Missed Opportunities, Prior to 1830#

Our story to date has tracked back through the sources originally identified from Mr. Matthew Moggridge’s observations to the Cambrian Archaeological Society in 1852, as well as the reports and queries that arose directly from that event.

These references include Hone’s Year Book, 1831-32, the second edition of Leland’s Collectanea, edited by Thomas Hearne and published in 1774, and various edition’s of Brand’s Observations on the popular antiquities as edited by Henry Ellis in a version dating back to 1813. All these sources draw ultimately on John Aubrey’s manuscript, as well, perhaps as conversation with him, that can be found as part of the Lansdowne manuscripts held by the British Library.

In this chapter, we’ll see whether there were any other popular, or at least, published sources that Moggridge might have overlooked, or been unaware of, that were published prior to his talk in September, 1852.

Pennant’s Tours in Wales, 1783#

The first item worthy of note is part 2 of A Tour in Wales by Thomas Pennant, first published in 1783 but recalling a tour from several years previously. (See also: part 1 and A Tour in Scotland) The “Advertisement” at the front of the book is signed off by Downing on March 1st, 1781.

On page 338, we find the following reference to a funeral custom involving a food offering, drink and a payment made to a poor visitor:

PREVIOUS to a funeral, it was customary, when the corpse was brought out of the house and laid upon the bier, for the next of kin, be it widow, mother, sister, or daughter (for it must be a female) to give, over the coffin, a quantity of white loaves, in a great dish, and sometimes a cheese, with a piece of money stuck in it, to certain poor persons. After that they present, in the same manner, a cup of drink, and require the person to drink a little of it immediately. When that is done, all present kneel down; and the minister, if present, says the Lord’s Prayer: after which, they proceed with the corpse; and at every cross-way, between the house and the church, they lay down the bier, kneel, and again repeat the Lord’s Prayer; and do the same when they first enter the church-yard. It is also customary, in many places, to sing psalms on the way; by which the stillness of rural life is often broken into, in a manner finely productive of religious reflections.

This appears to be the offering of a dole, for there is no implication of the poor persons taking the sins of the deceased unto themselves.

On the previous page, page 337, is another custom that is worthy of remark:

THE well of St. Aelian, a parish not far from Llandrillo in Caernarvonshire, has been in great repute for the cures of all diseases, by means of the intercession of the saint; who was first invoked by earnest prayers in the neighboring church. He was also applied to on less worthy occasions, and made the instrument of discovering thieves, and of recovering stolen goods. Some repair to him to imprecate their neighbors, and to request the saint to afflict with sudden death, or with some great misfortune, any persons who may have offended them. The belief in this is still strong; for three years have not elapsed since I was threatened by a fellow (who imagined I had injured him) with the vengeance of St. Aelian, and a journey to his well to curse me with effect.

In this case, it seems that prayers at to a holy well associated with St Aelian can be used to call forth a curse on one who has wronged the person uttering the imprecation. It’s not clear what the process for “discovering thieves” is, but I am intrigued to find out.

John Evans’ A tour through part of North Wales in the year 1798, 1800#

John Evans’ A tour through part of North Wales in the year 1798, published in 1800, collates a series of letters describing his travels of a couple of years previoulsy. The following is an excerpt from letter XIII, on pp 362-5, in which various funeral customs are described:

Previous to a funeral it is usual for the friends of the deceased to meet in the apartment where the corpse is placed ; some of them, generally the female part, kneel round it, and weeping bitterly, lament and bewail the loss of their departed friend. When it is brought to the door, one of the relations gives bread and cheese and beer over the coffin to some poor persons of the same sex, and nearly of the same age with the dead, for collecting herbs and flowers to put into the coffin with the body ; some-times a loaf, with a piece of money stuck in it, is added. This done, all present kneel down, and the minister, if present, repeats the Lord’s Prayer. At every cross-way they stop, and the same ceremony is repeated, till they arrive at the church. Frequently the intervals are filled up by singing of psalms and hymns, which amidst the stillness of rural life, and the echo from the hills, produces a melancholy effect ; and adds to the sombre solemnity of the occasion.

