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A Tale of a Welsh Tester

References in Colonel J. A. Lloyd's article on the early history of Court Henry, published in this volume, serve as reminders of interesting links between Carmarthenshire and Cotehele, a charming late medieval manor house near Calstock, a few miles east of Callington in Cornwall.

The story starts with Katherine, daughter of Sir John St. John of Bletso, who married Sir Griffith ap Rhys, K.G. of Newton, courtier and soldier, who was the son of the illustrious Sir Rhys ap Thomas. The son of this marriage was Sir Rhys ap Griffith, a studious and retiring character, who married Catherine, daughter of Thomas, the powerful second Duke of Norfolk; she was a more ambitious and forceful person than her husband, who was beheaded for treason at the age of 23 in 1531 and his lands confiscated by the Crown. The evidence for his treason was slight, but it was rumoured that Anne Boleyn, the King's Lady', hated him because he and his wife had spoken disparagingly of her; but for this circumstance Rhys might have been pardoned.

After the death of her husband, Sir Griffith ap Rhys, Katherine married, in 1532, Sir Piers Edgecumbe of Cotehele, whose father, Richard Edgecumbe, had been obliged to escape the vengeance of Richard III by fleeing to Brittany, where he joined Henry Tudor. Like Sir Rhys ap Thomas, Richard Edgecumbe was a close supporter of Henry Tudor at Bosworth, and after the battle he was knighted; later he became Comptroller of the Royal Household.

In the manor house of Cotehele, which stands on the steep west bank of the river Tamar, there is a notable bedhead, usually referred to as a Welsh tester, though nothing else of the bed or canopy survives. This bedhead is elaborately carved and bears the inscription: KYFFARWTH AIGWNA HARRY AP GR, which may be translated Harry ap Griffith, an expert, made this. The oak bedhead, of typical early sixteenth century Welsh craftsmanship, includes eight panels, six of a pictorial nature. Two of these, middle top row and middle bottom row, appear to have been fitted at a different period, as they are ill-fitting and set asymmetrically. Of these two panels, the upper one comprises the royal arms of the Tudors, but, unusually, the quartering is reversed, the English lions occupying the first and fourth quarters. This is a rare, but not unique, feature, as it was not until 1707 that the French fleurs-de-lis were placed in the second and third quarters. The supporters appear to be an antelope and a panther, which were those of Henry VI, above each of which is a Tudor rose. The lower of these two panels depicts an angel, in armour and carrying a raised sword, driving Adam and Eve (separated by a serpent) out of Eden.

Bedhead.thumb.jpg Surrounding these panels are carved hawking and hunting scenes, in which is depicted a Welsh gentleman. The falconers wear high crowned hats with plumes and the huntsmen are shown with longbow, spear and horn. Also shown are birds, stags, a fox and a hare, greyhounds, basset hounds, and a pelican in piety.

Also in the house are Welsh chairs, 'grotesque contrivances of inter-lacing struts and rails, carved with an infinity of knobs and rings, of which the origin is wrapped in mystery. Their triangular motif may be symbolic of the Trinity and, although these examples cannot date before Henry VIII's reign, they doubtless derive from a medieval pattern'.1 The triangular motif is a reference to the three cornered seat supported by three legs, the seat being provided with a tall back.

The carved bedhead, and probably the chairs, must have been taken to Cotehele by Katherine, widow of Sir Griffith ap Rhys, and it is tempting to think that they must therefore have come from Carmarthenshire, even Court Henry, perhaps.

E.V.J.
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