St Tewdric, Mathern

Disabled access: There is a portable ramp for the step into church through the south door, and a level access door through the west door into the vestry.

Toilets facilities: Toilets are available on site, including a disabled toilet.

The Church is adjacent to the Coastal Footpath.

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Contact Details: LEM - Elsbeth Morgan - 01291 627538 or 07925034923

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Address: St Tewdric, Mathern, Chepstow, NP16 6JA

A History of St Tewdric's

St Tewdric’s Church, Mathern is one of the oldest churches in the country. There is evidence that the first church was built after the withdrawal of the Roman Army from Britain. It is a Grade I listed building, and is very near other listed buildings.

It is believed to be the result of four constructions or extensions. The present church is on the site where a peoples’ place of prayer for the soul of Tewdric (a shrine to his name), may have been built. This, with the likely mortuary chapel, forms a large proportion of the present church. The earliest work was probably about 600 AD. Mathern was designated a Conservation Area in 1976.

The church itself is at the bottom of the village, next to Mathern Palace. This part of the village has changed very little over the years, and the stile which the bishop would have climbed, to gain entrance to the site, still exists. It was Theoederick, later spelled as Tewdric in Welsh, who gave the parish its name. Its old name is Merthyr Tewdric which means, not the generally accepted “Tewdric the Martyr” but rather “the burial place of Tewdric”. On the green there is a memorial to Tewdric, a statue carved in wood. The later addition of the tower in 1482 made the present church very visible within the landscape.

The Living Churchyard
Moynes Court, is thought to have been the home of Bishop Godwin for a short while, and it was probably he who inserted the arms of the Bishop of Llandaff above the house entrance. There is small gate at the rear of the churchyard, accessed via stone steps, which it is believed was a personal entrance which led onto the footpath to the church, and this entrance also still exists today. The other entrance is via the more recent lych-gate, which was made by local parishioner Arthur Haines. The churchyard is surrounded by stone walls, and contains a variety of headstones, box tombs and monuments, and also provides for burials and crematoria remains. The present churchyard is of major significance, in that it provides the final resting place for many people of faith, and this brings friends and family members close to the church and the services and comfort that this brings.

There are a number of significant graves in the churchyard.

John Lee died at 103 in 1825. The Epitaph on his tombstone reads

John Lee is dead, that good old man:
We ne’er shall see him more,
He used to wear an old drab coat
All buttoned down before

Charles Pratt was born during the Civil War. Before the school was built (between 1850 and 1860) classes were held in the parlour of Pratt’s cottage. In 1723 he devised his freehold estate in Mathern in order to set up a school in which the children of the poor could be taught to read. A scheme for regulating the charity, by which the vicar and churchwardens of the parish were appointed trustees, was set up in 1862. His tomb is near the east window in the churchyard.

Brigadier General Sir Edmund Keynton Williams’ tomb, which resembles a church, is on the left of the path leading to the south door.

The Reverend Robert Vaughan-Hughes is buried near the east window. His descendants are buried in the churchyard, their graves being identified by three Cornish granite Celtic crosses.

The Reverend Watkin Davies’ grave can be found to the north east corner of the church.

The cremation stone of E.T. Davies, Clerk in Holy Orders and Canon of Monmouth, is on the right of the church path near the yew tree.

There is also a stone arch sham ruin within the churchyard.

Social History
To a historian, the Tewdric story, although probably true, is not nearly so important as the fact that the Parish of Mathern, for nearly 400 years, contained a house and home, in which the bishops of Llandaff lived, because the episcopal manor for which they were responsible was close by.

The bishops and their families would have required numerous staff, and a home farm. The people living and working there would have attended Mass very regularly, and accommodation for worship would be required. For this reason, a nave was needed and constructed, and this forms a large part of the present church building. The very presence of such a beautiful church attracts worshippers and those who have yet to come to the faith. The church receives many visitors from all over the world, throughout the year, and is open daily.

The Church Building in General
Tewdric led his men into battle at Tintern, circa AD 600. It is thought he was struck on the head with something like a battle axe, which would have rendered him unconscious. The journey away from the battlefield, after the victory, may have been by the River Wye, running down to the estuary, and hence to Mathern Pill. This journey could have been made quite quickly with a falling tide. Here, it is thought, he asked that wherever he died a church should be built. A building was accordingly erected over the grave, which was, in effect, a mortuary chapel. This would have been some time after AD 600. This mortuary chapel exists in the present church as the chancel, and provision was made for the priest to live within the chapel via a staircase and rood loft. Evidence for this is still present in the church. The chief feature of the sanctuary is, of course, the grave of King Tewdric.

The church existed in this form for a considerable time until Bishop Marshall decided that a tower should be constructed to house the bells, which were needed to call people to worship. It was completed in 1482. It holds a peal of six bells, tuned to A Flat, cast in Chepstow by William Evans at his works in Welsh Street in 1765. Very likely metal from earlier bells went into them. They have their own messages cast into them: “Come let us ring for God and King”, “Prosperity to this Parish”, “Peace and Good Neighbourhood“, “Wm Evans of Chepstow cast us all 1765”, “Rich’s Lewis Churchwarden”, “Edward Davies A: M: Prebendary of Llandaff, Vic: Laus Deo WE 1765”. On its outside southern face, the tower has a mighty sundial. It is world-famous, and members of various sundial admiration societies come from afar to see the time told in local [sidereal] time, and Greenwich Time [railway time] upon the one dial face. Mathern time is nearly 12 minutes later than Greenwich time; the 3” West line of longitude [4 minutes of time per degree] actually runs along the top of the saloon bar in the Royal Mail Inn, near Newport railway station.

