Big Bones Preserved in Churches

By the Rev. R. Wilkins Rees

In a lovely and secluded valley in Montgomeryshire is situated the interesting old church of Pennant Melangell, of whose foundation a charming legend is told. The romantic glen was in the first instance the retreat of a beautiful Irish maiden, Monacella (in Welsh, Melangell), who had fled from her father’s court rather than wed a noble to whom he had promised her hand, that here she might alone “serve God and the spotless virgin.” Brochwell Yscythrog, Prince of Powys, being one day hare-hunting in the locality, pursued his game till he came to a thicket, where to his amazement he found a lady of surpassing beauty, with the hare he was chasing safely sheltered beneath her robe. Notwithstanding all the efforts of the sportsman to make them seize their prey, the dogs had retired to a distance, howling as though in fear, and even when the huntsman essayed to blow his horn, it stuck to his lips. The Prince, learning the lady’s story, right royally assigned to her the [p 231] spot as a sanctuary for ever to all who fled there. It afterwards became a safe asylum for the oppressed, and an institution for the training of female devotees. But how long it so continued cannot be said. Monacella’s hard bed used to be shown in the cleft of a neighbouring rock, while her tomb was in a little oratory adjoining the church.

In the church is to be found carved woodwork, which doubtless once formed part of the rood-loft, representing the legend of Saint Melangell. The protection afforded by the saint to the hare gave such animals the name of Wyn Melangell—St. Monacella’s lambs—and the superstition was so fully credited that no person would kill a hare in the parish, while it was also believed that if anyone cried “God and St. Monacella be with thee” after a hunted hare, it would surely escape.

The church contains another interesting item in the shape of a large bone, more than four feet long, which has been described as the bone of the patron saint. Southey visited the church, and in an amusing rhyming letter addressed to his daughter, thus refers to it: “’Tis a church in a vale, whereby hangs a tale, how a hare being pressed by the dogs was much distressed, the [p 232] hunters coming nigh and the dogs in full cry, looked about for someone to defend her, and saw just in time, as it now comes pat in rhyme, a saint of the feminine gender. The saint was buried there, and a figure carved with care, in the churchyard is shown, as being her own; but ’tis used for a whetstone (like a stone at our back door), till the pity is the more (I should say the more’s the pity, if it suited with my ditty), it is whetted half away—lack-a-day, lack-a-day! They show a mammoth rib (was there ever such a fib?) as belonging to the saint Melangell. It was no use to wrangle, and tell the simple people that if this had been her bone, she must certainly have grown to be three times as tall as the steeple!”

In Lewis’s “Topographical Dictionary of Wales” (1843), we are told that on the mountain between Bala and Pennant Melangell was found a large bone named the Giant’s Rib, perhaps the bone of some fish, now kept in the church. But where the bone came from it is quite impossible to say. Old superstitions have clung to it, and beyond what tradition furnishes there is practically nothing for our guidance.

It is somewhat strange that in the same [p 233] county, in connection with the church at Mallwyd, other bones are exhibited. Of this church, surrounded by romantic scenery, the Dr. Davies, who rendered into Welsh the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England, and assisted Bishop Perry in the translation of the Bible, was for many years incumbent. The sacred edifice was far-famed for its magnificent yew trees, and for the position of the communion table in the centre. Archbishop Laud issued orders that it should be placed at the east end, but Dr. Davies defied the prelate, and restored it to its old position, where, according to Hemmingway’s “Panorama of North Wales,” in which the church was described as a “humble Gothic structure, the floor covered with rushes,” it remained till 1848. It is not, however, so placed now. Over the porch of this church some bones are suspended, but no palæontologist has yet decided as to their origin. It has been said that they are the rib and part of the spine of a whale caught in the Dovey in bygone days! Whatever may be the truth, however, it is not now to be ascertained, but must remain shrouded in mystery with that concerning the bones at Pennant Melangell. The bones were in their present [p 234] position in 1816, for they are then mentioned by Pugh in his Cambria Depicta.

England has several instances of big bones preserved in churches, and one story seems to be told regarding almost all. A most interesting example is to be found over one of the altar tombs in the Foljambe Chapel, Chesterfield Church. This bone, supposed to be the jawbone of a small whale, is seven feet four inches in length, and about thirteen inches, on an average, in circumference. Near one end is engraved, in old English characters, the name “Thomas Fletcher.” The Foljambes disposed of their manor in 1633 to the Ingrams, who in turn sold it to the Fletchers, and thus the name on the bone is accounted for. A generally-accepted explanation about this bone—not even disbelieved entirely at the present day—was that it formed a rib of the celebrated Dun Cow of Dunsmore Heath, killed by the doughty Guy of Warwick, with whom local tradition identified the warrior whose marble effigy lies beneath the bone, sent to Chesterfield to celebrate the much-appreciated victory.

It is interesting to remember here the legendary story of the foundation of Durham Cathedral, [p 237] which explains certain carving on the north front of that majestic pile. While the final resting-place of St. Cuthbert was still undetermined, “it was revealed to Eadmer, a virtuous man, that he should be carried to Dunholme, where he should find a place of rest. His followers were in distress, not knowing where Dunholme lay; but as they proceeded, a woman, wanting her cow, called aloud to her companion to know if she had seen her, when the other answered that she was in Dunholme. This was happy news to the distressed monks, who thereby knew that their journey’s end was at hand, and the saint’s body near its resting-place.” It has been said that the after riches of the See of Durham gave rise to the proverb, “The dun cow’s milk makes the prebend’s wives go in silk.”

