A History of St Illtyd’s Church, Oxwich

St Illtyd’s stands on ground said to have been sacred since the C6 and is one of three Gower churches dedicated to the Celtic Saint who had founded the monastic settlement at Llantwit Major in the Vale of Glamorgan. On the slopes of a wooded headland, the church has a very special location. After the annual Maundy Thursday Service, it is very moving to leave the church in silence and enjoy the beauty of a Spring evening, walking down through the woods and looking across Oxwich Bay at the sunshine on the magnificent coastline, stretching east to Three Cliffs Bay and beyond. It is possible that the original village of Oxwich was near the shore below the church but was forced to move inland as the sea encroached. The church, probably a mix of C12 Early English, with later C14 Decorated features, consists of a chancel, nave and western tower, the lower part of which forms the entrance porch.

The chancel, said to be the original C6th cell, is narrow and by far the smallest of all in the Gower churches. In a finely decorated arched recess on its north wall lie the effigies of two beautifully carved figures – a C14 or early C15 knight in armour of mail and plate with his lady in flowing robes and long falling sleeves, collar and cuff.  The consensus among historians is that they probably represent Sir John Penrice (c. 1350-1410) and his wife Margaret Fleming, who held the manor of Oxwich at the time the effigies were made. Locally the feature has long been known as the ‘Doolamur’s Hole’. Recent research however has suggested that the effigies were originally located separately and elsewhere in the church . It is also thought that stone variations on the outside wall indicate the existence of a shrine where it would have been possible to see relics hidden underneath the inside recess. The altar table was carved from teak by the Rev. J D Davies from West Gower and presented by him to the church in the 1890’s. The rood (the Cross) above the chancel arch is a fine work of art placed exactly where the original rood- beam had rested and is in memory of the Rector from 1879 to 1918, the Revd. Stephen William Jenkins.

The church has numerous other features of interest. The fine C14 two- glass east window is of the Decorated period with the stained glass depicting two Celtic Saints, David and Illtyd added in 1893. In 1969 a stained glass window, showing St Francis preaching to the birds was installed in the square-headed lancet window in the south wall of the nave. On the south side of the chancel arch there are interesting memorials to the local Bevan family in the C18, including a good example of ‘grave humour’.

A restoration in 1891, entirely funded by Miss Emily Talbot and costing £1000, involved inserting three new windows, one in the chancel and two in the nave, renewing the roof, adding a vestry and laying a new wood block floor in the nave. The bowl of the font is very old and hewn out of a block of Sutton stone by a mason’s adze, a very ancient tool. It is unreliably reported that it might have been brought to Oxwich by St Illtyd himself! Until 1890 it was fixed into the wall in the south west corner but in 1928 it was re-set on three short rough-stone stone blocks into a circular base, all of the same Sutton stone. In 1891two memorial stones were discovered in the nave: one lying face downwards and the other face upwards. Both were moved and placed each side on the interior walls of the tower porch. One refers to a Rector of Oxwich from 1320 -23 and the second to ‘Hugh, formerly pious rector of St Illtyd’s.’ This was the Revd. Hugh Gore, ejected under the Commonwealth in 1650 and at some time Bishop of Lismore and Waterford in Ireland. He was also the founder of Swansea Grammar School – now Bishop Gore School. The tower is a good example of C14 work, with a corbel table beneath the battlement. The bell, also C14 but recast in 1892, bears the original inscription, ‘Sancta Maria ora pro nobis’ – Holy Mary, pray for us.

A well known London name is linked to the decoration of the chancel ceiling, very recently illuminated by the installation of special lighting. This was painted in 1931 by Lesley Young, the scenic artist from Sadler’s Wells and paid for by Dame Lilian Baylis, manager of the Old Vic in London and several other companies some of which later evolved into the National Theatre and the Royal Ballet. She spent many holidays in Oxwich Rectory with the Rector’s family and, like many others, loved the little church.

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