The Church of St Mael and St Sulien in Corwen is quite stunning. It is so very full of interest and intrigue, it could fairly blister the eyes. Indeed, it’s a challenge to know where to begin, so profound are its depths.
But start we must, so we begin with the name. It would seem that until the turn of the 20th century, the Church was known only as St Sulien’s, since there is no mention of St Mael in historical documents or, indeed, on Ordnance Survey maps before 1901. Mael was a Breton by birth, who seems to have arrived in Wales in the company of Cadfan, while it remains difficult to separate Sulien from several other Celtic saints. Both were active in Wales in the 6th century, which lends itself to the belief that Corwen was extremely important in the growth of Christianity in north Wales. And it is worth pointing out, that there are suggestions that the original siting of the Church was on the hill overlooking the present location.
Approaching the Church from the lych gates, dated to 1886 you are faced with a Church which is almost certainly essentially a 12th century build, though heavily altered in 1871 in that great Victorian paroxysm of change and renovation. However, between the 12th century and 19th centuries, there was a fair amount of work on the fabric of the Church. Originally, the Church had a cruciform plan, with chancel and north and south transepts. The rather smashing west tower is thought to be medieval, though it was restored in 1907, when there was repair work undertaken on the uppermost stage, on the windows and the louvres within them. There are three medieval lancet windows in the east wall, but it seems they have been reset, and the roof of the north transept is almost certainly medieval, while the nave roof is thought to be 17th century. In 1730, the Church was known to be especially large, again suggesting its role as a mother church, described as having a single nave, a chancel, west tower and two transepts, the south being removed in the alterations of 1871, with a south aisle added. Both transepts were lit by four sizeable lancets. The south wall owned three windows, while the north had one. At that time, the north wall was reportedly bulging and dangerously unstable. Not unlike nearby Llangar Church, the 18th century record states that the walls were replete with Biblical decoration of the Creed and Ten Commandments.
Curiously, in the Lapidarium Walliae (1876-79), Professor Westwood tells of discovering,
‘an oblong stone lying at the base of the font, having on the upper surface a double interlaced ribbon pattern, with a semicircular impression on one of its longer sides. It is not easy to guess what may have been its original position or use.’
This stone had disappeared by 1913 at the time of the Royal Commission’s first visit to the Church, and it is simply a matter of speculation as to its purpose. Westwood made a sketch of the stone, reproduced below, which serves to ask more questions than it answers.
The lost Corwen cross, from Westwood's original sketch, reproduced in the Royal Commission's Merioneth reports (1921), also showing a comparison between the Corwen Cross and the Pillar of Eliseg.
But on surer ground, within the Church is a medieval effigy slab, thought to date to the beginning of the 15th century and commemorate Iorwerth Sulien, the Vicar of Corwen. It is inscribed with the following,
‘Hic jacet Iorwerth Sulien vicarius de Coruaen, ora pro eo.’
A rough rendering of the inscription into English would translate as,
‘Here lies the vicar of Corwen Iorwerth Sulien, make atonement for him’.
Leaving the Church now, through the north porch, a wander through the churchyard will astonish. And the wonder begins with the north porch itself, since built into its outside east face is a prehistoric monolith, if you please. Again, not unlike nearby Llangar Church, it is said that all attempts to build the Church in any place other than its current site were thwarted, that the power of the stone that now resides within its fabric prevented any such effort. The tale is told by the Rev. D.R. Thomas in his, ‘History of the Diocese of St Asaph’, (1864) in which he states,
‘The legend of its original foundation, which states that all attempts to build the church in any other spot than where stood the ‘Carreg y Big yn y fach Rewlyd’, ie ‘the pointed stone in the icy nook,’ were frustrated by the influence of certain adverse powers,’
It is a wonderful sight, quite moving in truth, a beautiful amalgam of ages. Thomas believed the stone marked the position of a mission station, but evidence for such a conclusion is lacking. Whether the stone was all that remained of a prehistoric stone circle over which the Church was built is impossible at present to say, and the much travelled theory that it was the stated aim of Christian missionaries to build their churches on older, venerated places in order to pronounce the weighter powers of God has been undermined somewhat, of late. It is possible that the stone was brought from elsewhere, perhaps in Edeirnion which boasts of several prehistoric tombs and circles. A mystery then.
