Ancient & Modern
The Modern Period
The history of the church can be divided into five distinct periods and it is perhaps better to start with the current or modern period.
21st Century Stained Glass Window in Side Chapel
The façade of the interior of the church as one looks at it today is pure 1864. The Victorians had a passion for adapting churches into what they considered a suitable style for worship which almost always coincided with the resurgence of Anglo-Catholicism. The investment by county families in the burgeoning Industrial Revolution was paying dividends and financed the changes. It also gave an opportunity for another Victorian occupation – self aggrandisement.
Thus Nevern Church came under the scrutiny of R.J. Withers, one of the notable company of architects, like Scott, Burges and Pugin, who created the popular image of the Anglican church that exists today.
Worship in the church has changed little since that time. The words of the Prayer Books have altered but still say basically the same thing. The same hymns – generally – are sung.
What has altered is the people and the clergy. Whereas the congregation until the 1960’s was predominantly Welsh speaking today they would be about 25% with a consequent decline in the use of Welsh. The average attendance on a Sunday would have then been in the fifties, today it is 25.
Nevern Church as it is today.
The last priest left the Vicarage some 10 years ago and the house was sold, the first time Nevern had been without a resident priest for 1500 years. The serious shortage of clergy has led to the emergence of elected leaders from amongst congregations – these are known as Focal Ministers who, if conscientious, have practically all the responsibilities and work of an ordained vicar.
The Celtic Period
So much for the modern and 5th period. We turn now to the very beginning, the coming of Christianity to Nevern and West Wales. We don’t know how early Christianity came to the Western Seaboard. There were evangelists known as Peregrinatio pro Christo travelling the coasts from at least the 3rd Century. The Apostle Paul makes clear in one of his letters that he was planning a trip to Spain so there were obviously Christians there in the 1st Century AD.
Brynach was one of the Peregrinatio pro Christo ‘Pilgrims for Christ’. All we know of him for sure is that he founded this church in 540 AD, that he founded other churches and died and is commemorated at Braunton (Brannock’s ton) in Devon. There are numerous legends about him, as with other early Saints, but these were written 400 years later at a time when the monks who wrote them were trying to ‘big up’ the role of the Church in Society. We don’t know if these are true, but, as Dr. Johnson said, ‘you may believe them or not without imperilment to your soul’.
The Vitialanus Stone with 5th or 6th Century Ogham Script (also Latin) inscribed on it – A monument to Maglocunus – Son of Clutorius.
The real reason Brynach chose Nevern was the protection afforded it by the Castle above the village which had been a fortified stronghold since Iron-age times and he was related to the Goedelic Tribal Chieftains who occupied it. Thus the first church came to be built in the shadow of the Castle.
10th Century Carved Cross
Architecturally, Celtic churches were stone and rectangle about the size of a modest bungalow today. They were very simple with a stone altar; stones too were used to make Christian symbols, elaborately carved crosses and simple crosses with a circle around the cross typical of Celtic work. As far as worship is concerned it has become fashionable to imagine that the Celtic Church was different and separate from Rome. This is nonsense, the Peregrinatio all learned their theology and scholarship by travelling to monasteries on the Continent which came under the rule of Rome. Worship was prayerful and free of elaboration. The early priests had to contend with the pagan beliefs and rituals that were still prevalent in the still largely forested hinterland.
The Celtic Period of the church’s history lasted five and a half centuries, longer than any other period but much less is known of it. It was just another of the numerous organic cells of Christianity that existed all across the country with constant exchange of scholars between the seats of learning in the great Cathedrals on the Continent, St. David’s ranking highly with these. The church in these centuries largely passed a peaceful existence being too far to the west for Saxon incursion. The two occurrences of note in this period are the arrival of the Vikings in the 9th Century and the phenomenon of Pilgrimages which began about the same time.
The Vikings sacked St. David’s in 878 and killed the Bishop and from then on were a constant scourge along the coast for three hundred years. Their Long-Boats, uniquely, gave them the opportunity to cross the North Sea and, because of their shallow draft, to navigate up rivers bent on plunder and the Nevern (or Nanhyfer) was one of these rivers. This is where the Castle played its most important role in the life of the church. They built a tower stronghold on a spit of land separated form the main castle where they would ‘sit out’ the Viking raids (fortunately for them the Vikings had a short attention span and were loath to lay siege preferring to push on to other targets). So, apart from having to occasionally rebuild their church, the Christians at Nevern were left relatively unhindered.
