‘The church of Kilken is remarkable for its carved roof, which is said to have been brought from the church at Basingwerk abby on the dissolution and thus to have fulfilled a prophecy of our Robin Ddu, who when he saw it put up by the monks, observed it would do very well for a church beneath Moel Famma.’
Thomas Pennant, Tours in Wales Vol II, (1781), p.58
You might be forgiven for being somewhat underwhelmed as you approach this medieval church within ‘the Square’. Perhaps you’ve wandered a while within the village and been smitten with its charm, as many have before you. And perhaps then, in contrast, a walk up to the stark, double naved church has given you little cause to become excited - after all, double naved churches are not uncommon in north east Wales. But, fear not, since wonders await you.
We should start at the beginning, of course, and it is clear that St Mary’s origins were pre-Norman. The churchyard is raised and clearly curvilinear to the naked eye, and a look at the lidar image is almost shocking in its clarity. Nothing else can be said of this - nothing else remains. There are the much reduced remains of a holy well nearby, St Michael’s, a little down the adjoining lane, but for a lack of information it is hard to assign much or any relevance to this. Still, it is obvious that Cilcain has been a centre of Christianity for much of the last two thousand years - a staggering thought.
The lidar image clearly shows the curvilinear aspect of St Mary's - a good indication of a pre-Norman origin.
The stone church here is certainly 13th century, and possibly 12th century in origin. While not mentioned in the Norwich Taxation of 1254, it is mentioned in the later Lincoln Taxation of 1291, in which it is named as 'Ecclia de Kylkeyn' and valued at 11 1s 8d. Entering the churchyard from the north east, past the rather wonderful hearse house (built c.1810), will bring you through the beautiful 19th century lych gate with its iron gates made locally by one John Hughes. On the collars of the lychgate, both the entrance and exit are verses from Hebrews, carved in Welsh.
The early 19th century hearse house.
Y: mae: gorphwsfa: etto
Yn: ol: i: bobl: Dduw: Heb 4: 9
There remaineth a rest to the people of God
Byddwn: ddyfal: i: fyned: i: mewnir: orphwysfa: homo: Heb 4: 11
Let us labour to enter that rest
Before you are the remains of the 14th century churchyard cross, discussed elsewhere, originally, as is traditional, to the south of the church, but now re-sited to its east. There is also a sundial, which has lost its gnomon and plate. Both are in a somewhat better state than that in which they were to be found in the early 20th century, when they were at risk of toppling over.
The churchyard itself was closed to burials in the latter part of the 19th century, and during various restorations, most recently in the 1970s, the ground was levelled and the gravestones removed to elsewhere, many surrounding the car park to the west of the church - which is rather lovely, in fact. Elias Owen makes the point that the shutters that were installed on the north facing windows were to prevent damage caused by ball playing - a tradition common to many churches in north east Wales. On the south wall can be seen a blocked up priest's door - a fate shared with the door on the north wall, a source of some considerable superstition regarding baptisms in the past, a possible reason for their blocking up after the Reformation. The largely 15th century tower, quite an imposing structure in its own right, with its later impressive stepped buttresses once had a 4ft brickwork addition to its height - ugly, by some accounts - which was removed during the restoration of 1888.
The blocked up Priest's Door in the south wall.
On entering the church through the 19th century porch, you are suddenly immersed in glory. St Mary’s is justifiably famous for its astonishing roof, and more will be said of this a little later, of course. But it is worth just allowing yourself a moment to absorb what is before you. The church is a double naved affair, but the north nave is used now as a vestry and meeting space, and is screened off (although there are records of it being used for divine service at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries). It is thought that the earliest phase of the building can still be seen in the north nave, but the south nave and tower are 15th century.
The north nave burnt down at Christmas 1532, during the Plygain celebrations. A stray candle is the likely culprit. Plygain celebrations still take place in North East Wales, at Lloc for one, but it would seem there was a concern amongst the great and good that the Christmas celebrations were a rumbustious affair - the suggestion from the various literature is that many of the celebrants were a little worse for wear come Christmas morning, and unsafe with their homemade candles. It would seem that there was a belief that St Mary’s had suffered from such high spirits. The event was remembered in a now lost commemorative brass plate, detailed in the Willis’ Survey of St Asaph (1801),
‘Mil, pum cant, rhifant y Rhain
Nôd Addas, a deuddeg ar Ugiain
Oedd y Gair am Fab Mair fain
Pan ddaeth y Golcaith i Gil-cain.’
