Tuesday, October 28, 2008

In the steps of St Tatheus of Caerwent - From a previous post and podcast

A similar picture of St Margaret of Antioch, such as this one from the Saxon Church at Hailes may once have graced St Tatheus Church at Caerwent according to scholarship.In addition , St Gwynlliw(Woolos)the Virgin daughter St MAches martyred by Saxons was also buried at Caerwent. This stained glass is found in the Church at Llanvaches off the A4 from the Coldra to Chepstow.


Some time ago, I created a podcast and blog concerning the Story of St Tatheus of Caerwent. The Story in the Lives of the British Saints is an interesting one, showing the founding of a great School of learning and monastery by the Irish monk Tatheus and his band of followers. Upon landing near Portskewett in South Monmouthshire, their holiness and learning and piety so impressed the local chieftain, that he gave up his royal palace, so seat of noble learning could be founded at the Roman City of Caerwent, one of the richest of cities and Tatheus influence was seen in many places. His friendship with Dyfrig or Dubricius, the conversion of the robber saint Woolos or Gwynlliw and the miracles he wrought with young Cadoc, Gwynlliw’s son who under his tutelage became a great saint. His sister Maches, herself martyred by robbers who murdered her as she tried to defend her animals, was commemorated in the Church at Llanfaches but she herself was also buried at Caerwent Church.

Having found that the Church was open, I went one Friday early in the morning as people were tending the graves.I knew that during Mediaeval times, there had been a shrine to St Margaret of Antioch and I was also on the trail to find if anything of that Chapel, which had been written about, had survived. This was mentioned in a source close to the Lives of the Cambro British Saints.
I first went through the lych gate, recently renovated and the trees were just showing their autumn colours. At a first glance you saw the gothic crenellated tower, but also there was a delioghtful 15th century porch, possibly built by the Cistercian monks of Tintern, since it was they who were accommodated above it when the came to sing Mass at Caerwent. This tells us, at least, there were no monastic buildings extant from the Celtic times of St Tathan, although there had been Christian worship here since early British Times.The present Church was erected in the thirteenth century and the builders were lucky to have a good supply of stone ready in the old town In the 15th century the church was enlarged and restored . The Victorians, the intrepid church restorers also had a hand in restoring the fabric of this beautiful church.

The Tower

I could only peep in here but there are finely carved gargoyles to frighten away evil spirits. A fire in 1860 destroyed two bells and the present bell was cast from fragments in 1861. June 1974, the church was struck by lightning and much damage done to tower and roof and the whole was repaired at a huge cost.

Side Chapels which have disappeared

St Margaret o Antioch from Church at Hailes Abbey (wall painting)
Originally two arches led to side chapels. These side chapels may have been the ones dedicated to St Maches and St Margaret of Antioch, a patron saing of many European saints.These two arches were blocked up during the ‘Reformation’ and no doubt the relics, artwork and votive areas were destroyed by the powers that be.There were opened up again, but have become a vestry and room for the organ. A new south Aisle was built later.
St Maches giving alms

Roman Artefacts

There are many Roman artefacts in the church , a convenient place to keep some of the large number of fines, an ‘altar’ to the Deity Mars

To the deity Mars
Ocelus Aelius Augustinus
Op tio (a junior officer)
Paid his vow willingly and duty.

and also a commemoration of another illustrious Roman. Some decorative building pieces have also been incorporated to the walls of the West Wall of the nave.There is also a pedestal of a statue put up by the local Silure tribe to honour the governor of Britannia (219-220)

To Claudius Paulinus
Legate of the II Augustan Legion
Proconsul of Gallia
Norbon eis is
Imperial pro praetorian Legate at Gallia Lugdenensis.
Set up by decree of the tribal senate by the
Commonwealth of the Tribe of the Silures.

The stone was found in the centre of the village where the modern war memorial now stands.


A stone altar has replaced the wooden table which took the place of the original altar, probably containing a relic of St Margaret of Antioch, a holy virgin of the Eastern Church torn apart by wild beasts rather than accept marriage to a pagan. The new altar appeared in 1965 and this rests on sandstone panels. The centre has the ancient Chi Rho placed on it, representing the symbol found under a jug in the nearby Roman town. The new altar was cut in one piece and needed eight men to carry it and place it in position.

The wrought iron altar rails,altar and altar candlesticks as well as the hanging cross were all installed at the same time. The Pulpit was of Puritan origin.

Also a Roman cinerary urn has been placed in a niche of the church. An old font from the church at Dinham has also been placed in the church.The font was discovered being used as a pump trough in a farmyard.

The church Contains many Roman artefacts as well as some from early British times as well as Mediaeval times, such as the broken head of a fifteenth century wayside cross.

Celtic Cross

The two broken piece sof this cross possibly pre Norman dating to 950.

St Tathan’s Memorial

This is a large stone in the pavement of the South Aisle and beneath are interred the remains of St Tathan .


The Translation from the Latin reads:

‘Here lie reverently re-buried and enclosed in their original coffin, bones found in the orchard of the vicar of this parish within the land upon which about AD 560 Saint Tatheus, under the benefaction of King Caradoc founded a church and college in honour of the Holy Trinity, in which church it is known that he and St Maches the virgin were buried and so it is possible that these bones are the remains of that holy man. In Memory of which ths stone was placed in AD1912.’

Bishop’s Stone

I walked over to the South Wall again where I saw the carving of a huge cross, and this was a large stone coffin lid. Little is known about it but it is still part of the old church at Dinham.

Chancel and Sanctuary

This is long and gracefull but in 1851 the arch needed repars.At the east end were two windows which had two elegant lancet windows typical of 13th century Gothic style. Windows of the North Wall are 15th century.

Original Entrance to the Nave

At the West end of the nave there is a very old tombstone with old Catholic markings upon it, and this was probably the original entrance, with the stone meaning to keep away evil spirits. There are holes for the fixing of a door in the floor (now covered by a carpet)

Strange Customs of Old Wales-The 'Sin Eater'

A past Anglican Vicar of Caerwent has written about ‘sin eating; in a lecture of 1933.This was a funeral custom of Glamorgan and Monmouthshire, which survived in a parish in the neighbourhood of Chepstow until the mid 19th century. The idea was that the person who had just died arrived at the gates of heaven in a sin free state to be judged. This was achieved by hiring a ‘sin eater’.

A plate was put on top of the coffin and salt spread on it in the shape of a cross.. The sin eater would cut an apple or orange in four parts, placing on on each arm of the salt cross. After delivering some sort of incantation , he ate the four pieces of fruit , thereby taking over the sins of the deceased. The ‘sin eater’ would then be paid his fee –two shillings and sixpence , and being full of sin made himself scarce before the burial.

This old custom seems to be a hang over from confession and the viaticum given before death for Catholic believers. Few can imagine the terror in early ‘reformation’ times of going to meet God without absolution, and this custom seems to have been a way of dealing with this fear, though why it survived in Caerwent for so long is not known.


Another vicar wrote that when a young couple left after the marriage, the ground was strewn with herbs, dandelion, burdock and carious grasses, parley, thyme etc in anticipation of the fruitfulness of their relationship. The compiler of the excellent guide book mentions this may have been universal and the origin of our confetti custom/ Incidentally it may have been moreenvironmentally friendly!

The Porch

Is said to be 15th century and contained some accommodation for the monks of Tintern who came to say Mass here.The roof timbers are probably original and uncovered when the plaster was removed at the last restoration.On the East wall you can still see the staircase which led upstairs to the ‘attic room; or Parvese )Porch Gallery. There is a niche, probably carrying a statue of Our Lady or holy saint-like Michael.There are two stone seats and two damaged holy water stoups, one outside and one inside the nave. These were for blessing oneself and in Catholic practice, reminds the worshipper of their Baptism. This signing of the cross on the body of the worshipped was carried out in blessing, entering and leaving the holy ground of the church. Puritans always tried to remove them, but they have persisted almost everywhere there is an ancient church.