The Pilgrims’ Cross
Why Pilgrimages became such a popular phenomenon is not clear, but by the 10th Century three pilgrimages to St. David’s was regarded as equal to one to Jerusalem. The ostensible reason for their existence was to save one’s soul but they seem (according to Chaucer) to have been quite jolly things to participate in. What is not generally appreciated is the volume of Pilgrims – thousands upon thousands of them passed through Nevern alone. The Pilgrims Cross above the village is where they prayed for the next stage of their journey but the stunning evidence of their numbers are the deeply embedded record of their footprints in the slate steps they next ascended. They were a popular source of income to both the church and the castle for their overnight hospitality. Pilgrimages did not cease with the coming of the Normans, as we shall see in the next period but continued right up to the time they were discouraged after the Reformation.
The Catholic Period
10th Century Celtic Cross
The Celtic Cross and stone Crosses in the church date from this millennial time. The Normans having gained entry into the country in 1066 hit Nevern in the latter years of the 11th Century. They usurped the Goedelic Chieftains from the Castle (though their descendants still live in the parish to this day) and rebuilt the Castle in their usual Motte and Bailey manner. They evidently intended to make Nevern their manor in this area, which accounts for the present unusually large church for a small village, but changed their minds moving to Newport, building a much larger castle and populating the town with their loyal ‘English’ supporters. The church as it presently stands was built in this period, the oldest part being the Tower dating from about 1380 and the nave and Chancel following 1420-1450 built in the ‘Late Perpendicular’ style learned from the Normans. Building could actually have been earlier because in 1291 Archbishop Baldwin and Geraldus Cambrensis came through preaching Pope Nicholas IV’s 3rd Crusade raising money, Nevern’s annual value was £16 more than double any other church in the Deanery.
The Normans brought with them a new kind of religion, out and out Catholicism. In this period churches were often beautifully decorated with Biblical scenes (the people being unable to read). An intricately carved wooden Rood Screen would have stood between the Nave and Chancel. Icons of Saints would have reposed in niches for that purpose and Mass was the sole and principal Service. There were two other churches in the parish and no less than eight Chapels of Ease. Worship now took on a much more gaudy hue. The Normans instituted Saints Days when the populace were obliged to attend church and this was exploited by the Normans to establish markets on those days creating the first shops and wealth. The ‘living’ of the church was sold in 1377 to St. David’s Cathedral and attached to the College of St. Mary there, so the priests after that would probably have been Ordinands from the College. Their fortunes took an unexpected upward turn in 1348 with the coming of the Black Plague (Baccilus Pestis) and the enormous increase in demand for ‘last rites’ – incidentally the Black Death continued intermittently until 1665. Besides the eight Chapels of Ease and three churches in the parish there were numerous other sites of Holy Wells etc. this being an age of great veneration not to mention superstition.
The ‘Fallow’ Period
The Bleeding Yew Trees of Nevern were believed to have been planted before the ‘Fallow Period’, around 700 years ago
There had been grumbling about corruption in the Church for centuries, complaints about tyrannical priests, corrupt popes, demands for money, all of which came to a head in the late 15th Century with Martin Luther and others coinciding with the invention of the printing press which disseminated these complaints to a wider audience. Henry 8th with his own agenda of wishing to sire a suitable heir and having multiple wives to achieve this exploited the so named Reformation for his own ends and in August 1534 the last remaining priest from the Catholic era signed the abjuration of the rule of Rome in the church and the church became Anglican. The local populace regarded this with some bemusement. The tradition of pilgrimages, Marianism and ‘holy’ places was too ingrained to be abandoned, so they simply paid lip service to the new order and carried on as before, so much so that almost 60 years later Sir Thomas Perrot of Haroldston wrote to George Owen of Henllys instructions. “Places within this County of Pembrooke wherein times past there have been pilgrimages, images, or offerings, whereunto divers sorts of people do use to repair; that these idolatrous and superstitious monuments be pulled down broken and quite defaced”. Owen, the gadfly of Northern Pembrokeshire was only too ready to oblige reporting back to his master of the shrine to St.Meigan at Bridell that ‘ not one stone rested upon another’.
