A message from Father Nick 69
The pulpit, St Bridget’s Church, Skenfrith
The ties that bind
Skenfrith is a village which seems to have grown organically from the earth. Its castle, originally whitewashed, defended a river jetty, and the internet carries video-reconstruction scenes of its mediaeval daily life. But the village’s most evocative building is an ancient church dedicated to St Bridget. Like every church, this one is unique to the place where it stands. And like every church it also makes much bigger connections.
We can find those connections embodied in three women. One is St Bridget herself. This is not St Bridget of Sweden, patron of Europe, but St Bridget of Kildare, an Irish saint of the later 5th century who founded her own religious community. (There are no less than eighteen churches and chapels dedicated to Bridget in Wales – which shows us once again that in the age of St Patrick and St David there was great closeness between Celtic cousins.)
This early stratum of tradition was included in the church that would be built here (seemingly dating from 1207 and extended in the 14th and 16th centuries).
Of course, the Reformation brought changes. Reminders of that time are to be found in the late 14th century Skenfrith Cope, once neglected but now fully restored, and in the fine “chest tomb” of the Catholic John Morgan (d 1557), last Governor of the Three Castles and Steward of the Duchy of Lancaster.
St Bridget’s is a beautiful church, yet one small detail can easily be missed. In a sequence of carved symbols below the East Window we find the acorns of St Bridget, the Lancastrian and Tudor roses, and the fleur de lis of the Princes of Gwent. But we also come across a pomegranate from the royal arms of Spain. This probably came with the Spanish princess who married John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, but it is also associated with Catherine of Aragon.
The pomegranate is a Christian sign of Resurrection. It was also an ancient symbol of fertility (sadly and ironically for Catherine). Even more poignantly, it connected her with her family home in Granada, the last Moorish stronghold in Spain (the very name Granada relates to pomegranates). Her parents Ferdinand and Isabela had conquered the city at the beginning of 1492, a momentous year of very mixed blessings.
Columbus of course was in their retinue, and it was here that they promised him their patronage. Jews were almost immediately expelled from Spain and before long Muslims too were forced to convert or leave. But Ferdinand and Isabela loved the Alhambra, and it was very much a home to Catherine. Even today people leave pomegranates at her tomb.
On Frances David’s grave, there are no pomegranates, only a few gold-painted pebbles. She was a much-loved parishioner of Monmouth (inherited by us from Broad Oak) who lived yards away from Skenfrith church and is now buried just outside it. Frances was fascinated by history and she came with us on our parish pilgrimage to Granada. But we remember her most of all for her universal love for people: her twinning schemes in Uganda, her work for overseas development, her involvement in local politics, and her passionate belief that the Gospel must make a difference in our lives. The inscription on her grave outside St Bridget’s church reads simply:
Frances Ann David
She wanted a just world.