Monday, February 1, 2010

Idyll-An Old Welsh Foundation and Scene of Pilgrimage to Compostella-St James at PENALLT OLD CHURCH

There are two pictures here are not of Penallt, but the statue of St James is from Llangua St James, another St James 'stage'.The picture of the rood screen painted in mediaeval style is from St Fagans Welsh Heritage Museum where it can be seen free of charge. The rood screen here would have been similar, and there would have been wall paintings.Llangua is south of Pontrilas and is not open during the day,but Penallt Old Church is.


The old church at Penallt is set in a little dip in the trees about a mile north of the village. Most of the building is late medieval, with a sixteenth-century porch (the date on the door is 1539). Inside, the wagon roof has carved bosses with intriguing symbols - strange heads, the ;Five Wounds;, three fish symbolising the Trinity. There is also a splendid early seventeenth-century pulpit. Outside, you can see the base of the churchyard cross,destroyed by Cromwell’s men..
The village stretches away to the south. Adjoining the Bush Inn is a nature reserve based around four traditional hay meadows. Here you can see orchids and migrant birds - more information on the Gwent Wildlife Trust web site.

An Old Welsh Catholic Site

The Welsh word Pen-allt means ‘hilltop’ and is on a very ancient site because of two important features. The first is a well, which seems to indicate an originally Celtic foundation and then one of the most venerable yew trees in Wales. George Bernard Shaw used to cycle 'dangerously' along the lanes around Penallt and said: "The God who made this country was an artist." 17th Century Bush Inn in the village centre, beside the green, is open for food and drinks, necessary because of the outstanding beauty of surrounding countryside of the Lower Wye.

Dedication of the Church

No-one knows for certain to whom the church was dedicated but the existance of a Celtic enclosure and well would have indicated one of the Llandaff sites, as the church is mentioned in the Book of Llandaff,(1120-1140) and so the little church which was in existance from earliest times, possibly the chancel/sanctuary area only, was probably dedicated to St Teilo, to St Euddoggwy (Oudocceus or ‘Docco; or finally perhaps most likely of all, St Dyfrig/Dubricius) who founded monasteries all over the area before also becoming Bishop of Llandaff.

The site links us therefore right back to the sixth century and the time of the holy Saint David, that great defender of the church’s teaching, for which he was canonised. In this outstanding area on the hilltop it is moving to contemplate the old ones, the devout men reciting the psalms, fasting and praying for the Kingdom as others do now. They often sang the psalms to the old Welsh tunes and accompanied by the harp. They recited their beads or ‘paders’(Lords Prayer).Its remote and hilltop seems to have protected the church from raids by various enemies. But with the advent of the Norman conquest in Wales, the church came under the care of the local priory at Monmouth, of Our Lady and St Florent, though it appears to have had a local secular priest, Father William (of Trellech) by 1294. In 1359 Father Benedict turned up from Llanfair, 1388 Father John ap Gruffydd, then in 1388, Father Gregory ap David arrived as priest in1390 followed by Father John (ap William ap Glasyr). In 1412 Father John arrived (ap Iowerth-one of the Welsh aristocrative family)and by 1494 Father John ap Hywel ap Treffanlychan, (another aristocrat and even a Knight)who appears to have been the last of the priests of the apostolic line.The subsequent priests were vicars of the new English Church of Elizabeth.The changes were thrust upon the church by political considerations of the time, and later by Cromwell, who embarked on further distruction of old works of art.

Reorganisation in Norman Times=The Pilgrimage

In the eleventh and twelfth century, the Normans reorganised Celtic worship, which seems to in some cases drifted far from the church of the early saints, reverting in some areas to holding Christian holydays to coincide with Druid festivals. This was not uncommon in remote areas, and so generally, in some cases the surviving Celtic Churches were linked again with the early fathers of the church, St Augustine and the Desert fathers. At the same time, there was a fascination with early Welsh life, which monks likr Geoffrey in Monmouth immortalised in Latin, from what had been an oral tradition sung by the bards and passed from one generation to the other. This mediaeval period ushers in the tradition of pilgrimage’ One strong local tradition is that in mediaeval times the dedication was changed and it was St James, the patron saint of pilgrims: so Penallt could have been a staging-post on the route to St James’s great shrine at Compostela. Inside the church there is a tapestry depicting the route to Compostella. Other St James Churches existed- that at Llangua, south of Hereford, at the Benedictine Priory of Llankywan, and the one nearer Gloucester Orchard St James, where pilgrims symbols can be found by the door. This church seems to have been a ‘gatthering house’ for the pilgrims of Wales before they travelled south to Bristol and their ship. The tapestry is a modern one but details the route to Blaye and down to the Spanish border. There is of course also the possibility that they could have gone south to the Mathern or Chepstow area and taken a ferry to Sudbrook or Aust, but for poorer people the overland route via Gloucester would have been cheaper.Interestingly, there is also at the lych gate a horse mounting and dismounting stage, for pilgrims and Faithful arriving on horseback.

The statue in the picture is of St James of Llangua and of more recent date.