The author notes that the tradition resembles that of a Scottish tradition:

A similar custom prevails in the Highlands, which they term Coranich. The bier is always carried by the next of kin, and this is considered as the highest mark of piety which can be paid to the departed relative. This, as we learn from Valerius Max. L. 7 , 1 , [Metellus, the conqueror of Macedon, was borne to the funeral pile by his four sons. As a mark of respect, those who had deserved well of ihe commonwealth were carried by the Magistrates or Senators ; while persons hated by the people were carried by Vespillones or Sandapillones/kirelings for the purpose. To this custom Horace alludes "Cadaver : Unctum oleo largo, midis humeris tulit hares." Lib. 2, S. 5. "Augustis ejecta cadavera cellis, Conservus vili portando locubat in area." Lib. i, S. 8. ] was a usage among the Romans. If it happen in a morning or evening, the service is read accordingly.

A monetary offering made to a presiding minister is also described:

After the general thanksgiving, the minister goes to the communion-table, where he reads the two prayers which are usually, in other places, read at the grave; and then concludes with the prayer of St. Chrysostom and the Valete Grace. This done, he remains at the table till the nearest relation of the deceased comes up and deposits an Obituary Offering. If it be a person of consequence, the sum is a guinea or more ; if a farmer or tradesman, a crown; if a poor man, six-pence : the next of kin then follow the example, offering sometimes as much, and sometimes less than the first : the rest of the congregation, who intend to offer silver, follow, when a solemn pause ensues ; and the rest of the congregation offer pence : but pence are never offered at genteel funerals. The offerings on these occasions frequently amount to eight or ten pounds.[Those of Caernarvon amount to little short of one hundred pounds per annum.] This is certainly a relict of Popery, and was no doubt formerly intended as an acknowledgement to the priest for praying for the welfare of the departed soul ; as a composition for a short residence in purgatory; or perhaps for any failure in the payment of tythes and oblations, and is termed Arian Rhiew. Though still continued, it is now only considered as a small tribute of esteem to the memory of the deceased, and as a mark of attention to the resident clergy.

Bingley’s North Wales, 1804#

Next up comes William Bingley’s North Wales; including its scenery, antiquities, customs, and some sketches of its natural history, delineated from two excursions through all the interesting parts of that country, during the summers of 1798 and 1801, and published, in two volumes, in 1804.

In the second volume, p279, as part of a section on the The Manners and Customs of the Welsh, Bingley also picks up on the ritual identified by Pennant of a wronged person calling on St Aeilian to curse someone who has wronged them:

A strange custom prevails in some obscure parts of North Wales, which, however, the clergy have now almost abolished. This is termed the “offering of an enemy.” When a person supposes himself highly injured by any one, he repairs to some church dedicated to a celebrated saint, or one who is believed to have great power over the affairs of men ; here kneeling on his bare knees before the altar, and offering a piece of money to the saint, he utters the most virulent and dreadful imprecations, calling down curses and misfortunes on the offender and his family even for generations to come. Sometimes the offended persons repair for the same purpose to some sacred well, dedicated to a saint. Mr. Pennant was threatened by a man, who fancied he had been injured by him, “with the vengeance of St. Elian, and a journey to his well, to curse him with effect.” [Tour in Wales, ii. 337.]

We note that Pennant’s Tour in Wales is cited, but it is not clear from where the detail of the additional information, such as the phrase the “offering of the enemy”, the kneeling ritual, and the monetary payment are sourced from.

On the previous page, a reference is made to a seemingly deep-seated belief that does not bear directly on the tradition of the “sin eater” as we have this far seen it described, but that does often appear in descriptions of Welsh folklore relating to funerals and death, the corpse candle:

It is an opinion very prevalent within the diocese of St. David’s in Pembrokeshire, that a short time previous to the death of a person, a light is some-times seen to proceed from the house, and even from the bed, and to pursue its way to the church where the body is to be interred, precisely in the same track that the funeral will afterwards follow. This light is call canwyll corph, or “the corpse candle.”

