St Marcella's Church

Often described as the grandest of Denbighshire parish churches, St Marcella’s is indeed extremely impressive.  It is believed that Marcella (Marchell) was a sibling of Ddeier and Tyrnog, all of whom, it is said, travelled into the Vale of Clwyd after the destruction of the monks of the monastery of Bangor is y Coed (Bangor on Dee) in 613 by the Saxon, Ethelfrith, of Northumbria, and described in detail by the Venerable Bede, who claims some 1200 monks were killed for praying for a British success at the Battle of Chester.  What part Marcella played in this is unknown, since she could have had no part in the life of the monastery itself.  Marcella and her brothers were the children of Hawystl Gloff and his wife Tywanwedd, as described in the Bonedd y Saint.  While St Ddeier settled in Bodfari and Tyrnog at Llandyrnog, Marcella created a simple cell on the outskirts of what later became known as Llanfarchell, on the outskirts of the later town of Denbigh.  It is believed that this cell was situated by what became known as Ffynnon Farchell (067 662), mentioned by Edward Lhuyd in 1698 but which rather depressingly now finds itself beneath a ring road roundabout.  By the time of the visit by the Royal Commission in 1912, nothing but the channel from ‘which took the water away’ remained.  It would seem that the spring was cut in the building of the Ruthin and Denbigh Railway in the 1850s.

The tomb of Sion y Bodiau, slayer of the Denbigh Dragon and owner of eight fingers and two thumbs on each hand.

Such was the importance of St Marcella’s cell, that a church was raised nearby.  The Norwich Taxation makes mention of a church on the present spot in 1254.   What stands today is largely a 15th century building, much restored in 1908 – 1909.  Its present design is that of the classical double naved Denbighshire build, with its stunning and wholly impressive three stage battlemented tower.  Hubbard describes it as, ‘One of the best examples of the local double-naved type’.   There is a curious looking blocked west doorway, possibly 14th century, which would suggest the south nave is also of an earlier build to the rest, and that the north nave was added later to give it that Denbighshire double naved shape.   This is affirmed by the fact that the tower does not cleanly fit with the aisle to which it is attached.

The interior of St Marcella’s is stunning, breath taking in truth.  The superb hammerbeam roof in both the north and south naves are of the 15th century.  They rest on corbels, sometimes plain, but more often decorated with curious beasts and angels, ranging from the lurid to the reverential.  Indeed, some of the grotesques that are to be seen are actually quite unnerving, especially the grinning, dragon flanked face in the south nave.

The south nave contains what was once the private chapel to the Salusbury family of Llewenni and which now contains his alabaster altar tomb and is decorated with his effigy and that of his wife, Joan.  It is a quite staggering piece of work.  John is resplendent in full armour, his be-ruffled wife serene beside him.  The tomb is a busy riot of weather worn colour and interest.  On the sides of the tomb chest and facing outwards are his twelve children.  Eight of his nine sons are fully armoured, the ninth dressed in clerical garb.  His daughters are carved on the reverse, though two that died in infancy are affectingly shown swaddled in death.  Sir John himself is armed, ready for battle it seems.  Indeed, Sir John Salusbury was also known as Sion y Bodiau, John of the thumbs, so called for the extraordinary belief that he owned eight fingers and two thumbs on each hand and was the killer of the fearful Denbigh Dragon.  The legend has led to the loss of his fingers, it seems, snapped off and spirited away in the generations since.  At his feet is a curious beast, meant to be a faithful hound no doubt, though peculiar enough to give sustenance to the belief that it is the defeated dragon.  It was raised by his wife in 1588, and is said to have been built by a Donbins.

Also within the south nave is a quite glorious stained glass window showing a variety of saints within its lights.  There is an altar table dated 1617 with the most curious etchings on the underside, a rather wonderful pulpit of 1683, complete with a peep hole and a font dated 1640.  The pulpit peephole was said to have been drilled by a 19th century curate, intent on discovering the identity of a thief who had been stealing the altar offerings to the deceased whose graves were being dug in the churchyard.  The curate was said to have been successful, though the identity of the clever curate and the thief were not recorded.  Notice also the long handled brass collection pans by the south doorway, offering privacy of donation to the worshippers.

The curious curate's peephole.

The north nave is equally curious.  It contains a number of interesting memorials. On the north wall is a monument to Sir Humphrey Llwyd of Foxhall (the focus of the jealousy of John Panton at Foxhall Newydd).  Llwyd was known as an author, librarian, musician and physician, and with his work as a cartographer, the ‘Father of Modern Geography’, producing the first accurate maps of Wales.  He is depicted in Spanish costume kneeling before an altar.  To its left, also on the north wall is a delightful and rare brass memorial to Sir Richard Myddleton of Galch Hill (1509-1578), once the governor of Denbigh Castle.  He kneels facing his wife Jane across a desk, their nine sons and seven daughters about them, including Thomas Myddleton (1550 – 1631), Lord Mayor of London in 1613 and Thomas Myddleton (1560 – 1631), famous for construction of the New River, supplying London with reliable fresh water from the River Lea.  

On the west wall in the north nave is a marble memorial to the poet, Thomas Edwards (1739 – 1810), more famously known as Twm o’r Nant.  Born in Llannefydd, he lived with his parents near Nantglyn, from where he took his pen name.  He became known for his anterliwtau, interludes or short plays which he performed throughout Denbighshire.  His work focused on the social ills of which he suffered some; greedy landowners and untrustworthy clergy.  His work forms a link between the older, medieval traditions of Welsh literature and the later modern era.  He was tremendously driven, largely self-taught, joining a local company of touring actors, labouring in Denbigh, suffering bankruptcy and poverty.  At the Corwen Eisteddfod of 1789, he controversially failed to win the main prize, and again at Bala in the same year, after the victor Gwallter Mechain was given firstly advance knowledge of the subject at Corwen, and what kind of awdl was desired at Bala. Twm o’r Nant’s great supporter, David Samwell, otherwise known as the fiery spirited Dadfydd ddu Feddyg, surgeon to Captain Cook and native of Nantglyn was so incensed, it is believed he invited one of Gwallter Mechain’s supporters to a duel. Samwell named Twn o’r Nant ‘The Cambrian Shakespeare’ (though this was something of a burden to Twr o’r Nant) and presented him with a silver pen, which now resides in the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff.  Twm o’r Nant’s sign-posted tomb is situated in the churchyard, along with its unfinished inscription.

The tomb of Twm o'r Nant ~ The Cambrian Shakespeare

The sprawling churchyard has increased in size several times, including in the 19th century when land from Eglwys Wen Farm was gifted by the owner Colonel H.R. Hughes.  Unfortunately for St Marcella’s, the tenant of the Farm was the great nonconformist leader, Thomas Gee, who successfully, and perhaps a little petulantly acquired £65 in compensation for the loss of the land.  Within the churchyard, and beneath a yew is the tomb of Twr o’r Nant, which remains popular with his admirers.

St Marcella’s is a beautiful place to visit.  Park up safely on the side of the road to the near east of the church and spend a quiet hour wandering amongst its beauty.

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