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Site 9

Betws Gwerfil Goch

Church of St. Mary

The remote hamlet of Betws Gwerfil Goch - ‘the prayer-house of Gwerfil the Red’ - lies in a steep-sided valley, on the ancient Pilgrims’ Trackway across Wales. At its hub is the ‘prayer house’ itself, traditionally founded for pilgrims by the 12th century Princess Gwerfil of Meirionydd, red-haired granddaughter of King Owain Gwynedd of North Wales. Her church was rebuilt in the 15th century and restored in 1879: entered via a doorway formed from three big stone slabs, its interior is packed with interest.

Foremost are the carved panels behind the altar, which are unique in Britain. Made in the late 15th century, they depict a crucifixion scene, and were once part of a ‘rood screen’ (see Derwen Site 6): thousands like them were destroyed as idolatrous at the Reformation, or discarded by later ‘restorer’. Perhaps because of its remoteness, the panels at Betws have alone survived, to be rediscovered under a ‘heap of rubbish’ in 1840. Crudely carved yet moving worn by time and perhaps the hands of pilgrims, the three central panels show a cloaked Christ (beneath the Latin words ‘Ecce Homo’ - ‘Behold the Man’) flanked by weeping figures of St. John the Beloved Disciple and the Virgin Mary. On either side are the symbols of the Crucifixion - hammer, spear, club, pincers, nails and crown of thorns.

The panels alone would be worth a visit, but there is also plenty more to see. The present rood screen is recent, but fragments of its original predecessor, carved with beasts and flowers, remain in the roof flanking the altar, and the fine medieval roof has carving of its own - notably a maned lion above the pulpit. From the roof hangs a spectacular and most unusual chandelier of turned wood with brass arms, probably 17th or 18th century, with Victorian oil lamps nearby. The Georgian pulpit and the sturdy bench pews, the harmonium, Welsh memorials and churchwardens’ chest-cum-settle all help to make St. Mary’s one of the region’s most atmospheric country churches; yet it remains a well-used and well-loved ‘prayer house’ still.

A key is available for the church.

NB The church is home to a protected colony of bats which can cause a nuisance in summer.

Rood panel screen, Betws Gwerfil Goch

Church of St. Mary, Betws Gwerfil Goch