Category Archives: Heritage

The Wesleyan Methodist chapel in Chapel Square, Aberdovey (built 1829, rebuilt 1868)

Wesleyan Chapel

The Wesleyan Chapel, or Capel Bethel, is located in Chapel Square, which was then called Copperhill Square.  It was only a few doors away from the Calvinist Methodist Chapel or Tabernacle that had opened the year before (described on a previous post).  Wesleyan preachers arrived in Aberdovey in November 1804, fourteen years after the Calvinist Methodists first arrived, to hold an open-air meeting in the square, a common device used by early preachers to convey their message and acquire followers.  They were sufficiently successful for a small Wesleyan movement to become established in the village, a real achievement as Calvinistic Methodism had spread much more rapidly throughout Wales.

John Wesley (left), Charles Whitefield (top) and Charles Wesley. Source: Welsh Religious Buildings Trust

I have described the origins of the Wesleyan Methodists on an earlier post about Aberdovey’s first Calvinistic Methodist chapel, and if you read that post you may want to scroll down to the next paragraph as I am repeating some of it here.  Methodism, or Wesleyan Methodism  began at Oxford University, where Charles Wesley (1707-88) and George Whitefield (1714-1770) formed a group to discuss religious ideas and methods, particularly the power of evangelism.  It was joined by Charles’s brother John Wesley (1703-91) and became known as the Holy Group, and later, based on the importance of procedures and methods in their approach, Methodists.  The three went to America in 1735 to  become missionaries, but George Whitefield returned a year later to focus on doing religious work in England, preaching extensively in indoors and out, making himself very unpopular with the established church.

Wesleyan Methodist Chapel in the Nineteenth Century. Source: Photograph in the Literary Institute

John Wesley returned three years after his departure to bring his ideas into the Church of England in an attempt at Anglican reform.  Like Whitefield, he found himself unpopular with the Church of England authorities and was not permitted to preach in Anglican churches, so began preaching out of doors, and began to travel extensively to spread his message and organize those who followed him.  Wesley and Whitefield parted ways in 1741 over Whitefield’s  belief in Calvinist predestination, foreshadowing the later split between the Wesleyan Methodists and the Welsh Calvinistic Methodists.   The key difference was that John Wesley retained the Arminian (as opposed to the Calvinistic) belief that salvation is available to all.  In Wesleyan Methodism, the living of a good, altruistic, and selfless lives and absolute belief in and dedication to God is not a means of winning salvation but is actually a product of salvation.  Salvation is therefore by God’s grace alone, rather than something that can be achieved by human endeavour.  This is one of the core differences between Methodism and the Church of England.  The personal experience of God, and of revelation were also key to his beliefs.  He had, himself, underwent a conversion experience in 1738, when he felt his “heart strangely warmed.”  He also believed in the importance of Scripture, a strong emphasis on the delivering of God’s message far and wide, the pre-eminence of high moral standards, and the need to raise awareness of the dangers of alcohol and gambling.  Wesley organized groups of lay preachers in a “connexion” across Britain, whose members helped to spread the Methodist message, and from 1744 annual conferences of lay preachers helped to formalize their activities.   It was only after John Wesley’s death in 1791 that Methodism withdrew from the Church of England and became a movement in its own right.

Wesleyan Methodist Welsh Distribution Map, on the left pre-1800 and on the right pre-1851,showing how much they progressed in just 50 years. Source: Welsh Religious Buildings Trust

The Wesleyans made slow progress in Wales during the 18th Century, where Welsh Calvinist Methodists had a foothold.  In spite of 35 visits into Wales, John Wesley was unable to make much of an impact, partly because he and most of his followers spoke no Welsh and Wesleyan Methodism was slow to recruit Welsh speakers.  By the end of the 18th Century they only had  around 600 followers in Wales, none of whom were in Meirionnydd.  In 1800 the British Wesleyan Conference decided to send Welsh-speaking preachers into Wales, resulting in a notable upturn of Welsh-speaking converts, and wherever English Wesleyans settled in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, wherever quarries and mines were to be found, congregations rose.  In the 1851 religious census there were 499 places of worship in Wales and congregations numbering 53,730 individuals.

6 and 7 Copperhill Street

The Wesleyans had no dedicated premises when they first arrived in Aberdovey and gathered at houses in the village, first at numbers 6 and 7 Copper Hill street (formerly called Dan y Graig) opposite today’s Wesleyan chapel, and then a few years later they moved to a house named Tan y Castell (“Below the Castle”) in Prospect Place.  Their final meeting house before the chapel was built was Cegin Arthur (“Arthur’s Inn”), the front room of which served as a drinking establishment and was on the site later replaced by Xanthus House, the building immediately to the left/west of the big 1864 Calvinist Tabernacle on Sea View Terrace.  Hugh M. Lewis describes the disadvantages of this venue:  “This was a most inconvenient and embarrassing for the worshippers, who had to pass through the front room  on their way to the kitchen at the rear of the house.”  In 1828 they rented a piece of land from the Athelstan Maurice Corbet of Ynysymaengwyn Estate on New Street at the top of Chapel Square (then called Copperhill Square) and built their first chapel, the Bethel, in 1829.  The Bethel was located at the top of the upward sloping New Street and now dominated the square, rising above the level local buildings, including the Calvinist Methodist chapel, and was visible from most higher parts of Aberdovey, as shown in the 19th Century/early 20th Century photograph at the end of the post.

Addoldy y Wesleyaid (Wesleyan sanctuary), 1829, 1868

The Bethel, unlike the Congregational Chapel on Glandyfi Terrace or the English Presbyterian chapel on Sea View Terrace, is instantly recognizable as a 19th Century chapel, with the gabled façade, stuccoed features, lancet windows with plain glass and a plaque stating BETHEL ADDOLDY Y WESLEYAID (“Bethel, Wesleayan Place of Worship”) and the two dates of its construction and rebuild, 1829 and 1868.  It is an imposing building, set slightly above the square, in a commanding position.  The Wesleyans rented a piece of land in Chapel Square (at that time Copper Hill Square) in 1828 from Mr Athelstan Corbet of Ynysymaengwyn (the big land-holding estate based just outside Tywyn), and their first chapel was built in 1829, with a congregation of around 30.  It was extended to twice its original size in 1841 to accommodate a growing congregation of around 60 worshippers.   The expanding population again led to the chapel being over-crowded and it was rebuilt in 1868, “a mixed sub-Classical and simple Gothic style of the gable-entry type”  (Coflein website), to accommodate 300 worshippers, at a cost of £704.00, the equivalent to 102 horses/150 cows or, in today’s money, £61,427.73 (National Archives Currency Converter).  An inscription facing the pulpit used to read “COFIWCH-Y-MORWYR” which translates as “remember the seamen,” a reminder to the minister that a large number of families in Aberdovey were attached to the sea in some capacity and should be referred to in the sermon.  Renovations and improvements in 1924 included the installation of a pipe organ, and in 1926 a huge vestry was added on the site of an old bakehouse.

The interior of the chapel is absolutely splendid.  Today entry is via the large 1926 vestry, which is laid out with rows of comfortable chairs facing a podium, and this is used today for many of the chapel’s meetings.  It is a very warm and inviting space.  The 19th Century chapel, reached via a side door, is beautiful.  There are no monuments on the wall, nothing to distract from the structure of the chapel.  Straight wooden pews are organized in three rows facing the pulpit, divided by two aisles.  The pulpit area is an imposing structure with a small stage behind it.   At the front of the pulpit is a large, curved pew, which is very fine indeed, and this was retained for visiting dignitaries.  Flanking this across the aisles are two sets of boxed pews that face across the chapel.  It is a magnificent space, given a lot of light from the tall lancet windows, and the lack of any form of decoration, embellishment or other distraction gives a very real sense that this is about the message from the pulpit, the relationship between the congregation and the preacher.  I was completely taken with it.

