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Eliseg's Pillar

near Llangollen, Denbighshire, Wales
OS 117 SJ 203445

Map link for Eliseg's Pillar

Photographs copyright © 2006 by Jeffrey L. Thomas

Cadw: Guidebook for Valle Crucis Abbey
Nash-Williams, 1950

Eliseg's Pillar is the remaining portion of a tall round-shafted cross of Mercian type, which gave its name to the valley and the neighboring abbey. All that survives today is part of the rounded lower shaft, on one side of which it is just possible to see weathered traces of early lettering. The roll mouldings at the top of the surviving section mark the point at which the squared and tapering upper portion of the cross would have originated; this may have continued to a height similar to that of the rounded shaft before being surmounted by a cross-head.

The cross was pulled down in the 17th century during the Civil War, and the rest had been removed before this column was re-erected by T. Lloyd of Trevor Hall, and event commemorated in the late inscription on the rear. The mound was excavated at this time, and a skeleton found in a long cist, but it is not clear from the description whether this burial was prehistoric or early medieval.

Fortunately, a detailed record of the original inscription was made in 1696 by the antiquarian Edward Lhuyd, before the lettering deteriorated to its present extent. Where his reading can still be checked, it appears to be reliable. Much of the wording was illegible, even in Lhuyd's time, but sufficient survived to allow an interpretation of the purpose and date of the monument.

There seem to have been at least ten main phrases in the inscription, each usually beginning with a small carved cross. The first phrase names successive generations of the ruling house of Powys in the 8th and 9th centuries AD, running from Gwylog through Eliseg, Brochwel and Cadell to Cyngen, and the second states that Cyngen erected the stone in memory of Eliseg. Cadell is known to have died in AD 808 and Cyngen in AD 854, while on pilgrimage to Rome. The third phrase celebrated Eliseg's success in reuniting the inheritance of Powys by fire and sword after a struggle with the English, while the fourth asks the reader to pray for his soul.

The fifth and sixth phrases are very incomplete, but may celebrate the achievements of Cyngen himself. The seventh and eighth appear to contain a more distant genealogy of the kings of Powys, linking them to the late-Roman figure Gwrtheyrn (Vortigern) and Macsen Wledig (Magus Maximus), and claiming a blessing from St. Germanus too. This need not be taken literally, but was a device commonly used by early medieval ruling houses to claim greater legitimacy. The ninth phrase indicates that the lettering was painted by Cynfarch at Cyngen's command, while the tenth asks for a blessing on Cyngen and his household and on the land of Powys in perpetuity.

The monument was probably erected in the early 9th century, celebrating the exploits of a king up to a century earlier. Eliseg's campaigns may have provoked the construction of Offa's Dyke by the English, as a defence against the Welsh, in the mid 8th century.


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Copyright © 2009 by Jeffrey L. Thomas