The damage was extensive, and it would seem that St Mary’s was without its north nave for 214 years. It was rebuilt at the expense of the Rev. Richard Davies in 1746. A brass plate in the vestry commemorates the rebuild.
‘The North Isle of this Church
Was rebuilt in the year 1746
At the sole Expense of the Revnd Richard Davies MA
RECTOR of this Parish
One can only imagine the practicalities of service here during those 200 years. It is interesting to note, however, that despite the damage of 1532, the accounts of St Mary’s make clear that Plygain services continued to at least the early part of the 19th century. Make of that what you will.
There was once a gallery at the west end of the south nave, fitted at some point in the 18th century, probably 1788-89, and some of the internal fittings are still evident. It was used by musicians during services, and the records of St Mary’s show the monies spent on reed and string instruments - this predating the installation of a pipe organ between 1851 and 1867. The gallery was removed in one of the several restoration projects in the later 19th century.
Against the west wall of the south nave is a collection of ancient stones, tombstones and coffin lids, all of considerable character. They fairly glare at you from the past.
One of the haunting coffin lids collected at the west end of the south nave.
The haunting piece above was found, as were most of the pieces here, in the great restoration of 1888, being used as a lintel of the doorway to the old vestry beneath the now removed gallery. Gresham dated the semi-effigy of the unnamed female to the 14th century, largely based on the style of dress she would seem to be wearing. This date has been subsequently questioned. Several of the other pieces here have a greater claim to fame - age, detail, importance and so on. But, this sculptured stone, to my eyes, is mesmerising - the female carved in low relief seems almost otherworldly, staring out from the stone. The hands, separate to the head, seem to be reaching for the long, slender throat - possibly the result of my febrile imagination, since they are elsewhere described, ‘raised in prayer with the palms outwards’. A rather wonderful brooch can be seen at the base of her throat. There are the remains of an inscription to the bottom left of the slab as it currently stands, of which only ‘HIC:IACE’ remains. Who lay here, one wonders, wherever here originally may have been? Gresham likened the design to that of the monument at Beaumaris on Anglesey, thought by him to be of Princess Joan, wife of Llywelyn Fawr and daughter to King John of England. Simpson describes it as, ‘a rude style of art’ and Gresham, writing in 1968 would seem to agree, declaring it to be, ‘crudely executed’. I freely state that to me, its interest is all the greater because of it.
The upper section of Gresham 130 - 'Here lies Iorwerth Ddu may he rest in peace’.
One of the haunting coffin lids collected at the west end of the south nave.
The lower section of Gresham 130 - the scabbard and foilage decoration.
The two stones detailed together as Gresham 130 were earlier described by Simpson as being, ‘undoubtedly the finest of the whole series’. Broken at some unknown time, but possibly as a consequence of its recovery from the south wall beside the pulpit during the restoration of 1888, they seem to form the upper part of a coffin lid. Simpson’s excitement stems from the wonderful detail remaining - a heraldic shield with a large, sheathed sword running behind it, from the upper left to the lower right of the smaller broken fragment. Beside the lost hilt in the upper right of the larger fragment is what seems to be a curiously twisted-like oak branch (or trunk) with its leaves. The shield is exquisite, with a lion rampant (though Simpson describes it as a griffin) surrounded by three flower heads. Around the shield is a line of Lombardic capitals, identified by Simpson as,
HIC: JACET: JO…NDYAU…REQUIESCAT: IN: PACE
Given that this slab is believed to form art of the coffin of Iorwerth Ddu, the script has been translated into English as,
‘Here lies Iorwerth Ddu may he rest in peace’
Within the shield is an ‘AMEN’.
And I wonder as to this Iorwerth Ddu, buried at St Mary’s in Cilcain. And my wonder deepens as I remember the father of Myfanwy Fechan, she of the scarlet robes and object of Hywel ab Einion Llygliw’s obsessive love at Castell Dinas Bran. Iorwerth Ddu of Pengwern in the Vale of Llangollen, the 14th century ancestor of the Mostyn Family, and husband to Angharad. And my attention turns to the wonderful stone known as Gresham 190, with its luxuriant floriated cross (currently upside down within the Church) and its Lombardic capitals, translating to,
‘Here lies Angharad’
Was St Mary’s at Cilcain the final resting place for Iorwerth Ddu of Pengwern and his wife, Angharad?
Gresham 190 - 'Here lies Angharad'
There are some pieces here which have not yet been investigated and remain shadowy glimpses of a distant past - and I must admit to finding that distance a little thrilling. I must admit to finding the mystery, in fact, oddly reassuring.
A mystery speaking to us from ages past.
The font is extraordinary. It is thought to be Norman in origin, and was found, in 1845, buried about three feet beneath the pulpit against the south wall. Why it was buried is unknown. It is remarkable for the interlaced ornamentation and the very rare conical form of its interior. Westward, writing in 1846, claims never to have, ‘met with such a curious formed font in my ecclesiological rambles,’ though he makes mention of a similar font at Llanidan on Anglesey.
Westwood's sketch of the Norman font - found buried near to the pulpit in the south nave.
The windows have been much fussed with over the years, not least of all in the many restorations and repairs. The five light stained glass window in the chancel, described as, ‘tolerable’ by Glynne in 1884, is thought to date from the 16th century. There was, according to Glynne, a date of 1546 set within the glass, but this has since disappeared, probably in the restoration of 1888 when the window was repaired and reset. The centre light contains Jesus crucified, with a skull and crossbones beneath. He is flanked, as is traditional by St Mary on the left and St John on the right. St Peter is on the extreme right, dressed as a monk and a rather splendid St George, vanquishing the dragon, on the extreme left.
And so we come to the astonishing roof. It is, by any measure, one the very finest carved oak hammerbeam roofs in the whole of Wales - and as a consequence deemed impossible to be original to St Mary’s. In virtually all the literature you may read on the matter, the roof is considered to be, in the words of Hubbard, ‘obviously brought from elsewhere.’ And to be fair, the same literature will freely admit that there is no written evidence to support this, and that this belief is based on the seeming incongruity of such an incredible work in a rural parish. Unsurprisingly, the roof is said to have come from Basingwerk Abbey on its closure in 1536 - a not unfamiliar refrain. It does seem that anything of any real beauty or value which is thought to be too good for a village church is said to have originated at either the abbeys of Basingwerk or Valle Crucis, whether it be a chandelier, a bit of plate, a stained glass window or, indeed a roof. The matter is made more interesting for the prophecy of the 15th century poet, Robin Ddu, who claimed that a roof of Basingwerk Abbey would do very well for a church below Moel Famau. There is also the curious tale told to the Venerable Archdeacon of Chester, E. Barber at the end of the 19th century, by the Vicar of Cilcain that a ‘gentleman from Holywell’ had claimed that his grandfather had been hired to use his horses to bring over the Basingwerk roof to Cilcain - sometime in the middle of the 18th century. Barber believes this tale to be ‘incredible’, and this opinion is shared by Frank Simpson, writing in 1912. Simpson is of the opinion that the timbers brought over from Basingwerk were likely used in the rebuilding of the north nave in 1742 - a claim made more likely given the understanding that there was much unused timber stored elsewhere in the church after this date. It has also been suggested that the Basingwerk roof was installed as late as 1786-87 during restoration work of the roof. But, it would seem fantastic to think that such an elaborate roof had survived for over 200 years in the decaying shell of Basingwerk Abbey.
Still, writers from Simpson, Hubbard and CPAT are all clear that the origin of the roof is somewhere other than Cilcain.
‘There can be no doubt whatever that the roof of the Cilcain nave was brought from elsewhere, and where so likely as the disused Abbey buildings not far away.’
‘Whether the roof actually came from Basingwerk there is no documentary evidence but there is plenty of actual evidence that the roof never belonged to Cilcain, that it was re-erected from elsewhere, and that in its massiveness and grandeur it is entirely unsuitable for a village church.’
Archaeologia Cambrensis, 1947
‘It has been suggested that repairs to the roof in 1786-7, which included reslating, provided the opportunity for replacing an early roof with the carved and ornate timbers from Basingwerk Abbey, but there is no substantive evidence for this derivation though there can be little doubt that the roof was not originally designed for this church.’
What actual evidence for the roof’s origin being elsewhere, leans heavily towards its fit. The architect of the excellent 1847 restoration, Ambrose Poynter (responsible for much splendid work in North East Wales), was clear on the matter.
‘The principals are fixed at unsymmetrical distances over the arches in the northern wall, there is no doubt that it was not constructed originally for Cilcain Church.’
One can hardly be surprised by such learned individuals and organisations being of the opinion that the roof was from elsewhere - it is that stunning, so very impressive. But, despite assurances that the roof was obviously from Basingwerk Abbey, that ‘actual evidence’ existed, it would appear that those assurances were in fact incorrect, and that evidence does not exist.
During repair and deinfestation works in 2015, in which St Mary’s was heavily scaffolded, including within the south nave, a very close examination of the roof was possible. And the conclusions were stunning. It would seem that while there was plenty of evidence of repairs and restoration, there was not a shred of evidence to suggest that the roof was anything other than original to St Mary’s - no evidence of the structural adjustments that would have been needed to install Basingwerk’s roof. Everything, it seems, is as it should be, and the little oddities, the awkward relation of hammerbeams and wallposts to the arcades, relate not to the architectural equivalent of forcing a square peg into a round hole, but rather the ambition to install a roof of immense quality, probably replacing an earlier roof. It is interesting to note that a similar roof at Llanidloes, inevitably attributed to Cwmhir Abbey, was found through dendrochronological testing to date from immediately after the Dissolution - 1542 to be precise. The Cilcain roof has been dated to roughly the same mid 16th century period.
What is all the fuss about, you would be forgiven for thinking? Visit and be enlightened. It is almost frightening, overwhelming. It is obviously a work of the very highest quality - stunningly carved and finished. You can understand the belief that the roof and church don’t seem to fit. Because, frankly, they don’t seem to fit. The south nave, quite beautiful of course, is however spectacularly outshone by its roof. Divided into ten bays - alternatively by hammer and collar beams, each boasting an intricately carved angel or boss respectively, apart from at the far western end. Eight bays roof the nave, while two are to be found above the chancel - a wonderful barrel vaulted affair, which rather curiously does not seem to match the chancel step below. The panels between the rafters of the chancel roof were said to have been decorated with fleur-de-lys, the dedication of the Church being to St Mary. These have since been removed.
Two examples of the extraordinary angels adorning the hammerbeams.
The two shields at the western end of the south nave commemorate the restoration of 1887-88, entirely at the expense of the Buddicom family - also remembered elsewhere. William Barber Buddicom died before the works he had paid for were complete.
The two most westerly angels are fairly modern. They are said to be replacements for those sold by a parish clerk in order to buy a quart of beer - a little over a litre by today’s measure (although the exact amount can vary). A quart seems a ludicrously small price to pay for such work as can be seen further east along the nave.
St Mary’s at Cilcain is a wonder. Come for the roof, of course, but wander and wonder. This church, or least parts of it, has stood here for nearly 800 years, give or take, and Christian worship likely here for the best part of two millenia. Worth an hour of your time, I should think.
Anon, Archaeologia Cambrensis No. V, January 1847
E. Barber, Journal of the Chester Archaeological Journal Vol. III, 1902
Gittos, B. and Gittos, M, Gresham revisited: a fresh look at the medieval monuments of north Wales, Archaeologia Cambrensis 161, (2012)
Stephen Glynne, Archaeologia Cambrensis 5th Series Vol I No.III, July 1884
Gresham, C.A., Medieval Stone Carving in North Wales, Cardiff: University of Wales Press, (1968)
Edward Hubbard, The Buildings of Wales Clwyd, London & Cardiff (1986)
Thomas Pennant, Tours in Wales Vol II, (1781)
Frank Simpson, Flintshire Historical Society Publications, 1912
A.O. Westwood, Ecclesiological Antiquities at Cilcain, Flintshire, Archaeological Cambrensis Vol. IV, October 1846