This weekend my husband and I took the kids to Tenby, Wales to see some seals and some historical sights, and it was a richly rewarding experience on all fronts.
As to be expected from a seafront village whose Anglicized name comes from the Welsh title Dinbych-y-pysgod, meaning “little fort of the fish”, there was much to be seen on the pelagic wildlife front. We took an boating excursion around Caldey Island and St Margaret’s Island and were delighted to see seals, cormorants, shags, and the seasonally appearing guillemots and razorbills and kittiwakes.
While grey seals (their scientici appallation is Halichoerus grypus, which means “hooked-nosed sea pig”; how awesome is that?), cormorants, and shags are common around the coast of Wales, the guillemots and razorbills and kittiwakes are rarer to spot because they are seasonal visitors. The birds only come in from the open ocean when they are nesting, so there are only a couple of months out of the year they are close to shore. Kittiwakes are fairly mundane small gulls, but I was enchanted by the guillemots and razorbills, which looked like bizarre flying penguins when in the air. In reality, guillemots and razorbills are both auks from the genera Uria, and unlike their now-extinct cousins the great auks, they are doing well.
St Mary’s Church was something to behold, y’all.
The 13th Century chancel has a ‘wagon’ roof and the panelled ceiling has 75 bosses carved in a variety of designs including foliage, grotesques, fishes, a mermaid, and a green man, as well as the figure of Jesus surrounded by the four Apostles … The tower is positioned to one side of the chancel and dates from the late 13th century. The first floor served as a chapel, and still has a stone altar and piscina in place … St. Thomas’ Chapel was added in the mid-15th Century, and the St. Nicholas Chapel was added c. 1485. The spire is also a 15th-century addition. Inside the church is a 15th-century font and a 15th-century bell
There were also astounding effigies, tombs, and monuments. One of my favorites was the tomb of Whites, a father and his son who both served as Mayors of Tenby during Henry Tudor’s lifetime. The father, Thomas White, hid the young Harri Tudur and Jasper Tudor from their Yorkist enemies after the Battle of Tewkesbury, giving Jasper and his allies time to organize an escape and smuggle them out of the country to Brittany. The cellar/tunnel where Thomas White was supposed to have hidden them is across the street from the church under a Boots pharmacy, and the staff there won’t take you down below regardless of HOW much you wine and plead with them!
There is another memorial connected to Henry VII in the church, which is fitting for a Tudor stronghold like Tenby; the tomb with an effigy of Margaret ap Rees, the wife of Thomas ap Rees of Scotsborough. Her husband was a descendant of Sir Rhys ap Thomas, one of Henry Tudor’s most ardent allies and the man often credited with killing Richard III on Bosworth field.
Margaret died in 1610 at age 30 due to complications during the birth of her 11th child. Her seven surviving children are carved beneath her, and a relief of her prayerful husband Thomas is in the above background.
I was also entranced, in a morbid sort of way, by the Tomb of the Ecclesiastic, a creepy rotting corpse on top. These cadaver tombs were popular in the late Middle Ages, and were meant to serve as a reminder of the fleeting nature of earthly life. These tombs were, “were made only for high-ranking nobles, usually royalty or bishops or abbots, because one had to be rich to afford to have one made, and powerful enough to be allotted space for one in a church.” From about 1370 to 1520, people were simply dying to have one of their very own. The tomb in St Mary’s is known as a transi, because it shows a decaying body rather than a skeleton. It is housed in a recess of the church wall with a crocketted canopy and finials” around it, and decorated with Gothic panels. The tomb chest is purported to be the resting place of a 15th century Bishop of Llandaff, John Hunden.
It was in St Mary’s Church that I discovered that Tenby could boast at least one other significant historical personage other than Jasper Tudor and his nephew Henry. Tenby was the birthplace of medieval mathematician Robert Recorde.
A true genius, Recorde graduated from Oxford with training in mathematics and medicine, after which he moved to London and served a court physician to both King Edward VI and Queen Mary, as well as being appointed the comptroller of the Royal Mint and “Comptroller of Mines and Monies” in Ireland. His most famous work was the 1557 treatise The Whetstone of Witte, in which he “invented the “equals” sign (=) and also introduced the pre-existing “plus” sign (+) to English speakers … [and] is credited with introducing algebra into England”. Sadly, not long after he published his groundbreaking book he was successfully sued for defamation by one of his jealous political enemies, which plunged him into crushing debt. Recorde was thrown into the King’s Bench Prison and died in a squalid cell sometime in the spring of 1558.
I found an additional, unsung, genius from Tenby when I went to the Tudor Merchant’s House later that afternoon.
The person who designed the house, either a member of the family or the builder, came up with a “flushing” toilet system on all three levels of the house a good century before it was officially reinvented in England. A nearby stream was diverted under the tower where the toilets were located, and it rinsed anything that went into the jakes away to the sea, far from the house. The toilet holes were staggered so that any by-products being emitted fell directly into the stream below, guaranteeing that the toilet on the top floor “flushed” as efficiently as the loo on the ground floor. There were even windows to provide light and fresh air into the small rooms.
Moreover, in a time when stone chimneys were still cutting-edge technology in the UK, this house no only had a huge and efficient chimney serving fireplaces on all three floors, it used the draw from the fire to disperse heat while simultaneously pulling the scents from the adjacent garderobe down and out.
That kind of inventiveness is nothing short of brilliant. Whoever came up with (and implemented!) the technologies in the house was a self-taught, Roman-level engineering master and that sort of intelligence is as rare as it is impressive.
The house was also packed with replicas of common goods from the Tudor era, including 15th century dress up clothes for the kids, so it was both entertaining and interactive.
Tenby is the ideal place to visit if you are at all interested in Tudor history, coastal fauna, panoramic views, and fun!
I liked Tenby so much that I became determined to have Mary Crawford visit the area in my next novel. Happily, by the early Regency period Tenby had already become a hotspot for Georgian beach tourism and sea-bathing; it will fit right in!