Early man arrived in South Wales about 2,500 B.C. having spread northwards from Spain and France via the Irish coast and Cornwall. Megalithic cromlechs and other stone monuments occur in several parts of Wales; Trellech’s three stones are thought to be of this period.
Dense forests covering the plains contained dangerous animals such as bears, wild boars and wolves, preventing settlement by early men; the cold hilltops were inhospitable to these visitors from warmer climes, so tribal groups tended to stay in the areas between and plains and very high land. Hence, what we know as the Trellech ridge may have been very suitable for early settlers. A Neolithic flint axe head was found in Whitebrook and an arrowhead of similar age was ploughed up near Common Farm in Penallt. Tribal bands beginning to evolve a social structure with the evolution of agriculture and pottery making, became less nomadic, and perhaps one can speculate (with the lack of hard evidence) that settlement in our parish may have begun around the area of what is now the Old Church, for it seems such a suitable place. Geographically, the spur of land at the northern end of Trellech ridge would have been a tempting site for settlement, with food and water nearby, and a clear view on three sides – yet the lack of any archaeological evidence suggests either random or seasonal settlement – or that perhaps no-one has yet looked in the right place for prehistoric remains!
The first Celtic invasion was about 800 B.C. The Celts came from parts of Europe which later became Germany, France, Belgium and northern Spain. They were skilled in ironwork and in building strong ramparts and hill-forts for defence. One Roman writer later describing them as formidable fighters said they were ‘war-mad and quick to battle, otherwise simple and uncouth’. The Iron-age period (200 B.C. to 100 A.D.) merged with the Roman occupation; Julius Caesar described the coracles used in Iron-age Britain, and it is probable they enabled the Celtic farmers in our area not only to fish but to maintain trading contact with the Roman settlers in and around Monmouth.
Roman advance was rapid, and by 47 A.D. they had reached the Severn and began their conquest of Wales. Strong resistance from the hill-tribes meant it took the Romans ten years to establish themselves militarily, but native life went on much as before, although the benefits of Roman life such as walnut trees, spices, and that edible horror, the ground elder, may have been accepted by the Celts. Welsh was the majority language in Monmouthshire, and almost all place names were in that language; some of our wood and field names perhaps date back to that time.
During the Roman occupation, monks of the Celtic Church travelled the land and settled near inhabited areas to erect a cross and preach, and later build a tiny cell or church of wattle and daub. They were often known as llan and named after the saint who established them. There is evidence of such a cell near the Redbrook-Penallt upper ferry, where a chapel to St Denys was built, and mentioned in a land contract of 1594. The Old Church may also have been built on the site of such a hermitage; it is also possible it was once largely built of wood, as stone was rarely used before the 11th century. The earliest stone churches were frequently crude buildings, the main object being to recreate with stone the architectural style of a timber hall.
Towards the end of Roman rule, Saxon invaders began to arrive, and the Romans finally abandoned the British Isles in 406 A.D. The Saxons overran most of Britain, and managed to divide the Welsh from their Celtic brothers in Devon, Cornwall and Cumbria. Eastern Gwent became a borderland, with the Celts to the west and the Saxons to the east. The building of Offa’s Dyke in 785 A.D. ensured the two peoples were kept apart. The thick forest of Wentwood/Wyeswood was an additional barrier, with the evidence of Welsh place names to the north and west of the woods, and Saxon or English names to the south-east. There was a renaissance of Celtic culture in Wales, and a rise and spread of Christianity. The old name of Gwent in use at this time referred to the land between the Usk and the Wye, and may also have included the forest of Dean. Trellech was the administrative centre for this area, around which the lives of the people developed. Various powerful leaders emerged in Wales from the ninth to eleventh centuries, with many minor battles resulting from disunity amongst the Celtic tribes.
The Norman Conquest worsened the disunity, as Norman lords conducted private battles from their new English estates. By the end of the 11th century the Normans of the Marches ruled autonomously from the castles they built on the borders. With increasing Welsh attacks, simple motte and bailey castles had to be strengthened; small well-defended market towns, such as Monmouth, grew up around many of them. The Normans brought about great social changes, and established manorial holdings, a feudal society, and the pattern of parishes and dioceses. They developed the agricultural system, as wheat was a necessity to these foreigners, and for fresh meat in the winters, they introduced that agricultural pest, the rabbit! There was also increased trading on the Wye, with ships carrying iron, lead, copper, charcoal, nails and other goods to Monmouth and Hereford.
