country, in the mode of it when per­fect.

THE pillar never had been a cross; notwithstanding folly and superstition might, in later times, imagine it to have been one and have paid it the usual honors. It was a memorial of the dead; an improvement on the rude columns of Druidical times and cut into form, and surrounded with inscription…’

Pennant’s distress is palpable and warranted. Lloyd did what he could to restore the pillar’s dignity. He elevated it and added moulding and swags to the wounds left by the amputation of the cross from the top. Nevertheless, there is no escaping the fact that today, the pillar looks very much like a penis.