ANTIQUITIES AND CURIOSITIES OF THE CHURCH.
BY THE REV. ELIAS OWEN, M.A., F.S.A.
THERE are in Wales a considerable number of circular, or ovoidal church yards. The churches within the sacred enclosure are at present quadrangular, and simple in structure, and most of them contain features of Norman architecture. These buildings succeeded more ancient ones.
The many remains of ancient abodes which are, even in our days, to be found in the uncultivated uplands generally not far distant from the sea, are also circular. Hill fortifications are also of this form. The many stone circles which have been allowed to stand intact, the uses of which are not known, on the level ground on both sides of the Welsh mountains, show how prevalent in former days were circular structures.
It was the practice in days that were more Celtic than the present, for the Welsh to hold their Gorseddau in a conspicuous place, “in the face of the sun, and in the eye of light,” it being 230 considered unlawful to transact any business of a public nature under cover of darkness. The Gorsedd was a circle of erect stones, and within this sacred circle religious and other functions were possibly always performed. In our days, the Gorsedd, connected with the National Eisteddfod, is a circle of rude stones, temporally placed in an open space, where the Archdruid and Bards meet to open the Eisteddfod, and to transact other business, or ceremonies, associated with the Eisteddfod.
There is probably some connection between the circular churchyards and the ancient custom of the Welsh to erect circles for the discharge of public matters. Probably, too, the ancient sites wherein religious ceremonies were performed by the Druids were appropriated by the early Christians as places of worship, and thus the reverence of the people for those particular spots was not violated, but transferred to the Christian faith on the establishment of Christianity in our country.
Mr. Brash, in his “Ogam Inscribed Stones” (p. 109), speaking of Irish churches, says: — “It is well known that many of our early churches were erected on sites professedly Pagan.” This may have been the case in Wales, and 231 thus the many circular churchyards are doubly interesting, as intimating that they were sacred places in Pagan days, or if not sacred places, that that form was adopted to conciliate the Celtic reverence for that form of enclosure.
Against this theory it may be advanced that there were many orders passed in early councils to destroy Pagan temples. But these very injunctions imply the preservation of those temples. The conversion of those temples into Christian churches would overcome these injunctions.
The many circular churchyards in Wales must have been thus formed designedly, and it is difficult not to associate these round churchyards with the remains of pre-historic times of similar form. The peculiarity of shape, in so many instances, could not have been accidental.
Let us take the churchyards in and about the Vale of Clwyd, and we find the following churches possess this characteristic feature: — Derwen, Llanelidan, Efenechtyd, Llandyrnog, Tremeirchion. In the vicinity of the Vale, in the upland parishes, we have: Cilcen, Llanarmon, Cerrig-y-drudion, and Bettws-Gwerfil-Goch, all of which have churchyards more or less circular, or ovoidal, in form. In other counties the same kind of 232 thing is seen. In Montgomeryshire, two churchyards retain the circular shape in almost perfect condition. They are Kerry and Llanfechain.
Even if these circular churchyards are not the identical spots on which the ancient inhabitants celebrated their pagan rites, they are, at least, a connecting link between the paganism of their forefathers and the Christian religion which supplanted it. I am inclined to believe that they are the very spots of ground, dedicated in prehistoric times to religious purposes, and appropriated by the early Christians in consequence of their previous use and re-dedication, and devoted to the celebration of the Christian religion.
I will now describe two of the most perfect circular churchyards which I have visited. One is Efenechtyd, a small parish about two miles from Ruthin. I was rector of this parish for ten years. The church is a very small one, perhaps the very smallest in the diocese of St. Asaph. The parish is agricultural and the churchyard apparently has never been enlarged; in fact, it has been encroached upon by the Rectory grounds and buildings. God’s Acre — but it is in size not an acre — is sufficiently large for the wants of the parish for ages to come.233
The church is dedicated to St. Michael, but the people do not recognise this dedication in their vocabulary. They call the church Efenechtyd Church. If they had acknowledged in their speech its dedication to St. Michael, the church would have become Llanfihangel, or St. Michael’s Church, however, they formerly observed the feast of St. Michael, and kept their wakes for a whole week.
Probably the church had two dedications, the latter being to St. Michael, and the former, and more ancient, is lost. In fact, the meaning of the name Efenechtyd is so obscure that all the guesses that have been made as to its derivation are unsatisfactory. This seems to point to the great antiquity of the church.
The churchyard is perfectly circular, excepting where it has been encroached upon. Three-fourths of its whole extent retains its original shape, and very likely it was when first formed perfectly round. The aged parish clerk, who was my servant man, told me that the churchyard extended into the rectory grounds. Right around the churchyard is a road, a parish road, and this formerly used to be often in rainy weather covered with water. A raised causeway, a few 234 feet broad, abutting upon the churchyard, proves this. This rivulet has been diverted, and so, in modern times it has not had this road for a channel, but when storms prevail it returns to its ancient bed. It is very likely that formerly this churchyard was surrounded by water, and that the road occupies the place of its bed. This surrounding water would be looked upon as a sacred barrier, and protection from all intruders of every kind whatsoever, and possibly there was formerly some superstition connected with having a churchyard surrounded by water, and as in this case with running or living water.
The next churchyard that I shall describe is Llanfechain Churchyard, Mongomeryshire. It is about twelve miles from Oswestry, on the west side of the railway which goes through the parish to Llanfyllin. Here, too, the population is agricultural.
As in the case with Efenechtyd, the patron saint is unnamed by the parishioners. The church is dedicated to St. Garmon, and therefore, ought to be called Llanarmon, but it is named Llanfechain. Here, too, we see traces of a two-fold dedication, and it is remarkable that the people have clung to the more ancient name of their 235 church. This points to the great antiquity of the original building, and the hold that its name has upon the inhabitants, and it would carry us back even to the Celtic days, when circular buildings housed the people, and circular enclosures were set apart for the transaction of local or national purposes; and, here again, and in many other instances, where these circular churchyards exist in Wales, we see how tenacious in retaining their ancient place-names the Welsh have always been.
The churchyard is for more than three-fourths its whole length, at the present time, quite circular; but it was my good fortune, when I was inspecting the church, to meet with an aged inhabitant, a native of the village, who had seen seventy-seven years, and he told me that the churchyard was formerly surrounded by a wooden railing, and that it was perfectly round, and that in 1853, when the present stone wall took the place of the paling, an encroachment was made on the west side; and that before the wall was built there was a road running outside the rails all round the churchyard. Here, too, therefore, a ditch filled with water might, in olden times, have surrounded “God’s acre,” for such a road was quite unnecessary for traffic.