Gower is a peninsula extending eighteen miles west of Swansea into the Bristol Channel and in 1956 was designated the first Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in the UK. Within this small area of South West Wales are seventeen simple, stone-built Anglican churches, each containing layers of history in its features of architectural, artistic and cultural interest. Today they continue to be centres of Christian worship and prayer and at the same time are treasured for the way they reflect the history of Gower and its people for more than fifteen hundred years.
It is thought that Christianity was brought to Wales by monks from Gaul, before the Romans left in the early C5. By the early C6 this missionary work was reinforced by those from Celtic monasteries in South Wales – including Illtyd at Llanilltud Fawr and Cadoc at Llancarfan in the Vale of Glamorgam, Teilo in Llandeilo, Carmarthenshire, (with possibly a subsidiary at Bishopston in Gower) and Dewi (David) in Pembrokeshire. These men and their disciples played an important role in establishing the Celtic faith so that by the beginning of the C7 Gower was nominally Christian.
Early Eucharist worship took place in an open site, served by a non-resident itinerant priest working from a major monastery. Later burials of prominent Christians took place and were marked by sculptured and inscribed stones and crosses. This sacred area eventually became enclosed by a wooden fence or an earthen or stone bank and was called a llan. A tiny wooden chapel or oratory was added as time passed and through the centuries many of the churches we see today were built on or near these sites. Llan appears in many Welsh place names including several in Gower.
The Normans did not reach Gower until 1106 when the Lordship of Gower (Gŵyr) was acquired by the Marcher lord, Henry de Beaumont, Earl of Warwick, who divided the land into manors and demesnes as rewards for his knights. Local Welsh tribes however were successful in putting up a fierce resistance to the invaders since South Wales was distant from the centre of Norman power in England. Embattled church towers and ancient fortified farm houses are evidence of conflict continuing for several centuries and it is noticeable that some churches – Bishopston, Cheriton and Ilston – have secluded locations in valleys.
The next two centuries were a formative period when the Church in Wales was brought within the province of Canterbury and became part of the highly organised Augustinian church, headed by the Pope. The other major change had been the arrival of English-speaking immigrants, many from the Anglo-Norman army, recruited in Wessex, who (having killed local men in battle) married and settled on the accessible and fertile coastal lowlands of South and West Gower. Existing small settlements grew into villages and retained their Welsh names – Penmaen, Rhossili, Llangennith – but English was used for the place names of the newly created hamlets and farms and became the spoken language of these areas. With the addition of migration through the centuries from Devon and Somerset, following sea links across the Bristol Channel, most of Gower became English speaking – the Englishry or Gower Anglicana. Language and place names in the higher and less fertile land of North East Gower remained Welsh – the Welshry or Gower Wallicana.
It was during the late C12 and C13 that the churches of the Englishry became simple stone-built structures with a similar plan of chancel, nave and porch. An important feature on the chancel arch was the rood, rood cross or crucifix, with a fixed image of Christ, flanked by the Blessed Mary and St John. This was supported by a beam and platform decorated with candles and flowers and was accessed by steps from a door below. A wooden screen underneath the chancel arch separated the congregation in the nave from the priest facing east and celebrating Mass at the altar in the chancel. Externally the most striking feature was often the attached embattled or military-style tower protecting the building as a place of refuge for the vulnerable peasantry and minor landowners during sudden attacks from the Welshry. The latter continued for several centuries.
The administrative structure of patron, rector and vicar enabled the churches to develop as places of pastoral care as well as of prayer and worship. Most Gower churches were granted as a gift (advowson) to ecclesiastical patrons whose choice of rector for their parish would be presented to the bishop. In Gower three livings were held by the Abbot of the Abbey of St Taurin in Evreux, Normandy until after the Hundred Years War in 1414, when ‘alien’ owners were no longer allowed. In addition a total of seven churches were given to the Knights Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem. The famous mediaeval Order, formed at the time of the first Crusade, was part religious, part military and in addition to protecting the Crusaders was especially concerned with the care of the sick. The St John’s Ambulance Brigade continues this tradition today. At the Reformation all livings reverted to the monarch who in turn granted many to important local landowning families.
Gower was isolated and any changes in the churches from the C11 to the C17 very slowly mirrored what was happening in England, including the C16 Reformation and changes between Catholic and Protestant worship. Generally the buildings remained simple with few architectural refinements. Interior walls eventually became plastered and covered with paintings illustrating biblical incidents and the lives of the saints. Later the words of the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer were often added.
