St Mary's & St Egryn's, Llanegryn - History
by W. R. Hughes (Vicar, 1963-69)
Someone once said that one of the most precious inheritances of our country is our ancient Parish Churches, and how correct are their words. Unfortunately much of the history of our old churches is lost in obscuri- ty, and this is only too true of Llanegryn Church.
One would like to know the name of the rst person who recited the Lord's Prayer, the Ten Commandments and the Creed on the spot where the Church of St. Mary and St. Egryn now stands, but this we shall never know. Could he have been St. Egryn - the Patron Saint of the Church? Or perhaps we would be nearer the truth if we said just a hum- ble man or woman of this area before it was ever called Llanegryn, who had heard of God and Christ even before the birth of St. Egryn.
Little is known about St. Egryn. We are told he was the son of Gwydr Drwm, ap Gwredog, ap Geraint, of the family of Cadell Deyrnllwg,
and he probably lived in the seventh century A.D., and may have stud- ied under St. Illtud. Some people think the memorial stone in Tywyn Church may bear the inscription of the Celtic Saint, Egryn. It is dif cult to know how this little Parish Church on the banks of the Dysynni had St. Egryn as its Patron Saint, and eventually gave the name Llanegryn to the area.
Did St. Egryn, at some time or other, preach at what has later become known as Llanegryn, or did the early Christians - because of his rep- utation as a good and humble follower of Our Lord - call the Church after him? If so, we can be fairly certain there was a church here before Egryn's time. Perhaps it was simplicity itself - a church of mud and wattles around where the present altar stands, but yet a veritable place of worship, a true Bethel for the Llanegryn Christians of those far-off days. There, they set their spiritual ladder, and their prayers and praises ascended up on high to God's throne.
It has been said by one great historian that it is dangerous to try to explain the meaning of words. This is true with one part of our parish, namely 'Rhoslefain'. This could mean - as suggested - the bog from where the cries of the soldiers in a great battle were heard far and wide, but it could also mean the marsh with the western gale from the Irish Sea howling across, the high pitch of the wind shrieking and so fright- ening the inhabitants of the area. The name Llanegryn poses no dif - culty as it simply means 'the Church of Egryn". and he was the Patron Saint of the old Church for many centuries until the Cistercian monks substituted the name of St. Mary the Virgin for St. Egryn. They did this, not because they regarded Egryn as an unworthy name. but because of their love and devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus. After the departure of the Cistercians, the Church was named "the Church of St. Mary and St. Egryn", and so it is to this day, but the people of the locality and even Church people call It St. Egryn's Parish Church, or Llanegryn Church.
It is not really known. The rst mention of the Church in history is in the document Norwich Taxatio of 1253, and it appears from details of lands and tithes that Llanegryn Church was attached to Cymer Abbey near Dolgellau for a considerable time. It is fairly certain that It was served in ancient days by the monks of Cymer Abbey. Probably, this happened well over three hundred years ago and it is fairly certain that parts of the present building were built by them. As it is in the Perpen- dicular style, it is dated thirteenth century - though one likes to believe that there are stones in the present building which were rst used in the original Church.
It is simple and beautiful, a splendid example of the Perpendicular style, and situated on a slight elevation in the basin of the Dysynni. Its setting enhances its beauty, and as one walks through the Iych-gate or stands near the porch, there are breathtaking views. One has a feeling that, around this spot, there is something more than the natural eye can see. No wonder the people of old called the ground around the ancient Cathedrals and Churches "God's Acre' - Erw Duw'.
In spite of the peace in and around Llanegryn Church, and though it has been hallowed by the prayers and praises of the saints all along the ages, it is doubtful if it would be well-known today but for its famous Rood Loft and Screen.
THE ROOD LOFT
On Wednesday in Easter Week of 1865, the Reverend Grif th Arthur Jones visited Llanegryn Church and he wrote in his diary, The Screen in Church is magni cent" - and how true his words! Unfortunately, it will be impossible to give an accurate history of the Rood Loft as minutes and registers were rarely kept in the distant past.
Legend tells us that the Rood Loft and Screen came to Llanegryn from Cymer Abbey at the time of the Suppression of the Monasteries by King Henry VIII in 1536. Tradition says that it was carried overnight by the monks. Llanegryn being at that time well isolated and unlikely to be visited by Henry's snoopers, the monks housed their famous screen in Llanegryn, and who knows - hoping one day to return it to their Abbey.
How the Loft was brought to Llanegryn remains a mystery - perhaps by a short route over the mountains, or maybe by sea from Llanelltyd and up the Dysynni river to a spot opposite the present village of Llanegryn.
For decades experts have told us the above legend, but I like to think
at times, at least to muse, that the screen was carved and the loft built in this old village. Surely there were craftsmen who were geniuses In the area In the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries? Incidentally, there was no facuIty procedure In those days, and what a blessing!
If so. many treasures would have been lost forever. What a loss it would have been to generations of worshippers, kneeling, sitting or standing beneath this most famous of screens. With all due respect to the experts from the large towns, I cannot see the need to always explain away the extraordi- nary features that exists in the old country churches and mansions.
