History of St Gwynno’s Church, Vaynor

A note on the history of
St Gwynno’s Church, Vaynor.
Our appreciation to Mrs Ena Moreton for providing this information

The story of St Gwynno’s goes back to 8th Century. The original form of the parish name was Maenor Gwynno, manor of Gynno. The first early wooden church is believed to have been burned down in 1291 during the battle of Maesyfaenor, an epic struggle between the two neighbouring Norman lords, Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Brecknock and Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester, over the ownership of the nearby Morlais ridge and surrounding lands.

De Bohun won, at the cost of much bloodshed on both sides. Many were buried under the mound beyond the old church known as Cae Burdydd, or field of slaughter, about 100 yards down the track from this church. St Gwynno’s was rebuilt in 1295 and lasted for some 600 years when it became unsafe and was abandoned in the middle of the 19th Century.

De Bohun and De Clare

A fierce dispute broke out between Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford and Lord of Brecon, and. Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester and Lord of Glamorgan, which led to fighting between the two powerful Barons on the borders of Glamorgan and Breconshire. Dc Glare had built a strong castle at Morlais near Merthyr on land which de Bohun claimed as his own. Raids were made on either side and this part of the country became lawless and swarmed with brigands (“The Welsh Wars of King Edward the First” by John E. Morris). The King’s Writ did not run in the Marcher Lordships. As the Marchers had fought for; and won their estates, they claimed the right to do as they pleased, within their own territories. In Glamorgan, they were known as “Arglwyddi Pren a Phwll” (Lords of the tree and the pool), as they had all the power to order men culprits be hanged and women culprits to be drowned (Rice Merrick and “Edward the 2nd on Glamorgan” John Griffiths). Both King and Marchers were aware, now that the power of the princes of North Wales had been broken, that the custom of private wars between the Marchers would have to be stopped. Edward was determined to enforce the doctrine that the dignity of the Grown was to be respected, and that the Lord. Marchers should be placed on a footing similar to that of the Crown tenants in England.

This private war between the Earls of Gloucester and Hereford was a unique opportunity for interfering and breaking the custom. Accordingly, the King sent a strongly worded proclamation to the two Earls to abstain from active hostilities on 25/1/1290, which Hereford obeyed. Gloucester’s men, however, under his bailiffs with the Earl’s banners, marched from Morlais castle and arrested and killed men from Vaynor, Penderyn and Ystradfellte parishes on three occasions during 1290. They carried, off 1070 head of cattle, 50 horse and bulls and countless sheep and pigs, of which the Earl received the usual one-third share. And soon brigands, who swarmed in the district, people who had been driven from their own homes when de Clare’s had extended their forests in Miskin or had escaped punishment or misdeeds by running away, also began to take part in the raids. In. addition to killing people and stealing animals, they committed sacrilege by taking away the chalice and ornaments from Penderyn Church, they set on fire together with Ty Ralph, Possibly the loot was taken by the brigands through ‘Bwlch y Lladron’ near Hirwaun.

Following these disorders, the King decided to act. Early in 1291, the Bishop of Ely, the Earl of Pembroke and two regular judges were commissioned to hear the case. The two Earls were to appear with the incriminated bailiffs at Ystradfellte on Monday, March 12th 1291. What a “Red Letter Day” this must have been for this quiet and secluded village!

Probably never before or since has such an assemblage of the most eminent notabilities in all their splendour, Barons in mail-armour on well-groomed horses been seen at Ystradfellte. The trial was to have taken place as Castell Coch, Ystradfellte; Hereford arrived punctually but Gloucester, who was married to the King’s daughter and was the most powerful baron in the country at that time, defied the king.

The Court adjourned, to Llanddew, near Brecon, but Gloucester was again absent. The trial proceeded and Gloucester and his bailiffs were found guilty, the damages being assessed at £100. Eventually at a great Council of Archbishops, Bishops, Earls and Barons, presided over by the King in person at Abergavenny at Michaelmas 1291, both Gloucester and Hereford, who were present, were sentenced to be imprisoned and their great lordships and estates to be confiscated. Gloucester was fined 1000 marcs and £100 for damages, and Hereford 1,000 marcs. Gloucester only lived for three and a half years longer, a sadder and wiser man.

In 1294 there was a general rising throughout Wales against being sent overseas to fight in Gascony and against the extortions of sheriff’s and bailiffs. The men of Glamorgan were led by Morgan or Rhys ap Morgan against de Clare and possibly this was the occasion or the origin of the stirring tune:
‘Rhyfelgyrch Cadben Morgan”
Rhwym wrth dy wregys gleddyf gwyn dy dad
Atynt fy machgen dros dy wlad

The King cancelled his voyage to Gascony. He marched through Wales from North to South and was in Merthyr Tydfil on June 14th and 15th 1295, when he received the submission of the men of the Taff and Cynon Valleys, who had previously declared, that they had risen against Gloucester and not the King.

Gilbert de Clare, the Red Earl, died on December 7th 1295, and his young son Gilbert was killed at Bannockburn, in 1314. The great possessions in England and Wales were divided among three married sisters.

The land for a new building was given by Mrs Mary Williams of Penrhadwy. Vaynor, and work was about to start when Robert Thomson Crawshay, ironmaster at Cyfarthfa, four miles away, offered to build the church at his expense if the money already raised by the congregation, about £700, was put towards what is now St John’s in Cefn Coed. For many years this church was known as St Gwendoline’s, a mistaken dedication caused by confusion among scholars over Welsh and English usage.

Father Silas Morgan Harris (1888-1982) corrected the name whose scholarship embraced the Welsh saints and the history of mediaeval Welsh church. St Gwynno appears to have been Abbot Gwynno, born either in 487 or 507, whose feast day falls on October 22 and one of that company of Celtic saints who travelled spreading Christianity throughout these lands. In Scotland he is known as Guinochus and also credited with founding Plouhinec in Britanny and Kilglin in Co. Meath in Ireland. A contemporary view of St Gwynno can be seen in the fine bas relief near the entrance; He is shown with his shepherd’s crook and the invocation ‘St Guinoce, OPN’ – his Latin name and initials of Latin invocation Ora Pro Nobis (Pray for Us). The sculpture is signed AJJA, work of Arthur Ayres, winner of the Prix de Rome 1931 whose works can be seen in major international permanent exhibitions.

This work is in memory of Canon William Henry Harris (1884-1956), elder brother of Father Silas. Both were born in Pontsticill and firmly on the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church. Canon Harris, known as Father Bill, was professor of Welsh at Lampeter. precentor of the chapel and canon treasurer of St David’s Cathedral, Continuing the family connection, the stained-glass window opposite, depicting the Blessed Virgin and Child, was given by the Harris brothers in memory of their mother, Ann, and is inscribed in Welsh with a line from the Hail Mary Blessed art Thou amongst women. The figure of the guardian angel further down the church could not be more distinctively Victorian. The angel is in memory of the four daughters and two sons of the Williams family at
Penrhadwy, whose mother gave land for the church. All died in quick succession in their twenties and early thirties in the 11 years between 1859 and 1870.

The angel is by Joseph Edwards, Merthyr-born sculptor whose works are also to be found in Westminster Abbey. He was born in 1814, son of a stone-cutter, and is said to have been in love with one of the Penrhadwy daughters. The angel is reputed to have been modelled on her; one of the final three works in a career that saw 70 of his sculptures exhibited at Royal Academy.

The altar and reredos, with its carved woodwork and panelling, date from 1912 given in memory of Herbert Kirkhouse (died 1904, aged 72) a mining engineer at Cyfarthfa Works who married Maria Teresa, one of the Penrhadwy daughters. Maria Teresa is commemorated in the oak font, given by her son in 1930.The present St Gwynno’s was completed in 1868 a year before consecration by Dr 0llivant Bishop of Llandaff, standing in for Dr. Thirlwell, Bishop of St David’s.

The churchyard is noted for the grave of Robert Thomson Crawshay, the church’s benefactor, with its 11-ton granite slab inscribed ‘God Forgive Me.’ There are also graves of people at the lead edge when Merthyr was at the height of its industrial power, though many have been lost to the march of time.

The vegetation on the steep slope running down to the banks of Taf Fechan is now sanctuary to wild life, plant and animal; a protected nature reserve. Speed was not a speciality of Gruffydd Shon, the old bachelor, whose lady love tired of waiting for him and married a farmer. Gruffydd who died of a broken heart composed his own epitaph that existed as late as 1870 but vanished when his gravestone was broken during demolition of the old church. It read:

Here lies the body of Gruffydd Shon
Covered here with earth and stone
You may sweep it up or leave it alone
It will be just the same to Gruffydd Shon.

In the 140 or so years since St Gwynno’s re-build it has shown signs of strain. In 1969 the church tower on the verge of collapse was taken down and remodelled with a new steeple costing £2000. In the 1980s the church was re-roofed with pantiles as near the original as possible; in the late 1990s the internal floor was replaced and whilst work was going on services were held in Pontsticill village hall; the churches own parish hail having been sold in a few years earlier. For most of its 1200 years St Gwynno’s was mother church for the scattered farms and cottages of Vaynor. When Dolygaer reservoir was completed in 1862 and work began on Taf Fechan reservoir in 1910, Pontsticill, the village that originated as home to those involved in the water industry, grew up a mile from the church where many of its congregation now live. The only other building in the immediate vicinity is the Church Tavern, built in 1823, which started life as a Court where law was administered and later became a celebrated local hostelry until its conversion into a house in 2000.