Wesleyan Methodist Chapel Interior

The chapel is still very active today, with weekly meetings, weddings and funerals all held on the premises.  There is a Facebook page with details, in both English and Welsh, of services and other activities, which may be in Welsh, English or both.  For security reasons, the chapel is not open outside these times.  I visited by appointment, with my sincere thanks to Ceri Jones for making the arrangements and, together with Gerald Grudgings, for guiding me around the building.  I have been invited to a service to see what the chapel is like when it is doing what it was designed for, and very much look forward to attending.

The Wesleyan Methodist chapel’s Facebook page

Main sources:
Wesleyan Methodism is usefully described on the Welsh Religious Buildings website, the BBC Religion web pages and the Oxford Concise Dictionary of the Christian Church.  Hugh M. Lewis, local resident and collector of Aberdovey information and images, is an invaluable source of information about the pre-chapel history of the Wesleyan Methodists in his book Aberdyfi, Portrait of a Village.  Lewis Lloyd’s A Real Little Seaport was also useful, and Hugh M. Lewis’s Aberdyfi, Pages of Time added some additional information.  My sincere thanks to Ceri Jones and Gerald Grudgings for providing me with many more details about the chapel.

The Calvinist Methodist Tabernacle, Sea View Terrace, Aberdovey (built 1864)

Sea View Terrace Tabernacl

When the Calvinist Methodists left their 1828 premises in Chapel Square, now occupied by Dovey Marine (described on an earlier post together with a brief background to Calvinistic Methodism), they moved into new purpose-built premises in 1864 on Sea View Terrace, which were much more ambitious than their 1828 chapel in Chapel Square, which was somewhat overshadowed by the Wesleyan chapel that had been built in 1829.  In its new position it was sufficiently further up the hill to give it a dominant position.

Set back from the sea front, the new chapel was imposing, cut into the side of the hill with a high revetment wall and was reached via a long flight of steps.  The new building was much bigger than their former chapel, accommodating a congregation of 650 worshippers.  It was on a level with St Peter’s Church, which can be seen in some of the photos below, and one does have to wonder if the desire to put the Tabernacle on a level with the church wasn’t a significant factor in the decision to locate the chapel where it was, up a long flight of stairs that would have made it very difficult for some members of the community to reach.

Instantly recognizable as a Nonconformist chapel, the 1864 Calvinist Methodist building is a gable-entry type chapel with four bays, round-headed windows featuring radiating tracery, and doorways topped with fanlights that echo the design of the windows.  It was built from stone and rendered, has a slate roof, and the steps that lead up to the entrance from the seafront are also made of slate.  The iron gates at the base of the steps with spearhead finials were manufactured by the Coalbrookdale Company in Shropshire.  There are two inscribed tablets on the façade.  The one beneath the gable reads Tabernacl Adeiladwyd 1864 (Tabernacle built 1864) and the lower one reads Tabernacl ir Methodistiadd Calfinaidd yn y Flwyddyn 1828 (Calvinist Methodist Chapel established in the year 1828).  Before its conversion into flats the interior had a gallery with raked seating supported on  cast-iron columns.  The organ chamber was preceded by a segmental arch flanked by fluted Corinthian pilasters.    The scale of investment involved was quite clearly considerable.  The chapel was renovated in 1910 following a religious revival in Wales, which included the addition of heating, ventilators in the roof and the addition of a pipe organ.  The photograph below, loaned to me with great kindness by Dai and Helen Williams, shows something of the interior, including the decorative features at the top of the wall above the organ, the organ itself, the pews and the underside of the gallery at the left.

Calvinistic Methodist Tabernacl, 1864

It closed as a chapel in 1988 but the exterior of the building was preserved when it was converted to flats, some of which are rented out for holiday accommodation.  The building is Grade 2 listed.

The Calvinist Tabernacle in 1873, nine years after it was built. Source: Hugh M. Lewis 1989, Pages of Time, plate 3.

View of the Aberdovey seafront from Ynys Las, showing the prominent position of the Tabernacle, with St Peter’s at the far left and the English Presbyterian church at far right.

Side view of the Tabernacle from St Peter’s churchyard, showing the rooflights that were added when the church was converted into apartments in the 1980s.

 

The Calvinistic Methodist Tabernacle is set back from the seafront houses, reached via a steep flight of slate steps

If you have any more information, including information about and photographs of the interior, it would be great to hear from you.

The Calvinistic Methodist Chapel, Chapel Square, Aberdovey (established 1828)

Methodist chapel (now Dovey Marine), Copper Hill Street front entrance

The Calvinistic Methodist Chapel (or Tabernacle) in Chapel Square, now occupied by Dovey Marine, has had a rich history, as did the Calvinistic Methodists who built it.   The chapel was their first dedicated premises, before which they used a number of temporary meeting places around the village, their lives made somewhat difficult by anti-Methodist persecution from the important Corbet landowners of Ynysymaengwyn (just outside Tywyn) who owned most of Aberdovey in the 18th Century.

Having arrived in the Aberdovey area in around 1790, it took the Calvinists nearly 30 years to a built a chapel, a significant accomplishment.  They were the first denomination to build a chapel in Aberdovey, although the Wesleyan Methodists were only a year behind them. It isn’t the prettiest or most impressive of the chapels in the village, but the Aberdovey Calvinistic Methodists have a very interesting history.

Portrait of John Calvin (1509-64)

The Calvinistic Methodists were a mainly Welsh movement that built on the 18th Century revivals of 17th Century Protestantism.  Calvinistic Methodism sounds like a bit of an oxymoron.  Methodism, or Wesleyan Methodism, began at Oxford University, where Charles Wesley (1707-88) and George Whitefield (1714-1770) formed a group to discuss religious ideas and methods, particularly the power of evangelism.  It was joined by Charles’s brother John Wesley (1703-91) and became known as the Holy Group, and later, based on the importance of procedures and methods in their approach, Methodists.  The three, all of whom were ordained, went to America in 1738 to  become missionaries, but George Whitefield returned a year later to focus on doing religious work in England, preaching extensively indoors and out, making himself very unpopular with the established church.  John Wesley returned three years after his departure to America to bring his ideas into the Church of England in an attempt at Anglican reform.  Like Whitefield, he found himself unpopular with the Anglican authorities and was denied preaching  access to some churches, so followed Whitefield’s example and began preaching out of doors, and began to travel extensively.  Wesley and Whitefield parted ways in 1741 over Whitefield’s  belief in Calvinist predestination, foreshadowing the later split between the Welsh Calvinistic and Wesleyan Methodists.  It was only after John Wesley’s death in 1791 that Methodism withdrew from the Church of England and became a doctrine in its own right.  The key difference was that John Wesley retained the Arminian (as opposed to the Calvinistic) belief that salvation is available to all.  In Wesleyan Methodism, the living of a good, altruistic, and selfless lives and absolute belief in and dedication to God is not a means of winning salvation but is actually a product of salvation.  Salvation is therefore by God’s grace alone, rather than something that can be achieved by human endeavour.  This is one of the core differences between Methodism and the Church of England.  In Wales a group of Welsh reformers had very similar ideas

The founders of Calvinistic Methodism. Clockwise from top left: Griffith Jones, Howell Harris, WIlliam Williams Pentycelyn and Daniel Rowland

The reform movement in Wales is thought to have begun in Carmarthenshire with Griffith Jones, the rector of Llanddowror, who was responsible for establishing circulating schools in 1731.  These schools taught the Welsh to read by studying the Bible and other Christian scripture.  Griffith Jones became something of a legend and an inspiration to other influential early preachers, like Howell Harris (1714-1773), Daniel Rowland (1730-1790) and William Williams Pantycelyn (1717-1791), all of whom had experienced spiritual awakening and became evangelists for a reformed church that had a high level of evangelism and an emphasis on hard work, moral behaviour and education of the poor.  William Williams became famous for his hymns, song and prayer being important in the religious practices of Calvinistic Methodism.

