Home | History | Natural History | Events | Gallery | Friends of Llangiwg | Restoration | The Charity | Shop | Links

> Llangiwg History

Llangiwg is a symbol of our community's continuity over 1,500 years. It is our heritage. It is irreplaceable.

Introduction

Llangiwg is situated at a cross roads on an ancient mountain route along which the Celtic saints travelled during the 6th century in the footsteps of far earlier people. Later, the agricultural community would have used these routes before industry opened up the valley. Llangiwg Church is of Celtic origin and is named after Ciwg the Confessor, a 6th Century saint who introduced Christianity into the area between AD 542 and 568.

Llangiwg Church

The first church on the site was probably constructed in the 6th century but was not as we see it today, as churches at that time were built from wattle and daub. The first stone churches were built about four centuries later, following the Norman conquest of Britain

The church one sees today was substantially rebuilt in 1812 (as demonstrated by the plaque on the southern external wall), but there are remains of the Norman church on the site. Part of the tower is Norman, dating back to the 13th century. The tower was much higher but had to be reduced in height as it was learning precariously. The belfry originally contained two bells. Only one currently survives. The aisle section dates back to Tudor times (16th century), but this structure was refurbished in 1812. During the refurbishment, the stone slates were replaced by Caernarfon slates. The roof was again replaced in 1997.

The walls of the church are built from local sandstone with occasional old red sandstone boulders included, originating from the Brecon area. The red boulders were transported by ice movement during the last Ice Age and deposited in glacial moraines (the debris picked up and carried at the base of glaciers). They were gathered locally and incorporated when the building was commenced.

The church was closed and it was put up for sale in 2004. It was purchased by the Friends of Llangiwg in 2007 as a voluntary organisation comprising members of the local community.

A remnant of the earliest Norman stone work can be seen in an old archway between the tower and west wall of the 19th. century Vestry. On the outside of the West wall to the north is a blocked archway, possibly the original entrance to the church. It is said to have been the largest parish in Wales. Llangiwg is of architectural interest as an example of a particular style, structural form and historical method of construction and as a redundant church would be under threat of disappearance unless preservation was assured.

The porch covering the doorway exhibits a relic of the church’s early Catholic origins, the stoup or basin for holy water. This has been carved from a solid block of conglomerate and dates to Norman times. It is a rare survivor from the time of the reformation under Henry VIII, when much of the Catholic symbolism was destroyed or confiscated. The stone benches on either side of the porch are also remains of the 16th century building.

Also in the porch is the top of a stone cross. This is part of an early Christian Monument, a round headed primitive Celtic incised cross, which dates to between the 7th and 9th century. It may have been a preaching cross. It was the tradition that preaching took place out of doors. The rarity and continuing existence of this stone in the porch of Llangiwg is evidence that it merits protection. Local tradition has it that this formed part of the “Gellionnen Stone” (now in the Royal Institution in Swansea Museum) and research is ongoing to establish whether the two stones are linked.

The so called “leper’s window” is another rare feature, which gives a further clue to the date of the east wall as being pre-Norman. Like the bricked-up doorway the design of this window reminds us of features we would expect in a Celtic church, giving us an idea of the size of the original church prior to the Norman invasion of Wales.

Llangiwg was originally a Roman Catholic Church and paid homage to the Pope until the Reformation during Henry VIII’s reign in the 16th century. In the 12th century Bernard, the Bishop of St David’s (Pembrokeshire) and Urban, the Bishop of Llandaff were involved in a dispute over the boundaries of their diocese. In 1119, and again in 1128, the Lordship of Gower, in which Llangiwg is situated, was considered to be in the diocese of Llandaff. Bishop Bernard produced new and convincing evidence that the church was in the diocese of St David’s and the Pope reconsidered his position and reversed his previous edict.

