St Melangell's Church

Coordinates: 52°49′39″N 3°26′59″W / 52.82750°N 3.44972°W / 52.82750; -3.44972
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St Melangell's Church
View of the church from the churchyard: a stone church with a square tower and a small porch, surrounded by old gravestones.
Church and churchyard
52°49′39″N 3°26′59″W / 52.82750°N 3.44972°W / 52.82750; -3.44972
LocationPennant Melangell, Llangynog, Powys
DenominationChurch in Wales
DioceseSt Asaph
ParishMission Area of Tanat-Vyrnwy[1]
Listed Building – Grade I
Designated31 January 1953[3]
Reference no.7634

St Melangell's Church is a Grade I listed medieval church and shrine located in the former village of Pennant Melangell, in the Tanat Valley, Powys, Wales. The church was founded around the 8th century to commemorate the traditional grave of Melangell, a hermit and abbess who founded a convent and sanctuary in the area. The current church was built in the 12th century and the oldest documentation of the church dates to the 13th century. The church was renovated several times, including major restoration work in the 19th and 20th centuries. In 1958, and again between 1987–1994, the site was subject to major archaeological excavations, which uncovered information about prehistoric and medieval activity at Pennant Melangell, including evidence of Bronze Age burials.

St Melangell's Church contains the reconstructed shrine to Melangell, regarded as the oldest surviving Romanesque shrine in Britain. The shrine dates to the 12th century, and was a major centre of cult activity in Wales until the Reformation. It was dismantled at some point, likely in the early modern era, and reconstructed for the first time in 1958 out of fragments found in and around the church. In 1989 the shrine was dismantled again, and restored in 1991 according to newer scholarship. Pennant Melangell has continued to attract pilgrims into the 21st century.

The church has a single nave and a square tower, and is built of multiple types of stone. On the east end is an apse, known as the cell-y-bedd,[a] which contains Melangell's grave. The interior of the church holds numerous objects of historical value, including a 15th-century rood screen depicting Melangell's legend, two 14th-century effigies, and various paintings and liturgical fittings. The churchyard contains thousands of graves, the majority unmarked, and several yew trees.

Location and surroundings[edit]

Pennant Melangell is located in the Tanat Valley, near the Berwyn Mountains, and the nearest village is Llangynog. The church is only accessible by a narrow road from Llangynog, following the course of the Afon Tanat, making it relatively inaccessible, unlike many other popular pilgrimage churches.[5]

Farmhouse at Pennant Melangell

Other historic sites nearby include a late medieval farmstead,[6] the remains of the old village surrounding the church,[7] and a natural rock shelf known as Gwely Melangell (Melangell's Bed).[8] At some unknown date, likely in the 19th century, the words "St Monacella's Bed" were carved into the stone.[9] Around a kilometre north of the church is a holy well known as Ffynnon Cwm Ewyn or Ffynnon Iewyn, traditionally thought to cure rheumatism, scrofula, and skin diseases.[10][11]


The shrine of Melangell is regarded as the oldest surviving Romanesque shrine in Britain or in northern Europe as a whole.[12] The site of St Melangell's Church held spiritual significance as far back as the Bronze Age, and was likely turned into a Christian site by the Celtic Christians of the early medieval period.[13] Archaeological evidence indicates that funerary activity took place at the site of the church centuries before the arrival of Christianity in Wales. Evidence of cremation pyres suggests that there was a burial mound at Pennant in the Bronze Age, possibly under the church itself.[14]

According to her hagiography, Melangell (Latin: Monacella) sought refuge at Pennant after fleeing an arranged marriage in her native Ireland. She spent 15 years in solitude without seeing a man, until being discovered by a prince named Brochwel. The prince, pursuing a hare with his dogs, encountered Melangell praying with the hare safely under her hem. Brochwel granted her the land with perpetual sanctuary rights for anyone fleeing to Pennant, and Melangell went on to found a community of nuns.[15] Pennant Melangell was likely founded in the late 8th century, and references to abbots in Melangell's hagiography indicate that a male monastic community was later founded at the site. Neither the male nor female monasteries remained by the 13th century, when the first documentation of the church appears.[16] Historically, locals of the area refused to kill hares due to their association with Melangell. According to archaeologist Caroline Malim, the veneration of hares at Pennant likely has origins in pre-Christian Celtic religion.[17]