When the two groups met up they had so much in common that they initially joined forces under the heading of Methodism.  They shared belief in the burden of sin, the need for personal knowledge of God and the ability to feel him, assurance of salvation, recognition when or if sins have been forgiven and the knowledge that this had been felt.  They also believed that rebirth on Earth in the form of a better way of living life was fundamental.  There was, however, a fundamental point of doctrine on which the two branches differed.  Whereas Wesleyan Methodists believed that all people could be redeemed by faith, spreading the word of God and good deeds, the Welsh preachers followed Calvin, the radical French Protestant, who believed that the original sin of Adam made it impossible for people to redeem themselves, and only those who had been selected by God before Christ was sent to redeem them, the elect, would be raised to Heaven.  Because they still retained many of the other Methodist ideas about doctrine and felt just as strongly as the Methodists about the way in which religions should be practised, disseminated and organized, the Calvin followers separated from the Wesleyans and became Calvinistic Methodists.

Distribution of Calvinist Methodists pre-1851, showing the low levels of representation in Meirionnydd. Source: Welsh Religious Buildings Trust

Calvinistic Methodists put enormous emphasis on itinerant preaching, either indoors or in the open, considered song and active prayer to be important to developing a personal relationship with God, and believed that God would arise and display his glory. Hard work was a core component of their religion because only by hard work and business success could the elect be known and recognize themselves.   By 1750 there were over 400 gatherings of converts who became groups or fellowships known as “seiadau.”

Hugh M. Lewis describes Aberdovey as suffering “a certain amount of religious deprivation” prior to the last decade of the 18th Century.  The main centre of social and economic activity in the area was Tywyn, where St Cadfan’s Anglican Church, dating back to the 14th Century, was the main centre of religious life.  Even itinerant nonconformist preachers who were very active in other parts of Meirionnydd did not reach Aberdovey.   In about 1790, however, a group of Calvinistic Methodists established themselves about a mile outside Aberdovey at a building called Hen Felin, which has since become a ruin.  They next moved to lodgings in a building that belonged to the Raven Arms called The Store House on Sea View Terrace, which was used as a warehouse facility and had an upper room that could be used for Calvinistic meetings.  Unfortunately, Edward Corbet who “feared them as radicals if not revolutionaries” (Lloyd, A Real Little Seaport) was informed of their activities and evicted them, throwing all their property including benches and bibles out onto the road.  The Calvinists were lucky to find a sympathizer in Mr Scott, the owner of the row of three cottages now known as Penhelig lodge, who from 1796 gave them the use of an outbuilding called Ty Coch on the edge of the ravine where there is now a road called Nantiesyn, in Penhelig.  In 1811 the Calvinist Methodist movement established its (Yr Hen Gorff – The Old Body) formally, detached itself from the Anglican Church, and became the leading nonconformist Meiryonnydd religion, giving the Aberdovey preachers a solid foundation.

Calvinistic Methodist Chapel, New Street rear entrance

Aberdovey’s population increased in the late years of the 18th Century and the early years of the 19th Century.The discovery of copper and lead in the mid-18th Century and the importance of the port for handling imports of wheat, barley and corn significant contributors to the growth the the village. As Aberdovey prospered, the Calvinist congregation also grew, making it necessary to look for premises that was not owned by the Ynysmaengwyn estate.  In 1827, recognizing the growth of Aberdovey, the Turnpike Trust finished a road that linked Aberdovey with Machynlleth, raising its importance, and increasing the number of visitors.

In 1828 a plot of land in what is now Chapel Square was acquired on a 99 year lease, and volunteers built their chapel to seat 124 worshippers in 1828, at a cost of £400.00 (c. £27,120.52 in today’s money, or 26 horses/74 cows, according to the National Archive’s Currency Convertor website).  It did so well that in 1855 a gallery was added at a cost of £120.00 (c.£8,136.16). The Coflein website says that the new chapel, which they named Tabernacle, was designed by Reverend Richard Humphreys of Dyffryn.   The façades are characterized by large rectangular windows beneath dripstones (mouldings to shelter windows from dripping water), a line of three on the first floor on the Copper Hill Street (front) side and two on the ground floor and two on the first floor at the New Street (rear) side.  The arched Copper Hill Street doorway is lined with stone blocks and a keystone.  The New Street entrance door has a stucco frame.  Stuccoed quoins (masonry corner blocks) are on all four corners of the building and there are wide recessed strips in the gables of both frontages.  A plaque reads: “Tabernacl/adeiladwyd ir Methodistiaid Calfinaidd yn y flwyddin 1828” (Tabernacle / built by Calvinistic Methodists in the year 1828).  Once they had established their chapel the Calvinist Methodists set up a Sunday school.

Calvinistic-Methodist Chapel of 1864

In 1864 the Calvinists left the building in favour of new, much larger premises on Sea View Terrace, also called Tabernacl, which will be covered on future post shortly.  The original 1828 building was immediately adopted as a temporary school whilst a new school was being built.  When it was again vacated the former chapel was renamed the Assembly Rooms and became a resource for villagers and a central location for village activities.  Shops were later established on the ground floor, the first floor was used for meeting space, and the building became know as the Market Hall.  In 1920 it was renamed the Imperial Hall.  In 1931 Roman Catholics, who had no premises of their own in the village, used one of the meeting rooms.  During the Second World War the building became the headquarters for the Home Guard.  Today, the has been occupied for over two decades by the excellent Dovey Marine.

 

Main sources:
Welsh Calvinist Methodism is usefully described on the Welsh Religious Buildings website.  Wesleyan Methodism and some of the features that distinguish it from Calvinistic Methodism are described in straight forward terms on the Welsh Religious Buildings website and on the BBC Religion web pages.  Hugh M. Lewis, local resident and collector of Aberdovey information and images, is the source of most of the information in this post about the early activities of the Aberdovey Calvinistic Methodists, telling the fascinating story of the establishment of the chapel in his book Aberdyfi, Portrait of a Village (his best book, in my opinion).  Lewis Lloyd’s A Real Little Seaport was also useful, and Hugh M. Lewis’s Aberdyfi, Pages of Time added some additional information.

The Bear of Amsterdam, a ship of the Spanish Armada on the Dyfi in 1597

The story of the Bear of Amsterdam is probably the best known of all local stories, apart from the Bells of Aberdovey.  Unlike the Bells, this is not a matter of myth but a slice of Elizabethan history.

Philip II at his marriage to Mary I in 1552. Elizabeth I in 1592

The Bear of Amsterdam was a ship in the Third Spanish Armada, which took place between October and November 1597 during the Anglo-Spanish War of 1585–1604.  The war, which consists of a series of naval episodes over this period, had its origins in both religious and commercial disputes.  Philip II, King of Spain, defender of the Catholic faith, was under pressure to tackle the rise of Protestantism in Spanish territories in the southern Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and northern France, collectively referred to as the Low Countries.   At the same time Queen Elizabeth had reinstated the Act of Supremacy that established the Church of England as the national religion, detaching England from Catholic Papal authority.  This was naturally a source of tension between England and Spain.  This relationship became even more strained when the English crown supported the activities of English ships trading with Spanish outposts in the West Indies.  Spain held a trading monopoly on these colonies and English activities were condemned as smuggling.   Spanish retaliation at the Battle of San Juan de Ulúa resulted in the capture and sinking of English ships under the command of Sir Francis Drake.  The English retaliated with an escalation of privateering, which not only aimed to undermine the Spanish monopoly, but to line the pockets of the crews involved.  When England came out in support of the Dutch against Spanish military action to squash the rise of Protestantism in 1585, Spain considered this a declaration of war.  A number of skirmishes took place, but the final straw came with Elizabeth’s execution of Mary Queen of Scots in February 1587, leading to Philip II’s decision to invade England in order to place a Catholic monarch on the English throne, a plan for which he received papal authority in July 1587.

Spanish ships in a storm

On 28 May 1588 the first Spanish Armada (armada meaning a fleet of warships) set sail for the English Channel and were met by the English fleet.  A battle of attrition succeeded in preventing the Spanish from reaching any English port and the Spanish withdrew to Calais to regroup. The English pursued them, using fireships to break through the defensive formation, forcing another battle on the Spanish, who were defeated and forced to retreat.  The second Spanish Armada took place in 1596, Philip II’s next attempt to tackle England, this time by invading Ireland, but the fleet hit a storm that annihilated it, and it never reached the English channel.

The third and final Armada took place between October and November 1597, aiming to surprise the English fleet in the English Channel as it returned from a failed expedition to the Azores, whilst another part of the Armada would land an invasion force in Falmouth or, if this proved impossible, Milford Haven, both of which were important Elizabethan ports.  136 ships set out from Spain with 8,634 soldiers, 4,000 sailors, a total of 12,634 men and 300 horses, but storms again led to the failure of Spanish plans.  With their fleet dispersed, only a few ships were able to land troops in England and Wales.  The returning English ships had also been disrupted by the storm, but still managed to capture several Spanish ships.  The third Armada was again defeated and remaining Spanish ships were captured.

Spanish caravels.  Source: Encyclopedia Britannica

The last ship from the third Armada to be captured was the c.120 ton caravel, The Bear of Amsterdam.  Having headed for Milford Haven she overshot and eventually weighed anchor in the middle of the river Dyfi on 26 October 1597, probably to acquire stores.  The prevalence of Westerlies stranded the ship for until 5th November.  Aberdovey was very isolated at this time, with only a few houses that served the ferry from Aberdovey to Ynyslas.  A survey of ports, creeks and other landing places on the Welsh coast from earlier in the century stated that only during the herring season when fishermen arrived from elsewhere was there any activity in Aberdovey where there were only three houses, and no local boats.  Local militia from both sides of the river gathered on the banks of the Dyfi and prepared themselves for a fight, but there were no suitable boats with which to board The Bear of Amsterdam, and no canons with which to hole her.  Muskets had some impact, killing three and wounding others on board the ship, but the ship moved out of range during the night.  D.W. Morgan (Brief Glory) quotes a contemporary document that describes how the ship landed about six men ashore in a cockboat (a small rowing boat used as the ship’s tender), with two more remaining in the boat, but these were ambushed by the Merionethshire Militia, with two killed and four captured.  The Vice Admiral visited the camp of the Cardiganshire militia “but could do nothing except helplessly watch the Spaniard swinging to his anchor in midstream. Of little avail were the plans of the Merionethshire men.”  A plan by the Merionethshire milita to build wooden fire rafts and float them down the river on an outgoing tide in the hope that it would set fire to the ship failed when the wind turned.  In spite of intentions to capture The Bear of Amsterdam, the ship left without challenge or further incident when the winds changed.

Dartmouth Castle as it is thought to have looked in c.1550.  Source: English Heritage.

The Bear of Amsterdam headed south, but she did not manage to return to Spain.  Rounding the Cornish peninsula The Bear of Amsterdam suffered damage in another storm and surrendered on the 10th November to an English squadron.  She was led into Dartmouth with no ammunition on board and almost no supplies.  The crew consisted of 62 Spanish sailors, 3 Flemish and 2 English (one acting as a pilot, the other a known pirate who was immediately gaoled).  Morgan says that the Captain of The Bear of Amsterdam “was a man of note and was sent up to London under guard to be exchanged for 2 Englishmen who were Spanish prisoners.”

Back in Aberdovey, Morgan describes how the local magistrate was in trouble.  Ednyfed Griffith found himself under investigation when complaints were lodged against him about his handling of the Bear of Amsterdam affair:  “Although he lived within a mile of the scene he failed to repair thither with any men, arms or weapons;  nor did he raise any manner of force to resist the Queen’s enemies.  He, being remiss, slack and careless thus greatly discouraged those that were eager.”  It does not seem to have done him much harm, because in 1608 he was appointed Sheriff of Gwydgwian.

The reconstruction of The Bear of Amsterdam built for the Coronation of Elizabeth I, 1953. Source:  Hugh M. Lewis 2001. The Past Recalled. Dinas.

As with all good history, an unverifiable story emerged from the incident, which is that a handful of Spanish sailors swam ashore after dark, vanished into the hills and eventually integrated with Welsh inhabitants.  Unless they were fluent Welsh speakers, which is improbable, it seems unlikely that the presence of foreign accents in the area would have gone unnoticed in a period of heightened awareness and fear of Spanish invasion, but it is a nice story.

In 1953 both the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and the Elizabethan story of The Bear of Amsterdam were celebrated by fitting out a local ship to represent the Spanish caravel.  She was moored mid-river and set on fire.

Today the episode is preserved in a popular restaurant on the sea front in Aberdovey named The Bear of Amsterdam.

The Congregational Chapel, Aberdovey (established 1880)

The Congregational Chapel, Aberdovey

The little Congregational chapel opposite the Snowdonia Tourist Information Centre on Glandyfi Terrace is a bijou little place, quite one of my favourite buildings in Aberdovey.

The Congregationalists (or Independents) arrived in Aberdovey in 1839, and found premises at 6 Evans Terrace where the minister preached their first sermon on 9th March 1840.  From there they moved to 50 Copperhill Street, and where there until 1845 until they established a small chapel called Capel Bach (Low Chapel) on the slopes of Pen y Bryn, the small hill with the folly on top, near today’s Prospect Place.

By the 1870s Aberdovey was becoming prosperous, and in 1882, two years after the chapel opened, the new wharf and jetty were built, improving transport links between sea and the decade-old Cambrian railway for the import of timber, livestock and unprocessed grain and the export of slate and milled grain.  As Aberdovey became more affluent, new people took up residence, both Welsh and English, and their spiritual needs were catered for by a remarkable number of chapels for such a small community.  The chapel was built in the late 1870s, and opened in 1880 to seat a congregation of 250 worshippers.

The chapel has a steeple with its own entrance, an octagonal spire, Gothic Revival clerestory windows, and a large pointed arch window that dominates the stone-dressed façade, featuring attractive traceries with four quatrefoils and stained glass.  The Gwyneth Archaeological Trust states that the unrendered stone is from Penrhyndeudraeth, probably from the Garth quarry in Minffordd, which opened in 1870 and is still in use. the stone dressings and quoins are of Anglesey limestone.  The slender painted iron columns in the interior are absolutely in proportion to the rest of the building, and a very distinctive feature.  The first service was held in the new chapel in 1880, when the village’s first harmonium was introduced.  A few years later the village’s first pipe organ was installed.   The welshchapels.org website indicates that a major renovation took place in 1905, at the cost of £1950.00.  It closed in 1998, when it was purchased and converted for residential use in 1999 by the present owner (with my sincere thanks to him for showing me around the absolutely super interior).

English Presbyterian Church of Wales, Aberdovey c1900. Source: Hugh M. Lewis 1989, plate no.8, Pages of Time

The choice of architectural design is interesting because far more than the other Aberdovey chapels, it borrows directly from the Catholic and Anglican paradigms of church architecture.  A photograph of it in the late 19th Century in Pages of Time by Hugh M. Lewis shows it with the surviving boundary walls and rails and two gateways opening directly onto the road with a gas light opposite, with no pavements (see above).  St Peter’s Anglican Church is clearly visible further down the road.

Congregationalism dates back to the 16th and 17th Centuries. The Congregationalists, together with the Baptists, are two of the oldest Nonconformist religions, and Geraint Evans credits the Congregationalists with being the “seedbed of Welsh Protestant Dissent” in Llanfaches, established in November 1639.  It was given a major boost during the Evangelical Revival of the 19th Century, and in 1832 the Congregational Church of England and Wales was established, a national organization of independent Congregational churches.  Many Congregationalists agree on a number of doctrines, which may include the principle of sola scriptura (the idea that all knowledge required for a spiritual life and to achieve salvation is contained in scripture) and that adult conversion to the faith is a requirement for spiritual salvation.  They all reject the episcopal concept of Holy Orders that are conferred by a religious leader (usually a bishop), adopting professional clergy and an active laity instead.  Finally, Congregationalist churches and chapels are independent of other doctrines, and are self-governing.

Aberdovey c.1900. Source: Hugh M. Lewis. Aberdyfi: A Glimpse of the Past.

The above photograph, this time from another booklet by Hugh M. Lewis, Aberdyfi: A Glimpse of the Past, shows the village in about 1900, with the chapel at the far end, giving a good impression of the stretch of road from the corner of Copper Hill Street down as far as the chapel.   Fishing nets are out to dry in the foreground, and there is a two-masted ship moored against the jetty, and the architecture along that stretch of road preserves many of the terraces from the 17th Century village.