Gerald the archdeacon, better known as Gerald of Wales, in his Journey Through Wales written in 1188, describes the men of Gwent: ‘… they are proficient in the use of arms, especially their use of bows and arrows … the bows they use are not made of horn, nor of sapwood, not yet of yew. The Welsh carve their bows out of the dwarf elm-trees in the forest. They are nothing much to look at, not even rubbed smooth, but left in a rough and unpolished state. You could not shoot far with them; but they are powerful enough to inflict serious wounds in a close fight.’ And the people themselves: ‘… they cut their hair in a circle, level with their eyes and ears … they clean their teeth with a hazel twig … they esteem purity of pedigree and noble ancestry, and even those of low degree are most careful of their family tree, by rote through many generations … their houses are of woven osiers and daub and they last but a year … to draw their rude ploughs they use oxen yoked two but often four abreast …’
From the 12th century to the Wars of the Roses in the latter part of the 15th century there were frequent skirmishes in Wales; the town of Trellech was sacked in 1291 with the grist mill at New Mills and many houses being destroyed. In 1348-9 all of South Wales was affected by the Black Death (bubonic plague), and the death rate is thought to have been as high as 50% of the population, which had already been declining with gnawing malnutrition, and the plague resolved the balance between the populace and their food supplies. The second wave of the Black Death in 1361 wiped out most of the remaining population; local legend suggests victims were buried in a pit on what is now Moorcroft land. Owain Glyndwr emerged as a leader of the Welsh after the plague years, and the battle in 1404 at Craig-y-Dorth led to the countryside being so disrupted that ‘courts could not be held, nor crops gathered, nor rents collected, and at Penalt where all the tenants left the Patria and certain of them are killed, the land lied in the lord’s hands for lack of tenants.’
After 1485, when Henry VII came to the throne, a period of relative tranquillity began in the British Isles. Henry VIII’s Act of Union in 1536 created thirteen new Welsh counties, one of which was Monmouthshire; his other great achievement, the establishing of the new Protestant religion, had little effect in Monmouthshire, which tended to cling to the old faith. English became the official language, but a choice of English or Welsh judgements could be given in courts. One assumes that Penallt became a typical developing rural community, well situated to enjoy the advantages of busy river trade, and the proximity of a bridge that crossed to England (which Speed’s map of Monmouthshire of 1610 seems to show crossing the river in Monmouth at the end of Granville Street, rather than at its present position).
A case was brought against the Earl of Pembroke in 1581 by Morgan Woolfe and others to ensure that 140 acres of Wyeswood was set aside as common land, which meant great changes for the inhabitants, for now they had legal access to the woods for fuel and pasturage, and were able to erect kilns for burning lime, used to improve the soil.
Another attempt was made in 1711 to prevent local inhabitants from using the woods – a move bitterly opposed by the whole parish. Probert family records state:
‘Feb 7, 1711. Dined with Col. Probert at the Argode where mr. Seward, Lord Windsor’s gentleman was. Next day to Treleck at Wm. Robert’s where Capt. (Chas.) Probert was who told Mr. Seward that he would have nothing to do with enclosing Wisewood and that to his knowledge the fences would be thrown down by day-time with some warm discourse!
‘On May 16, 1711, a great coy of people 150 or 200 gathered on a report that the sheriff was coming to drive ye common of what cattle he could find having a writ of recanted which Lord Warden had obtained to compensate for the damage done to his fences. They were armed with prongs, hedge bills, etc. having not above 1 or 2 guns. They marched thro’ Treleck abt. 11 a.m., two old women leading the van, 2 fiddlers playing all the way to Treleck, bells ringing them in; tho’ Mr. Smyth the curate forbad them. They went directly to the Gocket where the numbers increased to above 300 but they dispersed without doing any mischief. In Nov. Lord Windsor offered reward of £20 for discovering the culprits but without result.’
In a Chancery agreement dated 1713, 245 acres were finally allowed to the tenants as common land. Until the year 1810 a large portion of the parish was unenclosed; those of the small cot-holders who had undisputed possession without paying rent for over 20 years became freeholders, and since 1900 many other inhabitants have purchased their land. Much property was sold to the Crown in 1900 (and is now used as conifer plantations).
Throughout the 19th century there was an exodus to the U.S.A. due to the deteriorating agricultural conditions and a series of catastrophic harvests. Village life continued but livelihoods were now tied more closely to the prosperity of Redbrook and Monmouth.
The two World Wars touched Penallt relatively lightly. The war memorial records the sad losses of fathers, brothers and sons. Evacuees from the cities were billeted in Penallt and some stayed on or returned after the war was over. Penallt’s one bomb of the Second War landed harmlessly away from habitation.
Now in the latter years of the 20th century there is a new period of great change in the village and surrounding countryside. There is a new ‘invasion’ – the commuters who work in London, Bristol, Birmingham and Cardiff, and yet choose to live in a lovely part of the countryside, one which has been designated an ‘Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’. The hope is that this new blood will help the growth of our village – dependent as it is on all its people to ensure a happy and healthy future.