Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Dreamy Llanrothal, Templar Connections, and a Ghost Story from Penal times

Information taking from Joan Fleming Yates' super book The River Running By'IBSN 1 905037058 published by IMPORESSIONS OF MMONMOUTH LIMITED. Also other information from
The Churches Conservation Trust
1 West Smithfield,
London EC1A 9EE 020 72130660 email Registered Charity.

The Church of John the Baptist at Llanrothal was surrounded by a mediaeval village until the time of the Great Plague or Black Death (1348-49) and archeologists have found evidence to prove it. A road runs nearby and a mill stood by the river, but now all has disappeared. Did the Death kill everyone in the village, or did the survivors make for nearby towns where their services could be rewarded with good money. We may never know. Like the Monmouthshire villages of Trellech and St Brides Netherwent-they are no mmore and the remains of their houses lie under the fields.+

The parish of Llanrothal was to the south of the realm of St Dubricius or Dyfrig, which was called Ergyng or Archenfield.The River Monnow is a boundary and lies nexts to the parishes of Welsh Newton and Garway, the Templar Church. Ergyng was a separate kingdom, but eventually joined with Monmouthshire or Gwent and it was here Dyfrig started his building of monasteries, which he did all his life. I have posted about Dyfrig before in the 2006 archives (see Left hand side near the bottom of the page) Dyfrig was a major figure of the church in sixth century Wales, building more monasteries at Hentland and Moccas. Was this one of his early mmonasteries? It was certainly his territory, but nothing remains of the early structure, although we know it was a Welsh monastery. Monks would have made a clearing, prayed and fasted over the ground for forty days and nights, banished evil spirits with incense, then divided heaven from earth by means of an encircling wall, long since robbed. This monastery would have been founded in these times by the Welsh Monk Rhyddol (pronounced ru (as in ‘under’)thawl’.The title ‘Llan’ draws us back to Celtic monasteries and clearly the saint is still remembered in the name of the village, if not the Church.


The ‘Liber Landavensis’ or ‘Book of Llandaff’ names Llanridol amongst the Ergyng Churches subject to the See of Llandaff under Bishop Herwald between 1056-1104-precisely the time of the Norman Conquest.The Liber Landavensis goes back to the very beginning of the sixth century and who was its first archbishop?St Dubricius of Ergyng, succeeded by the great St Teilo and his nephew Euddogwy (Oudocceus) It is likely oit remained a monastery or even Hermitage right up to the time of the Normans, who rationalised the Celtic Churches, endowing them with Augustinian charisms of Nature and good works. Later the Celtic style of Catholicism was taken right into the Cistercian way of Christ. Deep prayer and contemplation, Office of the Hours, regular confession.The Book describes the church as situated on the banks of the River Mynwy, 4 miles North West of Mmonmouth.Little was known of St Rhyddol himself, and it seems he had a hermitage in the area district during the time of the Holy David. In the 1291 ‘Taxatio’ off Pope Nicholas valued the Church at £3.6.8d-quite a good amount for such a small church, which seems, however, very spacious. Whether it first became a stone church and then rededicated or whether it was built under Herewald after an earlier wooden or mud and wattle church became unusable.

The Church belonged to the Priory of Our Lady and St Florent at Monmouth. After perhaps it was rebuilding, its Welsh Saint was erased to provide a more biblical name after one of the great saints of the Church – St John the Baptist. The rest of the parish comprises, even today ,farms and several private houses, the most notable being Tregate House Castle and the Cwm-later to become the Roman Catholic College of St Francis Xavier in Penal times.It was moving to see the fine crosses carved into the original altar, now replaced and how the crosses consecrrating the altar were in front of me, as they had been carved by those monks from MMonmouth a thousand years ago!

St Rhyddol, Ridol, Roald Rheidol the Hermit

The Saint, Saint Ryddol seems to be commemorated in several place names around the British Isles as it was at this time, there is a Rhyddal valley in Cumberland for example, and the River Rhyddal (Reiddol) in Cardiganshire, and even one in Devonshire, where the name still exists as a surname. It follows that Rhyddol may have been a founder of the monastery, but more likely a dedication of one of Dyfrig’s (Dubricius’s )early monasteries. This area of Ergyng was all part of Wales and Welsh was the spoken language of this part of what is nnow Herefordshire, although Herefordshire is still included in the Catholic Diocese of Cardiff .


When the Normans arrived in Wales, they ‘regularised’ a good deal of Welsh religious life. The Christianisation of Wales had been very early in the history of the Church, and the break with the Roman Empire had cause some falling away in some areas from true Christian doctrine, as we see with the Holy St David’s passionate defence of the Church’s position against heresy. Welsh priests often wanted to celebrate Easter at Imbolc, the Druid Spring Festival and liable to follow Morgan, a heretic, a non clergyman living in Rome, also known as Pelagius. St German had travelled from Armorica to preach against Pelegius ideas (he had made them up himself) and later it was to Holy David the Welsh bishops, including Dubricius appealed which prompted David’s appearance at Llandewi Brefi to speak against this. The Holy Dewi was later canonised by the Church by Pope Callixtus for his defence of true teaching and his name became a holy day for the whole British Isles until the sixteenth century.

The Normans,( keen to record the Welsh Christian experience in writing) were the first to write them down in Latin and sometimes Welsh, as the aural tradition, with Bards singing the great deeds of their ancestors and the histories, the triads (the three holiest families etc) was the Welsh Way of recording information. It was to the Benedictine Monks such as Geoffrey of Monmouth and the Cistercians of Margam Abbey that can be credited the recording of such information. According to a Cambridge Scholar, the first stories of Arthrwys (Arthur) were written in the Scriptorium of the Benedictine Priory at Bassaleg. The Normans almost certainly changed the name of this little Church, and its dedication to an obscure Welsh Saint, to that of John the Baptist, a very popular saint in the Middle Ages, linked by blood to both Jesus and Mary through his mother Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin.

The Death

In 1349 the village died. Almost everyone died in the Black Death and the houses went into ruins. The church had become a grange of Monmouth Priory, and now only Tregate Castle (probably the local Manor House-built on the site of a Norman motte-and-Bailey castle survive.In 1086 there was certainly a house there (possibly an earlier house made perhaps of mmud and wattles or wood on a natural ‘motte’) but it seems to have escaped the compilers of the Domesday Book, so perhaps it was burnt down or in disrepair and rebuilt in stone during Norman times. The family who lived there were important as there was also a chapel there dedicated to the recently martyred St Thomas Becket, perhaps the most famous saint of the Middle Ages. Evidence of a wooden keep has been found there, but no evidence of it having been in stone. St Rhyddol was called St Roald in Saxon , and at Llangunville just along the Monnow Valley was the Chapel of St Michael, now disappeared and used in the building of farmhouses. Church and chapels all were in the possession and served by the Benedictines at Monmouth Priory in 1186.

Heroic Henry Milburne and a 'Ghost Story'

Henry Milburne, loyal recusant Catholic during Penal times, recorder of Monmouth and Agent to the Duke of Beaufort lived at nearby Hilston House and more than once helped his fellow Catholics to evade capture. He also kept priests and had Mass said at his house. He also paid fines for Catholics refusing to go to local protestant Parish Churches. A good man, he enjoyed a good fight and one was recorded in the evidence presented to parliament about the covert Catholics in Monmouthshire in the sad ‘trial’ of Saint David Lewis of Usk.

