A History of the Church of St Rhidian and St Illtyd, Llanrhidian

The original parish of Llanrhidian was the largest in Gower, occupying the north east quarter of the peninsula, from Weobley in the west to Dunvant on the edge of Swansea in the east. This included the good arable and early-settled section which later became Llanrhidian Lower and the hilly, poorer pasture land of Llanrhidian Higher, originally sparsely populated until the C19 mining of the rich coal seams and the coming of the railway. As the farm and hamlet names indicate, the former area was taken by the English after the Normans came but the Welsh remained dominant in the latter. The large church we see today reflects the importance of the village with its small port in past centuries.

The ‘llan’ of an early Christian site at Llanrhidian can be traced around the edge of the present churchyard and it is believed the C6 place of worship was dedicated to St Rhidian, a Welsh saint who later settled in Brittany. In October 2020 his statue of granite, almost 4 metres high was placed in the rolling Poher landscape of the Valley of the Saints at Carnoet in central Brittany. Rhidian’s statue joined those of fifty other Celtic saints, including Dewi (David), Elen, Caradoc and Gwen; many more are planned. A link has been established with Llanrhidian Church and, travel permitting in 2022, it is hoped that some members will be able to attend the unveiling of the monument. In 1167 the living was granted to the Knights Hospitallers of St John who retained it until Dissolution in 1540.

The chancel and tower of the present building date from the C13. Much restoration took place in 1856 when the original nave was totally rebuilt and extended, making it the longest and widest of all Gower churches. At the west end is a small gallery. Funding came from both the Talbot and Vivian families. Further restoration took place from 1899 – 1901 with a new ceiling to the nave and major work on the chancel. The latter included fixing an oak roof, laying a beautifully tessellated floor as well as erecting teak choir stalls and an oak chancel rail with brass standards. Miss Emily Talbot bore the total cost of this work. Like other churches in N W Gower, the interior also has works by Revd. J D Davies. This includes the carved oak altar and an amazing 324 bosses for the Nave’s ceiling.  

The church has some fine stained glass windows. In the chancel are two windows both made by Jones and Willis from Birmingham and installed in 1901; one at the east end has three lights and the other is a two light in the south wall of the chancel. The three light window at the base of the tower is also the west window of the gallery and appears to be original with stained glass having been added as a memorial. In the south wall of the chancel is a piscine, and a blocked up priest’s door which can be seen clearly from outside. In the porch is a Pre-Norman sculpted slab known as the ‘leper stone’ with representations of human and animal figures. In 1865 this massive piece of limestone was found buried beneath the soil near the west tower doorway and was moved into the porch in 1910. The date is believed to be C9 or C10, possibly a hog-back tombstone and might have Viking origins.

The massive embattled stepped west tower with coupled lancet windows is considered one of the best in Gower. Within the parapet is a huge solid stone block known locally as the ‘Parson’s Bed’. Its real purpose was a fire beacon to raise the alarm when enemies approached by land or sea. The single bell in the tower is inscribed H Eaten, 1788.

The oldest tombstone in the churchyard is dated 1646 and is attached to the outside of the south wall of the church. At the church gate is an inscription in memory of the lost village of Llanelen. (See below). On the green on either side of the path to the church gate stand two large monoliths. The larger, five to six feet high, is thought to be the base of a mediaeval wheel cross and formerly used as a pillory.

Llanelen : St Elen

Just over a mile to the north east of the village, on a south facing slope are the ruins of an early church and settlement, called Llanelen. It was thought that the name indicated a dedication to Elen or Helen, the C5 Christian wife of the last Roman ruler of the British Isles. Today it seems more likely that she was the Celtic Saint Elen, (commemorated in Brittany above) who has two other churches in South Wales also dedicated to her. Annual archaelogical excavations between 1973 and 1985 revealed a stone built church with a clear outine of chancel, nave and west entrance, overlying an earlier timber structure. There was also evidence of other buildings and graves. Numerous artifacts suggest this was an important Christian site, especially from the C6 to the C8 but by the early C13 this had become a farm, since many domestic objects were found. Much speculation has arisen about its demise. The most well known is the story of a plague ship landing in the inlet at Llanrhidian; another view is that the village was hit by the Black Death in the early C14. The Revd J D Davies in his History of West Gower argued that the church possibly survived until the Reformation. The ruins can be seen and the site is worth a visit, with access via the Aberlogin Holiday Park.

Valerie Beynon
June 2021

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