For centuries Lower Machen was known purely as Machen until Upper Machen developed rapidly in the 18th and 19th centuries due to the Industrial Revolution. Upper Machen superseded the older village in importance and size and eventually took the sole name of Machen. As a result the Lower Machen name came into existence.
Further back in time there were Bronze Age settlements on the surrounding mountains and on the plain, by the river, was a Roman settlement. When the present A468 road was constructed, many Roman remains were discovered. Lower Machen was once important for its Imperial lead mines, brickworks and iron forges run with slave labour.
St. Michael’s is exceptionally important as it has been a continuous place of worship for over 1500 years. The tradition is that the Church was originally founded by Glywys ap Solor in the 5th century. He was the early Welsh king of Glywysing (modern day Glamorgan). His son was St. Woolos, founder of what is now St. Woolos Cathedral, Newport in the diocese of Monmouth. The first documentary evidence of a Church in Machen is in 1102 when the Norman overlord, Robert de Haia, gave to the Abbey of Glastonbury, the churches of Bassaleg, Machen and Bedwas. Over the centuries the church passed to Llandaff, the Lords of Gloucester and Glamorgan, and the Earl of Stafford. By 1535 the church in Machen had achieved the status of an independent Rectory, and part of the great lordship of Wentloog. Many changes have been made to the building over the centuries.
THE MORGAN CONNECTION
The Morgans of Machen were part of the great landowning Morgan dynasty of Tredegar who can be traced back to the early 14th century in Monmouthshire and had origins in Carmarthenshire. Thomas Morgan was the first to be called “of Machen”; he was Esquire to the Body of Henry VII, a title for a member of the gentry ranking directly below a knight. He built Plas Machen in 1490, a substantial Grade II* listed Elizabethan manor house, a short distance away on the road to Newport. Plas Machen was the original family seat of the Morgans in Machen. After Tredegar House was built (about l664 to l672) by Sir William Morgan, Plas Machen became a tenanted house. It has lost much of its previous splendour over the centuries but remains a fine example of Elizabethan building with its distinctive chimneys.
There has been a long association with the Morgan family who worshipped at St Michael’s and 14 are buried here in the Morgan Chapel. They were great benefactors to the church and village. From the building of Plas Machen in 1490 the Morgan family principally worshipped at St Michael’s, but with the sumptuous rebuilding of Tredegar House they then worshipped at St Basil’s, Bassaleg. The Tredegar heir would live at Ruperra Castle and worship at St Michael’s.
Early in the 18th century, John Morgan, a London merchant and son of Thomas Morgan of Machen, bought Ruperra Castle as his home. In 1710 John purchased the Lordship of Wentloog becoming Lord of 17 manors and continuing the family’s support of the Church in Machen.
THE ENTRANCE PORCH
Entering the 17th century porch, with low wrought iron gates, benches and stone flagged floor, the Church is accessed through two sets of double doors. The outer door is solid timber.
The inner doors were made by Aaron Edmunds in 1830 and are covered with red baize at a cost of four pounds eleven shillings (£4.55). In 2006-2007 these doors were wonderfully restored by a local resident and church member. The baize was refurbished together with new sprigs and nails.
Services commenced at 11.15 a.m. which enabled the servants of nearby Ruperra Castle to finish their household chores, get dressed and walk to church through the fields, (a distance of 1.5 miles or so, or over 3 miles by road). They would line the churchyard path, the maids dressed in black cloaks and bonnets, waiting for the Morgan family to arrive by carriage drawn by a pair of greys. The time of service remains the same to this day.
The nave is believed to date from 1103 but was rebuilt c.1600 and has had many alterations over the centuries. It has a barrel vaulted ceiling. Originally it was a plain oblong, with no tower or chancel. There are 21 mainly 18th century tombstones in the nave floor and another 9 in the chancel.
The font, thought to be 18th century, is unusual with a small plain bowl on a slim single column, with an acorn design top. At a baptism the acorn is a symbol of life, fertility and immortality. The ancient saying “From little acorns grow mighty oaks” is symbolic of strength, endurance, virtue, longevity, and spirituality. So the meaning of the acorn is a wish for a good and long life.
Within the village a cast iron acorn finial can be seen at the former National School and Schoolhouse opposite St Michael’s. While this also reflects young life leading to greater things, iron acorn finials, cast by the Tredegar foundry are found at various sites associated with the Tredegar estate. Four can be seen at the main entrance to Machen House and they also feature at the entrance to St John the Baptist in Machen 1.5 miles away.
There was a gallery on the west wall for a choir, and parish records detail the purchase of ‘ale for the psalm singers’. The divided window on the north wall was to give light to the gallery. The latter was removed when a major refurbishment took place in 1901, including renovation of the tower which was paid for by Lord Tredegar.
There was a three deck pulpit until in 1826, a carpenter was paid ‘to make a new box in the pulpit and repair the two benches below it’. There are niches on each side of the pulpit for statues which may have been of St Michael and Angels. Steps led up to a rood loft and screen which would have divided the nave and choir from the chancel. A rood (derivative of the Anglo-Saxon word for cross) was a large cross suspended in the middle of the nave. Most of the rood screens and images in Monmouthshire were removed during the reign of Edward VI and it is probable that St Michael’s suffered the same fate.
A hatchment, at one time known as an ‘achievement’, showed the coats of arms of deceased great families, and was usually displayed outside their homes for a while before being placed in the parish church. Hatchments are made from wood and canvas. On the walls are 11 hatchments to members of the Morgan family, with their details. Three of the hatchments appeared in the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow broadcast on 23 November 2014.
Hatchments for three ladies are included, which is considered unusual. On the wall of the chancel arch, above the organ, is the hatchment of Mary, wife of Charles Morgan, MP, who died in 1777 aged 42. She was a wealthy widow, and several coats of arms are depicted including those of her first husband.
On the north wall is Frances (b.1800), wife of the Revd. Augustus Morgan, who died in 1867. On the south wall is her older sister, Anna Lascelles, who died in 1862 and was a regular visitor to Machen.
Frances was much loved for her visiting of the sick, and giving numerous parties for the children. The white marble tablet on the north wall of the Morgan Chapel is dedicated to her and carries a sad poem about this much missed lady.
On the north wall, near Frances’ hatchment, there is one for Revd. Charles Augustus Morgan (1800-1875), who was Rector here for 42 years. He was the third son of Sir Charles Morgan, and established the Church School in the building opposite the church, now a private dwelling.
At the age of 14 he served in the Royal Navy and then aged 19 went to Christchurch, Oxford, graduating with a M.A. in 1827. He was curate in Machen in 1828 and was made Rector in 1831. He had the foresight to compile the parish censuses for 1839, 1844 & 1853, the latter listing all the children in the school and the occupations of their fathers, adding valuable details to the history of Machen. The construction of our daughter Church, St John the Baptist, in Machen (1.5 miles away) is largely due to the Revd. Morgan.
Augustus and Frances are buried in Bassaleg.
Also on the north wall there is a hatchment to Francis Miles Milman, who died in 1856. In 1817 he married Maria Margaretta Morgan, a daughter of Sir Charles Morgan, whose younger brother was Augustus Morgan.
The hatchment depicts Lieut. General Milman’s battle honours from the Peninsular War. He was commissioned as an ensign in the Coldstream Guards in 1800, aged 17. He was present at several battles but at the battle of Talavera (27–28 July 1809) he was seriously wounded and was taken prisoner. Later he was appointed Colonel of the 82nd regiment and in 1851 became Lieutenant General.
The chancel is probably 13th century. The walls are of exposed rubble stone with a pointed recess to left of the East window. The walls are much thinner than the nave, and are butted up to its east end. There is a crude piscine on the South wall and shapes of previous windows can be seen near the altar. The broad late medieval chancel arch is decorated with a gilded Royal Coat of Arms dating from c.1816.
The Portland stone altar, designed by John Butler, was donated by Harry Secombe, the famous comedian and singer, whose brother Fred Secombe was Rector of Machen 1954-1959. The previous altar was much smaller and can now be seen in the Morgan chapel. The Revd. Secombe was also the author of several light hearted and humorous books based on his experiences as a newly ordained priest in South Wales.
THE MORGAN CHAPEL
On the west wall of the chapel is the most impressive monument. The inscription on the right panel is for John Morgan, d.1719, nephew of John the Merchant. He was married to Martha Vaughan d.1729, daughter of Gwyn Vaughan of Trebarried. He was M.P. for the Monmouthshire Boroughs in 1701 and for the County in 1708. He was also Lord-Lieutenant of Monmouth and Brecon in 1715. John & Martha are buried in the Chapel.
The inscription on the left panel is to Sir William Morgan (1700-1731), son of John and Martha. He held high office and was a Founder Knight, Order of the Bath (K.B.). William enjoyed a flamboyant life style, his annual expenditure in 1725 being over £37,000.
He married Lady Rachel Cavendish, the daughter of William, 2nd Duke of Devonshire, in 1723. His premature death left his wife with four young children, two dying quite young. None of the male line survived, the second son dying in 1763. Lady Rachel died in 1780 aged 83 and is buried here with Sir William.
** Lady Rachel’s portrait in the Morning Room at Tredegar Park ©National Trust Images/James Dobson
On the inner wall of the tower there is a huge stone depicting a grotesque man’s face with streaks below to indicate a beard. It was originally found in about 1901 in the grounds of Machen House which adjoins the church and was then the Rectory. Roman pottery has also been found in the old stables close by.
