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Medieval Parish Churches

The most numerous medieval treasures of Denbighshire are its parish churches. They are also the county’s greatest glories, and the places which bring us closest to its medieval people. The great castles of Denbigh and Rhuddlan may be more spectacular, the abbey church of Valle Crucis and the cathedral of St. Asaph bigger and more dignified. But these were built by and for the area’s overlords - royal, baronial or priestley outsiders. The parish churches were raised for (and usually by) the local people who worshipped there, and whose greatest pride they were.

Visitors will find that these churches are of two basic types. Some, particularly in remote upland country, are small and simple buildings like Efenechtyd (Site 4) or Betws Gwerfil Goch (Site 9). But in the richer Vale of Clwyd and among the Clwydian Hills hey are often much bigger, and of a very distinctive type - the ‘double-naved church’ These wide and spacious buildings, consisting essentially of two rectangles side by side divided by a row of pillars, are indeed known as ‘Vale of Clwyd churches’. Though numerous in the Denbighshire region - there are over twenty of them, thirteen included in this trail - they are exceedingly uncommon elsewhere in Britain. Strikingly unfamiliar to visitors, they merit some explanation.

It must first be said that these distinctive churches were never built as ‘double-naved’ from the outset. They result rather from the ‘sideways enlargement’ of existing churches by adding a second rectangular nave alongside one already there, thus doubling the size of the building. Such enlargement almost invariably took place during a short span of five decades: between the Wars of the Roses and the religious upheavals of the Protestant Reformation. But the reasons why the enlargements were done in this unusual way - why, as it were, two parallel churches were created, instead of lengthening the building or giving it projecting cross-arms - have long been the subject of speculation.

All kinds of explanations have been advanced for the ‘double-naved’ church phenomenon. Some say the two naves were built by rival families, or that one was for worship and the other a hostel for pilgrims, or even that cattle drovers were lodged in one nave and their beasts in the other. There is however not a scrap of evidence for these tales. More plausible is the belief that each nave was dedicated to a separate saint, or that one housed an altar to the church’s patron saint and the other to the Virgin Mary. Here again evidence is lacking, and only two of the double naved churches have ‘two saint’ dedications, only one of these Llanfair Dyffryn Clwyd (Site 23) including a dedication to the Virgin.

A more prosaic but more likely explanation is that ‘double-naving’ was a cheap and easy way of increasing the size of a church, with minimum structural change. Only one wall of the original building needed to be removed, and what resulted was a church with doubled floor-area, better lit by two big eastern windows which could also display more stained glass. Two roofs of manageable span, meanwhile, gave ample rein to the region’s other medieval speciality, ornate wood carving (see Roofs and Rood-Screens).

Why, then, were double-naved churches built around the Vale of Clwyd, and not generally elsewhere? The answer may well be the influence of fashion. In other parts of medieval Britain, for example, the fashion was for grand church towers - as in South-West England - or tall spires, as for example in the East Midlands. Visitors may notice that medieval church towers are quite uncommon in Denbighshire, and medieval spires non-existent. Here the fashion was clearly for double-naved churches. It all but certainly began at St. Peter’s, Ruthin (Site 1a), the wealthy and prestigious church of the Vale of Clwyd’s capital and the first church to be ‘double-naved’.

St. Marcella’s, Denbigh (Site 31) later followed suit. Then the wealthier villages or their squires, unwilling to be outdone by the towns or (worse still) by their rural neighbours, also double-naved their churches in quick succession. What better way to proclaim community pride, keep up with fashion, make more room for ceremonial - and at the same time assure a place in Heaven? (See also Roofs and Rood Screens - The Glories of Denbighshire Woodworking.)

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Church of St. Dyfnog, Llanrhaeadr YC

Church of St. Dyfnog, Llanrhaeadr YC

Church of St. Mary, Betws Gwerfil Goch