This Rood loft and its Screen is probably the most famous in the world. It Is a most beautiful and most perfect piece of carving seen anywhere, and we must bear in mind that the tools used were simple and rather crude - a chisel and mallet.
The date is uncertain - some say early fourteenth century (about 1320 A.D.); others date it 250 years later. If the latter date is correct, then it could not have come from Cymer Abbey.
Detail of Rood Screen
It is much too complicated for me to give all the details of the Loft - such as the panels, the diamonds, ogees and ovals, the feathering, the owers, the berries, quatrefoils and abstract forms.
Suf ce it to say that the Loft is 20 feet 9 inches (6.32m) from north to south, and 5 feet 9 inches (1.75m) wide. On the western side the panels are closed, but on the eastern side the panels are trellis work, 17 in all and no two of the same design.Through the gaps in the trellis work the minstrels and choristers of old could see the altar without themselves being seen by the congregation. The greater beauty of the carving is on the eastern side and must be seen to be appreciated.
The sockets for the rood crosses are still to be seen, as are the stands or niches for the images. I wonder what happened to the two crosses and the images, perhaps destroyed or hidden in some barn and forgotten.
The Loft door is in the north wall of the Church and until the present vestry and organ chamber were built in the nineteenth century, it was an outside door.
We can thank God for the love and care of our forefathers who so me- ticulously restored where necessary the ravages of time on this master- piece. The task has been accomplished so well that only the expert can recognize the modern from the ancient.
It is difficult to give an exact date to the font, but it is very interesting as it is square outside and round inside - some say it is Norman or even pre-Norman but we are safe in saying “Very ancient".
It could very well be older than the Church itself.
At least one window is sixteenth century and can be seen on the north side near the vestry door. The stained glass windows are modem and add to the beauty of the building, especially the East Window.
The many monuments in the Church are in memory of members of the Peniarth family, many of whom have been laid to rest in vaults under the chancel.
An old altar, a plain slate slab with the ve crosses clearly marked, has been embedded In the east wall under the window, probably placed there in 1858.
It was on 30th January 1872 that the organ was restored - a second-hand buy, but It has served the Church well for over a hundred years, and we hope for many years yet. In 1876 it was placed in its present position when the Vestry and organ chamber were built.
The porch faces south and has stone seats - it could be older than the Church. How interesting it would be to hear all that has been said in the porch! How many fairs announced, how many deeds and wills and other documents signed - what transactions took place there? Whatever happened, of one thing we can be certain: as hundreds of worshippers throughout the centuries stepped into the porch, they remembered they were entering the House of God.
On the south outside wall of the chancel (near the window) is a stone
on which is Incised an equal-armed cross, which can clearly be seen at noon when the sun shines brightly on it. It has been suggested that it is a consecration stone which may be from an earlier church than the present one.
The bell is just over 100 years old. On it is inscribed 'The gift of W.R.M. Wynne, Esq., June IV, MCDDDLXXIV". The Terrier of 1776 mentions another bell - where, I wonder, is it now?
Unfortunately, we have to admit that the exact date of building the Church is not known, though the Perpendicular style dates it at 1350
to 1500, but because of the change of name from St. Egryn to St. Mary and the years that the old saint preached the Gospel in the land of Wales, we can be fairly certain that many stones in the present Church were used in an earlier building. The document Norwich Taxatio of 1253 mentions the Church, and it is also mentioned in a tithe document of 1291. The Church is old and has been carefully repaired throughout the centuries.
In 1573 one Rhys ap Gruffydd of Tyddyn Gwyn in Bodowyn left in his will a part of his estate to meet the cost of repairs then in progress at Llanegryn Church. It is possible that the Rood Loft was erected in that year. About 200 years later - In 1770 - new rafters and a new roof were placed on the Church. A number of smaller but Important repairs were executed from 1858 to 1876. It is gratifying to record that not only the people of ancient days and those of the last three centuries cared for Llanegryn Church. The people of this atomic age also cherish this simple House of God. A few years ago all the priceless timber-work was treated against the ravages of worm and during 1965-66 there was extensive restoration, the chief being the re-roofing of the whole building and supplying a new heating system at a cost of nearly £3,000.
How much, one wonders, did it cost to build the Church many hun- dreds of years ago? The people of those far-off days knew nothing of the heating and lighting systems of today. It is safe to assume they had neither heat nor light, and the oor was merely bare soil with perhaps rushes to keep the feet warm, The worshippers of old endured hardship and toiled, not only for themselves but for future generations. We thank God for them and for the many in our own time who care so much for St. Egryn's Church.
Until 1883 the Churchyard was round, It was then extended and the Lych-gate carefully removed to its present position.
In this hallowed ground hundreds d Llanegryn people have been laid to rest, their ages ranging from a few minutes to over 100 years. Who was the rst to be buried here we shall never know, but it was certainly long before records were kept and centuries before the rst tombstone was erected. One could be Gruffydd ap Aron of Peniarth whose brother was a friend of Owain GIyndwr, and we know that Hugh Owen Broncludwr, the pioneer of Nonconformity in this part of Merioneth, is buried here. Recorded burials to the present day are over 2000, and how many hun- dreds were buried before records were ever kept?