Capel Tegid, Bala. Source: https://tinyurl.com/y6wydxtg

Looking around for anything similar in the area with a view to trying to identify who the architect of Aberdovey’s Congregational Chapel might have been, I stumbled across the larger Capel Tegid at Bala, a Calvinist Methodist church (reconsecrated as a Presbyterian church in the 1930s) that has a lot in common with the Aberdovey chapel, including painted iron columns.  I have no idea if it was built by the same architect, but it is not entirely implausible that William Henry Spaull of Oswestry, who built Capel Tegid and a number of Wesleyan Methodist chapels in  Wales, was also responsible for the Aberdovey Congregationalist chapel.

The 1999 conversion of the Aberdovey Congregationalist Chapel to residential use by a Welsh citizen was absolutely in tune with the existing architecture, retaining all the key features including the wonderful slender painted cast iron columns and the stained glass windows, and all the furnishings complement the original features beautifully.  It is beautifully maintained, inside and out, and is a credit to its owner.  The perfectly manicured hedge in front of the chapel is evergreen myrtle, the leaves of which have a wonderful aromatic scent when rubbed, and it produces a plethora of tiny white flowers in the summer.

I won’t mention the owner’s name, to preserve his privacy, but when I first moved into the area I had not realized that it had been converted and thought that it was still either in use as a chapel or was empty.  When I saw someone emerging from the building I therefore had no hesitation in asking if it would be possible to see around it at some stage.  He was so kind that he invited me in there and then.  I was expecting dusty recesses and cobwebs, and instead stepped through the door to find that I had invited myself into what was clearly someone’s very beautiful home!  To say that I was mortified barely touches the surface.  But I am so glad that I made that particular mistake, because it was super to see how stunning it is.

Some restoration work was carried out to the steeple in 2018.

It should be noted that although the Coflein website has a photograph of the Congregational Chapel under its entry for the English Presbyterian Church of Wales, this is a case of mistaken identity.  The Presbyterian chapel is the yellow building at the opposite end of the village (and shown in this blog’s header).   Elsewhere on the site, the Coflein website has the chapel listed as an Independent chapel (nebo), the Welsh-speaking term for Congregationalism.  The Coflein website lists many photographic records of the interior prior to its conversion in its catalogue, but these are not currently available online.

A visit to St Peter Ad Vincula Church, Pennal

There are six churches in the Bro Ystumanner Ministry Area, which covers the Dyfi Estuary and Dysynni Valley.  I intend to write about all six of the churches, which include St Peter’s in Aberdovey and St Cadfan’s in Tywyn, but am starting with St Peter ad Vincula in Pennal.  The story of St Peter ad Vincula comes in three parts:  1) as a piece of architectural and ecclesiastical heritage in its own right, 2) as the site at which Owain Glyndŵr’s Llythyr Pennal (Pennal Letter) was signed, and 3) as a modern, fully functioning community church.  I was lucky enough to be given a full tour of the church by church warden Hugh Ramsbotham, to whom my sincere thanks.

The unusual name of the church refers to a story in the Acts of the Apostles XII.  St Peter ad Vincula translates as St Peter in Chains and refers to an event when St Peter was jailed in Jerusalem by Herod.  The night before his trial he was asleep, flanked by two soldiers and chained in irons, awaiting trial for preaching about Jesus.  An angel is said to have woken him on the night before his trial, releasing him from his chains with a touch, guiding him out of the prison past unseeing guards.  Today, the chain is kept in a reliquary under the main altar of the Basilica di San Pietro in Vincoli (Rome), which was built in the 5th Century to house the chains.

Aerial view of Pennal, with the church of St Peter ad Vincula surrounded by an oval wall. Source: Coflein website

The village of Pennal lies on the River Pennel, which runs into the River Dyfi, and it is probable that this was the main Dyfi river crossing throughout the Roman and Mediaeval periods.  The village was occupied from at least the Roman period, if not earlier, with a small fort, Cefn Gaer, established near to the river.  The site of the church itself had probably been occupied by a pre-Christian structure, suggested by the oval perimeter wall of the churchyard.  Oval and circular churchyard walls are often associated with a number of early structures including Roman era churches that survived the departure of the Romans, early burial grounds, pre-Christian shrines and Anglo-Saxon defended sites.  Such circular and oval churchyards are common in Wales.

The first church was established in around the 6th Century by Saint Tanwg and Saint Eithrias, missionaries from Armorica (modern Brittany).  There are no signs of either that wooden structure or any that followed it.  Pennal was the site of one of 21 llysoedd, or royal court compounds, and the motte that stands some 300m to the south-west of the church may have been part of the contemporary complex.  The church was re-dedicated at the end of the 11th Century by the Normans and it is possible that it was first rebuilt in stone during the 1130s when Gruffydd ap Cynan initiated a programme to rebuild ancient churches of Gwynedd.  Throughout the Mediaeval period it was located within the cantref (similar to a county) of Meirionnydd and the smaller administrative unit of the cwmwd (commote) of Ystumanner.  Throughout the Middle Ages the church  was one of three Chapels of Ease (subsidiary churches) under St Cadfan at Twywyn, along with Llanfinhangel-y-Pennant and Llanfair (Tal-y-Llyn).   The church is recorded as having served several of the Welsh tywysogion (princes) and is mentioned in the Norwich Taxatio (records of assessments of English and Welsh ecclesiastical wealth) of 1253.  It is probable that it was designated a Chapel Royal of the Princes of Gwynedd under Owain Glyndŵr. In the 1284 in the Statute of Rhuddlan the cantref of Merionnydd was combined with other cantrefs to form Merionethshire.

The Pennal Letter. Source: British Library. Archives nationales de France, J//516/A/29 J//516/B/40. Copyright © Archives nationales de France

The presence of a llys here partially accounts for the presence of Owain Glyndŵr in the early 15th Century.  The connection with Owain Glyndŵr concerns an important moment in Welsh history, which could have turned the tide in favour of Welsh independence from England. In 1404 Glyndŵr held a Parliament at Machynlleth where he was, according to tradition, crowned Prince of Wales, having organized the previously very fragmented opposition to Henry IV.  At the time he had backing from Scotland and Northumbria, but by the end of 1405 this support had been eroded by Henry’s armies.  In 1406 Glyndŵr assembled a formal meeting of his nobles and clergy at Pennal, including the Archdeacon of Meirionnydd Gruffydd Young, to discuss the options for making a strategic alliance with Charles VI of France.  During this period there were two papacies, the traditional papacy base in Rome and a new breakaway papacy in Avignon, France.  Charles VI was loyal to the Avignon papacy, whilst the English king Henry VI was loyal to Rome.  Glyndŵr hoped to take advantage of the breach within the Roman Catholic Church as a bargaining chip to gain the support of Charles VI.  As a result, a letter was written by Glyndŵr in Latin to Charles VI offering allegiance to Pope Benedict XIII in return for military support.  It was signed by Glyndŵr and provided with his great seal, which was probably done at the church.  Although the hoped-for support never arrived, the letter remains a vital historical document recording Glyndŵr’s intentions, a strategy for the future of Wales, which included the development of a Welsh church with its own Archbishopric at st David’s, an independent Welsh government and the establishment of two universities.  The letter is preserved today in France at the Archives Nationales de France in Paris, and a copy is on display in the church at Pennal.  A translation of the letter is available in English on the Canolfan Owain Glyndŵr website.  The letter was carried to France by Hywel Eddoyer and Maurice Kelly.  A 1996 painting by Ceredigion artist Aneurin Jones (1930 – 25 September 2017) that reconstructs the assembly hangs in the church, showing members of the parish at the time it was painted.

