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Church of
St Eurgain & St Peter

It would seem obvious that the origins of Northop are ancient - its Welsh name of Llaneurgain giving a clearer picture of its past. It is possible that the church here, St Eurgain and St Peter’s, said to have been founded by St Eurgain in the mid 6th century, was originally a clas site, though the evidence for this is vague and nebulous. An early foundation, however, would seem entirely likely.

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Our knowledge of Eurgain is hazy, to say the least, as it is with a very many of our early Welsh saints - viewed through a mist of half remembered tales and legends. What little we think we know of Eurgain comes from a small number of texts, including The Triads, in which she is said to have been the daughter of Maelgwyn Gwynedd, the early 6th century king of Gwynedd, a niece of St Asaph and wife of one Elidir Mwynfawr. She was one of the seven and a half passengers that rode Elidir’s fabulous horse, Black Moro from Penllech in the north to Penllech in Môn.

 

Three Horses who carried the Three Horse-Burdens: Black Moro, horse of Elidir Mwynfawr, who carried on his back seven and a half people from Penllech in the North to Penllech in Mon. These were the seven people: Elidir Mwynfawr, and Eurgain his wife, daughter of Maelgwn Gwynedd, and Gwyn Good Companion, and Gwyn Good Distributor, and Mynach Naomon his counsellor, and Prydelaw the Cupbearer, his butler, and Silver Staff his servant, and Gelbeinevin his cook, who swam with his two hands to the horse's crupper - and that was the half-person.’*(1)

Triad 44,

 

According to the Black Book of Chirk, otherwise known as the Chirk Codex, Elidir was killed at Aber Meuhedus in Arfon in attempting to unseat Rhun ap Maelgwyn - possibly the reason for his extraordinary ride upon Black Moro. One must suppose that it was at this time, with her husband’s death, that Eurgain began her Christian mission - which eventually involved the founding of the church at Northop - Llaneurgain. And before departing from myth entirely, Lewis Morris tells of a further legend, presumably connected to Elidir’s attack on Rhun.

 

Eurgain the daughter of Maelgwn Gwynedd who gave the candle to the wild birds to show the way to her lover.’*(2)

Lewis Morris, Celtic Remains, p. 175

 

There is a tradition that she first came to prominence in the Cilcain area, that in fact the village has taken her original name - Cain. It is said that she had a cell in the area, on land given to her by her father. It was in later years that she became known as Eurgain - eur (aur - gold) and cain (elegant/beautiful). Interestingly, D. R. Thomas tells of a ‘portion’ received by the rector of St Eurgain’s of some 10s from Kylkeyn - this detailed in the Valor Ecclesiasticus of 1535, suggesting a traditional connection with Cilcain that is perhaps explained by the possible earlier presence of St Eurgain in the village.

 

There is a myth that on her death, Eurgain was buried outside of Rhuddlan within a cairn beneath Criccin Cross. This is very unlikely - the cairn so said is probably natural, and given Eurgain’s Christianity, it is unlikely that she would be buried in a cairn and so far from Northop. Again, it is possible that this tradition has something to do with the belief that Eurgain’s original name was, in fact, Cain.

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A postcard view of the church dated 1904

So, we are left with a tradition that St Eurgain and St Peter’s was founded in the mid 6th century. There is nothing now to show of that ancient building, which is hardly surprising. Even a study of the Lidar mapping of the area shows nothing of a circular enclosure, which is sometimes possible to trace in the earth. However, viewed from the near north, it is clear the church sits on raised ground - a platform of sorts, and this may well be evidence of the placing of the original church, before the extensive redevelopment in the 12th and 13th centuries.

 

Our first written records of the church come from the 13th century, with the Norwich Taxation of 1254 naming the church as ‘Ecc’a die Lhanensgeyn’ and the later Lincoln Taxation of 1291 as, ‘'Ecclesia de Llanewrgain cum Capella sua de Flynd taxatur’. It is thought that the church at this time would have been a single celled affair, and probably on the site of what is now the north aisle. Nothing of this church now remains, and our earliest architectural evidence would seem to be some 14th century corbelling and the arch at the east end of the arcade. This 14th century stone work dates from the extension of the church, with a new sanctuary built, beneath which a crypt was installed.