The church tower is seen to be of very early design, more of early Welsh or even Saxon design than an embattled Norman tower. The Sanctuary area of the early Catholic church is probably the site of the very earliest building as a chancel, nave and South aisle were added during the early and later middle ages. There is a rood loft , which has been taken down by Elizabeth’s men in the sixteenth century, while the steps to it remain. The south aisle seems to have been the last addition, and contains an ancient oak door, which is dated 1539 and has at the centre a heart crudely carved and the initials IHS (Jesum hominum Salvator-Jesu, Saviour of Mankind) It is likely, as most of the door is worn, and the heart symbol is usually the fifth of the ‘Five Wounds’-one of the most popular devotions of the Faith in the British Isles before the monarchs introduced their own form of religious ceremony. To check this would need more time than I had available.

In the tower there are two stained glass windows depicting another popular saint of the middle ages, St Christopher, the martyr and Christ Bearer. He is also the patron saint of Travellers. A common tradition at the time was that St Christopher’s image kept them close to the Christ and to see the ikon of the saint was to keep you close to Christ, especially at the hour of death.The other saint is, of ccourse the great St James (Sant Iago).Both images stare down at the ancient nave and chancel and sanctuary, which itself looks over the spectacular scenery.The Blorenge and Sugarloaf mountains near Abergavenny. the Black Mountains and even the heads of the Brecon Beacons, around to the Malvern Hills in the North. The countryside is still completely unspoiled and breathtaking.

The location of the Old Church is no longer in Penallt itself, which lies lower down. In order to reach it, it is neccessary to take the Trellech road off the A40 at Monmouth and turn left at the signpost (postal code is given at the top )There is a junction, where Penallt is marked so carry on up the mountain to the church. An avenue of lime trees line the pathway to the church. There is parking. You can see the ancient horse mounting stage which also kept animals out of the churchyard,( picture above) The stoup in the porch has been deliberately smashed by some over zealous person. As today, people take the holy water in the stoup to bless themselves and remind themselves of their baptism before entering and upon leaving the Mass. What the congregations must have felt to see their churches despoiled is difficult to fathom, but must have been very upsetting as Eamon Duffy’s book ‘The Stripping of the Altars’ shows. Many of the ornaments in the church were expensive aadditions by the lay Faithful wishing to adorn their local building for the church and from that time people stopped donating to the local church as many of them went underground, worshipping in recusant centres, remote places , away from the authorities. At the time of the trial of Father David (now Saint)Lewis, the local figure complained that not 40 people attend service at the parish church while hundreds attend Mass in covert chapels around Abergavenny, often using Welsh to spread the word.

The ceilings in the Church are barrel shaped with fine old bosses and even some modern painted ones in the nave Some of them are of the pilgrim shell motif. The original consecrated altar, now devoid of saints’ relics has been erected at the head of the south aisle and still contains the consecrating crosses of all those years ago. Local people preserved it by burying it in the churchyard. The altar is very interesting and a wooden chest carved by a craftsman has been placed in the place normally reserved for the altar and may be used as an altar. The Church is now administered and served by the Church in Wales which is Anglican.

Rood Loft removed at the orders of Elizabeth’s men and Galleries removed 1887

There were galleries,which were removed in 1887 at a restoration and much of mediaeval interest would appear to have been lost. The pulpit is from the time of James I,(son of the Queen of Scots) the bells are of later date (1682, possibly a thanksgiving for the Restoration of Charles II and an end to Cromwell. The second bell is dated 1700 and the other two 1751.The Arms of Queen Anne are to be found in the church too.1753 saw the addition of an altar rail. The stone font was carved from an ancient design by artist Mrs Probert, who also carved the statue of the virgin from a holly bole, on the NE corner of the nave on the steps to the now disappeared rood loft. It was painted in mediaeval colours by her husband, who with other parishioners also repainted the roof bosses in the nave.

Stocks and the Whipping Post

Fifty yards outside the lych gate is a vary ancient chestnut tree, near which in former times, stood the stocks and the whipping post!

St Dennis

Was commemorated in a small chapel down by the Redbrook Ferry on the Wye, but this has now disappeared. There is the socket stone of a 15th century cross at Penygarn and ,separated from it by fifty yards its base. There were also many socket stones on the road from ferry to the church, which would , before the Reformation, have contained wooden crosses and another stone cross used to stand at Croes Onen near Croes Vane but has disappeared.There are also old packing stones all the way up where people could sit and rest on the way up to the church from the ferry. These features seem to suggest a pilgrimage site of some importance,like Lourdes in France. People would call in at this station. There may or would certainly have been a hostel. The people would walk up the cross lined path singing hymns and saying the rosary, arrive at the church and enter for Mass and other devotions. There was often a real holiday (holy day) atmosphere, parishes travelling together to pilgrimage sites.In Walsingham and St Winifred’s Well these are all revived and Anglicans too make an annual pilgrimage to the site of Joseph Leicester Lyne’s monastery (Father Ignatius) at Capel-y-ffin near Llanthony (Llanfihangel Crucorney)where the Holy Virgin was reputedly seen in the nineteenth century (and even six times before hand) To imagine such bustle here is difficult, but the church still carries the vestiges of its past, and I hope, through blogs like this, you may be encouraged to visit it and enjoy its peaceful atmosphere. The 19th century founded Tymawr Convent of Benedictine Anglican nuns lies close by.

When I was at the building , I saw a programme for a funeral of a parishioner, a Mrs Card, member of the Vaughan family who left this world at 94 years. I reflected on the continuing worship in the church and the pattern on the programme, of daffodils, taken by St David and the Welsh as their symbol, not only of Wales, but of the Sun , in the Celtic Church, the Light of Christ. A link with the era of the foundation of the church, Requiescat in pace.