Medieval period[edit]

Under Norman rule,[b] the Welsh Church was reformed. Saints' cults were revived and Normanised, including that of Melangell.[19] Before the current stone church was built in the 12th century, no definitive evidence exists for a church existing at the site, and no pre-Norman buildings survive in Wales. There may have been a timber church built no earlier than the 11th century, which was then replaced.[20] The shrine to Melangell similarly dates to the 12th century, and was likely locally crafted[21] under Norman influence.[19]

The church may have been built by Rhirid Flaidd,[22] a nobleman who, according to tradition, inherited Pennant Melangell from his father.[23] The first written records of the Pennant church appear in 1254 in the Evaluation of Norwich, in which the church is valued at 2 marks, slightly below average for the Diocese of St Asaph. In 1291, however, the church was one of the more valuable churches in the diocese, probably owing to a rise in popularity of Melangell's cult. By the 15th century, the poet Guto'r Glyn records that pilgrims were known to visit the shrine of Melangell for a cure to their ailments.[24] The entire roof was probably replaced in the 15th century, and the current rood screen was added.[25] An aisle on the south side of the chancel may have been added to aid pilgrims' access to the shrine in the late medieval period.[26]

Reformation and aftermath[edit]

A 1795 watercolour of St Melangell's Church by John Ingleby, showing the square grave chapel at the east end.
A 1795 watercolour of St Melangell's Church by John Ingleby, showing the square cell-y-bedd at the east end.

Melangell's cult continued to enjoy popularity up to the eve of the Reformation; in 1535 the income from offerings at the shrine was comparable to that of other major cult centres in Wales. However, after the Reformation, the value of the Pennant church once again sunk to below average for the diocese due to the suppression of saints' cults and pilgrimage.[27] The massive religious reforms of the 16th and 17th centuries brought major changes to the fabric of the church as well; the shrine was likely dismantled at this time and the grave chapel blocked off.[28]

Significant repairs and renovations were undertaken throughout the 18th century, including blocking up doors and windows, building a new porch, replacing walls, and possibly dismantling the rood screen. The old cell-y-bedd was also built at this time, replacing the medieval apse and grave chapel. It was probably built as a schoolroom, and was also used as a vestry. Despite the demolition of the original apse and removal of Melangell's shrine and relics, the tradition surrounding her persisted, and she continued to be associated with the cell-y-bedd.[29]

Restoration efforts[edit]

View of the chancel, with Melangell's shrine and the altar at the centre. The two effigies are visible on either side, and the door to the grave chapel is visible in the back.
Melangell's shrine in the chancel, with the entrance to the cell-y-bedd in the background

The current church tower was entirely built during the restorations of 1876–1877, replacing the previous tower of unknown age.[30] New pews and a new altar table were also added, and in honour of the restoration work, a yew tree was planted in the churchyard in 1878.[31]

After the 19th-century restoration work, the church largely remained in obscurity, and the building deteriorated. With a diminishing congregation, funds were scarce for restoration work. The condition of the cell-y-bedd was cause for concern by 1954 and there were suggestions that it be demolished entirely. In 1958 the cell-y-bedd was repaired, and the shrine was reconstructed based in the chapel on a design by Ralegh Radford; minor repair work and excavation in the church and cell-y-bedd was also undertaken.[32]

By the 1980s the church had once again deteriorated and was in danger of demolition. At the same time, Meifod parish priest Paul Davies' wife recovered from cancer, and the couple bought a cottage near the church. Davies was licensed by the diocese to look after the church on a voluntary basis; under his care, a Cancer Help Centre was started out of their cottage and a complete restoration was undertaken, during which the apse was entirely rebuilt and the shrine moved to the chancel.[33] The medieval effigies were moved to the chancel as well, and the furnishings of the church were repaired and rearranged. The church had no electricity or heating, and was still lit with oil lamps; electricity was installed in the church for the first time during the restoration. A service of thanksgiving, attended by Archbishop Alwyn Rice Jones, was held on 27 May 1992 in commemoration of the restoration work.[32]

