Our Lady of the Taper


At cock-crow a woman will descend from the vault of the choir; bearing a taper which she must present to the Bishop. When he has received it, he must drop some of the wax into jars of water; which he will then give to the sick, and they shall be cured.


by the Reverend Silas M Harris, M.A. (1952)

THE beginnings of Cardigan Priory are obscure, and the exact time of its foundation cannot be known with certainty. It was a cell of the great
Benedictine abbey of St. Peter, Chertsey, Surrey, and is first heard of after Rhys ap Gruffudd, Prince of South Wales, had recovered Cardigan
from the Normans in 1165. A charter given by him, probably soon after that date, grants and confirms to Chertsev "the cell of Cardigan with all
its appurtenances." The priory, with its church of St. Mary of Cardigan, and the chapel of St. Peter in the castle, were already in existence at that
time, being expressly mentioned in the charter.

Some have claimed that an earlier priory existed at Cardigan before this daughter house of Chertsey, that it formed a cell to Gloucester abbey
and that it was transferred to Chertsey by Rhys ap Gruffudd. But the records show nothing more than that Gloucester formerly possessed a
church there, known as Llando or Holy Trinity, in the ordinary way in which monastic houses owned the revenues and advowson of so many
parish churches. Some time between 1115 and 1130 Gilbert de Clare gave Llanbadarn to Gloucester in order that they might erect a priory there,
and with it "the church of Cardigan." In Henry I's confirmation of the grant this is styled more exactly, "the church of Holy Trinity of Cardigan,"
and in a privilege of Pope Alexander III (1159-81) it appears as "the church of the Holy Trinity which is called Llando."

This seems to have been the original parish church of Cardigan, but there is no evidence for the assumption that it was a monastic priory. Lando
or Landov represents the Welsh Landou, i.e., Llandwyf or Llandwy, church of God; in the twelfth century it was natural to render this, "church
of the Holy Trinity," for that was the time when dedications under that form were becoming general. About 116O the possession of this church
was in dispute between Gloucester and Chertsey. Earl Roger de Clare decided that Gloucester should retain it, but ultimately Chertsey succeeded
in its claim, and it was attached to its priory of St. Mary at least from the time of the charter of the Lord Rhys. It has long ceased to exist and its
situation is uncertain, but it was probably somewhere near the well known as that of Holy Trinity, about three-quarters of a mile east of

Cardigan was always a very small priory and it probably never housed more than a few monks - when Leland wrote about 1536 there were only
two. The names of most of the priors are unknown, save for a few of the later ones; they were evidently all English monks sent from Chertsey to
fill the position. The priory appointed to St. Mary's, Cardigan (which was a parish church, though it was also the priory church), and served the
chapel of Tremaen and the Castle chapel; it also had an interest (together with Talley Abbey) in the benefice of Verwick. There are surprisingly
few references to the house during the four centuries of its existence, apart from some confirmations of the original charter; it figures of course
in the Taxatio of Pope Nicholas in 1291, but it appears in diocesan records only in connection with appointments to the parishes it possessed,
and when the prior was charged from time to time with the collection of tenths from a part of the diocese.

With the spoliation of the monasteries by Henry VIII Chertsey was forced to "surrender" its possessions to the king on July 6th, 1537, and
normally this would have sealed the fate of Cardigan too.

