A History of St Illtyd’s Church, Ilston

Ilston Church, in the attractive valley of the Ilston river, is dedicated to St Illtyd, of Llanilltud Fawr in the Vale of Glamorgan, one of the great saints of the early Celtic Church, and who may have been associated with the original C6 monastic cell on this site. Much of the present building in the Early English style, dates from the C13 when the Norman, John Le Breos, having been granted the Lordship of Gower, built the chancel and the massive embattled tower with a saddleback roof within a parapet. The nave was added later in mediaeval times and, as was the case in several Gower churches, is markedly out of line with the earlier structure. Until dissolution at the time of the Reformation the patronage was held by the Knights Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem and after being held by the Crown until C19, it was then bought by Thomas Penrice of Kilvrough.

Today the church consists of a chancel and a nave with a chapel, the tower and a porch all on the south side. Major restoration took place in 1847. The chancel arch was formerly round but then became pointed with a carved wooden moulded surround and now springs immediately from the south wall, making it appear asymetrical. Although the square double pews allocated to one or two farming families were destroyed they were replaced by free, open pews. However many original features remain. In the north wall of the chancel is a burial niche which is said to have held the effigy of the founder of the church. Inside the sanctuary is a 1769 tomb of the Mansel family, important Gower landowners. The floor of the modern vestry is covered with memorial stones, originally in the chancel, the earliest dating from 1682.

The east window which is not (as often) in the centre of the east wall has three lancet lights beneath a pointed arch and the external hood of the window has crowned heads for corbels. In the nave there are several windows of different sizes, design and ornamentation. A single trefoil-headed lancet of stained glass on the north side depicts the figure of St Illtyd and a similar lancet on the south side shows the ascending Lord. The porch on the south side of the nave contains a holy water stoop.

Originally the base of the large tower was sealed from the nave and thought to have been a monk’s cell before becoming a chantry chapel. Built into its south wall is a double aumbry. A Millennium project which received a Civic Trust award, involved the re-opening of the base of the tower into the church to reveal a beautiful chantry chapel.

The tower houses two bells, both dated 1716, Until 1974 there was also a third bell but because of a crack in its casing this is now on a small platform in the nave. Dating from the C15 this is inscribed with ‘Sancta Toma ora pro nobis’ – St Thomas pray for us – and was cast by the Bristol firm of bell-founders, named Jeffries.

Outside on the north wall of the nave, in line with the main door inside, can be seen a stone arch of what must have been a north or ‘devil’s door’. The yew tree in the churchyard is believed to be as old as the church. Behind the tower is a memorial slab to Joseph Price, a local C18 squire of nearby Gellihir, which is ‘an exceptional tribute to his archetypal goodness’.

In 1649 John Miles had been installed as the Cromwellian Minister but in 1660 was ejected after the Restoration. He then built the first Baptist Chapel in Wales one mile further down the valley. However in 1663 when the Act of Uniformity required acceptance of the Book of Common Prayer and dissenting assemblies became illegal, he left with his followers and established the settlement of Swanzey in Massachusetts, USA. A memorial to him was unveiled at the ruins of the Ilston site in 1928 by David Lloyd George. The Revd. Francis Kilvert, the celebrated diarist and friend of the Rector at the time, visited Ilston several times in the late C19 and wrote warmly of his happy days in Gower.

Valerie Beynon
June 2021

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