St. Peter’s Church, Llanwenarth – Some Historical Notes from Frank Olding
The church of St. Peter at Llanwenarth is generally considered to have been founded by the Normans and the earliest record of its existence dates to 1254 in a document known as the Norwich Valuation (Brook 1988, 81). At this time, the church was dedicated to “Waynardo” – possibly the name of a Celtic saint (see below). This, together with the partly curved outline of the churchyard raises the possibility that the Normans rebuilt or rededicated an existing Dark Age church.
In 1779, a local Independent minister, Edmund Jones, published A Geographical, Historical and Religious Account of the Perish of Aberystruth, which was printed at the Methodist commune at Trefeca, Breconshire. Edmund Jones has left us interesting evidence for the beliefs of local people regarding the history of Llanwenarth church. At that time, it was believed that the church dated to the end of the 6th or beginning of the 7th century and was originally dedicated to Gwen, the daughter of Arth, son of Brychan – the legendary founder and king of Brycheiniog:
“Whether the Church bearing her name was built in her time and by her means, or by others after her time, and dedicated to her Memory, not long after her death, we know not, I chuse to think the former.” (p. 66)
Although perhaps not entirely historically reliable, this is an interesting piece of local folklore from the 18th century! The church at Talgarth in Brecknock was also dedicated to St. Gwen.
The parish is divided by the river Usk into the hamlets of Llanwenarth Citra (north of the Usk) and Llanwenarth Ultra, south of the river (Bradney 1907, 350). In the Middle Ages, the parish was much larger than at present and the large upland area of Aberystruth (which includes the modern communities of Nantyglo, Blaina and Abertillery) formed a detached portion of Llanwenarth. The earliest record of St. Peter’s Aberystruth dates to 1535, when it is recorded that it was formerly a chapelry of Llanwenarth.
Edmund Jones also has this to say about the church at Aberystruth:
“I think it was built much about 200 Years ago, in the time of King Henry the seventh or Henry the Eighth. It was finished in the month of February, and dedicated . . . to the Apostle Peter, whose Picture was drawn upon the Wall within the Church, with a Key by his side to let the people into Heaven;” (p. 51)
Edmund Jones also tells us that Rev. Anthony Bonner, rector of Llanwenarth in the time of Charles II, left a legacy for the poor of Aberystruth. From the produce of a field called the Poor’s Field near the river Usk two pounds a year were paid to the poor “except when the field is overflowed by the River” (p. 61).
St. Peter’s Llanwenarth consists of a nave, a separate chancel, the west tower and south porch. There is a blocked window of 12th century type in the west wall of the nave, confirming that the tower is later than the nave (Salter 1991, 34). This leaves the lower part of the tower together with the extreme west end of the north wall of the nave as probably representing the earliest part of the church. The pointed lancet in the ground floor west wall of the tower dates to the 13th century but the rest probably dates to the 14th or 15th century (Salter 1991, 34).
In the early 14th century, there seem to have been two phases of restoration – one dating to about 1300 and the other to a little later, perhaps around 1330. The chancel and north wall of the nave were rebuilt around 1300. The ogival-headed priest’s doorway, three chancel windows with reticulated (“net-like”) tracery and one nave window are of about 1330.
The porch seems to have been rebuilt with a new south door (the door into the nave is the result of the Victorian rebuild). The new masonry makes use of narrow blocks of red sandstone. So does the construction of the upper stages of the tower and the insertion of a new window in the north side of its ground floor. The architect A. D. R. Caroe, writing in 1939, dated this rebuild to 1631, which would certainly accord with the form of the belfry lights (GRO D/Pa 57.38). It seems likely that Anthony Bonner was responsible for the restoration work.
The Victorian restoration of 1877 (dated from a notice hanging in the porch) was also responsible for the rebuilding of the chancel arch and the south wall of the nave with two large windows. The stops to the hoodmoulds are of a different sandstone and mostly more weathered than the rest of the work, but they do not appear to be particularly medieval in nature, having handlebar moustaches and no beards. Restoration work was carried out to the tower in 1909, and again in 1939-40 (GRO D/Pa 57.27 and 38).
In the tower there is a rare hanging cupboard suspended high above the floor by a chain. It was intended to keep the “Dole Bread” out of the reach of rats and other vermin. Also of interest are the remains of a pillar piscina, a Norman font, a Jacobean communion table and the Lord’s Prayer and Ten Commandments literally carved in stone. In 1939, there were two bells, one of about 1450 and the other dated 1661 (Wright, 1939, 81).
A 17th century gave slab is used for paving in front of the priest’s door in the south side of the chancel. To the south of the porch stands the 14th century churchyard cross. It has a socket with a square base and octagonal top with deep incised keeled stops (decorated chamfers). The bottom of the cross shaft has pyramid-shaped stops. The upper part of the shaft and all of the steps have been restored.
Within living memory, a ferry gave access to the church for those living on the other site of the river Usk (see below). According to Bradney (1907, 350), there was once a bridge near the ferry, probably a wooden one. In 1620, one Dassie Morgan left 10 shillings in her will for its repair. In 1621, Thomas Morgan of Tŷ Mawr also left money for the repair of the bridge and the church (Bradney 1907, 350-1). Did Thomas Morgan’s legacy contribute to the restorations of 1631?
