By Simon Cotton
Getting to Pennant Melangell in Wales is a memorable journey in itself. Beyond Llangnog, the last three miles are up a very narrow single-track road, the remote Tanat Valley growing narrower and steeper as you head down Cwm Pennant. The hills get closer and at some times of the year you look at purple-headed mountains that remind you of Cecil Frances Alexander’s hymn, “All Things Bright and Beautiful.”
Melangell (Monacella) was a seventh-century Irish princess who escaped a forced marriage and settled here in search of tranquility, living as a hermit. According to legend, Brochwel Ysgithrog, Prince of Powys, was out hunting one day, pursuing a hare. His hounds chased it into a thicket, where they found the hare sheltering under Melangell’s cloak. The prince gave her the valley, where she could set up a religious community. After her death, Melangell’s tomb became a place of pilgrimage. Devotion to her survived the Reformation.
Part of a much smaller settlement than it once was, the 12th-century church (and the shrine) may have been built by Rhirid Flaidd (d. 1189), a local chieftain and landowner. Set in a circular churchyard of early origin, the oldest part of the church is 12th-century. The churchyard contains several yew trees, four of them believed to be 2,000 years old.The 17th-century tower with its smaller timber belfry stage was rebuilt in 1877, like much of the rest of the church. Its design, though, is much older, and part of the north wall is 12th-century.
The building was in a bad way in the 1980s and was substantially restored and rebuilt in 1988-92. The main change was the replacement of an 18th-century cell-y-bedd (grave chamber) that had become unsafe (it stood on the site of the original apse). The rebuild put a new apse on the 12th-century foundations.
The big changes inside during the restoration involved the screen and shrine. The 15th-century screen would once have been one of the fine screens of the Welsh Marches. It was dismantled after the Reformation, and partly restored at the west end of the church. In 1989 the screen was reassembled with a new loft that incorporates the remarkable carved frieze depicting the legend of Melangell.
The part of the frieze shown in the picture shows the prince’s huntsman on the left with his horn, which is said to have cleaved to his lips; Melangell facing the viewer; and the hare. In front of the screen hangs a striking timber candelabrum of 1733. On the other side of the screen are the Apostles’ Creed, Decalogue, and Lord’s Prayer in Welsh (moved from the east wall, where they once formed a reredos). These are 18th-century, like the Hanoverian Royal Arms of George I.
The shrine of Melangell, dating from 1160-70, was destroyed at the Reformation, and its stones dispersed among other stones in the walls of the church and lychgate. The shrine was rebuilt, partly in 1958 and then completely in 1988-92. Described as the earliest surviving Romanesque shrine in northern Europe, it now occupies pride of place in the chancel.
A note in the register in 1723 says: Mil engyl a Melangell Trechant lu fyddin y fall (Melangell with a thousand angels Triumphs over all the powers of evil).
Further reading: A.M. Allchin, Pennant Melangell: Place of Pilgrimage, Oswestry, 1994.
John Hainsworth, Saint Melangell’s Church: A Historical Guide, Oswestry, 2005.
Dr. Simon Cotton is honorary senior lecturer in chemistry at the University of Birmingham in the U.K. and a former churchwarden of St. Giles, Norwich, and St. Jude, Peterborough. He is a member of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham.