A History of St Andrew’s Church, Penrice

Throughout mediaeval times and until the early C18 Penrice was the largest village in Gower with a twice-weekly market, attracting people from a wide area. The Norman manor had been given by the Earl of Warwick to Sir Robert de Penrice and eventually passed by marriage to the Mansels. The church is thought to date from the early C12 and between 1176 and 1198 the Commandery of the Knight Hospitallers of St John in Pembrokeshire, became its patron. Sanctuary Farm nearby is thought to have been the Hospitallers’ Gower headquarters. By the C14 the living had been appropriated to the Hospital of St David in Swansea – a part of which building still exists in the Cross Keys Inn, thought to be the oldest in the city.

St Andrews, built of local grey limestone, with later sections in old red sandstone, is cruciform in shape, large and spacious by Gower standards. The style of the simple chancel arch is basically Saxon and indicates an early C12 date for the chancel and the nave. It is suggested that a Saxon mason was among the army of Wessex men, brought by the Normans after 1106. The north transept and a large south porch, similar in size to the opposite transept, as well as the typical embattled western tower, were added later.

The Revd. J D Davies, the Gower historian, wrote that a former doorway, marked by a niche that can be seen today on the left of the transept arch, might have led to a separate chantry chapel where mass was said for the souls of the departed members of the Penrice and Mansel families from nearby Penrice Castle. The outside walls of the transept show obvious traces of a blocked- up east window possibly above the chantry alter and also two stone arches which would seem to mark the entrance to an underground vault where members of the Castle families may have been buried. The transept is now used as the vestry and baptistery with a very early octagonal font probably remodelled in the C15 or C16.

In 1893 the dilapidated condition of the church concerned the patron, Miss Emily Talbot of Penrice Castle, who then generously funded a 15 month restoration of the church. The gallery, with access steps outside on the south side of the nave, was removed, the roof renewed, four large windows added and the interior re-floored and re-pewed. The nave was divided by a step and low wall to create a choir in front of the chancel arch. Above the pulpit it is possible to see a rectangle, carved in the plaster. This marks the original entrance to the rood loft. In the nave there are numerous mural memorials dating from the C17 onwards and including one to Lady Blythswood, nee Talbot, who died in 1958 aged 90 and is well remembered by older Gower residents.

The porch with large buttresses on either side of the entrance is remarkable for its size, and although added to the church much later than the chancel and nave, is still quite old. The area was probably used for secular purposes, possibly transacting civil and local business in mediaeval times and later a school at some stage. There are long stone benches on both sides and to the right of the door a stoup for holy water. Of note is the unusual Gothic doorway to the nave with massive ancient oak timbers, set within a tall pointed masonry arch.

Outside the gargoyles on the windows are of interest and probably date from the 1893 restoration. The Bell is dated 1799 and inscribed ‘John Rudhall, Gloucester’. The fine square tower has a battlement and cornice with billets underneath. Now hollow with no floors, originally it had four storeys which provided good look-outs for all the ship movements in Oxwich Bay. Still a wonderful view as you exit the church!

Valerie Beynon
June 2021

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