A History of St Mary’s Church, Rhossili

Buried in the sands of the Warren, the terrace at the foot of Rhossili Down, on the western edge of Gower are the ruins of a house and a substantial old church, with chancel and nave. Having been investigated by archaeologists in the early 1980’s they are thought to be from the mid- C12, but possibly on a pre-Norman Celtic site. Numerous theories exist about the origin of the village name. In Welsh rhos means a moor but sili has given rise to various suggestions ; heli is salt water, Iley the nearby stream but intriguingly two Celtic saints’ names have been suggested for the dedication of this original place of worship – Sulien and Sili or Ffili, possibly the son of Cenydd. The church was probably abandoned after the be-sanding from the fierce storms of the early C14 and the villagers moved to the cliff-top site. The original is now scheduled as an ancient monument.

The present church is dedicated to St Mary the Virgin, and because of its Early English style, is thought to date from the late C12. By early C13 the Norman William de Turberville had given the patronage to the Knights Hospitallers of St John of Jerusalem before it was claimed by the Crown at the Reformation. Some restoration took place in 1856, but much more extensive work took place in 1891. This was instigated by the Rector for 43 years, the Revd. J Ponsonby Lucas, a member of the well known Lucas family who had owned land in Gower for centuries. Much of the work was generously funded by the church’s patron Miss Emily Talbot and included a new roof and a rebuilt porch as well as a new pulpit, choir stalls, altar and altar rail and pitch pine pews. The ground floor of the tower was converted into a vestry.

The church consists of a chancel, nave, small western tower and south porch which is celebrated for its very fine C12 Norman doorway, possibly brought from the Warren church. The outer dog-tooth mouldings and inner line of deeply cut chevrons are considered very rare in Wales. The nook shafts have scalloped cushion capitals. In the 1891 restoration the doorway was improved by the exposure of the bases which had been buried under the soil of the porch for many years. To the left of the arch are the remains of a scratch sundial.. The font near the door has a square bowl, scalloped on two sides, placed on a short stem above a square plinth. On the south side of the chancel is an ancient recess or ambrey, used to hold sacramental vessels and in the 1891 changes the nearby low side or ‘leper’s window, formerly blocked, was glazed with cathedral glass.

St Mary’s possesses a number of fine stained glass windows, in memory of both clergy and local church members. A very striking addition in 2006 was given by the artist to commemorate Rhossili-born, Edgar Evans who died in 1912 with Captain Scott on the return journey from the South Pole. On the north wall, the white marble memorial tablet to him was given by his wife Lois, also from the village, and bears the inscription ‘To seek, to strive, to find and not to yield’. In the chancel is a brass tablet dedicated to the C19 Rector Lucas who ‘loved this church and parish’.

Around the ceiling frieze of the nave and above the altar hang small shields painted in different colours, designed by Swansea artist Sheila Edwards and installed in 1994. The first fifteen are based on the Stations of the Cross and the sixteenth represents St David. A beautiful silk Rhossili Banner was created by textile designer, Jan Fry in 1985 and includes images of loaves and fishes, as well as the sweep of Rhossili Bay just below the cliffs.

Throughout the year Rhossili is a very popular destination for local, national and international visitors, and many come to see the church. Anyone is invited to place a pebble in the prayer pool at the Stepping Stones table near the chancel steps. Each pebble offers a symbolic means of holding someone or a situation in prayer at the following service of worship.

The tower, which has an unusual transverse saddleback roof, is pierced with crude lancets and houses three bells, dated 1893and cast by J Warner of London. In 1983 they were repaired and re-hung by Joyce and Co. of Shrewsbury. The appearance of the tower suggests a keep or place of refuge at times of frequent attacks from the sea throughout mediaeval times.

Rhossili Bay and its well known landmark Worms Head have several shipwrecks, seen and unseen, from the time when the Bristol Channel was a busy shipping lane especially for Swansea and Llanelli docks. The Church records strangers whose remains have been found on the shore and near the stile on the west side of the churchyard is a small burial area with a stone marking ‘Sailors’ Corner, dedicated to those who perished at sea and rest here. Known only to God’.

Valerie Beynon
June 2021

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