After the death of Paul Davies in 1994, his wife Evelyn took over and continued to develop the shrine's ministries, becoming the first "shrine guardian" of Pennant Melangell. Evelyn Davies was succeeded in the position by Linda Mary Edwards in 2003, and Lynette Norman in 2011.[34] The current shrine guardian is Christine Browne,[35] appointed to the position in 2016.[36]

Archaeological excavations[edit]

Between 1989 and 1994, significant excavation was undertaken during restoration work, following previous smaller excavations that had taken place in 1958 (of the cell-y-bedd) and 1987 (of the churchyard). These excavations uncovered substantial new information about the history of the church.[37]

Excavations in the cell-y-bedd revealed prehistoric activity at the site. Several small pits filled with loam were discovered with high concentrations of charcoal and bone fragments, indicating cremation burial. Radiocarbon dating of two of the pits dated the deposits to the Middle Bronze Age.[38][39] An early medieval stone slab, possibly a grave, was also identified underneath the floor.[40] Limited excavations were also undertaken in the church interior, and further evidence of prehistoric burial activity was discovered. More small pits, like those found under the cell-y-bedd, were found, along with prehistoric pottery. The finds were also dated to the Middle Bronze Age.[41] Early medieval burial activity was also uncovered, dating to before the construction of the current church in the 12th century.[42] In total, at least 16 burials underneath the church were identified, dating from the medieval period to the 18th century.[43]

St Melangell's shrine is held up by carved stone columns, with a pile of colourful prayer cards lying underneath.
Prayer cards left by devotees

Pieces of Bronze Age pottery were discovered underneath the west end of the church; nine sherds were recovered in total. Seven of the sherds comprised the upper part of a large bucket urn; the bucket and barrel urns of Wales are regarded as equivalents to the pottery of the Deverel–Rimbury tradition of England. Sherds of green-glazed medieval pottery, a possibly pre-Saxon dark red glass bead, and a carved stone tool were also recovered. A fragment of a Romanesque candlestick with a stylised dragon head and beadwork was also found, likely dating from the 12th century.[44]

Excavation in the north of the churchyard uncovered 25 or 26 possible graves, all of which were previously unknown. These graves are of uncertain date, but probably date to before the 16th century. Some graves had edging stones on top of them, and one had a dense layer of white quartz pebbles at its surface. No coffins were found among the graves, and only a few had skeletal remains. A circular pit filled with charcoaly soil, possibly prehistoric, was also identified.[45]

Modern pilgrimage[edit]

In modern times, Pennant Melangell has continued to attract pilgrims, both religious and non-religious. In a 2004 survey of pilgrimage to the site, common motivations for visiting included spiritual, historical, archaeological, and architectural interest. The survey covered religious observance; 83% of visitors attended church at least once a year, while 17% were non-churchgoers; 51% of non-churchgoers expressed spiritual interest in the site, and 38% of non-churchgoers partook in overtly religious activities while at the church, such as prayer and candle-lighting.[46] The isolated, scenic location of the church was also a notable factor in attracting visitors, and played an important role in pilgrims' perception of the site as sacred.[47]

A 2013–2016 study at the shrine analysed the content of prayers left by visitors, primarily in the form of prayer cards and notes in a prayer-request book. The prayers indicated that visitors to the shrine come from diverse religious backgrounds. Many of the prayers referenced cancer, reflecting the influence of the cancer ministry. Other themes found in the prayers include Melangell herself, the sanctity of the location, nature, and womanhood.[48]

St Melangell's shrine. A pinkish carved stone structure with an altar attached to the front, decorated with a crucifix, candles, and flowers.
Shrine of St Melangell


St Melangell's shrine is a reconstructed version of the 12th-century original, built out of fragments found in and around the church. Although the date of its demolition is unknown, it likely would have been threatened during the Reformation period, like many other shrines in England and Wales. Parts of the dismantled shrine were incorporated into the 17th-century lychgate and in the walls of the church when it was renovated in the 17th and 18th centuries. The fragments were noted by Thomas Pennant and John Parker, but thought to be remnants of an earlier church until Worthington George Smith identified them as a former shrine in 1894.[21] In 1958 the shrine was reconstructed in the cell-y-bedd by architect R.B. Heaton, based on a study by Ralegh Radford and incorporating an altar and reliquary. The 1958 shrine was dismantled in 1989 and restored in 1991, based on a proposal by Radford and W.J. Hemp.[49]

