Saturday, January 22, 2011


A Roman Villa, ancient Church and Mass Centre West of Christchurch on Roman Road on way to Llanbedr.
The church and later in were raised at the junction of two ancient roads, both used by the Romans. The Ridgeway came from Trellech heights through Wentwood , while the Chepstow Road came via Penhow and Llanbedr. Part of the original road, The Ridgeway can still be seen leading of the road to Abernant, a short distance from the junction. There are no existant records of this Inn as an inn, but there is strong folk memory of this inn and another at Goldcliff, a Benedictine Priory who owned and served Eglwys y Drindod at Christchurch.
 Every so often I become really enchanted, when Monmouthshire throws up an unexpected gem. The thought that so many saints are standing all around us, urging us on, in a county that has traditionally been so faithful is quite fascinating and encouraging. However, a ‘tip off’ from a friend led me last Friday to a wonderfully interesting place. This was Catsash on the ancient Roman road-villa Julia, which comes out at Christchurch. The interesting mediaeval window had caught a friends eye and he was anxious I should investigate. I decided to find it for myself and I found a mediaeval chapel, where Henry II, after having St Thomas Becket murdered had made a pilgrimage to St Davids, and reputedly stopped a while here in Monmouthshire at the small Capel Curig next to the original Roman road and prayed, reflecting his crime. Both the church and the inn, however, were to yield many more secrets, than even I dreamed, thrilled to discover another gem of a chapel, where it seems wartime dances were held, and the only place large enough to house activities for the hamlet.In fact it is possible the whole farm and original inn was built on the foundations of the original villa,

 The church and later in were raised at the junction of two ancient roads, both used by the Romans. The Ridgeway came from Trellech heights through Wentwood , while the Chepstow Road came via Penhow and Llanbedr. Part of the original road, The Ridgeway can still be seen leading of the road to Abernant, a short distance from the junction. There are no existant records of this Inn as an inn, but there is strong folk memory of this inn and the one at Christchurch, where the monks from the Benedictine Priory at Goldcliffe (who owned and served Eglwys y Drindod (Church of the Holy Trinity) stayed when they said Mass there. These monks were originally from the Abbey of Bec in Normandy.

Saint Curig’s Church in a Roman Villa possibly renamed for St Cyricus by Normans

On the face of it, St Curig is a strange saint for Gwent. St Curig, Curig the Blessed was a sixth century Bishop of Llanbadarn-very close to Aberystwyth in Dyfed. Capel Curig also houses a church dedicated to him, possibly because he was born in the area and is commemorated there, and it is possible a small mud and wattles church was erected and dedicated to him. There often seems to be a ‘mirror effect’ with a church dedicated to a saint in North Wales practically ‘twinned’ with one in South Wales as happens with so many. However Wales was part of the one world wide universal church and by 1066, the Normans took advantage ,perhaps of the similarity of their names to change Curig for Saint Cyricus. His mother was JULITTA (and there is a church near Boscastle dedicated to her)In the 4th century ,the Diocletian persecution was raging. Julitta was sidowed with a three year old son. Her life was too dangerous and she decided to leave with her son from Iconium in central Turkey.     Entrance to Priest Hole

So she fled to Saleucia and she found that the governor there, too was persecuting Christians. The four runaways travelled on to Tarsus but they were recognised and arrested. Julitta was tried with her young son and refused to say anything about her life,e xcept she was a Christian. They decided to put her on the rack and beaten. The guards leading her away frightened the child separated from his mother and Alexander in order to pacify him to ok him on to his knee but the child kicked and scratched him and the governor, furious hurled the toddler to the ground killing him with a fractured skull.Julitta did not weep, instead she tahanked God and went cheerfully to torture and death. Her son was martyred. This made the governor angier and he decided Julitta should be disembowelled and then beheaded.Julitta and cyricus were flung outside the city on a heap of criminal corpses but maids rescued the corpses and buried them in a field nearby.

So runs the Life of St Julitta and St Cyricus, martyrs and if the original chapel was dedicated to St Curig, it is possible during the Norman re-organisation that the saint being commemorated was St Cyricus, someone they knew something about and could pass off as similar to the Welsh saint and bishop.The Normans were not unsympathetic to the Welsh church, but could not speak Welsh, nor pronounce the names of he ancient saints, many of whom were retained in the place names if not in the dedication of the church. This was policy of the conquerors, not of the church as an organisation.
 The Chapel of St Curig, Bishop of Llanbadarn, or St Cyricus of Iconium.

This Chapel , at the side of the Roman road, Via Julia was once a Roman Villa and mentioned in the Book of Llandaff as the Villa Cathouen. In the time of Trychan, bishop of Llandaff in the fifth century, it was given to the See by someone called Erbig and described as the Villa of Carhouen, the son of Hundu (hindee) and built along site of the Dowlais brook. It means, (in common withMichaelstone-le-Fedw, St Medwyn’s church west of Newport), it was possibly originally church on an old Roman site, and possible even a Roman ‘house’ church, so common in early British Christianity. Of course, when Romans left, local British owners either lived in them or had no use for them and in this case, the building was handed over to Llandaff shortly after they left . It also may mean that the original church was actually a Roman villa, dedicated to a Welsh saint and in Norman times given the dedication of St Cyricus. In fact there was widespread devotion to both him and Julitta, with churches dedicated to her in Cornwall, but Staircase leading to the loft of the church and blocked the original dedication likely to have been Welsh.
Decorated window, in what is now a wood store.