A little further on, on p. 285-6, we see some more ingredients that resemble the sin-eater tradition, almost:

A custom prevails in this country of each individual of the congregation making some offering in money on these occasions, which, if done in the church, is paid as a mark of respect to the clergyman. This custom, which is at present confined to North Wales, has doubtless been retained from the Romish religion, where the money was intended as a recompence to the priests for their trouble in singing mass for the soul of the deceased. In some cases, where the clergyman is not respected by his parishioners, the offerings are made on the coffin at the door of the house where the deceased resided, and are distributed amongst the poor relatives.

The tradition is associated with North Wales, and involves a payment supposedly made to a priest recalling payments made to “Romish” priests for services rendered in saying mass for a departed soul. However, where the disliked, the offering may be given to the poor, although again there seems to be no expectation of them taken the sins of the departed upon themselves.

On the following pages, p287-8, we hear of another North Walian tradition:

It is usual in several parts of North Wales, for the nearest female relation to the deceased, be she widow, mother, sister, or daughter, to pay some poor person, of the same sex, and nearly of the same age with the deceased, for procuring slips of yew, box, and other evergreens, to strew over and ornament the grave for some weeks after interment ; and in some instances for weeding and adorning it, on the eves of Easter, Whitsuntide, and the other great festivals, for a year or two afterwards. This gift is called Diodlys, and it is made on a plate at the door of the house, where at the same time the body is standing on a bier.

So here we have a payment to a poor person for a service rendered in terms of paying respects to the grave for the week following an interment. It is not clear from this fragment what the role played by the offerings — yew, box, or other evergreens – actually is.

The custom identified by Pennant then makes an appearance:

It had its name from the custom, which is now discontinued, of the female relative giving to the person a piece of cheese with the money stuck in it, some white bread, and afterwards a cup of ale. — When this previous ceremony is over, the clergyman, or, in his absence, the parish clerk, repeats the Lord’s prayer ; after which they proceed with the body to the church. Four of the next of kin take the bier upon their shoulders ; a custom which is considered as expressive of the highest mark that even filial piety can pay to the deceased. If the distance from the house to the church be considerable, they are relieved by some of the congregation ; but they always take it again before they arrive at the church. — I have been informed that in some parts of the country it is usual to set the bier down at every cross-way, and again when they enter the church-yard, and at each of these places to repeat the Lord’s prayer.

What we should take away from this, perhaps, is the word Diodlys as somehow referencing or describing elements of this tradition; and the apparent confusion over whether this tradition is to be found in North or South Wales.

Jorevin’s “Description of England and Ireland” in The Antiquarian Repertory, 1775#

In Volume II of a “new edition” of The Antiquarian repertory : a miscellaneous assemblage of topography, history, biography, customs, and manners ; intended to illustrate and preserve several valuable remains of old times by Francis Grose and Thomas Astle, published in 1775, the authors quote widely from an account Monsieur Jorevin de Rocheford’s 17th century travels in England, Ireland and Scotland.

On p100-102, Jorevin describes his travels through Shrewsbury, which includes an account of a funeral there. The account opens with a description of his initial thoughts on entering Shrewsbury:


The Severn is navigable to Schrosbery, I passed it over a large stone bridge, at the entrance there is a suburb, the church of which appears to me to have formerly belonged to some fine abbey. I ascended from thence to the town, which is mounted on the platform of a rock, scarped on almost every side, which renders its situation naturally strong; besides which, the wall that encloses it made it difficult to be scaled ; the environs consist of large woods and high mountains, nevertheless this town is filled with people and rich shop-keepers, who dwell in two large streets, one leading to the market, place, and the other turning from this place towards the left. Near which are the Great Church, the Exchange, and Town-hall, they are in a street called Aystrit [High Street], which is so broad that it seems a long market-place, terminating at one of the ends of the town, where stands the Castle and commands it, being more elevated, and by so much the stronger as it is environed on one side by broad ditches, closed with good walls, and on the other there is no approach to it, on account of the steepness of the rock, but it has been ruined by the late wars, in so much that excepting a few towers and some lodgings within, I see nothing remarkable.

