Written by Mrs Ursula Jepson
Illustrations by Mrs Ruth Miles
With grateful thanks to the Very Reverend D Huw Jones,
Vicar of Llanddew and Dean of Brecon and to Michael Jepson
for their help
The church is the oldest in the county of Brecknock and is historically interesting as the parish church of Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales) who was Archdeacon of Brecon from 1175 until 1203 A.D. The first mention of the church, probably built of wood, in Llanddew was in A.D. 500 when Aled (also called Eluned), daughter of Brychan, fled here for refused. The second church on this site must have been of stone, some of it elaborately decorated. The remains of the lintel of the great door with unusual markings (about 1020 A.D.) are in the south porch and a piscina of similar date is in the south transept.
The present church is a massive structure of the thirteenth century described by Professor Freeman as “unsurpassed for the combination of perfect plainness with perfect excellence”. Cruciform in shape, with a central tower and lancet windows, it is built of grey and red sandstone rubble. Though much restored it still contains original work.
Llanddew was a “clas” church, that is a mother church with monastic buildings. This was a peculiarly Celtic idea where a community of canons lived in cells (marriage was permitted) and worshipped together under a common code of rules. They went out to preach and celebrate communion locally under a cross in the open air. This practice probably ceased about 1170 A.D.
* Numbers refer to plan of the Church
*(1) THE TOWER This is centrally placed, short and squat and has plain belfry openings on all four faces with nineteenth century wooden louvres. Originally there were four bells but now there are only two. The tower was rebuilt in 1629 and round headed arches separate it from the nave and chancel. High up on the east wall of the tower, facing into the chancel, there is a carved stone which reads:-
“This steeple was newly erected and made in Apriel Anno Dom. 1629. William Havard Gent and William Griffith Gent then churchwardens.”
On the left of this stone are two coats of arms, those of William Havard and William Griffith.
(2) THE NAVE This is probably fifteenth century. The north wall has no windows but the south wall has three, of which those at either end have been heavily restored. The central window appears to be nineteenth century, but all three probably replace earlier windows of the same form. The west wall, containing three equal lancets appears to have been rebuilt in the nineteenth century and the junction with the older work can be seen about five feet from the west end of the nave.
The roof timbers are nineteenth century and so is the flooring which before then was of plain earth.
(3) THE CHANCEL is the oldest part of the church and is mush less restored. It is built slightly out of line with the town and nave and this is believed to represent the inclination of the Lord’s head on the cross. It is known as a weeping chancel. (This inclination of the chancel is not reproduced on the church plan). The east end has three lancets, the central one taller than the others and these have been partially restored. On the north wall there are three lancets matched by three on the south wall where there is also a
(5) PISCINA which is an alcove for washing the communion vessels.
(6) THE AUMBRY is on the north wall, where the bread and wine of the communion is reserve for use for the sick, was installed in 1975.
(7) THE CHANCEL CORBELS possibly once supported states or alternatively a rood screen.
(8) THE NORTH TRANSEPT is now used as a vestry and therefore kept locked. It has a remarkably slender lancet window in the east wall set in a tall altar recess.
(9) THE SOUTH TRANSEPT is also known as Capel y Cochiaid or chapel of the redhaired men. This has been considerably altered, probably in the early nineteenth century when it was used as a schoolroom.
(11) THE FONT is clearly mediaeval. It is a large cylindrical bowl lined with lead with an octagonal stem and a nineteenth century base.
(12) THE SOUTH PORCH was built in the nineteenth century. It has thick graded slabs for its roof similar to the main roof.
In 1620 much restoration work was started during which the tower was rebuilt and the nave extensively modernised. The church later became very run down and eventually was nearly in ruins. By 1875 the chancel, tower and transepts were all closed off and only the nave was in use. In 1884 there was further restoration and all parts of the building were again brought into use. The Lych Gate was built at that time, with a framework of native oak and a tiled roof supported by dressed stonework. In the course of this restoration traces of illuminations and sacred texts were discovered under the whitewash on the chancel walls. On the north wall were portions of the Lord’s prayer in Welsh; the characters and spelling used pointed to the time when the Bible was first translated into Welsh in the late sixteenth century.
It is believed that there was a fire in the church early in the nineteenth century when the parish records were lost. There are now none earlier than November 1812.
The pulpit, lectern and choir stalls are early twentieth century work. The ancient oak pews were bought in 1979 from Llangattock Church where they were no longer needed. Some had to be cut in half to fit Llanddew Church and the extra oak required for the ends came from a local tree recently fells. The organ was bought in 1982 from St Saviour’s Church in Birmingham.
Gerald of Wales
Opposite the church are some remains of the castellated palace of Giraldus, about which he stated “in these temperate regions I have obtained a place of dignity but no great omen of future pomp or riches and possessing a small residence near the castle of Brycheiniog, well adapted to literary pursuits and the contemplation of eternity. I envy not the riches of Croesus, happy and contented with that mediocrity which I prize far beyond all perishable and transitory things of this world.”
A fourteenth century doorway and part of a wall remain in the small garden. Just along the wall is Bishop Gower’s Well which can still yield a supply of pure water. It is built under the wall to enable those without to share it with those within the wall.
The vicarage was built in 1869 in the area where the Bishop’s Castle had stood. From then until 1983 Llanddew had its own vicar living in the parish. Now it is part of the group incorporating the Cathedral and St Mary’s in Brecon and St Cynog’s at Battle.
Gerald was one of Wales’ most colourful personalities. Born at Manorbier Castle near Tenby in 1146, he was the son of a Norman noble, William de Berri (or du Barry) and of Angharad, grand-daughter of Rhys ap Tewdwr, last King of Deheubarth (southern Wales). His uncle, David Fitzgerald, was the Lord Bishop of St David’s and it was his influence which encouraged Gerald to pursue an ecclesiastical career.
Gerald was Archdeacon of Brecon from 1175-1204 and Llanddew Castle was both his permanent residence in the diocese and the administrative centre of his archdeaconry. Brecon was then in the diocese of St David’s and Gerald wanted above all things to become its Bishop. Twice he nearly reached that position but for political reasons never succeeded in t his ambition nor in his other great desire to make the Welsh church independent of Canterbury. In 1188 Gerald accompanied Baldwin, the Archbishop of Canterbury, on his tour of Wales undertaken to raise money and recruits for the Third Crusade. The Archbishop spent a night on Llanddew Castle.
Gerald was one of the most learned scholars of his day and wrote over a dozen works in Latin, including an account of the Tour of Wales, a Description of Wales and two works on the History and Topography of Ireland, all remarkable for their lively style and vivid anecdotes. He died in 1223 and is buried in the precincts of St David’s Cathedral.
There is some uncertainty about the name Llanddew. Is it an abbreviated version of Llanddewi (the Church of Dewi or David) or is it a corruption of Llandduw (the Church of God)? In his “Itinerary” Giraldus Cambrensis argues for the second alternative. This seems unlikely as Llan (meaning a sacred enclosure, usually around a church) is almost invariably associated with a name of a saint or a geographical feature, such as the name of a river. On the other hand why was the finial ‘i’ lost if it was Llanddewi, since there are a number of examples of Llanddewi churches in mid and east Wales? Notwithstanding, traditionally St David is regarded as the Patron Saint of Wales.