Outside of the baking oven                    Elizabethan doorways

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Extra window added to North aisle of church, next to a secret spiral staircase.
The decorated window, which had first attracted attention in the Eastern wall of the church was dated to the fourteenth century, so it seems, it was rebuilt in Norman times, when it probably gained its new dedicated. Above the window are the coping stones which indicate the original roof lines of an even earlier building. By the thirteenth century, from Erbig’s ‘Villa Calhouen’ it had become Cattisaisshe by 1536, the year of the dissolution of many of the monasteries, a fascinating document had been drawn up (quoted by Sir Joseph Bradney). This was where William Morgan of Pencoed let to Morgan ap Einion for 99 years ‘the old chapel at Caiche Ashe’ in which’ prayers were to be said for his soul by the parson of Langstone’. He left one shilling yearly for four masses ‘for the fowles of his auncestrices, his fowle and his wiff fowle and all that cu’mys of his body’ and £5 for ‘repairs to the walls, windows and roof of the chapel’. Indeed this was the only church between Christchurch and Llanbedr, as I wrote before, many travellers will have stopped here for rest and recuperation, as well as , it seems Henry II on his pilgrimage to St Davids (Tydewi)

The Church and the Inn
Interestingly the Inn at St Curigs was joined to the church, probably at some point after ther Reformation. The church was probably sold off to a publican at some stage, and by 1604 a John Thomas had built a fine Inn next door .There is a shield over the door ,bearing what looks like and alpha and omega mark with John Thom written over it. At the rear of the house are barns , which used to be stables where the horses were kept when it was an inn, and it seems there was also a sign on the house where there was once a sign with a cat sitting in an ash tree.
The chapel is approximately 34 feet by 17 feet with a blocked in window of which the coigns remain. Mr and Mrs Rosser, the charming owners of the property were so kind to show me round and the floor of the chapel is used to store wood .It seems an upper floor has been built, with a staircase at the altar end (sanctuary-where the Blessed Sacrament would have been kept).

A Recusant Hideaway (‘secret Catholics’)

Upstairs , however, there was something which spoke of the history of this interesting chapel. In the wall of the chapel was a small door, wide enough for a slim person to get through, this was leading into the space upstairs. I was told, there was a ‘secret room’in there about 4 feet by 4 feet. Also the windows were of more recent date on the north side, giving a good vantage point. It seems, we had a priest hole, which means, almost certainly the secret masses were said at St Curig’s even after the ‘ Reformation’. Mr Rosser told me there was another priest hole in the house and all the house’s original features were still there, albeit enclosed .

When the middle aged Henry VIII had ‘divorced’ his wife of 35 years Blessed Catherine of England in order to marry the ambitious Anne Boleyn, faithful Catholics were forced to attend Henry’s Church on pain of heavy fines. Going without their sacraments grieved them and many would meet quietly in remote chapels, farmhouses and inns, posting ‘lookouts’ for soldiers and ‘priest hunters’ out to catch priests. These priests were often sons and daughters of devout people of the areas, who trained in Northern France, or even Rome or Spain to be priests, and then put their lives on the line to return to Monmouthshire to serve their flocks. The break with Apostolic succession meant they did not acknowledge the new church, but while outwardly conforming and attending services in what were now parish churches of the new faith, they continued to attend Mass, where priests could be found. The whole business of sending out priests initially was masterminded from Raglan Castle, where the Earls of Pembroke were devout Catholics, and received and sent out priests. When the castle fell to Fairfax following the stay of King Charles I and its subsequent support for the royalist cause, the priests founded their own college at the Cwm farmhouse another remote place near Monmouth, who were led by the blessed saint David Lewis, the ‘Father of the Poor’ a fluent Welsh speaker and son of the headmaster of Abergavenny School.
Other Centres of Catholic Recusancy in Monmouthshire
These heroic priests had a hard life travelling from one place to another, often at night, sleeping in hedgerows and barns for safety . The interesting thing about Monmouthshire was its faithfulness. The nobility of Monmouthshire, with two notable exceptions, stayed true to the old faith, especially the heroic Herbert family, descendants of the Earls of Pembroke.The nobility and others had houses built all over the country which contained places priests could be hidden, should soldiers come. Also inns and farmhouses contained such hiding places and remote churches and chapels. Generally they are in North Monmouthshire, notable examples being at Abergavenny, in the Gunter House, Blackbrook House near Skenfrith, Llanrothal, Bettws Newydd , a priest hole at the old Benedictine Priory Church at Llanciwa Inow Llangua) priest holes at Treowen ,the Joneses being another offshoot of the Herbert family. If priests were kept there, there were often marks around the door, which told other faithful Catholics that it was a Catholic household. These were often the ‘tools of the crucifixion’ nails, hammer etc. and the origin of the phrase ‘five for the symbols at your door’ in the ‘secret catechism’ Green grow the Rushes –O.’