It is not known what the shrine originally looked like, as there are no depictions of the shrine before its dismantlement, nor any similar shrines of the same period to compare.[50] The design motifs of the shrine, such as the 'willow' and 'half-pear' on the running half-palmette, suggest an Irish connection to Pennant Melangell. The steep gable design of Melangell's shrine was also common for portable reliquaries in medieval Ireland.[51] The foliage designs may represent the bramble bush where Prince Brochwel found Melangell and the hare.[52]


The church has a single nave, with a chancel and apse at the east end, and a tower at the west end. The building is constructed of waterworn pebbles, larger slabs of sedimentary rock, and blocks of shale; different portions of the church date to different periods, from the 12th to the 20th centuries. The main roof is of slate with stone ridge tiles, and the roof of the porch is black ceramic tile. The square tower is of the 19th century, with a pyramidal roof topped by a short timber belfry. The apse, constructed from 1989 to 1992, has three rounded modern windows in a 12th-century style.[22] The current bell is dated to 1918 and was made by the Taylors of Loughborough.[53]


The interior of the apse has a small shelf with books, a crucifix, and a large stone slab on the floor, indicating Melangell's grave.
Interior of the apse, with the grave slab on the right

The cell-y-bedd,[a] or apse, may have been built to house the relics of Melangell, and is located at the east end of the church. It was possibly built over Melangell's grave.[4] A stone slab marks the site of the titular grave; Melangell's relics may have been enshrined there for pilgrims to venerate.[54] The original cell-y-bedd was demolished in 1989 and replaced with the current apse in 1990. Most of the structure was built in 1751 and consisted of a small, irregular rectangular room with a single window; it replaced the original medieval apse. It was constructed out of shale slabs and boulders, and had multiple blocked-up doorways and patched holes from renovations and repairs over the centuries.[55] The new apse, built out of local rounded boulders, was constructed to be as close to the original 12th-century apse as possible. A new concrete floor with a cobbled surface was also laid, and the grave slab was laid on top.[56]


Most of the interior furnishings of St Melangell's Church are common for a remote parish church, and include a number of historic objects: a 12th-century baptismal font,[57] a 17th-century chest, an 18th-century chalice,[58] an early 18th-century pulpit,[59] an 18th-century candelabrum,[53] and a large whale rib of uncertain purpose and origin, which may have been part of a harp. The whale rib is sometimes called Asen y gawres (Giant's rib) or Asen Melangell (Melangell's rib).[60]

Black and white sketch of the rood screen by John Parker, showing the carving of Melangell, the hare, and the prince.
Sketch of the rood screen by John Parker

The church also contains a number of wall paintings, dating from the medieval period to the Victorian era. The medieval paintings consist of traces of floral and geometric patterns, mostly dating to the 13th century.[61] Several 17th-century wall inscriptions were found during the restorations of 1876–1877, none of which survive. A Stuart coat of arms was also discovered, dating to the post-Restoration period; it was painted over with a Hanoverian coat of arms in the 18th century, and then plastered over.[62] Above the altar was a 1791 reredos featuring the Ten Commandments, the Apostles' Creed, and the Lord's Prayer, all in Welsh and decorated with cherubs; this painting was later conserved and moved to the tympanum. An 1886 copy on wood was located on the altar, which covered and protected the original from damage. Gothic revival stenciled designs were also added around the chancel in the 19th century.[63]

View of the carved wooden balcony and rood screen. The pulpit is visible and the chancel is in the background.
The loft balcony and the rood screen

Rood screen[edit]

The carved wooden rood screen dates to the late 15th century, and contains the earliest surviving depiction of Melangell and the hare. Much of the original screen has been lost, but what survived was restored and reunited with parts of the loft balcony in the 1989–1992 work. The carvings on the rood screen depict Prince Brochwel on horseback, a huntsman, Melangell, the hare, and two hunting dogs within a foliated running border. Traces of red, pink, yellow, brown, black, and blue paint have been found on the screen and loft.[64] Melangell is depicted as an abbess, with a veil and crosier.[65] Welsh priest John Parker described the carvings as "decidedly grotesque, and verging on the ludicrous,"[66] but also noted that the "cleverness and ingenuity with which the story is told, in spite of the trammels imposed upon the artist by the requirements of the running border, are deserving of remark."[67] Below the carving of Melangell are cornices featuring acorns and oak leaves. The screen is carved out of solid oak wood, with no attached pieces.[68]


