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«In the Steps of St Rhian A History of the Church and Parish of LLANRHIAN By Kathleen Lewis, M.A. TOWER AND WEST END OF LLANRHIAN CHURCH. ...»

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In the Steps of St Rhian

A History of the Church and Parish of LLANRHIAN

By Kathleen Lewis, M.A.



I should like to express my thanks:

to Chancellor J. W. James, M.A., D.D., of Bangor Cathedral and Major Franc s Jones, T.D.,

M.A., F.S.A., of Carmarthen, who have read the MS and made many valuable suggestions ;

to J. J. Evans, Esq., M.A., of St. Davids, B. G. Charles, Esq., M.A., Ph.D. and R. J. Thomas, Esq., M.A., both of the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, and Professor Thomas Jones of the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, who have helped to investigate the derivation of the name Llanrhian ;

to H. N. Savory, Esq., D.Phil., F.S.A., F.M.A., of the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, who identified the cross-incised stone ;

to Professor E. G. Bowen, M.A., F.S.A., of University College, Aberystwyth, and C. N. Johns, Esq., M.A., and W. G. Thomas, Esq., M.A., both of the Royal Commission on Ancient Monuments, Aberystwyth, for their advice ;

to Elliot Jenkins, Esq., of Llanrhian, and Ieuan Griffiths, Esq., of Trefln, for their information on local history ;

to Mr. Sid Davies of the firm of Messrs. E. G. Thomas and Son, to whom I owe the theory concerning the early structure of the tower ;

to my son, Christopher G. Lewis, who took the photographs ;

and to my husband, the Reverend Edward Lewis, M.A., present Vicar o f Llanrhian, who has shared in all t he research.

K. L., Llanrhian Vicarage, Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire.

July, 1962.


The rugged coast of Pembrokeshire, St. David's Cathedral hidden in t he ho llow, and no less t he ancient church o f Llanrhian with its sturdy tower, all evoke memories of that golden age known to Church historians as " The Age of the Saints." By 325 A.D. the British Church was already sufficiently well established to send representatives to the Council of Nicea, but it was in the 5th and 6th centuries, after the withdrawal of the Roman forces, that she blossomed into all her glory and ways were trodden through the length and breadth of the land by saints afire with the love of their Lord.

The Celtic world was wide; it included not only Wales, Ireland and Scotland, but Cornwall and Cumberland and Brittany. Throughout all these parts, the family of the Celtic Church was to be found, and there was fellowship and constant traveling to and fro.

These hardy Christians of the early days thought nothing of braving the perils of the deep in small, frail crafts, or of tramping hundreds of miles through dark, trackless woods infested with wild boar, across rushing mountain torrents, past the strongholds of hostile chieftains, all to meet with like-minded Celts and to spread the Gospel in their native land. Their equipment as they travelled consisted of three items : a stout staff to help them on their way, a leat her satchel in which they carried their precious hand-written books, and a square, tongueless bell which they struck with their staff to call people to worship. The services to which people were summoned were mostly in the open air, as had been the druids' rituals which they replaced. Baptism was commonly administered in lakes and streams, and the tail trunks and branches of forest trees were the arches of their churches.

The gateway to Southern Ireland and to the western sea routes was St. Davids, for at Porthmawr, or Whitesands, several trade-routes converged and travellers could embark for Ireland, for Cornwall, and even for further afield. Here saints, both known and unknown, would meet to worship and study. Learning and the arts were centred in the monastic setttlements and the Vale of Roses was already famous for culture and Christianity before the time of Dewi.

We can glean some idea of the journeys of the saints by the existence of ancient inscribed stones marking sacred spots or early Christian burials; Pembrokeshire is particularly rich in Ogham stones, stones with early Irish characters, and these prove the close link which existed between Wales and Ireland. The extent of the journeys is also suggested by the place-names of Wales. When a saint of the Celtic Church prevailed upon a local chieftain to grant him land on which to erect an oratory, or prayer cell, he would first construct an earthen rampart and the area thus enclosed was the " llan." Inside the llan would be erected a hut of wattle and daub, simple outside but richly decorated within, and this would be the church where Mass was offered for the people; other smaller huts served as cells for the saint and his companions, and the llan was referred to thereafter by the name of the saint who had fo u nd ed it, or o f t he saint who se discip le he was.