The first sign of real change in church worship began with the growth of dissent within the Protestant church and by the late 1640’s Swansea had become a stronghold of Puritan opinion. During the Cromwellian period four Anglican rectors in Gower were ejected from their livings, only for their replacements to be forced out by the 1662 Act of Uniformity. The Dissenters, later called Nonconformists of different denominations, continued to meet in homes and farms and from the late C18 built several chapels for their rapidly growing numbers, especially after a visit by the Calvinistic Methodist Howell Harris and four visits by John Wesley between 1762 and 1773. As a result attendance at Anglican churches drastically declined and by the mid C19 most of the churches were dirty and extremely unhealthy. The Revd. J. D. Davies, who wrote the History of West Gower, described the church on arrival at Llanmadoc as ‘meaner than the meanest hovel in the village’.
Consequently between 1850 and the early1900s all the churches were considerably improved by a series of major restorations – even rebuilding at Nicholaston and Reynoldston – funded substantially by local landowning families – the Talbots of Penrice, the Lucases of Stouthall and Thomas Penrice and his descendants at Kilvrough. Through such connections, nationally known architects from practices in London or Cardiff were usually given the contracts for this work. Unfortunately mediaeval murals were lost when plasterwork was removed and blending the new work with the old traditional materials did not always occur. The galleries, added at the west end in the late C18, usually to house a choir and orchestra, were removed, although two remain today. However an important feature that remained in all the churches were the bells hidden in the church towers and bellcotes, essential to summon people to worship and in early centuries to warn of danger. Ilston still has one of these, dating from the C15 (because of a crack it can be seen inside the church), but most other mediaeval bells were replaced in the C18. Some were cast by Davies, a local bell-founder at Oystermouth but those of much finer quality came from bell foundries in Chepstow, Bristol, Somerset, Gloucester and Loughborough. In the C19 further bells were added and Bishopston has an1850 clockbell, sadly no longer working, from the famous Whitechapel foundry in London which finally closed in 2017. The variety of bells and their inscriptions in the Gower churches have attracted the attention of historians and campanologists for some time.
During the C19 the most rapidly changing part of Gower was in the North East where many people had moved into the area to work in the numerous coal mines and industries, supported by the railway which reached Penclawdd in the 1860s and Llanmorlais a decade later. Along the edge of the Bury estuary, the incomes of many households were supplemented by ‘going to the sands’ to pick cockles which were then taken for selling in Swansea Market or to many homes throughout south Wales. A fine large church was built at Llanyrnewydd, Penclawdd in 1850 and later a small church at Gwernffrwd in 1898. These were to meet the needs of the expanding villages which already had numerous small chapels and impressive Nonconformist buildings in Penclawdd and Three Crosses.
The church building improvements were taking place at the same time as the Evangelical Revival and later the Oxford Movement both of which had some effect although most Gower churches remained ‘Broad Church’. It was really the greatly improved pastoral care and work of the C19 clergy which made the significant difference in rapidly increasing attendance and the churches with their choirs and other activities, including much fund raising, became the main social focus of their communities.
The C20 Church in Wales saw several major changes. The Disestablishment Act of 1914 was realised in 1920, separating the Welsh Church from the English state, to become another province of the Anglican Communion with its own Archbishop. Locally in 1923 the Gower churches, originally in St David’s Diocese, formed part of the newly established Diocese of Swansea and Brecon. Socially and economically Gower began to change as the close communities, dominated by agriculture, were developing into today’s dormitory villages for nearby Swansea and urban South Wales and as places of retirement for those from the rest of the country. While farming is still significant, it is the attraction of the whole peninsula, especially the coast and its activities, which has now made tourism, hospitality and services far more important for employment and the economy.
Although the church buildings are today almost unchanged physically from a century ago, many furnishings and works of art have been added as memorials to commemorate relatives, clergy and church members. In each church are memorial tablets to those who gave their lives in two world wars. Especially noticeable in several are some fine architectural stained glass windows, many produced by the Glantawe and the Celtic studios in Swansea. A few churches have adapted small areas to create meeting and social areas such as the weekly Caffi Cattwg in Port Eynon. Lectures and concerts take place. For more than forty years the Gower Festival of chamber music has been held for two weeks in July in a different church each evening. The wonderful acoustic and atmosphere of the ancient small churches is appreciated and loved by national and international professional musicians as well as the packed audiences.
Throughout the year all the Gower churches welcome visitors, not only those who come for worship, prayer and spiritual renewal or baptisms, weddings and funerals, but also for those interested and curious who wish to appreciate their simple charm, features of interest and unique history.