These were dangerous times. The Babington Plot of 1586 which sought to put the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots on the throne had ended in tears with Thomas Salisbury of the Llewenni Estate put to death with others of the Welsh gentry. Catholic practises went underground. There is at least one ‘priest hole’ known to be in the parish where clandestine Catholics practised Mass in the house, a capital offence at that time. This had a curious sequel which is recalled in the fourth period of this history. Henry 8th is usually blamed for the ‘sacking’ and iconoclasm in churches, he certainly laid waste to the monasteries but in his time and that of succeeding Tudor monarchs churches were left largely alone. The worse destruction was committed a hundred years later after the Civil War of the 1640’s. Puritanical Presbyterians gained the upper hand politically. A Commission was appointed to ‘sequester the Episcopal and Capitular Estates in South Wales’ in other words grab the wealth and this was led by a zealot named Vavasour Powell who pushed through an Act of Parliament ‘ For the better propagation of the Gospel in Wales’. One of his first acts was to get rid of 185 ordained clerics and replace them with untrained men literally picked from the street. Mass was prohibited, Cranmers Prayer Book discouraged and complete chaos ensued.
Churches fell into disrepair. The remnants of beauty of the Catholic era destroyed. The Nave of Nevern Church (which by common practise was not consecrated) was by far the biggest indoor gathering place in the parish and this is what it became. Games were played there, stalls set up, its role as a church all but subsumed. This is why it is known as the ‘fallow’ period.
Reaction to the fallow period came in the 18th Century, not this time from the Church but from the early Methodists and Baptists known as Dissenters. It was said that the people would accept any kind of worship as long as it wasn’t the current Anglicanism. A clergyman called Howell Harris of Trefecca in Brecon is credited
with leading the Revival. His preaching was enthusiastically received all over Wales but particularly in the South and produced from amongst the ordained clergy of the Church evangelists like William Williams Pantycelyen, Daniel Rowland, Griffith Jones, Thomas Charles of Bala and in Nevern, David Griffiths. Griffiths was born in 1750 and arrived at Llwyngwair as an 18 year old tutor. He was ordained and married into the Bowen family and became vicar of Nevern in 1782, remaining so for 42 years.
The Bowen Chapel
The clergy who adopted Methodism did not usually give up their Anglican Orders but their churches became Methodist in everything but name. In Nevern as in Newport a Methodist chapel attached to the church was built which is now the Village Hall. A gallery was constructed where the arch leading into the vestry now stands. This is where the choir sat for the new practise of hymn singing, which the evangelists largely introduced. Seats were introduced in the Nave.
The sequel to Powell’s iconoclasm mentioned earlier occurred now. The tenant of a large local house, ironically a Baptist Minister, reputedly found by accident ‘treasure’ in the house. This is all hearsay as there was never any admittance but it is so deeply embedded in local lore that it has the ring of truth and certainly the Minister having been a penurious tenant bought up many farms in the district and died a rich man. The owners of the house had been the protectors of the church for centuries and the ‘treasure’ reputed to be gold, was very probably the church plate and images, spirited away after the Reformation and finally hidden during Powell’s time.
Griffiths joined a band of great preachers travelling all over Wales, his memorial in the church credits him with ‘having brought thousands to righteousness’. The first four decades of the 19th century were prosperous ones for Wales, the country’s population doubled in that time. People were flocking to church but chapels were going up too, at the rate of almost one a week. The winds of change were blowing again. At Oxford University a new Movement was happening. Men like Newman, Keble and Manning were speaking of a renaissance in worship and architecture in churches to reflect what they considered to be the ‘purer’ style of Catholicism with an English ambience – Anglo-Catholicism. The children of the gentry who held sway over local churches were not immune to this and soon it became fashionable to want to employ architects and to radically alter churches to reflect the new style. Out went the barn-like structure of the old church, in came the neo-Gothic arches and fussy decoration and plethora of wall plaques. The old vaults where generations of local families, including the first Lord and Lady Kensington, were interred were sealed up. The fact that many elements of this style, e.g. decorated tiles, were pinched from Islam seems to have escaped the designers, and so in 1864 the change was made. Which, as they say, is where we came in.
The research for this page was provided by Steve Watkins – Nevern’s First Focal Minister
Unless otherwise stated all photographs are the copyright of Peter Heard, Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society