The Aneurin Jones reconstruction of Glyndŵr’s assembly at Pennal

The earliest of the clearly dated parts of the building belong to the 16th Century, with Roman red sandstone brickwork from the fort incorporated into the walls of the church and churchyard walls, which were otherwise built of locally sourced stone.  The church was a chapel of ease in the Tywyn parish in the Middle Ages, but became a parish church in 1683 under its first rector, Maurice Jones.  The 19th Century renovations were radical, but incorporated aspects of the 16th and later century features into the structure.  16th Century survivors include roof timbers that were incorporated into the new roof, oak pews, the oak altar and possibly the carved pulpit.

The church was rebuilt in 1700 and 1761.  In the 18th Century Pennal acquired particular importance when an east-west turnpike was built following the Merioneth turnpike act of 1775, which ran from near Pennal through Cwm Maethlon (Happy Valley) to Tywyn, completely bypassing Aberdovey.  By the mid 19th Century the wharf at Pennal became important for transporting slate downriver to Aberdovey for loading onto coastal vessels and in 1865 the Cwm Ebol slate slab quarry, about a mile to the northwest of Pennal, built a tramway to the village after several years of using horses to transport the slates.

During the 19th Century the church was again rebuilt in 1810 and 1872-3.  It is to the 19th Century that most of the current form and character of the church belongs.  St Peter ad Vicula is Grade II listed (listing number 23314, listed on 25th May 2000).  The interior layout of the church is a single unit incorporating both chancel and nave with a slate roof. There is also a south porch added in 1880 and made of stone from Llugwy Quarry, a north vestry added in 1890 and short square bell tower with two bells at the east end, with a fully functioning clock is set into the exterior just below the tower.  The original gallery was removed in 1873 (and was replaced with a modern version in 2010).  The internal floor area was lowered by two feet and six inches c.1901.  Wonderful 19th Century quarry tiles cover the floor of the chancel and the step leading up to it, as well as the floor of the vestry.  The modern slate floor at the west end replaced more quarry tiles, of which only one tiny patch survives.  The roof is a very nice open tie-beam arrangement, with re-used older timbers as well as contemporary Victorian ones.

The church has five lovely stained glass windows, all dating to the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.  The earliest belongs to 1872 (by Holland and Holt of Warwick) and the latest, which replaced 1872 windows in the nave, date to the early 1920s and commemorate members of the community.  The themes are The Ascension (1872 by Holland and Holt); the IHS monogram, the abbreviation of the Greek spelling of Jesus, “ΙΗΣΟΥΣ” (1872, by Holland and Holt); Christ Blessing Children Brought by the Mothers (1893, Ward and Hughes); The New Jerusalem (c.1923, by Powell and Sons, designed by Ernest Penwarden), and Charity (1928).  The Ascension, which dominates the church at its eastern end, is a particularly colourful and lively piece, with a depiction of the the Green Man presiding over fruit and vegetable at its base, the only known representation of the Green Man on stained glass known in Wales.  The Green Man is usually a sculpture, either surrounded by or made of leaves, probably pagan in origins but frequently depicted in church sculptures, perhaps connected with ideas of earth-bound seasonal renewal and the harvest.  Most of the windows are commemorative, some with inscriptions below the them, or within the glass itself.  The Ascension window, for example, was dedicated to the memory of William Hodson Lloyd, who died in 1871.

The provenance of the three striking Flemish oak plaques showing the martyrs St Jude, St Andrew and St Paul on the north wall is unknown.  There used to be four of them, all dating to around 1700, but one was stolen.  A brass plaque, a rare example dating to the mid 19th Century, commemorates three Thruston sisters, one of whom held the first school in Pennal in the church’s gallery.  The date of the fretwork pulpit is uncertain.  The lovely little organ was built by John Smith of Bristol, c.1840 and still plays perfectly.  Underneath the altar, church documents record that Lleucy Llwyd (Lucy Lloyd) was interred following her tragic death.

The story of Lleucy Llywd belongs to the mid-14th Century, but is more legend than history.   Lleucy lived on Dolgelynnen Farm near the Dyfi river and fell in love with a young court poet called Llywelyn Goch.  Lleucu’s father refused to let them marry, and kept the two apart.  When Llywelyn Goch had to go away for a period of time, promising to return, Lleucy’s father told her that Llywelyn had married another woman. Lleucu died of a broken heart and Llywelyn returned to her on the day of her funeral. The story has been immortalized in Llywelyn Goch’s famous Welsh elegy Marwnad Lleucu LLwyd.  Copies are available online in Welsh (e.g. on Wikisource), but I have been unable to find an English translation – please get in touch if you know of one!

In 1991 a road widening scheme removed part of the churchyard, to the south. It was done sympathetically, so that the sense of the space being a clearly defined oval is retained.  The graves were moved to a new site outside the village, and ninety one tomb stones were recorded and moved to lean against the walls within the churchyard.  Unsurprisingly, some Roman tiles were found at the same time.  The churchyard was converted into a Heritage Garden in 2004 to commemorate the 600th anniversary of Owain Glyndŵr’s Parliament and this incorporated many of the headstones into its design.  It was designed by Peter Styles and was constructed by a Pennal, William Rees, with funding from Cyngor Gwynedd,with funds from the EU and the Welsh National Assembly, the Snowdonia National Park fund for sustainable development (CAE) and numerous local supporters.  Its aim was to provide a place of peace and tranquillity, incorporating native species of tree, shrub and flower, including some lovely pieces of topiary, emulating monastic gardens.  The dominant theme is of repeated curvilinear motifs, reminiscent of Welsh stone circles and Celtic themes.  Key features are memorial plaques, a statue of Owain Glyndŵr by sculptor David Haynes and circular oak benches that act as a textural bridge between the grey stone that makes up most of the garden and the delightful shrubbery that sits within it.  The sculpture, about 4ft tall, shows a man ready for action, a cloak held in place with a dragon clasp, and a suit of armour showing the faces of men who lost their lives, their bereft mothers and widows, and themes that bring Wales to mind, like buzzard, hare, oak tree, raven and harp.

Memorial to Charles Thomas Thurston of Pennal Tower

It is easy to think of churches merely in terms of their physical architecture and history, but of course churches were built by people for their communities.  Perhaps more than any other church I can remember visiting in the last couple of years, St Peter ad Vincula gives the sense of how it has been tied up with village life and the key families who helped to support and maintain it.  The monumental inscriptions on the walls, the earliest of which dates to 1717, all commemorated key contributors to the church, and captured some of the sense of pride and involvement that these people had invested in the community and in their country.  The number of memorials to those who died in wars alone is remarkable.  All these families, the Anwyls, Thrustons, Edwards, Talgarths and Rucks have died out now in the Pennal area, but there is a sense of continuity between them and the church’s current guardians.  Each of these family histories deserve research in their own right.

Today the church is one of six in the Bro Ystumanner Ministry Area in the Archdeaconry of Meirionnydd and the Diocese of Bangor.  The other churches in the Ministry Area are St Cadfan in Tywyn, St Peter in Aberdovey, St David in Abergynlowyn, St Michael in Llanfihangel-y-Pennant and St.s Mary and Egryn in Llanegryn.  The Reverend Ruth Hansford presides over the Ministry Area, supported by both clerics and lay personnel.  The village is tiny and being sandwiched between Tywyn and Aberdovey in the west and Machynlleth in the east does not have a vast catchment area, and of course congregations fluctuate throughout the year as locally-based holiday visitors come and go, but the church still manages to hold a congregation at 9.30 every Sunday and holds commemorative services, concerts and festivals, with song a running theme through all their activities.  The gallery upstairs is a space for meetings, social gatherings, small events and quiet contemplation, whatever your denomination.  Involvement with the local school, with its 18 pupils, is important, and evinced in the Remembrance Day exhibit at the west end of the church, and in an earlier project to interpret the Green Man, upstairs in the gallery.  The church is full of charm and interest, and above all warmth, with dozens of community stories embedded in every feature.

Location of St Peter ad Vincula in Pennal. Courtesy Google Maps.

The church is literally on the A493 that links Aberdovey in the west to Machynlleth in the east.  It is a small village, and parking may be difficult during the summer but is easy out of season.  Through the main door and to the left you will see a small metal box on the wall above a table with leaflets about the church’s history.  Feed a pound coin into it and it turns on all the lights for 20 minutes, transforming the interior.  Such a great idea.