 

St Eurgain’s, along with several other churches in North East Wales, benefited tremendously from the patronage of the Stanleys at the end of the 15th and the early 16th centuries. In particular, Lady Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII and wife of Thomas Stanley, 1st Earl of Derby, was the driving force behind rescuing many churches in Clwyd from decrepitude. Her touch and money can be seen at St Mary’s in Mold, St Giles in Wrexham and the chapel at St Winifred’s Well in Holywell. St Eurgain’s was greatly enlarged with a new south nave installed and a four bay arcade replacing what was the south wall. What was once the sanctuary at the east end of the north nave, became the Lady Chapel. The tower, a dominating, glorious thing, visible for miles in every direction, has been dated to 1571, based on the date inscribed upon a gargoyle on the south west corner. It may be earlier, with a suggestion that it was begun in around 1490 but not finished until late in the 16th century due to a lack of funds. Certainly, the Stanley’s are often attributed to the building of towers, and it would seem likely that they had some part to play in its raising. In the mid 17th century, the porch was enlarged and a paved pathway to the west gate was laid, paid for through the generosity of one Owen Jones.

 

Jones is written of elsewhere in these pages, but his connection to St Eurgain’s is profound, and merits some attention. As a baby, Jones was abandoned and left at the base of the tower, tied to the bell rope. With the support of the parish, the child was adopted to a couple called Jones, and raised as their own. In later life he became successful and wealthy, based in Chester though he kept close contact with Northop. Having bought several properties in the village, he instructed, in his will, that these be used to fund the support and education of orphaned children and impoverished families. His funding of the extended porch and pavement reflects his thanks for the part played by the Parish in his care. The Owen Jones Charity continues to this day. His grave slab can be seen laid flat to the south of the church.

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St Eurgain’s seems to have fallen into some disrepair in the 18th century. By 1729, it is reported that the interior was in desperate need of whitening. The roof is thought to have been reslated and leaded before 1729. By 1792, however, the situation had worsened considerably and the church was in a perilous state. Some rearrangement of the internal features of the church was necessary in order to avoid further damage and ruin.

 

A report of 1806 tells of decaying timbers in the roof and walls cracked and near ruined. It was suggested that amongst the huge amount of repairs that were required, the cracked arcade should be removed and replaced. It would seem that this suggestion was ignored. However, the tower was pronounced as being in fine fettle. Still, by 1830, the situation was dire, with subsidence becoming an increasingly severe issue. In an article of 1832 in the Cambrian Quarterly Magazine, T. Edwards makes plain the terrible condition the church found itself in.

 

It is enlightened by ten windows, many of which were painted glass, but now so broken and confounded that nothing can be made of them.

The History of Northop, Flintshire, Cambrian Quarterly Magazine No. 14, (1832), p. 195

 

Thomas states that the church was thus, ‘nearly rebuilt’ in 1839-40, a claim repeated elsewhere, after a report of 1837 made clear the extent of the decline. It would seem that however extensive the work needed, little in the way of additions were made, with like for like being largely the case. However, the effigies, of which far more will be said in due course, were moved from the Lady Chapel to purpose built recesses in the north wall, though Glynne (in an article of 1884) claims they were set upright against the north wall. The church was internally refurbished in 1876-77, while the bells were recast in 1891, with 3 new bells being added. The tower was restored in 1914.

 

The effigies within the church are worthy of considerable mention. At the time of the 1837 ‘rebuild’, they were removed from what was likely to have been free standing positions here and there about the church to purpose built recesses in the north wall, and made into something of a feature. This included a fourth effigy that had been found in 1798 during the digging of a grave in the chancel. The fascination with such sculpture is intriguing and entirely understandable. There is something ghostly about these stone wrought representations of worthies - variously worn and weathered, some broken and battered - barometers of the changing values of the peoples that looked on them in the centuries since their fashioning. Some are entirely silent as to their identity, some are certain, and others are vague and suggestive. Ghosts, then.

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The 'Fat Knight' as depicted in Pennant's 'A Tour in Wales'

Three of the effigies in St Eurgain’s are in excellent to fair condition, while the fourth, within its recess in the vestry, is very much mutilated and possibly unfinished. This fourth has been described by Gresham as an ‘extraordinary piece of carving’, largely it seems because of its rough looking fashioning (some fair detail on the right arm notwithstanding) and its astonishing corpulence. This is the ‘fat knight’ mentioned by Pennant. It has been impossible to date with any real accuracy, or identify the individual portrayed, though some have attempted to do, of course. Williams, in 1892, suggested that it was a sort of prototype for an effigy of Ithel ap Bleddyn and reused later for some ‘neighbouring magnate’, but this is unlikely, and dismissed by Gresham. It remains a mystery.

