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Via @gwallter

I suspect most people visit Llangathen, in the Tywi valley, to see the wonderful restored gardens at Aberglasne (Aberglasney in its Anglicised form). But the village has other things to offer: a surprisingly bright and roomy neo-Tudor ‘Temperance Hall’, and the large church of St Cathen. (The village used to be more populous than it is today.)

The church, which has a battlemented tower and two aisles, stands on a hill, with a view from the porch door of Grongar Hill, the subject of John Dyer’s poem of that name, reputed to be one of the earliest pastoral poems in English. But inside the church, at its south-east corner, is a real surprise – one the most ornate memorials to be found in any parish church in Wales.

It’s the tomb of Anthony Rudd, bishop of St Davids between 1594 and his death in 1615. Rudd was a Yorkshireman, who rose through the ranks of the Anglican church, becoming Dean of Gloucester immediately before coming to Wales. He was famous for his finely wrought sermons, one of which so impressed Queen Elizabeth that, according to the church historian Thomas Fuller (1608-61), she let it be known to him, through the archbishop of Canterbury, John Whitgift, that he might be material for high office – that is, Whitgift’s successor as archbishop of Canterbury.

On 28 March 1596, two years into his term at St Davids, Rudd was due to give an important sermon before the queen in Richmond. According to Fuller, who admits he had the story at second hand, Whitgift gave Rudd a piece of advice – that the Queen, ‘grown weary of the vanities of wit and eloquence’, appreciated plain speaking in her sermons.

Rudd took Whitgift at his word. His text in Richmond was from the Psalms, ‘Teach us to number our days, that we may incline our hearts unto wisdom’. It was a sermon that was going to be remembered. The introduction to the published version of it (A sermon preached at Richmond before Queene Elizabeth of famous memorye … , 1603) said, ‘This sermon bred much speech long ago, and the sight of it was greatly desired by many’.

The bishop addressed himself directly to the queen:

Let me now come to the most reverend age of my most dear and dread Soueraign, who hath (I doubt not) learned to number her years that she may apply her hart unto wisdome. And therefore I conceive in mind, that in her Soliloquia or private meditations, she frameth her speech in this wise … (A sermon, p.49-50)

He goes on to imagine how the queen, in her private prayers, might consider how old she’s become, how near she is to death, and how therefore she might prepare herself for the judgement of her maker.

O Lord, I am now entred a good way into the Climacterical yeare of mine age … Lord, I have now put foote within the doores of the age, in which the Almond tree flourisheth; wherein men begin to cary a Calender in their bones, the senses begin to faile, the strength to diminish, yea all of the powers of the body daily to decay … (A sermon, p.51-3)

The queen, who still had a good seven years left to sit on her throne, didn’t take kindly to these suggestions that she was senile, or bound for an early grave. According to Sir John Harington, she ‘was so farre from giving him thanks or good countenance, that she said plainly he should have kept his Arithmetick for himselfe, but ‘I see’, said she, ‘the greatest Clerks are not the wisest men’.’ She held no grudge against Rudd, Harington says, but she wanted her court to know

‘how the good Bishop was deceived in supposing she was so decayed in her limbes and senses as himself perhaps & other of that age were wont to be; she said she thankt God that neither her stomack nor strength, nor her voyce for singing nor fingring Instruments; nor lastly, her sight was any whit decayed’. 

It was clear that Rudd would never reach Canterbury.  Thomas Fuller seems keen to absolve John Whitgift of the charge of setting up Bishop Rudd for a fall:

Surely his Grace was too mortified a man, (though none naturally love their successors whilst themselves are alive,) intentionally to lay a train to blow up this archbishop-designed, though by the other’s unadvised practice of his words it proved so in the event.

Whatever the truth of this story, Rudd had to abandon any hopes he may have had of following Whitgift, and had no choice but to remain in St Davids. He seems to have been rich enough to buy the estate of Aberglasne, and to build the house and possibly the gardens there (the palaces of the Bishop were not in a habitable state at the time). Fuller suggests that he made the most of his position:

Grongar Hill from Llangathen Church

Yet he justly retained the repute of a reverend and godly prelate, and carried the same to the grave. He wrought much on the Welsh by his wisdom, and won their affections; and, by moderate thrift, and long staying in the same see, left to his son, Sir Rise Rudd, a fair estate in Aberglaseny in Carmarthenshire.

When Rudd died his widow arranged for an elaborate tomb to be built for him in the church (he might have been expected to have lain in St Davids Cathedral). It’s made of Bath stone. Rudd and his wife, Anne Dalton lie on a chest. Their two sons, one of them Rice Rudd, kneel in prayer on either side. But what’s so surprising is the architectural confection that surrounds them all: an arched canopy flanked by Corinthian columns and topped by a broken pediment, and aisles with obelisks. It’s a wonderful sight, in the gloom of the church, but alas the whole tomb is in dire need of conservation: cracks have opened up in the stonework, parts have broken off, and others are held up by blocks of wood.

A footnote on Sir John Harington

Sir John Harington, as well as being a courtier, risqué author and translator, was the inventor of an early version of the flush lavatory, called the ‘Ajax’, which he had installed in his house in Kelston near Bath. (Ajax was a pun on ‘jakes’, already in use as a word for a privy.) In 1596 he published a treatise entitled A new discourse upon a stale subject: the metamorphosis of Ajax, under the pseudonym ‘Misacmos’ (filth hater), in which he uses the content of the lavatory as a metaphor for political ordure.