A History of St Cenydd’s Church, Llangennith

The original C6 church is thought to have been founded by Cenydd/Kyned/ Kennith/Kenetus, who was also associated with a hermitage on the nearby island of Burry Holms in Rhossili Bay. Both sites were destroyed by Viking raiders in 986 but the circular footprint of the original llan enclosure can still be traced around today’s churchyard. The present Early English style building dating from the late C11 and early C12, is dedicated to St Cenydd and is Gower’s largest church.

In the early C12, the Norman Earl of Warwick granted the church and the adjacent small priory cell, with its own Prior and one monk, to St Taurin’s Abbey at Evreux in Normandy. After the Hundred year’s War the living was given to build and endow All Souls’ College, Oxford until 1838, when it was granted to Thomas Price of Kilvrough. Nearby College House stands on the site of the priory which was active until at least the mid C15 ; as late as the 1920’s a cloister still ran along the south wall of the church in College House garden.

The church consists of a long chancel and nave and attached to the north-east corner of the nave is a massive square-sided saddleback tower with true lancet windows and evidence of a blocked-up substantial Norman archway at its base on the east side. This may have been the main church entrance or given access to the priory. The large porch on the north side is thought to be C13. A variety of building rocks were used on the site – local Old Red Sandstone, Carmarthenshire Pennant Sandstone and Dundry oolitic limestone from south of Bristol for window embellishment. The last quarries closed in the C15, having supplied stone for numerous well-known buildings, including Wells Cathedral and St Mary, Redcliffe, Bristol. Bath stone was used in the C19 restoration.

Evidence of changes in the building since the C13 can be seen in traces of ancient arches, windows, and doorways but a major restoration, financed by local fundraising, took place in the 1880’s and the church was re-consecrated in 1884. The chancel arch was remodelled from Norman to a wide, lofty neo-gothic form and behind the arch is a niche, a remnant of former rood steps. The architect for this was John Bacon Fowler who at the same time was responsible for the design and construction of St John’s Church at Gowerton. The result at St Cenydd’s is more restrained than much Victorian work which took place in other churches. A visible alteration was raising the floor level of the nave by four feet, to counteract damp, and the result can be seen today in ground-level niches in the south wall marking the tops of the former doorways into the cloisters (no longer exant).

The most remarkable feature in the church is St Cenydd’s Stone which since 2008 can be seen in a re-discovered and restored pre-Reformation niche in the chancel arch. Described for centuries as St Cenydd’s tombstone or a holy stone, the shape and peg holes indicate that it is most likely the base of a Celtic standing cross. Made from Pennant Sandstone, its intricate knotwork carving dates it to around the C9 – some centuries post- Cenydd.

Another relic of note and placed inside the north door of the church is a C14 mutilated effigy of an armoured knight. It is known locally as the ‘Dolly Mare’ which is thought to be a corruption of the name of late Norman Gower landowners, the de la Mare family. Like the font this was also carved from Dundry stone.

The C19th main altar and the carved candlesticks, still in use today, were made by the Revd. J D Davies, Rector of Llanmadoc from 1860 to1911 who also contributed to the cost of the 1880 renovations. The east window of three lights received the stained glass in 1945 depicting the risen Christ, with St Cenydd and St David on either side. Between 1960 and 1980, a number of fine features including, the font lid, the altar-frontal chest, a memorial cabinet and the churchwarden’s wands were made by local resident William Melling. He also made the lychgates showing scenes from the life of St Cenydd. The lych-gate itself is the only one in Gower and was given to the church in 1903 by the Helme family of Hillend. The tower houses four bells, three of which are undamaged. One dated 1722 bears the initials of Llangennith parishioners and the other pair, dated 1758 bears the foundry marks of W Evans of Chepstow. The well-known Gower folksinger Phil Tanner (1862 – 1950) is buried in the churchyard.

Like all saints many myths surround Cenydd who undoubtedly played a major role in the early Celtic church in South Wales. According to legend he was born with a withered leg, cast adrift in a basket in the Burry Estuary, rescued by gulls and reared by angels. Llangennith marks his Feast Day, the 5th July, by hoisting a model gull on the tower to fly high above the church, recalling Cenydd’s legendary rescue.

Burry Holms – Church of St Cenydd Burry Holms is a small tidal island in the north-west of Rhossili Bay and accessible from Llangennith. Archaeological surveys have revealed flints from a Stone Age seasonal camp, evidence of an Iron Age hill fort and ditch, Roman pottery fragments and the remains of a Pre-Norman hermitage within an enclosure, said to be associated with St Cenydd, In the late C14 references were made of grants to individual hermits at the chapel of ‘St Kenyth atte Holmes’ . Excavations in 1965-6 and 1998 revealed the ruined wall of a church nave with a chancel arch, living quarters and a possible classroom. Traces of these can be seen today.

Valerie Beynon
June 2021

%d bloggers like this: