The grandest of all medieval Denbighshire parish churches, St. Marcella’s (or Llanfarchell) is also known as Whitchurch or Eglwys Wen – ‘the white church’, probably from its originally whitewashed exterior. Its patroness Marchell the Virgin is said to have established her hermitage by a holy well here in the 7th century, and clearly the site was honoured as especially sacred. For though it now stands alone a mile from the present town centre (and further still from the old walled town by the castle), St. Marcella’s has always been Denbigh’s parish church. As such it was lavishly rebuilt in the local double-naved form during the late 15th century, with an imposing tower and a noble range of big ‘Perpendicular’ style windows.
Its impressive exterior is more than matched by an interior filled with light from these great windows. Slender central pillars and finely moulded arches rise to a pair of grand hammer-beamed roofs, panelled and decked with angels. They rest on stone corbels sculpted with beasts and more angels, and a stone frieze also exuberantly decorated with flowers and heads and grotesques – a boy pulling a donkey’s tail, a fox and hare – all recently and vividly re-painted.
Below, around the twin altars are the monuments of Denbigh and Denbighshire’s Elizabethan notables. On the north side, Humphrey Llwyd kneels in a Classical temple, with angels holding a globe and a geographer’s dial. Physician, musician and Member of Parliament, renowned scholar and ‘Father of Modern Geography’, he produced the first accurate maps of Wales just before his death in 1568. Nearby, a monumental brass (rare in Wales) portrays Richard Myddelton (d.1575) with his wife and their sixteen children, seven fashionably dressed daughters and nine sons. One of these, Sir Thomas Myddelton, became Lord Mayor of London and founded the Chirk Castle dynasty: another, the goldsmith-entrepreneur Sir Hugh, transformed London’s water supply with his ‘New River’ project.
The south altar was once the private chapel of the powerful Salesbury family – hence the splendour of its carved communion table and altar rails. Here stands the magnificent painted alabaster monument of Sir John Salusbury (d.1578) and his wife Dame Jane (another Myddelton). He lies in armour, with sword and hunting knife – its scabbard housing a miniature knife and fork set: his feet rest on a strange animal – not his hound, nor the mythical ‘Beast of Caledfryn’, but simply a badly-carved lion. Dame Jane wears her high-ruffed widow’s dress, her feet peeping out from stiff petticoats. Round them stand their nine sons (all armoured except a black-gowned cleric) and four daughters, two who died in infancy shown as swaddled babies.
On the wall nearby, is the monument to the last Salusbury heiress, with her ‘vast fortune’ honestly gotten, well bestowed and prudently managed’: and at the back of the church are nine ‘hatchments’ – diamond-shaped heraldic panels carried at funerals – of other Denbighshire gentlefolk. These were the very people that Twm o’r Nant, ‘the Cambrian Shakespeare’, loved to satirize in his Welsh verses and dramatic ‘interludes’. Ironically, he is now commemorated among them (back of the north aisle). Self-taught bard and actor, by turns farmer, mason, toll-keeper and bankrupt, he died in 1810 and lies in the churchyard, where many still visit his (signposted) grave.
Church open the first Saturday of each month 10.00 am – noon, Easter to October inclusive.
Monument of Humphrey Llwyd at St. Marcella’s Church, Denbigh
Magnificent painted alabaster monument, St. Marcella’s Parish Church
St. Marcella’s Parish (Llanfarchell) Church
Detail of monument
Detail of magnificent alabaster tomb, St. Marcella’s Parish Church