A Nameless Saint

Penallt parish church is one of a handful in Gwent to have no known patron saint. This has been the unquestioned view of incumbents and local historians at least since 1940 when the first guide book making this assertion was published by the vicar, the Revd John du Heaume. Unusually, Bradney (1913) made no reference to any dedication of the parish church in his essay on Penallt – whereas his general rule was to begin describing a parish church by recording the name of the saint to whom it was dedicated. His method was to record what he heard from the inhabitants and read in documents – indeed, he has been criticised for accepting too readily what he was told. It seems unlikely that if he was told to whom Penallt church was dedicated that he would have failed to record it; and more likely that by the first decade of the 20th century the name had indeed been forgotten.

Some have claimed that the church was originally dedicated to St Mary and that reference to the name was dropped only when a daughter church was built in Penallt parish in 1868 and also dedicated to St Mary. It would be unusual to say the least to find two churches in the same parish dedicated to the same saint – a recipe for confusion, but not impossible. But so far no reliable documentary evidence has come to light confirming that the parish church was already so dedicated.

However, the Normans, in seeking to extinguish the authority of the Celtic and Saxon churches, frequently rededicated churches to St Mary. This was particularly the case when the church in question was linked (in Penallt’s case, through Trellech of which it was a chapelry) to a European monastic foundation (in Trellech’s case, through the priory at Chepstow to the Benedictine Abbey at Cormeilles in Normandy). But the earliest known reference to a church in Penallt (a claim for taxes) refers only to the name of the village. The claim was made by the Bishop of Llandaff who commissioned a survey between 1120 and 1140. This was a time when the Normans were seeking to complete their work of confirming civil and ecclesiastical boundaries. In South Wales the Domesday Book had included Monmouth and its compilers got as far west as Caldicot. But in much of Wales, reliance was placed on the Church authorities, not least in respect of tax-gathering. It is no surprise to find bishops arguing about the physical boundaries of their authority. As early as 1119, Pope Calixtus II was intervening to settle claims. For his part, the Norman Bishop Urban of Llandaff required his clerks to compile for him what became known as the Book of Llandaff which among other things sought to establish his claims to churches outside his See which were dedicated to Peter, Dyfrig, Teilo or Euddogwy – the four patron saints of Llandaff – and as such of pre-Norman origin. A list of these churches was attached as an appendix to the Book about fifty or sixty years later. It includes Penallt as paying (with Trellech) 15 pence annually, two thirds for the Bishop and one-third for the Archdeacon indicating that, at least in the eyes of the Diocese and perhaps of the Vatican, Penallt was dedicated to one or more of the four saints.

Supposing the claim to be legitimate, to which of the four was Penallt dedicated? Dyfrig is pre-eminent. He was a 6th century church leader in South-east Wales and his cult centred on the Welsh kingdom of Erging, the district between the Monnow and the Wye. He established a famous community near Ross to which scholars came from all parts of Britain. Dyfrig’s mortal remains were transferred from Bardsey to Llandaff in 1120 to support the claim that he was the founder of the See. He was so important a figure that Geoffrey of Monmouth (Archdeacon at Llandaff around 1140) named him as the bishop who crowned King Arthur at Caerleon! Teilo, another 6th century churchman, was based in Carmarthenshire: his claim to fame was that he was with St David on his pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Euddogwy was his nephew – but some said that he was a fictitious character created out of legends of other people.

Peter was the most popular of Llandaff’s four patrons and cannot be discounted as a possible patron saint for Penallt. Nor incidentally can St. Michael, protector of hill-top churches, be overlooked – especially if the need was still felt for a watchful eye on an old site of pagan worship. (Remember the well just north of the church, still there in Well Meadow, a common feature of the old, old religion. And the stories of witches in the village still current only two or three generations ago).

As to why Penallt’s patron saint was forgotten, the answer possibly lies in the fact that Penallt suffered severe if not total depopulation by reason of the Black Death and later persistent raiding from the west. Folk memories ceased to exist and there would have been few if any to tell incomers resettling the area anything about the parish church lying empty and abandoned. It is strange, however, that when the rebuilding of the church near the turn of the 15th century was completed, no rededication appears to have taken place. But perhaps, even if it did, years of calling it simply the parish church counted for more than rudimentary documentation. Moreover, even if rededication did in fact take place there was a later development nationwide which could account for its being forgotten (perhaps for the second time). One Thomas Staveley published in 1712 his History of Churches in England in which he notes that “Robert de Winchelsey, Archbishop of Canterbury in his Metropolitan Visitation in the time of Edward III (1307-1327) made an Order or Decree, confirmed by his successor, that the Parishioners throughout all the Arch-Deaconries of his Province, were appointed to see that the Image of that Saint to whose memory his Church was Dedicated should be erected or set up in the Chancel of every Parish Church. But these, as all other Images set up in our Churches, being pull’d down, either in the time of King Edward VI or the beginning of Queen Elizabeth, hath left the Name of such Saint in many Places forgotten; there being now no other Memorial but the Wake, observed generally the Sunday next following the Saints’ Day.” Thus, if written records did not exist or had been lost and the annual wake subsequently discontinued (as they were generally by the end of the 19th century) the name of the patron saint would be quickly forgotten.

Looking back over the chequered history of this part of Wales with its exposure to so many destructive forces, it does not seem at all surprising that detailed knowledge of Penallt’s past is at a premium. Yet I cannot forget that it was Major Probert himself who in the 1960’s commissioned the wooden image of St Mary which to this day stands near the chancel arch of the Old Church lit by a single candle at service time. Was he – who loved the Old Church and did so much to restore and renovate it – responding unknowingly to ancient promptings of which we are unaware?

Perhaps one day someone will produce reliable evidence – in the form, say, of a deed pre-dating the dedication of St Mary’s, Pentwyn and describing the Old Church as dedicated to St Mary – putting an end to this interesting but fruitless speculation. But so far it seems, as a Welsh bowman might have said, a long shot.

[from: Penallt Revisited]