There was, however, a brief respite for the abbey and its priory. The Augustinian abbey of Bisham, Berks, had been precipitately given up to the
king as early as 1536 by its Prior, William Barlow, who was significantly made Bishop of St. Asaph, and later of St. Davids, that same vear. For
some reason Henry re-founded Bisham as a Benedictine Abbey on December 18th, 1537, and the abbot of Chertsey and his monks were
established there, the priory of Cardigan also being continued under the new house. But by the following year the unstable king had again
changed his mind, and both Bisham and Cardigan had to be "surrendered " anew on June 19th, 1538, by the last abbot, John Cowdrey. The end
came swiftly for Cardigan, for a week later an order was issued to remove the prior from office and to confiscate the priory and its belongings.
There was in the priory church a notable shrine of Our Lady which was clearly of some fame and importance, but it is known only from
proceedings with regard to it taken in 1538, when Thomas Hore was prior. The Williarn Barlow already mentioned was at this time bishop of St.
Davids. Generally described as "of unenviable notoriety," he was one of the most unprincipled and debased of the new Protestant bishops; "the
calamity of his see," he ruined the noble episcopal palace at St. Davids by removing the lead from its roof in order to sell it for his own
advantage. This practice he continued in his new diocese of Bath and Wells, to which he was later appointed, uncovering there "the goodly hall
covered with lead "and the ancient Chapel of Our Lady, "a place of great reverence and antiquity." He alienated much of the property belonging
to St. Davids, including the valuable manor of Lamphey, which he made over to the king, doubtless by previous arrangement.

Early in 1538 he was in his diocese, and on March 31st that year he addressed a long and obsequious letter to Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's
lay "vicar general," giving some account of his proceedings. In this we hear of the Cardigan shrine, and of his efforts to suppress some features
connected with it which he stigmatised as "superstitious."

He relates that he had visited St. Davids itself just before March 1st, where he had attempted to prohibit the celebration of St. David's Day at the
cathedral and to prevent the customary veneration of the Saint's relics on the occasion. But the canons and people had withstood him, and the
festival was observed with the usual solemnity, much to Barlow's chagrin. He afterwards, however, confiscated part of the relics, and servilely
asked Cromwell for instructions as to their future disposal.

A little earlier apparently, and probably before the end of February, he had gone to Haverfordwest, seemingly on Cromwell's orders, and there
had "done reformacion " with regard to "the taper of Haverforde West." Nothing more is known of this, but it may have been connected with a
shrine somewhat similar to that of Cardigan, possibly in the Dominican priory there. Barlow goes on to say to his patron, "But sythene I
chaunced upon another taper of moch greater credyte and of more shamefull detestacion called Our Ladyes taper of Cardigan which I have sente
here to your Lordship with convenyent instructyons of that develish delusyone."

He enclosed for Cromwell a document he had drawn up in which he set forth the "examinacion " to which he had subjected certain witnesses at
Cardigan. He dates his injunctions March 16th (1538). Our knowledge of the shrine, which was of great antiquity and a centre of pilgrimage for
the country around, rests on this relation, to which all other extant references evidently go back. Burnet refers to Our Ladv of Cardigan, and says
that it was the shrine which drew most pilgrims and offerings in those parts, but for the rest his short account is dependent on Barlow's report.
The prior of Cardigan at this time, the last of the series, was Thomas Hore, and he only, apart from the vicar of St. Mary's parish, was
interrogated by Barlow; he must therefore have been almost alone at the priory at this time. Barlow was bullying and hectoring in his methods,
and his great object was to represent anything he objected to as "superstitious" and a "develish delusyone," so the account we have is a distinctly
hostile and prejudiced one, expressly designed to bring the Shrine and its custodians into disrepute.

To come to the "examinacion." The shrine consisted of a figure of Our Lady with the Holy Child, an extinguished "taper" (i.e., candle) having
been held (at one time) in her hand. The prior was interrogated as to the story connected with the shrine, and he related the traditional legend
concerning it, which he had learnt on coming to Cardigan five years previously. As summarised by Barlow his account was as follows :

Item, that the image now situate in the church of Cardigane, whiche ys used for a greate pilgremage to this present daye, was
founde standinge upon the ryver of Tyve, beinge an arme of the see, and her sonne upon her lappe, and the same taper bernynge in her

Item, that the same ymage was caryed thens unto Christes Church of Cardigane, and the sayd ymage wold not tarry there, but was
found thre or fowre tymes in the place where now ys buyIded the church of our Lady, and the taper brunnynge in her hande, which
contynued styll burnynge the space of nyne yeres without wastynge, untill the tyme that one foresware hymselfe thereon, and then it
extincted and never burned after.