The account then describes a funeral ceremony he encountered; there is no particular mention of the pre-funereal rite, such as the sin-eating ceremony, although there does appear to be a tradition of placing jug of wine on the coffin from which everyone in attendance can drink the health of the deceased:

I met nothing more pleasing to me than the funeral ceremonies at the interment of a My Lord, which mine host procured me the fight of. The relations and friends being assembled in the house of the defunct, the minister advanced into the middle of the chamber, where, before the company, he made a funeral oration, representing the great actions of the deceased, his virtues, his qualities, his titles of nobility, and those of the whole family, so that nothing more could be said towards consoling every one of the company for the great loss they had sustained in this man, and principally the relations who were seated round the dead body, and whom he assured that he was gone to heaven, the seat of all sorts of happiness, whereas the world that he had just left was replete with misery. It is to be remarked, that during this oration there stood upon the coffin a large pot of wine, out of which every one drank to the health of the deceased, hoping that he might surmount the difficulties he had to encounter in his road to Paradise, where, by the mercy of God, he was about to enter, on which mercy they founded all their hope, without considering their evil life, their wicked religion, and that God is just.

The account then describes the funeral procession and interment:

This being finished, six men took up the corps and carried it on their shoulders to the church ; it was covered with a large cloth, which the four nearest relations held each by a corner with one hand, and in the other carried a bough; the other relations and friends had in one hand a flambeau, and in the other a bough, marching thus through the street, without singing, or saying any prayer, till they came to the church, where having placed the body on tressels and taken off the cloth from the coffin, which is ordinarily made of fine walnut-tree, handsomely worked and ornamented with iron bandages, chafed in the manner of a buffet. The minister then ascended his pulpit, and every one being seated round about the coffin, which is placed in a kind of parade in the middle of the church, he read a portion of the Holy Scripture concerning the resurrection of the dead, and afterwards sang some psalms, to which all the company answered. After this he descended, having his bough in his hand like the rest of the congregation ; this he threw on the dead body when it was put into the grave, as did all the relations, extinguishing their flambeaus in the earth with which the corps was to be covered. This finished, every one retired to his home without farther ceremony, and I departed from Schrosbury for Chester, and having passed over a large desart plain, I reached Addar, Morton, and a Castle. The country here is barren ; passed a river near a windmill ; from thence to Pries and Vitechurch on a river. Here is a manufactory of woollen cloth. The road lies afterwards over some mountains, where are several good inns all alone ; Empost is one. Came to Anlai, and some small woods, having the river on the right, which runs to Chester.

Fosbroke’s Ariconensia / Archaeological sketches of Ross and Archenfield, 1821#

If there is further evidence or anecdotes surrounding the existence of the sin-eater on the “Rosse highway”, then an 1821 work by Thomas Dudley Fosbroke entitled Ariconensia, or, Archaeological sketches of Ross and Archenfield, “illustrative of the campaigns of Caractacus, the station Ariconium, &c, with other matters never before published”, is perhaps a good place to look, particularly if it includes “other matters never before published”.

Unfortunately, there is no new information, just a restatement of Aubrey’s comments from the Lansdowne manuscripts via Brand’s Popular Antiquities.

The fragment regarding sin-eating also appears on pp.222-3 of The Gentleman’s Magazine 1822-03: Vol 92, in a column on Popular Customs and Superstitions in Herefordshire. [From Mr. Fosbroke’s “Ariconensia.”], p220-223, continued from earlier in that volume.

Although probably relevant to our story, there is also mention, again via Popular Antiquities, of a custom involving the casting of half-eater bread in the path of wedding party by a “deserted female”:

Formerly flowers were strewed before young couples, in their way to church. The author once saw a malicious caricature of this custom. Nosegays of rue enclosing a piece of half-eaten bread and butter were dropt in the church-path and porch by a deserted female, in order to denote an unhappy wedding. Stephens, in his plaine Country Bridegroom, p. 353, says “He shews neere affinity betwixt Marriage and Hanging ; and to that purpose, he provides a great Nosegay, and shakes hands with every one he meets, as if he were now preparing for a condemned man’s voyage. [Popular Antiq. ii. 48]

In the hands of a storyteller, however, we might be able to weave a story that develops the notion of “half-eaten” bread, perhaps suggesting that not even a sin-eater would absolve the groom of the sin of spurning a woman he was perhaps previously betrothed to!