The Registers - though not very old - are interesting, the earliest record being about 1690. Here are a few details:
John Thomas and Margaretta Rees legally married 6th Dec.
Anne, the legitimate daughter of Edward Thomas and his wife Anne, was baptized the third of May. 1723.
The above entries were recorded in Latin. It was In 1734 that entries were rst recorded in English:
Richard and William (twins) of Anthony Richards by Catherine his wife were christened November 21, 1735.
Catherine daughter of Will Sion and Cath. his wife was christened on August 17, 1736.
Edward Williams of ?? in Anglesea and the Right Honorable Lady Jane
Dowager Viscountess Buckeley of Peniarth were married by license on May 29th, 1739.
There were 17 recorded burials in January and February 1739: what was the reason?
Buried April 29, 1747, William & Mary Lewis of Gelynen tach - infants.
Also in the same register:
New Moon. Dec. 7, 1760 at noon - full, 15th at 2 in the afternoon.
Also in this register is the 1776 Terrier with details of Payment to the Priest and the clerk, as well as a list of the furniture of the Church.
Here are some interesting entries:
1735: 2 yds 1/2 of Cloth for a shroud for Margaret Pugh, 2s. 11d.
200 of Bord nails, 8d.
10 bottles of wine, £1.
Paid John Morris Clerk for washing the surplice and table cloth, 3s.0d.
1737: for a Pole Cat, 2s.6d. for my lodging at Drws y Nant, 1s.0d.
1738: Towards the maintenance of Owen Thomas' child, £1.
1745: To the poor - Cath. Rich 1s.6d. Mending the Churchyard 0s.8d.
1750: Repairing the Church Porch and part of the Church, 6s.9d.
1761: Killing a fox, 2s.6d. Shooting a raven, 1s 4d.
It is interesting to note that the last time bride or bridegroom were unable to sign their names in the Marriage Register and had to place a cross opposite their names, was in 1887. It is rather surprising that so many people in Llanegryn were unable to write their names during the nine- teenth century since a school had been in the village from 1659!
From these Registers, we are able to gather some information about the life of Llanegryn during the last three centuries.
Popular surnames were Evans, Owen, Pugh, Jones, Thomas. Rees, Richards, Davies and Humphreys, and the most common Christian names were Hugh, John, Lewis, Owen. Jane, Catherine and Anne. There were gardeners, cobblers, tailors, innkeepers and farmers here in those days.
Here, as all over the country, dozens of children died before they were 5 years old. The causes must have been such diseases as diphtheria and scarlet fever, for when one child in a family died there is a record of another from the same family being buried within a day or two.
Little need be said about the services, but by all accounts they have been well attended throughout the centuries. The most spectacular changes took place during the incumbency of Grif th Arthur Jones, who came to Llanegryn in 1857. He was a High Church man and put into practice in the parish Catholic Tradition and Teaching. It is worth noting that he had very little opposition from his parishioners due partly to two reasons: the esquire of Peniarth. Mr. W.W.E. Wynne, was a staunch supporter, and the people were easygoing and recognized genuine effort and sincerity.
The result was that Holy Communion became the centre of Church life, eucharistic vestments were used, there were servers at the altar, and Llanegryn was able to boast a fully surpliced choir - probably the rst Parish Church in Wales to have one! People used to come from far and near to see the choir in white, and the members were called "Angylion teach Llanegryn” - "the little angels of Llanegryn”, and up to the pres- ent time men and boys and now girls are faithful members of the choir.
We would like to know the name of the rst priest who celebrated the Holy Communion at Llanegryn but records were not kept in those far-distant days.
The firrst known name is that of John Llewelyn who was here in 1469. Since then more than 30 priests have served the parish. One - Lewis Evans - was here for over 50 years and it seems that he divided his time between Llanegryn and Llan hangel-y-Pennant. Thomas Jones came here in 1811 and was Vicar for over 40 years, died at the ripe old age of 87 and lies buried in the Churchyard. David Hughes, whose descendants are still in the parish, was here from 1680 to 1924, and my immediate predecessor - Stephen Davies - served the parish in his quiet manner for more than 28 years. The only other priest who has served here and is still remembered by many parishioners is Thomas Wooding, who later became Canon of Bangor Cathedral.What in fluence these priests from John Llewelyn on have had on generations of LIanegryn people is known only to God. As you lay down this little booklet, remember before God all those who have worshipped and served Him here all along the ages.
What would the first priest who of ciated at the Church say if he knew that many hundreds of years after his time the Morning Prayer was broadcast in the Welsh language? The date of this service was 27th September, 1964.
The sincere wish of the writer of these notes is that the Church of St. Mary and St. Egryn be preserved, not merely as a museum where peo- ple come from far and near to see the magnificent Rood Loft, but as a place of worship for many thousands of God's children. W. R. Hughes (Vicar, 1963-69)
SS Mary & Egryn church in Llanegryn is now part of the Ministry Area “Bro Ystumanner”, diocese of Bangor, together with the churches in Tywyn, Abergynolwyn, Aberdyfi , Pennal and Llanfihangel y Pennant.