Address:
Church of St Peter ad Vincula
Pennal
Machynlleth
SY20 9DW
Contact details are on the Church of St Peter ad Vincula website at: http://pennalchurch.org.uk

My many thanks again to Hugh Ramsbotham for the excellent guided tour, as well as to David Inman for introducing us.

References

British Listed buildings. Church of St Peter ad Vincula.
https://britishlistedbuildings.co.uk/300023314-church-of-st-peter-ad-vincula-pennal#.VwbTR3arSM8
Canolfan Owain Glyndŵr.  Pennal Letter.
http://www.canolfanglyndwr.org/pennal-letter.php
Gwynedd Archaeological Trust 2007. Ports and Harbours of Gwynedd: Aberdyfi. A Threat Related Assessment. GAT Project No.1824, Report No.671.1, April 2007
http://www.walesher1974.org/her/groups/GAT/media/GAT_Reports/GATreport_671.1_compressed.pdf
Gwynedd Archaeological Trust 2011.  Conservation Area Appraisal: Aberdyfi, Gwynedd. GAT Project  No.2155, Report No.956, June 2007.
http://www.walesher1974.org/her/groups/GAT/media/GAT_Reports/GATreport_956_compressed.pdf 
Leighton, D. 2015. Cym Ebol slate/slab works. RCAHMW, 26 January 2015
http://www.coflein.gov.uk/en/site/286681/details/cwm-ebol-slate-quarrycwm-ebol-slab-works
St Peter ad Vincula Church Leaflet: A Guide to the Church.
St Peter ad Vincula Church Leaflet: The Heritage Garden at Pennal.
Stained Glass in Wales. Church of St Peter ad Vincula, Pennal, Gwynedd. http://stainedglass.llgc.org.uk/site/284 
Visit Mid Wales.  Local Legend – Lleucu Llwyd at Dyfi Valley and Coast.
http://www.visitmidwales.co.uk/Machynlleth-Local-Legend-Lleucu-Llwyd/details/?dms=3&feature=1002&venue=1124365 
Vousden, N. 2012. St Peter ad Vincula.  RCAHMW, April 2012
http://www.coflein.gov.uk/en/site/415/details/st-petersst-peter-ad-vinculas-church

Castell-y-Bere (1221-1295) in the Dysynni Valley

Ordnance Survey map showing Abergynolwyn, shaded red at bottom right and Castell y Bere in the red square (OS Explorer OL23 Cadair Idris and Llyn Tegid)

Castell-y-Bere is at Grid Reference SH6676908547, overlooking the Dysynni valley near the village of Llanfihangel-y-Pennant.  It is maintained by Cadw (Cadw number ME023 ).  It is a splendid place to visit.  Its remains are substantial, accessed via a short and easy walk, offering spectacularly scenic views over the Dysynni valley that it protected, and is far enough off the beaten track to be wonderfully peaceful.  There are various routes to Castell-y-Bere, but if you are not fond of single track roads, the easiest, and almost certainly the quickest, is to go along the B4405 from Bryncrug to Abergynolwyn, turn left in the middle of the village and follow the brown signs to Castell-y-Bere for about 15 minutes.  For those that don’t know the roads, they are very good quality with plenty of passing places, and the hedges are kept cut right back, but you do have to resign yourself to the fact that you are almost certainly have to do some backing to passing places before you get to your destination, particularly during the summer when the castle has a lot of visitors.  It is very well worth it, however. 

There’s a parking area, and an information sign before you pass through a kissing gate and head along the path.   The walk takes you through trees.  The stone-cut path is well defined but quite uneven.  Although it qualifies as an easy walk and there are no particularly steep bits, there are some fairly sharp drops to the side of the path, so you do have to be sure of your footing. This is even more the case with the castle itself.  There are a number of flights of stairs within the castle, some of which terminate at the edge of a steep drop with no barriers.  If you walk around using a bit of common sense (particularly if you have children in tow) it is perfect, and so much better than the usual ugly tubular metal barriers that disfigure most heritage sites today. 

Castell y Bere aerial photograph with my annotations showing key components of the castle (Source of photograph: Coflein website)

Approaching its original entrance, the castle offers a gloomy and imposing welcome to the building that requires a climb up wooden steps, emulating the original sense of entering into an intimidating stony eyrie,dominated by walls and gate towers, with pits beneath the wooden drawbridges so that when the two drawbridges were raised and each portcullis was dropped there were formidable barriers to entry.  The castle itself provides uninterrupted views over the entire landscape surrounding it, which was strategically invaluable in the 13th century when it was built.  I was expecting a far more dilapidated structure, but what survives is sufficient to make the reconstruction shown on one of the signs traceable on the ground with very little effort, although it helps to have the aerial photograph to refer to.  I have added labels to my photograph of the reconstruction and the Coflein aerial photograph of the castle as it is today, so that my photographs can be related to the original layout of the castle. 

The castle was built in 1221 by Llywelyn ab Iorwerth (also known as Llywelyn Fawr, or the Great, c.1173-1240). Llywelyn, prince of Gwynedd, was a remarkable character, a landmark personality in Welsh history whose reign is characterized by military action to extend his power and attempts at diplomacy to retain it.  It was one of several that he built, including the important castles at Dolwyddelan in southwest Conwy and Dolbadarn at the foot of Snowdon’s Llanberis Pass.

Cattle grazing at the foot of Castell-y-Bere in the Dysynni valley.

The land that Llywelyn chose for his castle was owned by Llywelyn’s illegitimate eldest son Gruffud ab Llywelyn and was taken from him by Llywelyn for the construction of the castle.  The glacial Dysynni valley is wide and flat-based, providing unusually wide tracts of fertile pasture.  Cattle was one of the principal sources of wealth for the Welsh princes in Gwynedd in the 13th Century, and by controlling the pastures surrounding Castell-y-Bere, Llywelyn was able to protect his herds and provide year-round pasture.  Cattle are still herded in the valley, and there were plenty of Welsh black cattle in the fields below the castle when I visited. 

The river Dysynni at the foot of Castell-y-Bere

The castle had political as well as economic value.  From Llywelyn’s point of view, establishing a realm over the entire area of Merionnydd was part of a much more ambitious plan to extend his control over substantial of Wales that were not yet dominated by invaders from England.  Castle building was a relatively new tradition for the Welsh who established undefended courts called llysoedd, which would not have stood up to much in the way of determined attack.  At Dolwyddelan Castle, for example, the remains of the earlier llys survive.  The Norman advances into Wales from the 11th Century put a different complexion on Welsh strategic thinking.  The Norman lords who established their territory in the southeast of Wales, along what is now known as the Welsh Marches, demonstrated how vulnerable the Welsh were to potential hostilities from the east. Timber and earthwork motte and bailey castles were the first defensive structures, but stone castles soon followed.

A photograph of the Cadw sign showing a reconstruction of Castell-y-Bere by Chris Smith. I have added annotations to identify key features of the castle.

View from the middle tower towards the north tower

Llywelyn’s castle was built on a rock outcrop and incorporates much of the bedrock into its construction.  As clearly shown in the aerial photograph from the Coflein website above, it was a contour fort, following the line of the rock.  The castle’s current substantial form reflects various additions to Llywelyn’s original structure.  Its original walls were not as substantial as Edward I’s later additions, and the surviving walls of the original structure demonstrate that this was a much less durable structure than those built by the English.  English castles consisted mainly of straight walls connected by either square or round towers.  In Wales contour forts were common, and apisidal D-shaped towers were characteristic.  Castell-y-Bere has two D-shaped towers, one at each end of the castle, together with a round tower the middle rectangular tower.  K. Steele of the RCAHMW describes how the southernmost of these D-shaped towers differs from typical design “being isolated from the main castle structure, overlooked by the rectangular keep, and accessible from the ground floor, thus rendering it defensively weak.”  The castle was constructed of the ubiquitous local stone.   When the castle was excavated in 1851 some high quality carved stonework was discovered, suggesting that Castell-y-Bere was one of the elaborately decorated of Llywelyn ab Iowerth’s castles. 