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The 'Unnamed Knight' - John Ingleby

The effigy found in 1798, and thus not mentioned by Pennant, was found in digging a grave in the chancel. It is now in the most westerly recess in the north wall. It is, though badly damaged, an excellent piece of carving. It does not, nor seems likely to have ever owned an inscription, but Gresham, writing in 1968 believes he identified the heraldry of the family of Ithel Anwyl, and suggested that this knight was a grandson or great grandson of Ythel ab Lethyn and, on the maternal side, a great grandson of Gruffydd ap Llywelyn ab Ynyr, whose wonderful effigy can be found in St Garmon’s in Llanarmon yn Iâl. Gresham ponders on the damage. While the carving of the effigy shows considerable style, it has clearly been savagely treated at some point in the past. The obvious suggestion is that this was at some time during or after the English Civil War, when it is known that many such effigies were very roughly treated - broken up or buried, in some cases thrown in ditches and left to be covered by the earth. It is possible then, that this is the reason for this effigy’s disfigurement. But Gresham goes a little further, suggesting that the nature of the damage to the legs and trunk would suggest that the effigy has been subjected to fierce heat.

 

As these particular effects are confined to the lower part of the effigy, it is possible that at the time when it was disfigured, it was taken out of the church, set upright, and then ceremonially burnt, just as a man might be, in the midst of a fire.

C. Gresham, Medieval Stone Carving in North Wales (1968), p.202

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It is an intriguing thought. The idea of burning an effigy might seem a trifle pointless, but then very little surprises when it comes to action taken in the name of this religion or that. It is possible then that it was ceremonially burnt as an indictment of the ‘Old Faith’ during the religious paroxysms of the 17th century, recovered and buried in the chancel. Speculation, of course, but a theory as worthwhile as any other at this time.

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The Lady Lleucu

The effigy of the lady, the second from the west, is in excellent condition. The carving is clearly of a very high standard with a tremendous amount of detail incorporated into the work. Gresham identified the effigy as contemporary to that of Ithel ap Bleddyn, and in identifying the repeated monogram of I L, most notably upon her belt, suggested that she was his wife. Much of the Lombardic inscription on the dexter edge (the right-hand side, or left as viewed) has been lost to having been trimmed, but that remaining reads as,

 

DIE: MAI: ANNO: DNI: M: CCC: LXXXII

…day of May, in the year of our Lord, 1382

 

Pennant, writing at the end of the 18th century saw more of the inscription, suggesting the trimming occurred later. He identified the name LLEWC, and leapt to the conclusion that this was the effigy of Lleuci Llwyd, she of the famous lament of her lover, Llywelyn Goch ap Meurig, one of the most famous cywydd ever composed in Welsh.*(3)  Lleuci is said to have died while Llywelyn was in South Wales, and on finding her dead on his return was inspired to compose his most famous work. As much as this would be fairly wonderful, it is unlikely. As mentioned earlier, Llewc (and there is no reason to doubt Pennant’s observation of the name) was likely as not the wife of Ithel ap Bleddyn, he of the neighbouring effigy, both on stylistic grounds, and that perhaps of geography.

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Ithel ap Bleddyn

Lastly, we have the effigy of Ithel ap Bleddyn in the third recess from the west. It is in excellent condition, broken and worn only slightly and thus enjoys tremendous detail. Gresham believed it was originally free standing, since Moses Griffiths’ illustration of the effigy in Pennant’s work details the side now hidden against the wall of the niche it rests within. It is perhaps the detail that first catches the attention, with its bold cross patée, tall bascinet, head resting on what appears to be a tilting (jousting) helmet and feet resting on a lion. He rests with his hands at prayer, as do the effigies of Llewc and the unnamed knight. The inscription is entire and reads,

 

X HIC: IACET: ITH: VACH: AP: BLED: VACH

Here lies Ithel fach ap Bleddyn fach

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Ithel ap Bleddyn - Moses Griffith's illustration, showing the side now against the north wall

With further consideration, it will be noticed that this effigy of Ithel ap Bleddyn is much shorter than the other effigies in the group - Pennant describes the effigy as, ‘a short warrior’. This, in fact, might be entirely purposeful. It is known that Ithel’s father was a very small man - conspicuously so. It is then probable that Ithel was also. This would explain both the short stature of the effigy and the inscription. Gresham makes the point that when it comes to the effigies of worthies, VACH has always been translated as Vychan, meaning lesser or junior, but in this case may actually refer to the more usual meaning of small, or little. Gresham recorded the length of the effigy as 4ft 10’, which would indeed be considered small. It is thought to be something of a myth that people in medieval times were much shorter than today, so it is interesting that Ithel’s diminutive stature was not something to be hidden or concealed, but in fact openly credited. It would suppose that his height was in fact something that he was widely known for, and embraced.