The Churchyard also contains an ancient Elizabethan yew tree as she decreed so that the army would always have wood for longbows.

The Excellent Guide book revised by Reverend Lawrence Dudley, (the original author the Anglican archeacn of Newport, Revd J.Barrie Evans, a former vicar )can be obtained from the church.

Mediaeval Shrine of St Margaret of Antioch

I was a little disappointed that the important mediaeval shrine of St Margaret was not mentioned anywhere, nor a commemoration of St Maches, but was relieved that through the turbulent church wrecking time of the Puritans and iconoclasts,that as much has been lovingly restored and looked after, so that it remains the centre of the village worship and I saw that, though the choir stalls are removed and modern chairs put in and carpets that the parish is an active one, even putting on its own Festival of Light at the eve of All Hallows complete with fun, apple bobbing and dressing up.

Various people working around the churchyard (which is still circular in the style of the old Llan enclosure St Tatheus would have known) waved hello. All around you could see the mountains of South Gwent and distant farms. It has also been said this was originally the monastic enclosure and would not have been that of the laity’s burial place.

Finally, let us look at the former Abbots of Caerwent:

500 Abbot Machutus )known French as St Malo, Bishop of Aleth and Brittany, a native of Caerwent. Died 541

535 St Tathan-St Tatheus

940 Goronwy ap Gwrvod Abbot of Caerwent witness of a deed executed by Peter, Bishop of Llandaff.

Early Priests of Caerwent

After the Conquest it seems to have ceased being a monastery, possibly the monks had suffered from Harold’s sacking of Southern Gwent just before the Conquests. Just as St Woolos seems to have become attached to St Peter’sGloucester, St Tatheus Monastery seems to have been rebuilt as a parish church for the area being served by priests, probably served from the Benedictines of Chepstow or later from the Cistercians of Tintern.There may also have been some secular priests at times, and it is almost certain, that clergy from the nearby monasteries said the masses while the Rectors undertook ecclesiastic duties connected with their office.Many of these former monasteries had become manorial churches, such as St Brides Netherwent, for example.

Early Priests

1070 Eidav –a Welsh name, possibly a former
1150 Ieuan ap Run
1270 Priest named in dispute about housbote in Wentwood.
1307 Thomas de Hamme
1328 John de Crockford,Rector, Canon and
Prebendary of Romsey
1347 Roger de Milford DCL Rector
1501 Sir Richard Richards Capillaries de

Roman Finds-Stones and Urn in the niche in the wall


Lesley Wood said...

Hi Mary -- very interested to find your blog today...when looking for information on St Tathan (very hard to come by!!) My great-grandfather, James George Wood, was an antiquarian and was involved in the finding of the bones and their "translation" to their new grave, back in 1911/12. He wrote a paper about it but, so far, I have not been able to find a copy. He was quite wealthy and liked to "mark things" so people would understand the significance later...and I have no doubt he was behind the stone and inscription you've written about here. He was also a very cautious researcher and I suspect he had good reason for deciding there was a reasonable chance the bones were St Tathan's.
I enjoyed reading about this wonderful church and also finding out a bit more about St. Tatlan. Lesley Wood, Canada

Mary in Monmouth said...

Hello Lesley! Great to 'meet' you. If you send me your email address, via maryinmonmouth@googlemail.com, I can send you a paper in which your great grandfather is mentioned. In fact James George Wood wrote the article 'St Tathan, the Patron Saint of Caerwent written on the ocasion of the translation of his Supposed Remains'(Newport 1912)pp16. The copy is in Newport Reference Library and if you telephone them they can probably photocopy it for a small amount.
i can scan the article I have reviewing this in the Monmouthshire Antiquary and send it to you, if you email me,soon I have put the article on one side....
Kind Regards
Actually as a Catholic, St Tatheus is a living saint...which is great to know.
His life is told in 'The Lives of the Cambro British Saints' by Kessinger publishing written by REES. You can get it on amazon!