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Llanfair/St Mary Church: A Brief History

Beginnings

The village of Llanfair (St Mary Church) is named after the parish Church which so dominates its existence. The Church is dedicated to the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary and, although originally built in the 13th century, what we see today largely dates from the Victorian era, the Church having been extensively restored in 1862.

The churchyard is roughly circular and, because it is strategically placed in an elevated position, it is certainly possible that the site may have pre-Christian origins. To support this there is clear evidence of an Iron Age enclosure to your left as you approach the village at Howe Mill. Unlike the English word ¡°Church¡± the Welsh word ¡°Llan¡±, which is found in so many place names in Wales, refers not only to the structure itself but also the ground which surrounds it, in effect the churchyard. The extent of the ¡°Llan¡± is visible today and is represented by the low wall around the Church. In medieval times it may also have incorporated some of the land we now know as the ¡°Spinney¡± and almost certainly the Old Rectory and the graveyard. The concentric settlement growing around a Church is a common feature in many Vale villages, nearby St Hilary being one example. However, Llanfair is a particularly good example, possibly because the village has never been as extensively populated (and de-populated) as other Vale villages.

The Medieval Church

The fact that the Church is dedicated to Mary (Mair in Welsh) confirms that the Church was built by the Normans following their successful conquest of large parts of South Wales in the 11th and 12th centuries. Other Vale villages and their churches, such as St Athan, were named after the Irish saints (Tathan) who first brought Christianity to the area around the 5th and 6th centuries AD. Other local churches were dedicated to the Welsh saints such as St. Docco or Dochau (Llandough) or St Illtyd (Llantwit Major). It is likely that the Norman Church replaced an earlier Celtic foundation.

The Church¡¯s medieval origin is evidenced by the Norman door and the font and by the fact that in the churchyard there is a calvary of three steps surmounted by the socket stone of a medieval Latin cross. The Church has an unusual chancel because it ¡°weeps¡± to the south, whereas normally weeping chancels angle towards the north.

The Old Rectory

The Old Rectory is a 13th century two-storey building. The ground floor has Tudor windows and the first floor has two early English twin lancets, with round centre shafts. It is said to be the second oldest inhabited rectory in Wales.

The Seventeenth Century

In the 1600¡¯s the Church was in the spiritual care of a succession of rectors from the Wilkyn or Wilkins family. However, the Church living was so poor that it had to be combined with the parish of Gelligaer to enable the rector to make a reasonable living. Thomas Wilkyn (died 1623) was succeeded by his son Roger Wilkins and he in turn was succeeded on his death in 1648 by his son Thomas Wilkins (1626-1699).

No doubt Thomas Wilkin was a hard working rector but his main claim to fame is that he was a notable antiquarian and collector of old manuscripts. His library at St Mary Church was famous for the fact that amongst his collection was the ¡°Red Book of Hergest¡±, a compilation of Welsh medieval literature that included the Mabinogion tales, and the ¡°Book of the Anchorite.¡± Although these books were written around 1400 they depicted a tradition of Welsh folklore which went back to the time of King Arthur and beyond to the time when local people worshipped the Celtic gods. Thomas Wilkins¡¯s son donated the ¡°Red Book¡± to Jesus College, Oxford in 1701 and it has been deposited in the Oxford University Bodleian library since 1866.

In 1648 Royalist troops were encamped near St Mary Church during the Civil War. The story goes that these soldiers sharpened their weapons on the stone porch way of the church before taking part in the Battle of St Fagans. This took place on 8 May 1648 and 3,000 Parliamentary soldiers routed 8,000 Royalist troops but it was not the church porch which was the cause of the Royalist downfall but the effect of much superior cannon fire on the part of Roundheads.

The Eighteenth Century

The Glamorgan Record Office holds all the parish registers for St Mary Church for the period 1584-1986. The marriage register for the 18th July 1781 records the marriage of one Edward Williams to his bride Margaret ¡° Peggy¡± Roberts of the parish. Edward Williams (1747-1826) is better known by his bardic name of ¡°Iolo Morganwg¡±. Born in Llancarfan his trade was as a stonemason but his real fame grew from his being a notable poet and antiquary. Although a respected poet, his reputation has been rather tarnished by later scholars who have shown a number of his literary discoveries to have been forgeries. He was also responsible for discovering (or he would claim re-discovering) Druidism and the ceremony known as the Gorsedd of the Bards. Apparently, he organised these strange ceremonies on Primrose Hill in Cowbridge. There is a plaque to his memory in Cowbridge (adjacent to Martin¡¯s newsagent). He is buried in Flemingston churchyard.

The Nineteenth Century

Social                                     

We know a lot more about the village in the 19th century, though some things remain elusive. For example, we know that in 1865 there was a public house in the village called the ¡°Talbot Arms,¡± but where was it? We even know that the landlord was called Gwyn David. ( It is possible that this actually refers to David Gwyn whose gravestone is in the graveyard of the Church and who died in 1881. The Gwyn or Gwynne family seem to be well represented in the graveyard and one branch of the family resided at Penyrheol farm). The pub would have been named after the local landowner and MP for the Vale of Glamorgan, C.R.M.Talbot (1803-90). His name still survives of course in Talbot Terrace and since these houses date from the late 19th century could they have been built on the site of the pub?