Llanrothal House was also a home of Henry Milburne and it appears he was killed here, conveniently perhaps, when his horses bolted in 1692 (just 13 years after the death of Fr Lewis)He was thrown into the river as the horses panicked. His body was never recovered and,according to local legend his ghost haunted the house . Twelve Anglican vicars were sent to ‘exorcise’ him –the oldest one was the vicar of Raglan(Rhaglen). The ghost appeared and the vicars all fled except the vicar from Raglan. The ghost seemed to have asked the Vicar for how long he was to be laid and he was told ‘until I next eat bread’. The ghost disappeared into the river, according to the legend and was never seen again, because within a few hours, the Raglan vicar became ill and died before he had the opportunity to eat any more bread. A very deep pool in the river near Llanrothal Court is still known as ‘Milburne’s Hole’. We shall come back to Milburne when we get to the post 16th century posts, but this is an interesting story. It may be a garbled story in any case, trying to discredit the man who had done so much to help his fellow Catholics and he may well have had a staged accident to remove the strong Catholic patrons by the Catholic haters like Arnold and Scudamore, able to hunt their priests more efficiently.The Catholic church never died out in this part of Monmouthshire, because of the heroic efforts of the great landed families, who helped their fellow faithful through one of the darkest times.

There was also one of the few bridges over the Monnow at Tregate, the original swept away in 1880 in a storm and the bridge was reopened in 1888 after considerable argument as to whom should pay.

Anglican Use of Llanrothal Church after Renaissance

Apart from the Anglican Bishop of Hereford hunting Catholics in the 1605 incident, when there was a revolt because he refused Catholics burial in consecrated ground (my post on the ‘Priest’s Well’ at Skenfrith. At Allensmore five miles south of Skenfrith the people made a stand against the powers because they felt Alice Wellington should be buried in their churchyard by torchlight and they duly did so. The local Protestant vicar went immediately to the Bishop and gave the names of all he recognised. The Bishop of Hereford had issued a warrent for all their arrests. Two weavers defended themselves and escaped capture and there was an uprising by the Catholics and they fled after being pursued by the Bishops men and soldiers he had got to back him up.They fled over the River Monnow into Monmouthshire, which the Bishop (Robert Bennet) who declared furiously was ‘almost totally corrupted with Catholicism’. The priest who had said Mass for them when they first fled to Darren Wood secret meeting place. The names mentioned William Vaughan of Llanrothal and his shepherd. They searched all the local houses and found many Mass books, relics, altars, works of art, which declared Catholic worship, but the entire villages had fled into Monmouthshire, apart from the old and infirm, including the priest, Father Ainsworth and in a fit of spite they ‘executed’ the old man, near the stream called the ‘Priest’s Well’, still in the ground of the ‘Sandhouse’ next to the River Monnow (Mynwy).

Father Pritchard, Prior of the Franciscans at Perthir,Rockfield and Vicar Apostolic of the West of England during penal times often walked with his brothers to the Priests Well to pray for his soul.His ancestor was possibly one of those who fled what was now England. The Bishop of Hereford had fled-there was no one to be caught. The whole situation was calmed by the Earl of Worcester, who was himself a ‘harmless’ Catholic.Edward, friend to the Catholics, arranged for the safe removal of the priests in hiding and from his home at Raglan, supported the covert Church by harbouring and sending out priests until the time of Cromwell when Fayrfax destroyed the castle and Chapel. Many great and powerful families moved to the area, where it was felt that the remoteness of the area and its strong resistance to forced conversion to another religion would not be so important. The organisation of the church passed from the hierarchy to the noble families who saved the religion. Interesting that the cross at Llanrothal Church is definitely of a Catholic design, from Thrumpton Court in Nottingham.

Later History of the Building

In 1851 the Anglican Vicar of Llanrothal was Reveerend John Watherstone conducted services at 11am and 3pm every Sunday at the beginning of his incumbency, but Anglican numbers had dropped off, since the Hierarchy of the Catholic Church had been restored in 1850 and the Catholic church in Monmouth already built.In 1882, towards the end of his mministry, a parish minute says the church had been closed and ‘no service was held there in any rregular way’. Plans were made to put up a small iron church suitable for the requirements of parishioners’. The plans came to nothing and before long ‘services’ at the old parish church were resumed.