Rev. Anthony Bonner
Rev. Anthony Bonner was rector from 1616 to 1662. In his will dated March 17, 1661, he charged 30 shillings on a parcel of land called Cae’r Fynwent (“Churchyard Field”) and Waun Hir (“Long Meadow”) to be distributed annually among the poor of the parish. He also left 10 shillings to be distributed among the poor of Aberystruth (Bradney 1907, 358). Together this makes the £2 mentioned by Edmund Jones, though he was mistaken about the terms of the will.
In 1652, during the Commonwealth, Anthony Bonner came to attention in religious disputes raging in Abergavenny between Baptists and Anglicans. In September 4th, John Tombes, a puritan minister from Leominster, preached at St. Mary’s on the subject of infant baptism, to which he was opposed. After his sermon, Anthony Bonner followed John Tombes to his lodgings. They agreed to debate the issue publicly and returned to St. Mary’s. The debate lasted from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. This was regarded as one of the great religious debates of the period and was widely reported and transcripts published (Knight 2005, 136).
Bedd y Gŵr Hir (“The Long Man’s Grave”)
There is an other interesting anecdote from Edmund Jones reflecting the relationship between Llanwenarth and its upland chapelry . The story seeks to explain the presence of two small, upright stones in a field at Twyn Allwys near Gilwern that used to mark the old parish and county boundary between Monmouthshire and Breconshire:
“having several times heard of an exceeding long Grave, called beth y gwr hir, i.e. the Tall Man’s Grave and at last seeing it by the way side which descends from the Mountain into the Valley of Usk and goes into the Town of Abergavenny at a place called, yr Allwys; and enquiring about the person buried there; I had this account from several; That they were going with him from Blaene Gwent to be buried at Lanwenarth Church, where the Blaene Gwent people were buried before the Church at Aberystruth was built, and that that part of the Country was made a Parish, and called Aberystruth, and it growing late, and the weather very tempestuous, and having about two Miles more to go, and a Boat to pass the River Usk before they could reach the Church , they were discouraged from going any farther, the great weight of the Corps also, it may be, adding to their discouragement, they buried him there, laying the Corps from East to West after the manner of their Burying in the Churches, and Church-yards with two large Stones one at each end of the Grave, and the space between them admirably large, for the length of a Grave.
“speaking to an Intelligent friend about it, he went and measured the length between the two Stones, and found it to be thirteen Feet and a half. Now on one hand we cannot suppose that these stones were placed too near the Corps, and on the other hand that it would be improper to set them far from it, and therefore not likely to be done, we may guess at the length of it. Now supposing the distance of the stones from the dead Body should be a Foot at each end, which is the utmost we can reasonably suppose. The length of the Body still must be about eleven Feet. He must have been a person of an extraordinary size, and certainly a Giant, and as tall as Goliath of Gath; and appearing in Goliath’s armour would have made such a figure as Goliath did, which terrified all Israel.”
“I conclude that the Man of whom I spake was a Man of a Gigantick size, in the Parish now called Aberystruth, the like of whom, it may be, was in no other part of Wales.”(pp. 64-5)
It is also interesting to note that, even in the 18th-century, local antiquarians were speculating about the medieval origins of these cross-country routes:
“As to the time of the Interment of this extraordinary Corps, we have no particular knowledge, but suppose it must have been sometime afore the building of the Church at Aberystruth; and after the building of Lanwenarth Church . . . I have some reason to think it was between the year 1100 and 1200.” (p. 66)
The giant continued to haunt the area until the early years of the 19th century. He was reputed to be particularly fond of peering through bedroom windows on Hallowe’en!
Bradney, J.A. 1907. A History of Monmouthshire: The Hundred of Abergavenny, Part II (repr. 1992, London: Academy Books).
Brook, D. 1988. “The early Christian Church in Gwent: a survey”, Monmouthshire Antiquarian, Vol. 5, part 3 (1985-88), 67-84).
Jones, E. 1779. A Geographical, Historical and Religious Account of the Perish of Aberystruth (Trefeca).
Knight, J. 2005. Civil War and Restoration in Monmouthshire (Woonton Almely: Logaston).
Salter, M. 1991. The Old Parish Churches of Gwent. Glamorgan and Gower (Malvern: Folly Publications).
Wright, A, 1939. “The church bells of Monmouthshire iv”, Archaeologia Cambrensis 94, 80-90.)
2, Gwent Archives
GRO D/Pa 57.27, 184?-61, Churchwardens’ accounts and vestry minutes, with undated plan pasted in.
GRO D/Pa 57.38, 1939-40, Correspondence re restoration of roof
3, Unpublished Reports
Cadw, 1996. List of Buildings of Special Architectural or Historic Interest- The Borough of Monmouth, List no. 140, Resurvey C – The Community of Llanfoist Fawr
Evans, E. M. 1997. Gwent Historic Churches Survey: Churches in the Diocese of Monmouth, Deanery of Abergavenny (GGAT Report 51).
Evans, E. M. 1998. Welsh Historic Churches Survey: Glamorgan and Gwent (GGAT Report 51/81).
Evans, E. M. 2003. Early Medieval Ecclesiastical sites in Southeast Wales: Desk based assessment
Evans, E. M. 2003-04. Early Medieval Ecclesiastical Sites Project (GGAT Report 73).
Sproule-Jones, H. R. 1971 Some Notes on the Parish of Llanwenarth Citra of St. Peter’s.
GGAT Historic Environment Record
04211g – St. Peter’s Church, Llanwenarth
08217g – Llanwenarth Churchyard
1778g – St Peter’s Churchyard Cross, Llanwenarth
For further details, visit: www.archwilio.org.uk