Religious

The Church came into greater focus in the mid 19th century when it was served by another line of prominent rectors. In 1817 William Bruce Knight was presented with the living of St Mary Church and Llandough by C.R.M.Talbot. He left in 1843 to become Archdeacon of Llandaff where he was a close ally of the Bishop of Llandaff at the time, Edward Copleston. Knight was succeeded by Edward Doddridge Knight (strangely, I can find no evidence that they were related) who served the parish until 1858. He was related to the well known writer Richard Doddridge (R.D.) Blackmore, author of ¡°Lorna Doone.¡± E.D.Knight was the rector at the time of the (first and last) national  religious census in 1851. Interestingly, both Sunday services in our Church in that year were held in Welsh, whereas elsewhere in the Vale English services were the norm.

Although the presence of the Church meant that anglicanism dominated the religious affiliations of the local people records show that the Methodists registered a house as a Wesleyan place of worship in 1811 and the Calvinists did the same in 1829. The Wesleyan house was in the name of William and John Howe (and others) and could it therefore have been Howe Mill?

Topography

An interesting description of the parish is given in Samuel Lewis¡¯s ¡°A Topographical Dictionary of Wales¡± in 1833:
           
            ¡°It is pleasantly situated in the south-eastern part of the county , on the right bank of the river Thaw, and             comprehends a moderate extent of arable and pasture land, of which by far the greater portion is enclosed and in
            a good state of cultivation. The soil, of which the substratum is limestone, is in general fertile; and the inhabitants are            chiefly employed in agriculture.  The surrounding scenery is pleasingly wooded and richly diversified, and the     adjacent country presents many features of rural and picturesque character¡­¡­¡­.  The Church is not remarkable for             any architectural feature. The average annual expenditure for the support of the poor is £86.8.¡±

Commercial

Slaters Commercial directory for 1880 records that there was a blacksmith by the name of David Williams in the village and the forge would almost certainly be in The Herberts where Forge Cottage is today. A grocer by the name of John Griffiths and a miller and farmer by the name of Evan Evans (Gigman Mill))are also recorded as living in St Mary Church. Other local farmers in 1880 were Catherine Gwyn (Penyrheol), Robert Howe, John Jones (Fishwear sic) and John Spencer.

Population

One reason for the disappearance of the Talbot Arms public house before 1880 may have been the depopulation of the village in the latter part of the century. The population of the parish changed as follows:

1841 - 154 persons and 31 inhabited houses
1851 - 104 persons and 23 inhabited houses
1861 - 119 persons and 30inhabited houses
1871 - 144 persons and 28 inhabited houses
1881 - 97 persons and 21 inhabited houses
1891 - 80 persons and 18 inhabited houses.

Transport

The population of the village fell further in the early 20th century. The mobility of the local population may have been helped by the opening of the Cowbridge and Aberthaw Railway in October 1892. This branch line connected the lime kilns and small harbour of Aberthaw to the Great Western Railway at Llantrisant via Cowbridge. St Mary Church Road station was over a mile from the village on the road to Llantrithyd. Although it was a busy goods line it was not a hugely popular line for passengers. In 1928 passenger receipts on the Cowbridge to Aberthaw line amounted to only £60. Little wonder then that the line was closed to passenger traffic in 1930. Goods traffic continued for a few more years. Evidence of the station and the track (in parts) is still visible today.

Education

A National School (mixed and infants) was erected in 1852 and enlarged in 1898 to accommodate 60 children. In 1865 Mrs Jane Daniel was the School Mistress and the school motto was ¡°Teach up a child in the way he should go¡±, (Proverbs 22 v. 6). The School became the village hall and is used as such today.

In 1911 a public Elementary School was erected on the site of the present School. By 1923 there were 85 children on the register. On the 10th December 1973 this building was badly damaged by fire and was replaced by the present school in 1976.

Author¡¯s Note:

  1. No mention has been made of Beaupre Castle in this brief history, primarily because its history is already well documented and because it seems to have been inside and outside the parish boundary many times over the centuries. Additions (or corrections ) to this brief history are welcomed, particularly in respect of history of The Herberts. Please send your comments to the village e-mail address (ideas@stmarychurch.org.uk) or contact me.
  2. A note on sources: A previous headteacher of Llanfair School , Richard Edwards, produced an excellent leaflet on the village and its history. ¡°The Dictionary of Welsh Biography¡± (1940) is invaluable in relation to a number of rectors of the parish. An excellent website is www.genuki.org.uk and on which much of this history is based. The website also records all the Memorials (gravestones) at St Mary Church and provides transcripts of a number of relevant commercial directories. ¡°The Cowbridge Railway¡± (1984) by Colin Chapman provides a complete history, including of the ill-fated branch line to Aberthaw. Further information will be added in due course.

 Chris Turner
Nanteos
2, Millcroft Court

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