 

Our Ithel ap Bleddyn is likely the Ithel identified by Edward Owen as being present in the Chancery Rolls of the Palatinate of Chester, receiving a lease of a coal mine (described by its old name - sea-coal) in Ewloe in 1354. This Ithel was also a witness to the grant by the then Prince of Wales, Edward of Woodstock - the Black Prince, in 1366, and would seem to have been granted an order of protection in 1386 on his departure towards the coast in defence of the realm. This Ithel was dead by 1395, which would fit neatly with Gresham's dating of this group of effigies.

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A fragment of a sepulchral slab found at the end of the 19th century

Within the recess containing Ithel’s effigy, are the fragments of two separate sepulchral slabs. They were found at the end of the 19th century in the Vicarage field. The first, broken into two pieces, has been dated by Gresham to the late 13th century. It has an inscription, the remains of which, according to Gresham, read,

 

(U)XOR: QUONDA/M: BLE(D)/YN

…former wife of Bleddyn…

 

The second, dated to the early 14th century is a smaller piece, and has the remains of a circular cross-head with a plain shaft. It too has the shadow of an inscription, teased out by Gresham as,

 

NT: DAVIT: E

 

Which possibly renders into English as,

 

Here lies David

 

Ghosts of the 14th century. I am reminded, as I always am when looking upon these dust silent stone memories, of my favourite Larkin poem - An Arundel Tomb.

 

Only an attitude remains.

 

The churchyard has been much altered in its time, but there is considerable interest nonetheless. Perhaps of most interest, other than the grave slab of Owen Jones to the south, is the early 17th century grammar school to the north east of the church. Within it has reused 15th century, possibly early 16th century roof trusses, and externally beautiful mullioned windows with arched lights within. The building was altered when it was repurposed as a Sunday School in the 19th century.

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The early 17th century grammar school

St Eurgain’s and St Peter’s is quite the most wonderful of parish churches. Dominated by its tower, it has wonders within. Shadows of mystery.

 

 

 

 

 

*(1) Tri marchllwyth ynys Prydein. Du y moroed March Elidyr Mwynfawr. a duc Seithnyn a hanner arnaw o benn Llech Elidyr yn y Gogled hyt ym pen Llech Elidyr ym Mon. Sef Seithnyn oedynt. Elidyr Mwynfar. ac Eurgain verch Vaelgwn y wreic a Gwyn da gyned, a Gwynda Reinat. a Mynach Nawnon y gyghorwr. a Phetryleu Venestyr y wallovyat. ac Aranuagyl gwas. ac Albeinwyn y goc a noafes ac duylaw ar bedrein y varch. a hwnuw vu hanner y dyn.

 

It has been suggested that Black Moro might well have been, in fact, a boat.

 

*(2) Eurgain verch Maelgwn Gwynedd a roes y ganwyll wrth yr adar gwylltion i ddangos y fford iw chariad.

 

 

*(3)Lament for Lleucu Llwyd

 

For gay bard, barren summer,

Barren the world for a bard.

I was stripped bare, grief's comrade,

For choosing this month to tryst.

Today in Gwynedd remains

No moon, no light, no colour,

Since they placed, sorry welcome,

Beauty's moon in the hard ground.

 

Fair girl in the chest of oak,

I'm bent on wrath, you left me.

Lovely form, Gwynedd's candle,

Though you are closed in the grave,

Arise, come up, my dearest,

Open the dark door of earth,

Refuse the long bed of sand,

And come to face me, maiden.

Here is, heavy cost of grief,

Above your grave, sun's radiance,

A sad-faced man without you,

Llywelyn, bell of your praise.

Wailing bard, I am walking

A foul world, priest of lust's bliss.

Dear one, whose worth grew daily,

Yesterday over your grave

I let tears fall in torrents

Like a rope across my cheeks.

