Wednesday, 4 May 2016
I went to the ends of Anglesey earlier this week to visit one of the earliest Christian sites in Wales. On the recommendation of the Rector of Beaumaris, the Revd Neil Fairlamb two of us travelled out east to the edge of the island.
It was a short drive of only 5 km (3 miles) east from Beaumaris to Penmon, whose name in Welsh means the end of Anglesey (pen, promontory; and Môn, Anglesey).
We were not quite at the end of the world, but we were at the eastern tip of Anglesey, looking out towards Snowdonia on the other side of the Menai Straits and out to the Irish Sea.
On the short journey, the landscape was evidence of the way Penmon limestone was used to build Birmingham Town Hall and in rebuilding Liverpool and Manchester after World War II. The stone was also used in building the Menai Suspension Bridge (1826) and the Britannia Bridge (1850).
Saint Seiriol’s Church at Penmon may be part of the oldest remaining Christian building in Wales. According to tradition, a community grew up at Penmon around a monastery (clas) established in the early sixth century by Saint Seiriol on land provided by his brother, Saint Einion, King of Llyn.
Two friends, Saint Seiriol and Saint Cybi, founded monasteries at opposite ends of Anglesey. Saint Cybi’s monastery was on the north-west tip of the Anglesey at the heart of what is now Holyhead, whose Welsh name Caergybi recalls the saint. Saint Seiriol set up his monastery at Penmon, at the eastern tip of the island.
According to folklore, these two saints met weekly near Llanerchymedd, near the centre of the island. Saint Cybi would walk from Holyhead, facing the rising sun in the morning and the setting sun in the evening. Saint Seiriol, travelling in the opposite direction, had the sun to his back during his journey. And so they were known as Cybi the Dark, because he was tanned on his journey, and Seiriol the Fair.
Although Saint Seiriol later moved offshore to a hermitage on Puffin Island, Saint Seiriol’s Monastery prospered and grew in size. By the 10th century, the monastery had a wooden church building, and two crosses that probably stood at the entrance to the monastery complex.
After Penmon was destroyed during Viking raids in 971, the church was rebuilt in stone, and Penmon survived the initial Norman invasion of Gwynedd between 1081 and 1100, when it was defended by Prince Gruffudd ap Cynan of Gwynedd.
During the 12th century, the Priory Church was rebuilt in stone under Gruffudd ap Cynan and Owain Gwynedd, from 1120 to 1123, and the oldest parts of the Priory Church today date from 1140. This is the most complete building of its age in north-west Wales.
In the 13th century, under Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, the monasteries in Wales were reorganised under the Augustinian rule. Penmon became an Augustinian priory, the church was enlarged and new conventual buildings were built.
Penmon Priory expanded and survived the English conquest of Wales during the reign of King Edward I. There are records for the election of Priors back to 1306, when Iowerth the Prior is named.
The dining hall was on the first floor, with a cellar below and dormitory above. In the 16th century, a kitchen and a warming house were added at the east of the building. The eastern range of buildings has gone, but the southern one, containing the refectory with a dormitory above, still stands.
Llywelyn Fawr and his successors made the church wealthy with generous grants of land. However, in the period immediately before the Reformation, Penmon Priory was already in decline, and by 1536 the community included only the Prior and two other members.
With the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the priory was dissolved in 1538, and the buildings and land became the property of the Bulkeley family of Beaumaris, a prominent local family who used most of the land for a deer park and built the dovecot near the church.
However, the church survived the Reformation and Saint Seiriol’s Church, which was the centrepiece of the monastery, remained in use. Much of the church was rebuilt in 1855, and the chancel now serves as the parish church, while the transepts and nave remain part of the church complex.
The church has a typical cruciform arrangement. The nave, which is the oldest part, was completed ca 1140. The transepts and the tower were built in 1160-1170, and the chancel was added in 1220-1240 during the rule of Llywelyn ap Iorwerth (Llywelyn the Great), who convinced the monasteries in North Wales to reorganise under the Augustinian Order.
A refectory was built around this time, with a large dining hall, cellars and a dormitory. This three-storey building is now roofless.
The building between the refectory and the south transept was the prior’s house, probably built in the 16th century. It is now a private house. The area in the middle was the cloister, and there may at one time have been another building on the eastern side, enclosing the cloister.
Inside the church, the nave is quite plain, with small, high windows. The squat, conical tower is a well-known landmark. At ground level, the crossing has richly carved pillars and Romanesque arches. The decorative work suggests skills that may have come from Ireland.
The south transept is embellished with a blind arcade of chevron-decorated Romanesque arches. A series of carved stones found during restoration have been reset in the south transept, where the small window contains fragments of mediaeval glass.
The church shelters two tenth century High Crosses that once stood at the entrance to the mediaeval monastery, as well as a decorated font that also survived the Viking raids in the late tenth century.
The larger cross in the nave is badly weathered having stood outside in the deer park until 1977. It is almost complete except for about 30 cm between the top of the shaft and the head. The cross has inter-lacing decorative patterns and a pictorial scene showing the temptations of Saint Anthony, as well as a probable hunting scene.
The smaller cross, in the south transept, is much less weathered. One arm of the cross was cut off when it was used as a lintel for the refectory windows. The cross is mainly decorated with knot-work along with two animal heads on the sides, and has a modern stone base.
The baptismal font at the end of the nave is decorated with three panels of very similar fret decoration, and originally may have been the base of another, third High Cross. It too has a modern base.
All three pieces belong to a school of sculpture that absorbed stylistic traits from northern English, Viking and Irish art. They date from the late tenth or early 11th centuries, perhaps from the relatively peaceful reign of Gruffydd ap Llywelyn, and the sculptors who created them may have had close connections with Cheshire.
Below the church, Saint Seiriol’s Well was believed to have healing powers. The well is at the end of a path past a fish pond built by the monks. The well is enclosed within a small building, most of which is brick from 18th century rebuilding work, although the flooring and lower parts of the wall are probably older.
It is said that the lower stone walls near the well were part of Saint Seiriol’s church in the sixth century. If so, this would make it the oldest remaining Christian building in Wales.
Sir Richard Bulkeley of Beaumaris, who owned the monastery lands after the dissolution, built the dovecot near the church ca 1600. The dovecot was built to house pigeons, who were valued for their eggs and meat. The square building has a large domed roof with a cupola that allowed the birds to fly in and out. Inside, there were 1,000 nesting boxes. A pillar in the centre of the dovecot supported a revolving ladder that gave access to the nesting boxes.
Penmon was one of the settings in The Fever (2004), a film starring Vanessa Redgrave and Angelina Jolie. Filming took place at the Priory and the dovecot was used to depict a deserted church. Penmon Priory has also been used for the BBC programme Songs of Praise, and in 1960 for filming the television show Danger Man starring Patrick McGoohan.
Penmon Priory is now part of the Rectorial benefice of Beaumaris in the Diocese of Bangor, with the Revd Neil Fairlamb as Rector. Penmon Priory remains the finest and most complete example of a church of its period in Gwynedd, and is worth going to the ends of Anglesey to see and explore.