The development of industry in the valleys tended to concentrate the population on the valley floor and the trek to the services in Llangiwg Church, up the steep valley sides, focussed the minds on the creation of another church more conveniently located on the valley floor. This was the church of St Peter’s in Pontardawe. Work on its construction began in 1858 and it was completed in 1860.

The cholera epidemic of 1866 saw the graveyard at Llangiwg being used to bury victims from as far afield as Ystalyfera. Other churches refused to bury them. The poor who died in the Pontardawe Workhouse were also buried as paupers in the graveyard at Llangiwg.


Llangiwg Church's Norman Tower.
Llangiwg Church's Norman Tower.
Stained Glass Window by Marilyn Griffiths (2010).
Stained Glass Window by Marilyn Griffiths (2010).
Georgian Pews at Llangiwg Church (c.1812).
Georgian Pews at Llangiwg Church (c.1812).
Remnant of Llangiwg earliest Norman stone work in an old archway between tower & west wall.
Remnant of Llangiwg earliest Norman stone work in an old archway between tower & west wall.
Stone Cross - Early Christian Monument.
Stone Cross - Early Christian Monument.
Portion of Stone Cross (c.7th / 9th Century) in Llangiwg Porch.
Portion of Stone Cross (c.7th / 9th Century) in Llangiwg Porch.

St Ciwg

Christianity has played an important role in shaping the history of Wales. The 6th century is known as the “Age of the Saints” One of those saints, was Ciwg. A letter written in the late 17th century by Thomas Morgan in 1697 gives the location of his cell “in a rock annex to the churchyard over which rock there is at this day a little house built for the parish clerk called Y Maendy.” St. Ciwg lived there between 542 AD and 568 AD preaching and ministering to the community. . He was of a noble family and most likely to have been educated. This site is where the Christian faith first came to the Swansea Valley. Ciwg would have been a contemporary of the Patron Saint of Wales St. David, and would have attended the Synod at Llanddewi Brefi when St. David addressed the Welsh clergy in 545 A.D.

Holy Well

The presence of a well in the churchyard – described by CADW (the historic environment service of the Welsh Assembly Government) – as “holy” and the elevated position on The Barley of this redundant church suggests the presence of a community stretching back in time long before the coming of Christianity to the area. It suggests the existence of a pre-Christian original Celtic settlement to whom Ciwg came as a missionary.

The Maendy (“Stone House”)

Next to the churchyard are the remains of the Maendy Arms, built certainly before the 17th century. At one time the home of the curate, and later, it became the Cilybebyll Arms, an indication of the church’s association with the Herberts of Cilybebyll and part of the family of the Earl of Pembroke. Later the name was changed to the Maendy Arms but in the late 19th century it was abandoned and allowed to become derelict.

The local area

The ring cairn on Mynydd Carn Llechart (grid ref.SN 696063) and the remnants of many Neolithic burial sites demonstrates that humans inhabited this area 4,000 years ago and were the ancestral stock of the community that Ciwg came to convert to Christianity.

Llangiwg is recorded in The Chronicle of Wales (Brut y Tywysogion) as the place chosen by Llewlyn ap Iorwerth, Prince of Gwynedd, to camp after crossing the Black Mountains with his army in 1217 on his way from Brecon to attack the Norman castle at Swansea.

Pilgrimages

Pilgrimages in mediaeval Wales were very popular and two pilgrimages to St David's equalled one to Rome. When the building has the necessary amenities it will be possible to join a network called Small Pilgrim Places. To find out more go to: www.smallpilgrimplaces.org

St Illtyd’s Way

If the church is attributed to the 6th century, it is likely to be associated with St Illtyd’s Way and the ridgeway pathway. This is the most important feature of the church’s location, which gives an indication of the date of the site. The path which runs north to south and leads towards the village of Rhyd-y-fro is certainly the earliest route in that direction and continues towards the known route of Illtyd’s Way. Southward, it leads towards a ford on the River Tawe through the area known as Ynysmeudwy. Another path leads towards the site of Carn Llechart, which is a late Bronze Age or Early Iron Age and an important local site.