The fabric of the church, however, was crumbling and in 1921 Griggs of Newport did an extensive renovation, but it became necessary to abandon the nave which was falling in and concentrate on preserving the chancel and adapting it. The unsafe roof was removed from the nave and the chancel arch demolished in 1948 and the work on the chancel carried out by the Historic Churches Conservation Trust and the Friends of Friendless Churches-in 1957-8.The Churches’ Conservation Trust has rre-roofed the nave(in order to protect the walls from more deterioration and the walls and windows made good.The windows were glazed and the whole exterior lime washed, partly by the Trust, but helped by many of the parishioners.

The Font and Templar Connections?

Found near the original door in the nave is a simple bowl shaped font on a narrow pedestal, which it is estimated comes from the early Norman period.The interesting thing, however, is not the date, nor the lack off decoration, but the presence of a small raised ‘cross patte’ at the centre of the bowl. The Cross patte is a cross which tapers towards the centre, not unlike an iron cross but without the indented ends associated with the iron crosss symbol. The crosse patte sits on a small raised plug of carved stone, not unlike the drain plug of a modern bath. The crosse patte was associated with the Knights Templar, though there is no known association of the order with the church. However was the Lord of the Manor or a member of his family a Templar, or did local farms supply Garway. There is no way of telling, so secret did the order become.
The Church was built of sandstone and roofs originally covered with slates but are now tiled. Of the original 1186 building part of the north wall and one window remain. Most of the rest is 13th century and beginning in the 14th. The church which dominated the village was quite new when the Black Death struck.There was a rood loft, off course removed when the iconoclasts struck, but north of the arch a square headed doorway can be seen,which gave access to it-it was removed during the partial demolition in 1948 . A replacement chancel arch was built in 1958 in brick.

In the 15th century the great window in the chancel was added, probably brought ffrom elsewhere. The 1500s saw the building of a south porch, now ruined, but near where the font was to be found. The Vestry was made into the present north porch. Fragments of the preaching cross are to be found there, but the base remains in the churchyard, where there is a wonderful view of the Monnow River.

1680 a Welsh bell cote or turret was made which features prominently in old pictures of the church, but which was demolished in 1948. It had a pitched roof and its west side was built with broken mediaeval coffin lids. !680, the church received a bell as a gift of Martin Boothby of Tregate, cast five miles away at the foundry of John Pennington of Monmouth and rehung in Welsh Newton Church in 1953 in commemoration of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation.

The Mediaeval Altar

This is original and weighs two tons. It was, characteristically hidden under the floor in 1890.They would originally have held relics, which are either still there or hidden by parishioners. The Altar cross and candlesticks together with the brass chandelier are of Catholic design and given to the church in 1958. They are of the same period of the persecution and may have come from a Catholic church and preserved by some loyal parishioners.The chandelier also is 18th century but incorporates earlier work, from Thrumpton Court, Nottinghamshire. All were given to the church by the first Chairman of the Churches Conservation Trust the late Ivor Bulmer-Thomas. The chair near the altar is Jacobean from the time of James I (1603 onwards).

Annual Anglican Service on the Saints Day-St John the Baptist 24th June-on the nearest Sunday.

Directions Post Code:NP25 5QJ Ordinance survey SO489169
5 miles north of Monmouth off the A466.
Leave A50 at Monmouth, take A466 towards Hereford. Turn left towards Llanrothal.
Take the signpost for Llanrothal. Entrance through a gate between a large white house on your right and the next house. Gate is missing-says ‘Public footpath’, but drive down the track at the side of the field and then turn left to park by the church. Please remember to give a donation.


breadgirl said...

Hello Mary in Monmouth
As always, beautiful photographs and a very interesting and informative post. I hope you don't mind, but I would like to point out one mistake (perhaps it is just a typing error). St David Lewis was executed in 1679 not 1699as indicated in your paragraph on Henry Milburne. Thanks for a great blog and God bless you.

Mary in Monmouth said...

Woops! Sorry breadgirl. I knew that but was probably typing too fast-(or too late at night!) Will go and fix it. Was at the pilgrimage this year as well.....