Thus a glance at the map of Wales gives an idea of the widely distant places visited by any particular saint; Llanddewi indicates a foundation of St. David or his pupils, Llangadoc or Llangattock foundations of Cadoc and his pupils, and so on. Only later, with the Normans, came the custom of choosing Biblical dedications and many ancient shrines were rededicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary (Llanfair) or to St. Peter (Llanbedr).


Who was the saint who travelled northwards along the coast from St. Davids and founded his llan, a shrine of prayer and devotion, in the spot where Llanrhian Parish Church stands today ? Was he an unknown saint by the name of Rian, or Ryan, as the earliest documents spell the name ? Was he Rein, or Rhun, 'son of Brychan Brycheiniog whose children are recalled in various Pembrokeshire dedications at Llangledwin, Clydey, Llanfyrnach, Dinas, Nevern and others, and whose dedications are said to be among the earliest in Wales? Was he indeed Reanus, Abbot of the 7th century, as has been commonly assumed? Or is the name perhaps descriptive rather than personal? Rian was an old Irish word for a trackway and Llanrian might refer to the church on the trackway, were it not that every Celtic church could have been so described. Could it be the Church of the Little King (rhi = king, an = little), recalling some local chieftain who had embraced the Christian faith? Another suggested derivation is the Welsh word "rhiain" for a maiden, in which case the dedication might be to the Blessed Virgin; this, however, would indicate a later dedication, nor is it considered etymologically possible.

Of the above suggestions Rein, son of Brychan, is perhaps one of the most attractive for although the stories concerning the family of Brychan are largely legendary and based on the apocryphal Iolo MSS, nevertheless they provide a vivid sketch of a warrior chieftain, Rhain Dremrudd, the red-eyed second son of Brychan, who lived in the fifth century and through whom later kings of Bryncheiniog traced their descent from Brychan Rhain, Rein (Reg in) or Rhun is said to have been k illed with his sister Tydfil when defending the bridge at Pont Run, outside Merthyr Tydfil. His death is commemorated on August 23rd. The connection of the family of Brychan with Pembrokeshire has been disputed, but a number of church dedications in the county would appear to establish a link. It is certainly probable that members of his family travelled to and from his native Ireland and in so doing they would necessarily pass through Pembrokeshire. Sir John Rhys, in an article published in the Archaeologia Cambrensis of 1898, produced further evidence from ancient stones found in neighbouring parishes to Llanrhian; one is inscribed with the name DOBAGNI which he identifies with Dubhan or Dogvan, supposed son of Brychan; another reads NEFI which could represent the name of Neffei who is also found in some of the lists of Brychan's sons; the inscription on the third stone has been deciphered as PAANI or RAANI and this is believed by Mr. J. J. Evans of St. Davids to be Raganus or Regin, son of Brychan, and the Rhian of Llanrhian Church.

Modern scholarship, however, questions the validity of this evidence. Philologists declare that neither the "ai" of Rhain, nor the "ei" of Regin could develop into the "ia" or "ya" which appear consist ent ly in all the early spellings of the place-name. The most one can say, therefore, with any certaint y is that the founder of the Llan of Rhian was so me Celt ic saint of the Age of the Saints, the 5th or 6t h cent ury, who is pro bably unkno wn and unrecorded. The early dating of the Christian site is deduced partly from its position and the rich historical tradition of the district, partly from the obscurity of its founder, Rhian. In his obscurity Rhian may be compared with the apostles Nathaniel and Matthias, of whom nothing is definitely known other than their name; and as the Unknown warrior buried in Westminster Abbey represents all his fellow warriors, so does Rhian stand for the countless numbers of Celtic saints who fought a good fight, who witnessed to the light of the Gospel in the darkness of pagan Britain, and who built up for us that rich heritage which is ours today in Wales. The Patronal Festival is observed on November 12th, the day which the Welsh Calendar allots to All Saints of Wales.