But to return to the dun cow slain by Guy. That the champion was credited of old with having overcome some such animal is evident from the matter-of-fact fashion in which it is recorded by ancient chroniclers. In Percy’s “Reliques of Antient Poetry,” occur the following verses in a black-letter ballad which sings the exploits of Guy:—

[p 238]
“On Dunsmore heath I alsoe slewe
A monstrous wyld and cruell beast,
Called the Dun-Cow of Dunsmore heath,
Which manye people had opprest.

Some of her bons in Warwicke yett
Still for a monument doe lye;
Which unto every lookers viewe
As wondrous strange, they may espye.”

A circumstantial account is given in the “Noble and Renowned History of Guy, Earl of Warwick,” as translated from the curious old French black-letter volume in Warwick Castle, and of this a somewhat modernised version may be submitted. “Fame made known in every corner of the land that a dun cow of enormous size, ‘at least four yards in height, and six in length, and a head proportionable,’ was making dreadful devastations, and destroying man and beast. The king was at York when he heard of the havoc and slaughter which this monstrous animal had made. He offered knighthood to anyone who would destroy her, and many lamented the absence in Normandy of Guy, who, hearing of the beast, went privately to give it battle. With bow and sword and axe he came, and found every village desolate, every cottage empty. His heart filled with compassion, and [p 239] he waited for the encounter. The furious beast glared at him with her eyes of fire. His arrows flew from her sides as from adamant itself. Like the wind from the mountain side the beast came on. Her horns pierced his armour of proof, though his mighty battle-axe struck her in the forehead. He wheeled his gallant steed about and struck her again. He wounded her behind the ear. The monster roared and snorted as she felt the anguish of the wound. At last she fell, and Guy, alighting, hewed at her until she expired, deluged with her blood. He then rode to the next town, and made known the monster’s death, and then went to his ship, hoping to sail before the king could know of the deed. Fame was swifter than Guy. The king sent for him, gave him the honour of knighthood, and caused one of the ribs of the cow to be hung up in Warwick Castle, where it remains until this day.” Old Dr. Caius, of Cambridge, writes of having seen an enormous head at Warwick Castle in 1552, and also “a vertebra of the neck of the same animal, of such great size that its circumference is not less than three Roman feet seven inches and a half.” He thinks also that “the blade-bone, which is to be seen hung [p 240] up by chains form the north gate of Coventry, belongs to the same animal. The circumference of the whole bone is not less than eleven feet four inches and a half.” The same authority further states that “in the chapel of the great Guy, Earl of Warwick, which is situated rather more than a mile from the town of Warwick (Guy’s Cliff), there is hung up a rib of the same animal, as I suppose, the girth of which in the smallest part is nine inches, the length six feet and a half,” and he inclines to a half-belief, at any rate, in the Dun-Cow story.

In connection with the legend it should be mentioned that in the north-west of Shropshire is the Staple Hill, which has a ring of upright stones, about ninety feet in diameter, of the rude pre-historic type. “Here the voice of fiction declares there formerly dwelt a giant who guarded his cow within this inclosure, like another Apis among the ancient Egyptians, a cow who yielded her milk as miraculously as the bear Œdumla, whom we read of in Icelandic mythology, filling every vessel that could be brought to her, until at length an old crone attempted to catch her milk in a sieve, when, furious at the insult, she broke out of the magical inclosure and wandered [p 241] into Warwickshire, where her subsequent history and fate are well known under that of the Dun Cow, whose death added another wreath of laurel to the immortal Guy, Earl of Warwick.” The presence of bones at Chesterfield and elsewhere is, of course, accounted for by the fact (?) that they were distributed over the country so that in various places Guy’s marvellous feat might be commemorated.

In Queen Elizabeth’s “fairest and most famous parish church in England,” St. Mary Redcliff, Bristol, is preserved a bone said to have belonged to a monster cow which once supplied the whole city with milk. Bristolians, proud of their connection with the great discoverer, Cabot, assert that it is a whalebone brought to the city by the illustrious voyager on his return from Newfoundland. But here the story of Guy of Warwick and the cow has also been introduced. The bone, which is now fixed not far from the stair leading to the chamber containing the muniment chest where Chatterton pretended to have found the Rowley poems, was formerly hung within the church, while near to it was suspended a grimy old picture now banished to a position on a staircase just where the room in [p 242] which the vestry meetings are held is entered. The picture, so far as it can be made out, contains a big figure of a man on the right hand side, while in the foreground lies a prostrate man, behind whom stands a cow. To the left of the picture are certain human figures in attitudes expressive of surprise. This ancient painting was said to refer to Guy’s exploit, and the rib was pointed out as a positive proof that the daring deed was done.

It may be presumed that all, or nearly all, these bones preserved in churches are those of whales, though in some instances they have been supposed to be those of the wild BONASUS or URUS and most are associated in some way or other with the legend of Guy and the Dun-Cow. Indeed, it seems almost strange that the story has not been connected even with the bone at Pennant Melangell, especially as on the mountain between Llanwddyn and the parish is a circular inclosure surrounded by a wall called Hên Eglwys, and supposed to be a Druidical relic, which would have been just the spot to have lent itself to the statement that there the animal was confined.

The late Frank Buckland, in his entertaining chapter on “A Hunt on the Sea-Shore,” in his [p 243] second volume of “Curiosities of Natural History,” says: “Whale-bones get to odd places,” and writes of having seen them used for a grotto in Abingdon, and a garden chair in Clapham. Not far from Chesterfield there were, until recently, some whale-jaw gate posts which formed an arch, and in North Lincolnshire such bones, tall and curved, are still to be seen serving similar purposes. But the presence of such bones, carefully preserved in churches, though it may occasion considerable conjecture, cannot, it seems, be properly explained. As yet, at any rate, the riddle remains unsolved.