A carved stone effigy of a man laying down, with a sword and shield.
Male effigy, sometimes identified as the tomb of Iorwerth Drwyndwn

Two effigies, dating from the 14th century, were moved into the church in 1876 and placed against the west wall. The male effigy was previously in the churchyard, and the previous location of the female effigy was unknown; the original locations of both are also uncertain. Both effigies have sustained damage over the centuries from knife-sharpening and cutting of initials into the stone.[69]

The male effigy depicts a young man with a sword and shield, lying with his head resting on cushions, and an animal (possibly a wolf) beneath his feet. The inscription around the edge of the shield is now illegible and the identity of the man unknown, but historically he has been identified as Iorwerth Drwyndwn.[69][70] Thomas Jones, an 18th-century vicar of Pennant Melangell known for his eccentricity, supposedly attacked the legs of the male effigy with a stone during an outburst, causing lasting damage.[71][72]

The female effigy is traditionally thought to depict Melangell, but this is uncertain. The figure wears a long gown and a square headdress characteristic of the late 14th century, with a lion at her feet and two animals at either side. The animals may be hares, in which case the effigy would be a cult figure of Melangell, similar to those found in St Pabo, Llanbabo and St Iestyn, Llaniestyn in Anglesey. The earliest known identification of the effigy as Melangell comes from Thomas Pennant's Tours in Wales in 1773.[73][74]

The tower and churchyard, with numerous trees and a large hill behind them.
The tower and churchyard


The churchyard of Pennant Melangell is roughly circular and surrounded by a stone wall, which is likely much older than the earliest references to it in the 18th century.[75] The oldest marked graves in the churchyard are located in the southeast, near the chancel and apse; the earliest memorial stone is dated to 1619.[76] Since burial records began in 1680, around 1,000 burials have been recorded, the vast majority of which are unmarked. Another 1,000–2,000 unmarked graves from as early as the 12th century are believed to be located in the churchyard as well, including those of pilgrims from elsewhere.[77] Three graves are those of soldiers who were killed in World War I.[78] Welsh harpist Nansi Richards was buried in the churchyard.[79]

Black and white sketch of the churchyard's gate, which shows the carved stones of the former shrine incorporated into it.
1893 illustration by W.G. Smith of the lychgate, showing carved stones of the dismantled shrine incorporated into the arch

The base of a medieval stone cross, possibly moved from next to the lychgate, lies among the gravestones and is used as the base for a sundial.[80][81] North of the church is a mound, which may have been a preaching mound associated with the cult of Saint Germanus.[82] There are seven yews in the churchyard; the largest yew is 3.5 metres in diameter.[83] The majority are believed to be considerably older than the first written mentions of them in the 18th century.[75]

The gate to the churchyard. It is made of cobbled stone and surrounded by overgrown foliage and a low stone wall.
The lychgate, pictured in 2012

The lychgate, likely of the 16th or 17th century, previously contained fragments of the original shrine, but the stones were removed in 1958. The gate has corbelled arches on both sides, and interior stone seats.[84] A fragment of an inscription, probably contemporary to the building of the gate, survives. While most of the inscription has been lost, the text was recorded several times in the parish records of the 18th century, and read:[85]

Historically the churchyard served numerous secular purposes, particularly as a yard for games and festivals. Two former cockpits have been documented, which were likely used until the 19th century, although neither remain.[86][87] Plays were also performed in the churchyard, including by Twm o'r Nant, who was said to be the last to perform in an interlude at Pennant.[88]


  1. ^ a b Cell-y-bedd translates to "grave chamber" in Welsh.[3] The cell is also called the capel-y-bedd, or "grave chapel".[4]
  2. ^ The Norman conquest of Wales began in the 11th century shortly after the conquest of England, and Norman influence in Wales was established from the 1060s.[18]



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