The following section looks at the history of Gwynedd up until Castell-y-Bere was abandoned in 1295, for which the following family tree might be of assistance:

Llywelyn ab Iowerth family tree for the period during which Castell-y-Bere was occupied

 

Llywelyn the Great on his deathbed, with his sons Gruffydd and Dafydd in attendance. By Matthew Paris, in or before 1259.  Source: Wikipedia

Castell-y-Bere remained in Llywelyn’s possession during his lifetime.  Between 1218 and 1240, when Llywelyn ab Iowerth died, peaceful relations were maintained between Llywelyn and Henry III, but the situation deteriorated after his death.  Llywelyn ab Iowerth died in April 1240 of natural causes, leaving two sons, his illegitimate eldest son Gruffud and his legitimate younger son Dafydd by his wife Joan.  Llywelyn had disinherited Gruffud in 1220 to ensure that Dafydd ab Llywelyn would succeed him, an arrangement that was rubber-stamped by the Pope, thanks to the intercedence of Henry III.  When Dafydd ab Llywelyn inherited his father’s seat, Henry re-organized.  Dafydd’s disinherited half brother Gruffud was handed over to Henry for imprisonment in the Tower of London to prevent any attempt to oust Dafydd and destabilize Gwynedd, and Dafydd’s own rights were undermined. Gruffud died at the Tower in an escape attempt in 1244.  Dafydd died of natural causes without an heir in 1246.

Stairs leading up to the rectangular middle tower

The power vacuum allowed Henry III to enter Gwynedd and establish Crown control over the most powerful of the strongholds in Wales, now under the leadership of Owain and Llywelyn ab Gruffudd, two of Gruffud’s sons.  A third brother, Dafydd, was also a beneficiary.  They inherited a Gwynedd under siege, and peace was purchased with the provision of knights and foot soldiers.  Wales remained subjugated until the three brothers came into conflict with each other, Llywelyn ab Gruffudd emerging triumphant and proceeding to take over large tracts of Wales.  From 1258 until 1262, whilst Henry was busy with a rebellion of the barons under Simon de Montfort, he consolidated his new territory, securing its borders.   However, in 1262 he was on the march again, claiming new territories in the far south.  He formed an allegiance with Simon de Montfort in 1265, formalized in the Treaty of Pipton, and although Simon de Montfort was defeated and killed in battle only weeks later, Henry III chose to honour the Pipton agreement in the Treaty of Montgomeryshire in 1267.  The principality of Wales was formed, with Llywelyn ab Gruffudd officially recognized as Prince of Wales, with the right to homage of all the Welsh lords, for which privilege he paid 25,000 marks and became a vasal of the king.

Entrance into the building providing access to the north tower.

Llywelyn ab Gruffudd had made a lot of enemies, particularly in the Marches.  In 1271 he attacked Caerphilly castle and extended his realm even further.  Davies says that his authority “extended from Anglesey to Machen, from the outskirts of Chester to the outskirts of Kidwelly.  He was lord of about three quarters of the surface area of Wales and of as somewhat lower proportion of its inhabitants.  He had perhaps two hundred thousand subjects.” However, the powerful Marcher houses of Clare, Bohun and Mortimer came into direct conflict with Llywelyn, and in 1274 both his brother Dafydd and his chief vassal abandoned him, going to England.  Henry III had died in 1272, but his heir Edward I was away on the Crusade and did not return to claim the crown until August 1274.

One of the rectangular structures in the courtyard

The relationship between Llywelyn and Edward I was strained from the very beginning, caused partly by Llywelyn’s marriage to Elinor, the daughter of Simon de Montfort and by Llywelyn’s refusal to travel to the English court to pay homage to the king.   Edward retaliated by abducting Elinor and in 1276 Llywelyn was labelled a rebel.  Permission was given to the Marcher Lords to reclaim territories that they had lost and the king himself prepared for war against the prince and took an army of 800 knights and 15,000 foot soldiers into Gwynedd.  Llywelyn, cut off from food supplies in Anglesey, submitted in  November 1277.  The Treaty of Aberconwy in 1277 swept away Llywelyn principality in all but name.  Much of eastern Wales was lost to Norman control and castles were established to maintain control in key areas of  Gwynedd, giving Edward nearly complete control by 1280.

Oak bucket bound with hazel, with hazel pegs, found in the well. Source: National Museum of Wales. 53.123/4.

More uprisings followed, in particular the war of 1282-3 that spread after an attack by Llywelyn’s brother Dafydd ab Gruffudd on Hawarden and Rhuddlan Castles.  Llywelyn ab Gruffud had little choice but to participate but all these attempts were ultimately futile.  Llywelyn ab Gruffud was killed in battle on 11th December in 1282 and Dafydd assumed the title Prince of Wales but by early 1283, Edward I’s vast English army had the Welsh heartland hemmed in.  Dafydd based himself at Dolwyddelan Castle in southwest Conwy whilst the English took Bangor, Caer-yn-Arfon and Harlech, building vast castles as they went.  Castell-y-Bere was the last of the Welsh strongholds to withstand Edward’s armies, falling in April 1283.  Dafydd was captured in June 1283.  He was tortured and put to a grizzly death in Shrewsbury in October 1283, whilst Edward’s programme of castle building continued uninterrupted.

The rubble interior of the walls, in a section probably reinforced by Edward I.

Castell y Bere survived the 1283 battle and under Edward I a number of improvements were made.  It received additional fortifications, in particular thick walls linking the south and middle towers.  The large rectangular keep overlies a rock-cut ditch suggesting that it had the adjoining D-shaped tower are additions to the original castle may be from this time.  Edward wanted to establish an English borough and a charter was granted, extending from Abermaw to the Dyfi, but the site never prospered.  In 1284 the Statute of Wales, or the Statute of Rhuddlan, was initiated.  The three counties of Anglesey, Caernarfon and Merioneth were created and placed under the management of English sheriffs, effectively splitting Gwynedd into manageable administrative chunks and ending the dreams of Llywelyn ab Iorwerth.  A last ditch Welsh uprising during 1294-5 ended Castell-y-Bere.  Madog ab Llywelyn attempted to take the castle from the English.  He failed, but the castle was very badly damaged in the process and was abandoned.  The 1850 excavations found extensive charcoal, suggesting that it may have been burned.

View along the castle towards the pastures in the Dysynni valley

The 1850 clearance of the site produced some other interesting discoveries.  One of the excavators W.W.E Wynne describes opening the excavations in an article in Archaeologia Cambrensis “in the year 1850, we commenced our excavations, not with the expectation of discovering any object of superior interest, but for the purpose of tracing as accurately as possible the circuit of the walls and making a plan of the building.”  It was during these excavations that the ornamental stonework and other masonry fragments were found. Other items discovered were pieces of chain-mail, corroded arrowheads, part of a crossbow, several knives, one retaining a wooden handle, part of a bone comb and large amounts of pottery, mainly glazed in green or olive.  Animal bones bearing signs of butchery included roe deer and boar. 

Plate from Wynne’s 1861 report of the 1850 excavations.

Views from Castell-y-Bere over the pastures that are used today for grazing cattle and sheep

 

References:

Stonework from Castell-y-Bere, held at Criccieth Castle Museum. Source: Hchc2009 under CC-BY-SA-3.0 licence

Avent, R. 2010. Dolwyddelan Castle, Dolbadarn Castle, Castell y Bere. Cadw
Cadw information signs at Castell-y-Bere
Davies, J. 2007.  A History of Wales. Penguin
Glamorgan-Gwent Archaeological Trust http://www.gatehouse-gazetteer.info/Welshsites/510.html
Jenkins, G.H. 2007. A Concise History of Wales. Cambridge University Press
Steele, K. 2008.  Castell-y-Bere. RCAHMW, 4 November 2008 http://www.coflein.gov.uk/en/site/93719/details/castell-y-bere.
Wynne, W.W.E., 1861. Castell y Bere, Merionethshire.  Archaeologia Cambrensis Vol. 16 p. 105-10 https://archive.org/stream/archaeologiacam07moorgoog#page/n121/mode/1up