 

But you, mute girl's fair image,

From the pit made no reply.

Sadly silent, lacking love.

You promised, speechless maiden,

Mild your manner, silk-shrouded,

To stay for me, pure bright gem,

Till I came, I know the truth,

Strong safeguard, from the southland.

I heard nothing, straight-spoken,

But the truth, slim silent girl,

Measure of maidens, Indeg,

Before this, from your sweet mouth.

Hard blow, why care where's my home,

You broke faith, and it grieves me.

You are, my cywydd is false,

Truthful, words sweetly spoken:

It's I, grief's spilled-out language,

Who lie in sad harmonies;

I'm lying, skimping prayer,

Lying the words I have cried.

I will leave Gwynedd today,

What care I where, bright beauty,

My fine flowering sweetheart:

If you lived, by God, I'd stay!

Where shall I, what care I where,

See you, fair moon's pure flower,

On Mount, Ovid's passion spurned,

Olivet, radiant maiden?

You've secured my place surely,

Lleucu, fair comely-hued wave,

Beautiful bright-skinned maiden,

Sleeper too long under stone.

 

Rise to finish the revels,

See if you thirst for some mead,

Come to your bard, whose laughter

Long ended, golden diadem.

Come, with your cheeks of foxgloves,

Up from the earth's dreary house.

A wayward trail the footprints,

No need to lie, my feet leave,

In faltering from passion

About your house, Lleucu Llwyd.

All the words, Gwynedd's lantern,

I've sung, complexion of snow,

Three groans of grief, gold-ringed hand,

Lleucu, praised you, my precious.

With these lips, deft my praise-craft,

What I'll sing, life-long, in praise,

My dear, foam's hue on rivers,

My love, will be your lament.

 

Lucid, sweet-spoken Lleucu,

My sweetheart's legacy was:

Her soul, Merioneth's treasure,

To God the Father, true vow;

Her slender, fine flour's colour,

Body to sanctified soil;

Girl mourned far, flour-white favour,

World's wealth to the proud dark man;

And yearning, lyric of grief,

This legacy she left me.

 

Two equal gifts, sad custom,

Pretty Lleucu, snow-spray's hue,

Earth and stone, bitter grief's gem,

Cover her cheeks, and oakwood.

Ah God, so heavy's the grave,

The earth on beauty's mistress.

Ah God, a coffin holds you,

Between us a house of stone,

Church chancel and stone curtain

And earth's weight and gown of wood.

Ah God, fair girl of Pennal,

A nightmare, buried your brow.

Hard lock of oak, bitter grief,

And earth, your brows were lovely,

And heavy door, heavy clasp,

And the land's floor between us,

A firm wall, a hard black lock,

A latch—farewell, my Lleucu.

Translation by Joseph Clancy (1928-2017)

 

 

 

 

 

Further Reading

 

 

S. Baring-Gould & J. Fisher, The Lives of the British Saints Vol. II, The Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, London (1907)

 

Y Brython, Lleucu Llwyd, Cyf 2 Medi 1859

 

T. Edwards, The History of Northop, Flintshire, Cambrian Quarterly Magazine No. 14, (1832)

 

Flintshire Churches Survey, Church of St. Eurgain and St Peter, CPAT

 

S. Glynne, Notes on the Older Churches in the Four Dioceses, Archaeologia Cambrensis, 5th Series Vol. I No. III (July 1884)

 

C. A. Gresham, Medieval Stone Carving in North Wales, Cardiff, (1968)

 

E. Hubbard, The Buildings of Wales, Clwyd, Penguin, (1986)

 

O. Jones, E. Williams & W. O. Pughe, The Myvyrian Archaiology of Wales, Denbigh (1870)

 

J. Morris-Jones, Y Commrodor, Vol 28, (1918)

 

L. Morris, Celtic Remains, Cambrian Archaeological Association, London (1878)

 

E. Owen, Notes on the Northop Effigies, Archaeologia Cambrensis, (1892)

 

T. Pennant, Tours in Wales Vol I (1778), ed. J. Rhys, Caernarvon (1883)

 

RCAHMC, An Inventory of the Ancient Monuments of Wales & Monmouthshire Flint, London (1912)

 

D. R. Thomas, A History of the Diocese of St Asaph, London, (1874)

 

S. W. Williams, Some Monumental Effigies in Wales, Archaeologia Cambrensis, (July 1892)

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