Survival of the Old Faith in spite of the ‘Gunpowder Plot’of 1605

Catholicism managed to survive in North Monmouthshire because of the Welsh language and what is interesting is that in the English –speaking south of the county there were fewer such places , notable examples being the large ‘hen house’ at Llanarth Court near Usk, which kept a priest and a chapel disguised as a hen house throughout the ‘penal times’ , and one at Cafn Mabley between Newport and Cardiff. Since there were so few, it was exciting to find another at Capel Curig here at Catsash, near Christchurch, where our brothers and sisters worshipped at great danger to themselves and where William Thomas himself may have been a faithful Catholic, as such secret passages and priestholes would have had to have been built into that original Inn in 1604, during the reign of James I. Interestingly too this was the year before the Herford rebellion of Catholics in Hereford, over a Catholic woman being refused burial in the local churchyard, when a whole Herefordshire villiage rebelled and fled into Monmouthshire and the summary death of poor, frail father Ainsworth of Skenfrith who was unable to escape. It was also a year before the ‘Gunpowder plot’ where a group of desperate young Catholics tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament. This ‘plot’ never had any chance of succeeding, being managed from the first by the government. James I in deference to his mother was determined to be tolerant of both Catholics and Puritans forced to flee England (as Wales had by now , according to Henry VIII ceased to exist (1536) and the wealthy men in government, grown rich on the lands and the monasteries, which they had made into nice homes for themselves, were determined the Church should not be tolerated and worked hard at ‘spin’ against Catholics which was highly effective , and still exists to this day in some quarters.
Life at Capel Curig during Recusant times
In fact only the government had gunpowder and so Lord Burleigh knew about it all along and encouraged the ‘rebels’ knowing such a plot would alarm Londoners so that they would know that Catholics were evil and traitors and procured horrible lingering deaths for all these men, who would not have been driven to this extreme except for the raft of about twenty eight laws passed against people of the original faith of these islands. In spite of this, the county remained faithful, because of the support of the local aristocracy who protected their priests and people as far as they could, and sought for the welfare of the faithful, even though they had to attend the parish church on Sundays to escape punitive fines, some families fleeing to France for a hundred years and returning when the persecution ended. Yet the county remained staunch in its support for the Old Faith, and whilst it was disappointing all these secret places at Capel Curig were boarded up, it was warming to know that here was a place where John Thomas had kept a priest pr at least maintained one and masses were said, people were buried, others were christened and married and where the faithful gathered on dark nights secretly and the old Bishop Curig of Llanbadarn had nodded in approval. Lookouts would warn of soldiers and the priest pushed into his hole and hidden, whilst worshippers pretended to be patrons at the pub. Another such inn in South Monmouthshire is the White Hart at Llangibby (Llancybi) where a priest hole can still be seen displayed behind a fireplace. After the death of the beloved Father Lewis (now ‘Saint David Lewis’ of Usk, though he and his priests served the whole of the county,the community lost heart, but within a short time, Franciscans and other priests returned to take over where they had left off, proving that as Christ had promised Peter, the ‘gates of hell would never prevail against the Church’-the mission would go on.
Original Features Enclosed
A big bake oven from the original inn was still there at the extreme south of the inn and the large inglenook fireplace in the centre of the inn, was also enclosed. I saw large spacious rooms and some Elizabethan black oak doorways and passageways. Then Mr Rosser told me too, that there was a second priest hole in the house, leading from another enclosed spiral staircase. There are heavy oak ceiling beams. Fred Hando, writing in 1957 said he had heard of a secret staircase at Catsash Inn and Mrs Rosser produced a note written by Lady Watson, wife of Sir Thomas Watson, who owned the house. He said the letter contained the following words:

Catsashe secret stairs starts from passage going in cellar in the body of a wall-spiral stone staircase goes up two floors-small place about 4 feet square in wall of the bedroom, oiver th dining room facing the lawn on the first floor Told to Sir Thomas Watson by Parfitt(builder)14 May 1900.

One one of the photos, the ‘bulge’ with the staircase may be seen. These ‘bulges’ were not afterthoughts but considered planning for a staircase or fireplace built to give more room in the house. I was also shown part of the garden he had grassed over, originally a churchyard, which he reverently pointed out,

Mr Rosser is one of those unsung heroes who has maintained and repointed the chapel to preserve it at his own expense without any help from grants from anyone, simply to preserve our heritage, which is what all loyal men of Monmouthshire do.He loves the old chapel and its heritage and it has remained a place of worship and Mass centre for much longer than the age of the church. I would like to thank him and his wife for his kindness to me and the enthusiasm with which I was shown around.The stables were still there where the Ostlers would change horses and were Catholics would ride in for Mass and a jar afterwards! This is very much a listed private property and I am very grateful for

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