‘Within the old walls of Capel Morde[yrn] the old superstitious people did use to dig a reddish Earth, which, being sprinkled upon the Cattle, would keep them (as they fancied) from diseases.’
Richard Fenton ‘Tours in Wales’ 1804-1813
It seems entirely likely that the history of Nantglyn is an ancient one. Far older, in fact, than the purely documentary information that we have to hand suggests. As it stands, Nantglyn first appears in recorded history in the Norwich Taxation of 1254, where the village is named, ‘Nantlym’, and again in the Lincoln Taxation in 1291. The name of the village as we know it today first appears in the 17th century, and renders into English fairly simply as, ‘valley stream’, or perhaps ‘stream in the valley’. At the end of the 17th century, Edward Lluyd mentions some six houses in the village, and even a cursory look at Ordnance Survey maps of the 19th century suggests very little had changed in the intervening 200 years, or so.
But, of course, the history of Nantglyn goes back much further, to before, in all likelihood, the Norman Conquest. Leland states that, ‘There is a Chapelle by a Paroch Chirch in a Place caullid corruptely Nanclin for Nantglin by Astrat-brooke, where as divers Sainctes were of auncient Tyme buried.’ A glance at the OS map for 1879 makes plain the existence of the ‘ancient’ Church of St Mordeyrn, and Lluyd makes mention of a ‘Cappel Mordyrn’, the foundations of which were still visible at the end of the 17th century. There is also the suggestion that at the chapel the right of sanctuary was afforded to those visitors that wished it - quite extraordinary. And then, of course, there is the matter of the enigmatic St Mordeyrn.
Just about the only information we have for him comes from the 16th century bard, Dafydd ab Llywelyn ab Madog. There is nothing in the more traditional sources of information for the ancient saints. We are told that Mordeyrn was the grandson of Cunedda Wledig, the founder of the royal dynasty of Gwynedd, and a relation of Saint David, no less. Mordeyrn was one of the many saints that travelled to Bardsey Island, but his journey was anything but ordinary.
‘When many of thy relations of the 20000 saints went to Ynys Enlli, a causeway arose out of the sea, and suffered them to go to the island; and when the sea, after their passing over, overflowed the place, thou went on thy golden-maned horse over the waters without wetting a hoof; and from thence thou had they name, Mordeirn [the sovereign of the sea].
Quoted in ‘Celtic Remains’ 1878, Lewis Morris
Quite the spectacle, that must have been. While Bardsey (Ynys Enlli) is said to have the graves of those 20000 saints within its sacred earth, Mordeyrn is not one of them. The bard continues by stating that the saint’s home,
‘is in the valley of Nantglyn’, where thou hast a house and a sacrifice, and thy grave is there,’ which does rather make plain his attachment to the village, but there is more, since it is clear that his chapel, shrine in truth, has within it, ‘thy curious image which gives health to the sick. Thou art a blessed doctor, curing pain, deafness, blindness, the mad and dumb, preserving the person’s cattle for a year that visits thy tomb. Several gifts of wax and gold are brought thee.’
And so we have a saint of some considerable character, ‘a blessed doctor,’ in fact. The bard continues, asserting that Mordeyrn was a ‘confessor’. This is no minor thing, at all, but in fact evidence of considerable status. Originally it was a title given to saints who had suffered persecution for their faith but had not been martyred. Later, as Christianity became more established, and its adherents less likely to be killed for their beliefs, it was a title that recognised a saint that had led an especially holy life and died in peace. There is also the tradition, claimed by Lluyd, that the reddish soil on the chapel grounds, made holy by the saint’s presence, was sold and, as Fenton suggests, sprinkled onto the backs of cattle to ward off disease. Altogether, Mordeyrn comes across as someone really rather extraordinary.
While the foundations of the chapel were apparently visible in Lluyd’s day, they were long since gone by the time of the visit of the Royal Commision in 1911. The chapel likely sits beneath the site of Clasmor Farm (Clas Mawr, as it would have been) on the B5435, to the south east on the outskirts of the village. Some of the stone of the farm buildings suggests recycling of the chapel building. And the name of the farm is interesting in its own right, since it would suggest the possibility that Nantglyn was perhaps the site of a clas, a native ecclesiatical church predating the Norman Conquest by some distance. The fact that at one time, Nantglyn was divided into Nantglyn Canon and Nantglyn Sanctorum further suggests that the area was once of great ecclesiatical importance.
Is Clasmor Farm the site of the lost Chapel of St Mordeyrn?
The Ordnance Survey map of 1874 pinpoints Mordeyrn’s Holy Well as being some 100m north west of the current St James’ Church. Lluyd makes mention of it also in 1699. It has gone the way of Mordeyrn’s Church and is lost, apparently situated beneath a garden boundary. In 1912, the ‘Inventory of the Ancient Monuments in Wales and Monmouthshire’, described the site as rising, ‘about 250 yards to the north of the [later St James’] church, but the water has been brought into the village. The site is still moist.’ There is no record as to the specific cures afforded by the Well (a surprise, perhaps given his reputation for healing), though as elsewhere, the water was probably used for baptisms, of which Mordeyrn is traditionally said to have performed at his church.
The Church of St James, was partially rebuilt in 1777, and then again in 1862. Much of its contents remain of the Victorian Era, although there are suggestions of traces of medieval walling and roof timbers. The dedication to St James is probably due to the belief that Mordeyrn’s feast day was, according to Lluyd, the first Sunday after St James’ own feast day, being 25th July. It is chiefly known now for the Pulpit Yew that resides in the churchyard. The bridge across the small stream that eventually meets the Lliwen to the east is a 19th century build, but which replaced what was probably a ford.
The famous Twm o’r Nant, also known as the Cambrian Shakespeare, lived in Nantglyn, and took his pen name from the village. He is buried at St Marcella’s Church in Denbigh, his tomb quite the sight, signposted if you please and with an unfinished inscription
Nantglyn is a wonder. Still waters run deep here.