The parish of Llanrhian contains other links with the early Celt ic saints. The hamlet of Llanon bears the name of the mother of Dewi, but her exact connection with the spot is unknown; her associations in north west Pembrokesnire, however, are well known, for she is said to be the daughter of a chieftain, Gynyr of Caerfawch, and her well and chapel are still to be seen on the cliffs outside St. Davids. Ynys Barri, or Barry Island, is a reminder of the Irish bishop Finbar, or Barry, who is said to have sailed from there to Ireland in Dewi’ s boat; the boat bore the figure-head of a horse and the legend thereby arose that Finbar rode David's favourite horse across the sea. Finbar died on September 25th about the year 560.

It is said that in Roman times the promontory of Dewisland was one of the most thickly populated areas of the country, and a glance at the Ordnance Survey map reveals a wealth of ancient associations. A tumulus is indicated in the Bickney field, and a scone c_rcie in a field (0.S. 453) marked as "Llain y Sibedau." Local tradition has it that Christians were taken to Llain y Sibedau to be slain at some unspecified period, though the location of the spot is said to be a different field (0.S. 413) from the one so named on the map. The cross roads at Croesgoch (Red Cross) are believed to have received their name from a battle fought there, which caused the roads to "run red with blood." This alleged battle may explain the ancient burial ground which was discovered in 1800 when some stone coffins were turned up by the plough. One contained the skeleton of an exceptionally tall man and a sword of corresponding dimensions, "of such a length as not to admit of being sheathed by the tallest man o f those parts," says Fenton. The site is known as "Parc y Fynwent " (Burial Ground) (0.S. 383), and is now occupied by a new housing estate. Other old tombstones have been found in the vicinity.

Not far from Croesgoch, at Mesur-y-dorth (the Measure of the Loaf), a rough pillar stone is built into the wall at the roadside. It is incised with a Latin ring cross which scholars attribute to the 7th to 9th centuries. Chancellor J. W. James of Bangor says that it may possibly have been an old pagan stone, the object of superstitious veneration, which was later "baptised" into Christianity by the addition of the cross within the circle. Its Christian use could have been that of a preaching cross, or it may simply have been one of many marking the Pilgrims' Way to St. Davids. The very name of Mesur-y-dorth suggests a centre of distribution of bread for the pilgrims as they approached their journey's end at Dewi's shrine.


The actual church of Llanrhian must have seen many changes through the centuries. Of its earlier forms we can only speculate. The original beehive shaped cell of wattle and daub was probably followed by a somewhat larger wooden structure. The first part to be built of stone was undoubtedly the tower which is stated in the Inventory of Ancient Monuments to date from the 13th century. It is one of a line of old church towers stretching along the north coast of Pembrokeshire and around Cardigan Bay, and including St. Davids, Newport, Nevern and Cilgerran. Professor Tyrrell Green describes them as "strongholds for coast defence" and as "defensible places of refuge in case of raids by rovers from the sea." The upper storey of Llanrhian tower commands a view of Porthgain harbour where pirates and raiders might have been expected to approach. The low, solid form of the tower has all the appearance of a stronghold with the narrow, slit-like windows, the stepped gables of the saddleback roof and the spread of the walls at the base. It seems almost certain that the tower once stood alone; this is suggested by a study of the masonry which reveals slit-like apertures on the north, west and south sides, but on the east, an opening large enough to give access to the belfry, or upper storey of the tower. This opening had been partially filled up since it was on a level with the ceiling of the present nave and completely inaccessible, and the slit in the north wall had been replaced by a door to provide a new means of entrance to the belfry. When access was originally gained through the opening in the east wall, there must either have been no nave adjoining, or else an extremely low building of which the apex of the roof was lower than the present eaves.

The walls of the tower are nearly three foot in thickness, and the apertures which are mere slits on the exterior broaden to about a yard on the inside. The floor of the belfry is unusual in that both its upper and lower surfaces are concave, presumably to strengthen the structure. Two holes had been bored in the floor and thick wooden hubs of cartwheels inserted to allow the bell rope to pass through. Massive ancient oak beams, which must have survived the passage of many centuries, bear the weight of the bell on which can be deciphered the following inscription : JOHN PERKINS, R.P.T.M, BELL 1697. John Perk.ns was probably the bell founder, and R.P. and T.M. may well be the initials of the churchwardens of the time.

In 1903 it was reported that the tower required re-roofing and repairs were undertaken in

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