Built into the north porch, the prehistoric Carreg y Big yn y fach Rewlyd, 'the pointed stone in the icy nook', is a reminder that Corwen was far older than its Christian past.
Within the reconstructed south porch, behind a rusting metal grid, fashioned presumably to protect it, is what the Royal Commission in 1921 called,
‘a rude stone on which is incised a cross, 21 inches in length, the long arm of which is narrowed downwards to a point, giving it an appearance of a dagger, a feature which has doubtless led to its being called ‘Owain Glyndwr’s dagger’’
It is said that Owain Glyndwr hurled his dagger from the vantage point of Pen y pigyn, in a rage some say, which struck a rock far below in the town, leaving its image in the stone. That stone now serves as a lintel above the doorway of the south porch. In truth, it’s not that dissimilar to the dagger shaped cross on the magnificent churchyard cross at the west end of the church, but myth and legend will have its way, and the story remains entirely thrilling. William Hutton, a Birmingham antiquarian and seemingly something of a wit, visited the St Mael and St Sulien’s in 1803, and wrote of being shown the mark by a guide who told him,
‘with a face more serious than my own, that upon the Berwyn Mountain behind the Church, was a place called Glendwr’s Seat, from which he threw his dagger, and made the above impression upon the stone. If this had happened in our day, the whole bench of bishops would have united in pronouncing him a Jacobin...I climbed the mountain to what is called Owen’s Seat, among the rocks, and concluded he must have been more agreeably employed than in throwing his dagger, for the prospect is most charming.’
William Hutton, ‘Remarks Upon North Wales’ (1803)
An amusing aside, perhaps, but the view from Pen y pigyn is really rather charming, it must be said.
Owain Glyndwr's Dagger, now part of the lintel above the doorway of the reconstructed south porch.
What other curiosities lie within this fascinating churchyard? Well, of course, the astonishing churchyard cross, perhaps the earliest post Conquest cross in North East Wales deserves its own entry in these pages. Pause then at the kneeling stones, not far on the left from the lych gate as you enter the churchyard. Thought to date from the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century, they are likely a fairly local tradition, since there are others at Llangar and Gwyddelwern. Elias Owen describes them as, ‘touchingly simple in their construction’, possibly rendered without the graft of a mason, and cut to allow friends and family to mourn their loved ones. Thomas Pennant elaborated on this a little, writing,
‘In some places it was customary for the friends of the dead to kneel and say the Lord’s Prayer over the grave for several Sundays after the internment, and then to dress the grave with flowers.’
Thomas Pennant, ‘A Tour in Wales’ Vol II (1796)
The rather touching kneeling stones within the churchyard.
Behind the Church is the rather lovely Coleg y Croes, commissioned in 1709 as almshouses for the widows of the clergy, in the will of William Eyton of Plas Warren in Shropshire, no doubt a relation to the vicar of Corwen at the time, Kenric Eyton. The almshouses became homes in the 1930s, before being reborn as a centre for Christian retreat in around 1985, and since 2018 they have been holiday cottages. The inscription above the entrance reads,
For six widows of clergymen of the Church of England who died possessed of cure of souls, in the county of Merioneth
Built and endowed A.D. MDCCL by the legacy of William Eyton, Esq of Plas Warren, Shropshire 1750’
Coleg y Groes
But no wander around the churchyard would be complete without a visit to the grave of the wonderfully named, Owen Owen, Engine Driver, upon whose grave is written,
‘His last drive is over, death has put on the break
His soul has been signalled, its long journey to take
When death sounds the whistle the steam of life fails
And his mortal clay shunted till the last trumpet calls.’
St Mael and St Sulien’s is quite the most wonderful church and churchyard, so full of wonder that one could quite lose an afternoon simply wandering amongst its beauty.