Item, that sence the ceasinge of burnynge of the sayd taper, it was enclosed and taken for a greate relique, and so worshipped and
kyssed of pylgremes, and used of men to sweare by in difficill and harde matters, whereof the advauntage admounted to greate sommes
of money in tymes passed, payenge yerely of the same xxti. nobles for a Pencion unto thabbot of Cheresey.

Barlow's concern at this time was with the " taper " or candle, rather than with the shrine itself. This candle had evidently long been removed
from the figure at the shrine, had been encased in a wooden covering, and was venerated as a relic. The prior had stated that he had never seen it
save at the nether end, "where it appered wood unto his judgemente." The taking of oaths upon it in great issues represented ordinary Welsh
practice, once it was regarded as a relic, and is in accord with the prominence given to swearing on relics in the various Welsh legal codes based
on the laws of Hywel Dda. In another part of the report there is a reference to "cloths, figured wax and shrouds" which were connected with the
devotion to the Shrine; the cloths and shrouds were articles brought into contact with the shrine or relic, while the figured wax probably refers to
wax tablets on which a representation of the shrine was impressed.

The only other person questioned by Barlow was "Syr Morgan Meredith, vicare of Our Lady churche there." He had been secular vicar of the
parish for twenty-one years, and his evidence manifestly confutes Barlow's assertions and suspicions as to deceit and fraud. He agreed with the
prior's relation of the legendary story to account for the origin of the shrine, but was able to explain from personal knowledge why the socket of
the candle was of wood. Thus he deposed:

Item, that prior John Frodshame tolde hym that because the people toke the waxe awaye, he put the tree beneth, that the people shulde
not dyminesh the substance of the taper.

This was within his own memory and therefore not more than twenty years before, so that any protection to the candle was given only very late
in its history. By that time probably most of the wax had been "diminuished," so that Barlow could refer to it contemptuously as "a pece of olde
rottene tymber," when he wished to denounce it as "abbominable idolatry and disceatfull jugglinge" on the part of the predecessors of the then
prior and vicar.

According to Barlow's letter, he took away the candle itself, or what remained of it, and sent it to Thomas Cromwell, who was gathering in more
important relics at this time from all parts of the kingdom. What happened to the shrine with its figure of Our Lady and Child does not appear.
But it could only have remained in the church at Cardigan for a few months longer at most, for in 1538 Cromwell ordered all the principal
images of Our Lady, "whereunto any common pilgrimage was used," to be sent to London for destruction, and in the autumn of that year Our
Lady of Cardigan doubtless suffered that fate, in common with Our Lady of Penrhys and other notable shrines which were pilgrimage centres.
Some features of the Cardigan story have their counterpart in legends concerning other figures of Our Lady, e.g., the removal of the image to the
site where it was to be permanently enshrined. But there does not seem to be an exact parallel to the burning and unconsumed candle. The
nearest is a curious devotion at Arras, Pas-de-Calais, France. The story told there recounts that in 1065 a candle (cereus) was dropped by the
Blessed Virgin (possibly from her image) from the topmost vault of the choir of the cathedral into the hands of two joculatores, or act Froude has
a characteristic passage with regard to it: "The story of Our Lady's Taper at Cardigan has a picturesque wildness, of which later ages may admire
the picturesque beauty, being relieved by three centuries of incredulity from the necessity of raising harsh alternatives of truth or falsehood."

Nevertheless, a frank examination of all the evidence, however the legend itself may be regarded, can lead only to an endorsement of the
judgement of Dr. Maynard Smith, when, after scrutinising the records, he wrote of Prior John Frodsham's action with regard to the venerated
candle: "In spite of Barlow's representing this as an imposture, there is no evidence of fraudulent intent." While as to the Welsh devotion to Our
Lady of Cardigan, and the pilgrimage in her honour, this was in complete accord with the traditional piety of the whole of Christendom towards
the beloved Mother of the Saviour.