St Illtyd lived in the late fifth and early sixth centuries, and was held in high veneration in Wales, where many churches were dedicated to him in Glamorgan. St. Illtyd’s Way also forms part of the modern, St. Illtyd’s Walk - extending 64 miles from Margam (in Glamorgan) to Pembrey (in Carmarthenshire). A section links the Neath Valley with the Swansea Valley. A public right of way skirts the edge of Rhydyfro School and, from St Illtyd's Way at the back of the school, a path leads to Llangiwg.

 

A new look at Brychan and the early Saints - John Williams ©2015

Brychan was the first ruler of the land now called Breconshire. In fact,the town of Brecon is named after Brychan.In Welsh we have a different word for the town - Aberhonddu but we still use Brychan's name for the county, Brycheiniog. According to tradition, Brychan was born in 419 AD, shortly after the last Romans left Britain in 410 AD. Brychan supposedly had a great number of children by several wives, 24 daughters and
anything between 6 and 24 sons. With up to 48 children it's amazing that Brychan found time to do any ruling in Breconshire. Those of us whose ancestors come from Breconshire or the Swansea Valley are almost certainly descended from Brychan one way or another.

So what do we know about Brychan and his family?

The earliest stories about Brychan are found in a Latin document called Cognatio de Brychan,written in either the 11th or 12th century.Since Brychan lived in the 5th century there is a gap of six or seven hundred years between Brychan and the written account. A lot of things can change when a story is handed down by word of mouth for six hundred years.The story starts with Brychan's mother, Marchell,who lived where the  town of Brecon is now situated.In the fifth century the area was called Garth Madrun.Garth Madrun reached as far as Talgarth-in fact Talgarth means "the end of the Garth". Marchell wanted a husband,so she travelled to Ireland to look for someone suitable. She married a man called Anlach,the son of one of the kings of Ireland.
They returned to Garth Madrun and they had a son which they named Brychan. This is a strange tale.Normally we see the man looking for a suitable wife,and fetching her back to his home,not the woman looking for a husband and the husband following his wife to her home. Brychan's father Anlach is said to be buried in front of the entrance to Llanspyddid church, near Brecon.

North of Garth Madrun was the kingdom of Powys,and the king of Powys wanted to make sure that Garth Madrun did not cause him any trouble.Brychan's parents were in some way the rulers of that area, so the king of Powys demanded that Brychan was sent to his court as a "hostage".While Brychan was in Powys his parents would have to keep the peace and not cause any problems. However, the king of Powys
had a daughter, and she and Brychan became very close, too close, because the girl became pregnant and produced a son. The King of Powys was naturally furious and sent Brychan and the baby back to Garth Madrun in disgrace. The boy was given the name Cynog. The document then gives the names of Brychan's daughters, all 24 of them, together with six sons. This story about Brychan having 24 daughters was widespread in Wales. Gerald of Wales, who travelled around Wales in 1188 recruiting men to go on a Crusade to Jerusalem, also mentions Brychan and his daughters. He wrote that Brychan was the king of Breconshire and had 24 daughters, "all of whom ended their lives in sanctity". This is an amazing story, 24 daughters, all of them saints. If half of them had been saints it would be remarkable, but all 24 of them saints is too good to be true.

So the tradition doesn't actually say a great deal about Brychan.He was half Irish,his mother lived in what is now called Brecon and was in some way the ruler of that area,he was raised at the court of the king of Powys and had an illegitimate son called Cynog,he had several wives and fathered 24 daughters-all of them saints.The traditions are rather confused when discussing Brychan's daughters. Some traditions claim they were all holy and virtuous,devoting themselves to God,acting as missionaries and founding new churches across South Wales. Other traditions say they were married and had children one of Brychan's daughters was the grandmother of Ciwg, who founded Llangiwg, where we are tonight.

How can we interpret these stories about Brychan and his family?The traditions were handed down by word of mouth for six hundred years before they were written down,and a lot of things can change over six hundred years.Sometimes new stories are added to the original tradition, sometimes a lot of stories are forgotten. We have to be careful when dealing with traditions which were not written down for such a long time. We cannot say for certain how things happened, we can only suggest what we think may have happened. Different people may interpret the stories in different ways. A new explanation of the stories about Brychan was offered by the late Thornley Jones, a vicar in Cwmdauddwr near Rhaeadr, and I find his arguments very convincing.

Let's start with Brychan's mother Marchell, who lived near Brecon. The story about her going to look for a husband is remarkable, because it was the opposite of what normally happened. The husband normally took his new wife back to his home,not the other way around. This story indicates that Brychan's mother was clearly more important than her husband. The king of Powys took Brychan as a boy to his court to ensure that his parents, the rulers of Garth Madrun did not stir up any trouble. 
Since Brychan's father was a foreigner, it was obviously Brychan's mother that ruled Garth Madrun. Was it normal for a woman to be a ruler at that time, or was there something different about the people living in Garth Madrun?

And what about Brychan's daughters, all of them apparently saints? Why are they called saints? The traditions claim that Brychan's daughters travelled around South Wales as some sort of missionaries,converting people to the new religion of Christianity and building churches. Most of his daughters still have churches dedicated to them today. Some have villages or towns named after them,- Merthyr Tydfil is named after Tudful, Llandybie is named after Tybie,both of them daughters of Brychan. So Brychan's daughters originally had a llan or church named after them,sometimes more than one,and that is why they are called Saints

Today the word llan is used to describe a church-Llangiwg for instance but it was not always so. In the time of Brychan the word llan meant something quite different. The word llan was not used before Brychan's time, it was a new development that started after the Romans left Britain. Llan originally meant a "settlement", a village, if you like. Wales was a wild country covered with huge forests, so a number of people would clear a site by felling the trees and then building a new settlement. They would build a number of houses with a wall around the perimeter to protect themselves from attack.From various sources it has been estimated that a typical llan consisted of approximately 300 men. Assuming that most of these men had a wife and children,we are probably talking of a thousand or more people to each llan.They needed that number in order to be self-sufficient- clearing the forest,cutting trees,building houses,growing crops, raising animals and so forth.  When the number of people living in a llan increased too much,some would leave and build a new llan.So the word llan originally had no religious significance-it was a village or a settlement, not a church. Once the llan had become established,the inhabitants would want somewhere to worship, hether pagan or Christian,and a site would be selected for that purpose.Later,a building would be erected on that site as a place of worship. Over a long period of time the word llan was eventually used to describe the actual religious building instead of the village.

So these daughters of Brychan who built llannau across Breconshire did not actually build churches. They built new settlements or villages in the forests,and these settlements were named after them. When an early church or place of worship was built in the llan,possibly many years later,the church was named after the settlement which was named after the original founder. So,for example,when Brychan's daughter Tybie built a new llan it was named Llandybie after her.When a church was later built on the site it was dedicated to Tybie,even though Tybie had probably died many years earlier.If the person who built the llan died and was buried there the place was sometimes called "merthyr".Brychan's daughter Tudful was buried in Merthyr Tydfil,and Brychan's son Cynog-who built several llannau including St Cynogs in Ystradgynlais and Defynnog-died and was buried in Merthyr Cynog. The word merthyr does not mean martyr,it means a burial place.So Brychan's daughters were not saints at all,they were actually settlers who built new settlements across Breconshire.When the traditions were finally written down on manuscripts about 600 years later, the word llan had changed its meaning.It now meant a church,not a village, so the writers of the manuscripts thought-wrongly-that Brychan's daughters must have been saints building churches instead of pioneers building new settlements.

So,if Brychan's daughters were not saints, who were they? Why were they building all these new llannau across Breconshire? Why were the settlements named after women rather than after their husbands? And, if each new llan contained around 1000 people,where did all these new people come from? There must have been a great migration of new people moving into Breconshire and South Wales after the Romans left. We
know that many Irish families moved into Wales at this time,and possibly many Welsh people fleeing from the Anglo-Saxon invaders moved here for safety. The other settlements in Wales were named after men, but the Breconshire settlements were named after women,which suggests that these settlers were different. One possible explanation is that these incomers were Picts from Scotland.The Picts were Celts,just like the Welsh and Irish,and they spoke a similar language,so they would have been able to communicate easily with other Celtic tribes. The Romans built Hadrian's Wall to try to keep them up in Scotland, but they were constantly crossing the Wall and raiding southwards. The unusual thing about Picts was that they were a matrilineal society. That means that women were the heads of the families,and the land was owned by women and handed down from mother to daughter.Celts generally had a high regard for women and both sexes were treated equally.But the Picts went further than the other Celtic nations and placed women at the very top of society.
If this suggestion is correct,it would explain why the so-called daughters of Brychan became so well known.Families or tribes of Picts moved from the Highlands of Scotland after the Romans left, down to South Wales and settled in the Brecon Beacons. After all, they were highland people,raised in the mountains of Scotland,not lowland people. They spread out over the Brecon Beacons, clearing areas of the forests and
building new villages or llannau. They were not physically daughters of Brychan.Each of these women was the head of a family or a clan. Brychan's mother Marchell was probably the head of a Pictish family which settled near Brecon ,which explains why she was more important than her husband.After these Pictish settlers had colonised the Brecon Beacons they wanted to protect themselves from attack by other tribes, so the various families got together and elected Brychan as their king. His job was to safeguard and defend the new kingdom of Breconshire. Although he was recognised as the ruler of Breconshire, the families within Breconshire carried on in the old tradition,with women being the heads of each of the families or settlements.Only the Picts had women as heads of families,other settlers had men at the top,which explains
why so many llannau in Breconshire and the Beacons were named after women whereas llannau built by other settlers elsewhere were named after men.

So Brychan's daughters were not saints at all.Neither were any of the other people who had llannau named after them in the fifth and sixth centuries.Centuries later,when the word llan had changed its meaning from settlement to church,it was thought that those people-both male and female-who had given their name to a llan, had built a church rather than a village,and these people were then considered to be saints.

When the traditions about Brychan and the women of Breconshire were finally written down about six hundred years later,women had by then lost their position in society.Norman culture was all about men - the  King, barons, knights, serfs and so on,and women were by then the possession of men and did not not have  a voice of their own.

To a Norman it would be unthinkable that women once were heads of families and landowners,and that land had been handed down from mother to daughter.So the tales became confused and the female heads of families became church builders and saints.
They must have been daughters of the king rather than independent landowners.
Another factor would have been the arrival of Christianity. With the Celts women were equal and there are tales of women being druidesses. Some Celtic women such as Boadicea, led armies into battle. But Christianity thought that women were a distraction. They should cover their hair and sit at the back of the church. It is only very recently that the Anglican Church has allowed women into the priesthood,and Roman Catholicism still does not allow women to become priests. Roman Catholic priests are expected to stay celibate because women would distract them from their duties. Christianity followed St Paul and considered women secondary to men. any other religions such as Islam and Hinduism also consider women inferior to men.As Christianity spread through Wales, women were pushed downwards.Under Christianity it has taken fifteen hundred years for women to reach equality again with men.

John Williams.

 


6th Century Welsh Saint - Stained Glass.
6th Century Welsh Saint - Stained Glass.
Llangiwg outdoor service with Bishop of Swansea & Brecon.
Llangiwg outdoor service with Bishop of Swansea & Brecon.
Llangiwg Church's Holy Well.
Llangiwg Church's Holy Well.

Enter content here