The stone has been the subject of much speculation and when the Monmouth and Caerleon Antiquarian Society visited Lower Machen on 28th July 1927, it was noted as being at least as old as the Church. Sir Cyril Fox, archaeologist and a director of the National Museum of Wales pronounced it to be “a Gorgon’s head from the central block of the pediment of a pagan shrine”. However, more recently, there have been other opinions that this mysterious object could be from the 17th or 18th century.
The tower itself had been added to an earlier nave, and is probably 15th century; the east side shows the line of a steeper nave roof. There were three bells in 1740; a ring of six was cast in 1768 by Thomas Bailey, a bell founder from Bridgewater, Somerset. In 1911, the wooden bell frame had become so rotten and worm eaten that it was too dangerous to ring the bells. A new iron and steel bell frame together with a new chiming apparatus was therefore installed. The peal of six bells was increased to eight at that time by adding 1 treble and 1 tenor bell, and they are still regularly rung by a very dedicated team.
Church records tell that it was common to bury people in the tower for the price of a set of bell ropes, and payments are also noted occasionally for ‘clearing rubbage and bones under the gallery’.
In June 1988 the bells were rehung and the tower was restored which was only possible due to a bequest from Miss OVI Sutton (1903-1986). A plaque recording Miss Sutton’s generous gift is to be found on the west wall of the nave.
The churchyard is Grade 11 listed as it has the base of a medieval preaching cross on a stepped plinth. Many cross-heads were destroyed during the 16th and 17th centuries and the one at St Michael’s was probably damaged during this period.
It is very old indeed. According to Gerald of Monmouth, at this very spot at St Michael’s, Archbishop Baldwin of Canterbury while on his journey through Wales in 1188, preached in support of King Richard the Lionheart’s Third Crusade to the Holy Land.
Many years later, John Wesley preached here in English, on Friday 16th October 1741, during his third visit to Wales. That day he had travelled, probably by horseback, to Wilcrick, Magor and Llanmartin, and then preached with Daniel Rowland at Machen and St Brides Wentloog. Even in the smallest villages large crowds, some walking miles, came to hear him speak. He often gave four sermons on a single day even though some of them could be 2-3 hours long. Unfortunately there seems to be no detailed record of his sermon at Lower Machen.
The gates are also listed as a good pair of mid to late 19th century cast iron churchyard gates between stone Gothic piers. CADW has commented on the unusual elaboration, particularly on the top part having alternate small and large spearhead finials.
OUTSIDE THE CHURCH
The Lower Machen conservation area is set within the Lower Machen Archaeologically Sensitive Area, a much larger protected area designated as being of special archaeological interest. The Church of St. Michael together with its churchyard formed the medieval core of the area and is today at the heart of this small village. A number of the structures relating to the church are listed in their own right.
Machen House and gardens are notable not only for the visual impact on the conservation area but also for the important historic link with the Morgans of Tredegar at a time when the family was at the height of its importance. Revd. Augustus Morgan, the younger brother of the 1st Lord Tredegar, built the house and laid out the gardens between 1831 and 1835. The site included a maze and kitchen garden which no longer exist. Today Machen House is listed Grade ll* and the gardens are listed Grade ll on the CADW Register of Parks and Gardens in Wales. Machen House and gardens are privately owned and are not open to the public. Although much of this area is beyond public view the distinctive castellated boundary walls with mock turrets built in local stone have an obvious influence on the appearance of the village.
Some of the older houses in Lower Machen did once have different functions. For example ‘Parkfield,’ opposite the church, was once the Lower Machen National School and Schoolhouse. It is shown on this cross-stitch sampler made by the 15 year old Mary Cosslett in 1837.
The names of other buildings in the village give a clue as to their original function or associations, for example, The Toll House, The Forge and The Old Post. Most of the older houses date from the mid-19th century. Several of these were built by the Morgan family for their estate workers and some display the distinctive architectural features of Tredegar estate properties, notably the gothic arched windows and use of hoodmolds (Carved mouldings above doors & windows).
REFERENCES & THANKS
J.A. Bradney: History of Monmouthshire
CADW: Welsh Historic Monuments
C.J.O. Evans: History of Monmouthshire
Tony Friend: Lord Tredegar’s Ruperra Castle
The Glamorgan-Gwent Archaeological Trust
Gwent Federation of Women’s Institutes: The Gwent Village Book,
Gwent Record Office: Machen Church Records.
D Lloyd Isaac: Siluriana
John Newman: The Buildings of Gwent
Newport City Council
Roger Phillips: Tredegar: The History of an Agricultural Estate 1300-1956
Delphine Coleman & William Graham for sharing their knowledge of local history and architecture and most of all, giving inspiration to the telling of our story.
This guide has been made possible by a generous grant from The Heritage Lottery Fund. With their funding, the Parish of Machen has been able to replace the nave and chancel roof with traditional Welsh slate and preserve this historic building for future generations.