Gwyddelan (the little Irishman) from whom the village of Dolwyddelan has its name, was one of the Celtic missionaries from Ireland who helped to restore Christianity in Britain after the lapse into barbarism which followed the departure of Roman power in AD 410. He arrived about the year AD 600, and according to legend set up his preaching cross near the hill, Bryn-y-Bedd, some 300 yards from the present church. The name of a house nearby, Bod-y-Groes, preserves the memory.
This was followed by a small building, probably of wood, which was replaced in the early 12th century by one of stone, on Bryn-y-Bedd. About the year AD 1500, this was demolished by Meredith Wynne, and rebuilt on the present site as the present church, incorporating some of the materials and fittings. Meredith had lived in the castle for some years before building himself a house at Penamnen, and then he rebuilt the church in its more open position, to circumvent attacks by robbers who lived ‘in sanctuary’ at the Knights of Saint John’s Hospice, Ysbyty Ifan. The ruins of Meredith?s house and courtyard may still be seen on the right-hand side of the road up Cwm Penamnen.
The church he built consisted of a nave and chancel, the south chapel being added later in the 16th century by Robert Wynne. A lychgate on the south side was built in 1736; the date stone is in the wall near the present gate on the north side, which replaced it in modern times.
The building was roofed with carreg mwsog (stone slates embedded in moss, more moss being pushed in as necessary from time to time). The timbers are all held in place by wooden pegs; when the roof was overhauled in recent times the only timber replacement needed was one truss!
About 1850, the porch was added, gable crosses, and a new bellcote, a west window in the nave, and replacement of the old south doorway by a window. Note the old door, complete with sanctuary knocker.
The south chapel is entered from the chancel through an arcade of two bays, with the central pier carved from a single block of local stone, and is lighted by an east and south window. The Rood-screen probably came from the old church. Bent-feather ornament over the central opening, of later date, should be noted. In the north bay are slots for bars of lattice-work for a confessional. The top beam formerly carried a loft. The balustrade on top is early 18th century, matching the pews, and came from a music gallery over the west end of the nave. It carries a row of candle sconces, for use at the Christmas services which were the only ones held after dark. The screen, originally farther east, was moved when the south chapel was built. The font is an old one, on a modern base.
The large memorial to Meredith, his son John and grandson Maurice, buried in the church, was erected in the 17th century, and painted and restored about 1920.
Three brasses, now in a glass case, commemorate Meredith and his wife Alice. They depict a kneeling figure in armour, a shield with Coat of Arms, and an inscription in Latin; ‘Orate pro alabs Meredith ap Ivan ap Robt armigi’t Alicie uxore qui obierunt xviii die Marcid ano dni mvxxv quoru animabus propicietur deus amen’.
The unusual pews, pulpit, reading desk and communion rails date from 1711 onwards. The old box pews once in the nave are now gone. On one front pew is carved ‘Maingc i’r dyla i clyw’ (a bench for the hard of hearing). A small tray attached to the altar rails was for offerings (offram) to clergyman and parish clerk at funerals. The fragments of old glass in the east window date from 1512. There is a small St Christopher in the north window.
Over the chancel there is an interesting barrel vault. The north side rests on a very ancient beam with a carving of the ‘Dolwyddelan Dragon’ on it. It came from a church lower down the Lledr Valley which was demolished at the time this one was built. The local legend is that this monster came up the river from the sea; as it caused floods it was transported to a lake in the mountains.
The old Celtic bell, Cloch Gwyddelan, (hanging in the nave) may date back to the 7th century. It was dug up in 1850 on the site of the old church, and it is thought to be the handbell which Gwyddelan brought with him from Ireland. It appears to be of cast bronze. In the bellcote is another old bell, inscribed ‘S Richard Wyn 1639’.
The Poor Box, on the west side of the entrance to the chancel, consists of part of a heavy beam with a small cupboard carved out in it, containing three little drawers, one above another behind a metal door with three locks.
Two ancient yew trees flank the old entrance on the south side of the church. Some experts consider that the one nearest to the side chapel may be as much as three thousand years old!
In 1984, the bellcote was damaged by an earthquake, and was rebuilt and the bell re-hung. At the same time other repairs were carried out, new heating and lighting installed, also a memorial window in the side chapel, and the vestry was constructed at the west end of the nave.
In 2006 the lychgate collapsed after a council refuse lorry reversed into it – this was rebuilt using new oak to replace the damaged timbers. This photo (copyright www.walesdirectory.co.uk) shows the unfortunate aftermath!
St Gwyddelan’s Church is used regularly for services, Welsh, English and bi-lingual. St Gwyddelan himself is remembered on 22nd August, the festival of the saint, Gwyimabsant.