The Church Building in Detail
Behind the altar is the reredos, which is modern, having been given to the church by a former incumbent, Rev Watkin Davies. It depicts St Tewdric in mediaeval dress, holding a sword and shield, Bishop Marshall who holds the tower he built, Bishop Morgan, who translated the Bible into Welsh, and Bishop Hughes, Bishop of Llandaff at the time. The reredos was carved locally, as was the War Memorial. The east window was given by Rev Watkin Davies and it contains the unusual, but historically and artistically correct feature of a portrait of the donor and his wife, in addition to the general theme. In the north east corner of the church, the chancel and nave are beautiful examples of the Early English style of architecture. The east window and nave arch have been mentioned and reproduced in textbooks on architecture to illustrate this style of ecclesiastical work. The first pillar and arch in the north aisle are a startling contrast to the remainder of the nave, and are clearly the remains of an earlier building.

Usually, churches start life as a hall. This becomes the nave and additional areas such as the chancel and sanctuary are added later. St. Tewdric’s seems to have been built in the opposite way: chancel first, then the nave and finally the tower. The piscina in the south wall has two drains, one for wine and one for water.

On the 17th May 1889, the parishioners were asked to endorse the plans for the new organ chamber. This was built by a parishioner, Arthur Haines. The organ bay has a much acclaimed “Baby Hill” - William Hill & Son was one of the main organ builders in England during the 19th Century.

In 1914 the new east window and reredos were erected. The former was designed by George Glass Hooper and the Reverend Stanley Davies. In 1918 Captain Thomas Morris Davies gave the sanctuary carpet, and in 1921 the War Memorial in the south aisle was erected to the designs of W.D. Caroe. At the end of the Second World War electric lighting was installed in the church in memory of Mr. G. M. Vaughan-Hughes.

Bishop Godwin opened the grave of King Tewdric, and composed and erected the memorial on the north wall of the chancel, which reads: “Here lyeth intombed the body of Theoderick, King of Morganrick of Glamorgan, commonly called St. Thewdrick and accounted a martyr because he was slain in a battle against the Saxons, being then pagans, and in defence of the Christian religion. The battle was fought at Tintern, where he obtained a great victory. He died here being on his way homeward, three days after the battle, having taken order with Maurice, his son who succeeded him in his kingdom, that in the same place he should happen to decease, a Church should be built and his body buried in ye same; which was accordingly performed in the year 600.”

The palace was lost at the time of the Civil War, probably to the parliamentarian Thomas Hughes of Moyne’s Court.

The church seems to have been neglected after the bishops’ departure from the palace in 1763, and the palace shared the same fate. Archdeacon Coxe said:” The palace is in a sad state of dilapidation”. The parish must have suffered from a loss of social centre, but this loss was compensated by the building of the Wyelands about 1830 and St Tewdric in 1850. Before the Vaughan-Hughes family bought the estate, it was occupied by John Russell, followed by Major-General Sir Edmund Keynton Williams, son of the Reverend Henry Williams, Curate of St. Tewdric Church. Major-General Sir Edmund Keynton Williams purchased the Wyelands for his bride. The date of the wedding was fixed, but fate, assuming the form of a tailor, pointed out that the wedding coat would not sit well on a shoulder containing a bullet. The bullet was removed, but the wound turned septic, and the general died on the day fixed for his wedding.

The Ecclesiastical Commissioners did nothing about the palace, except to let it as a farm house, until they sold it to Mr. G. C. Francis of St Tewdric, who sold it to Mr. G. A. Tipping. The latter was a fortunate sale, for the new owner possessed both the knowledge and the means to restore the ancient building.

Although the state of the church seems to have concerned the Vestry in 1852, it was not until the Reverend Watkin Davies came to the parish in 1879 that the work of restoration was seriously tackled. In E.T Davies’ book “A History of the Parish of Mathern”, he recorded the debt of the parish to this vigorous incumbent who up to his death in 1922 spent his strength and his money on the task of making Mathern Church one of the most beautiful in the diocese.

The wall of the south aisle was rebuilt from the string-course. The south side was re-roofed; the ceiling which concealed the old roof of the nave was removed, and the lovely arch leading to the tower was relieved of a gallery which projected into the nave.

During this renovation, King Tewdric’s grave was reopened and the bones and skull examined before being reinterred. Near the stone coffin was found an urn 8 1/2 inches in diameter and 6 inches deep, which without doubt, contained the heart of Bishop Miles Salley, the first bishop to be buried in Mathern Church. His will stated “My bodye to be buried in the north side of Our Lady Chapell before the image of Seynt Andrew at the Gaunts of Bristol, my herte and my bowells to be buried in the hygh aulter in the church of Mathern before Seynt Theodorycke”. Bishop Kitchin died at Mathern on the 31st December 1563; but it is unclear whether he was buried here. Hugh Jones, the first Welshman to be consecrated Bishop of Llandaff since the Norman Conquest, was buried in Mathern Church on 15th November 1574. Bishop William Blethin, a native of Shirenewton, and a member of a very ancient Welsh family, who died at his home in the middle of October 1590, was also buried here. The last bishop to be buried in the church was William Murray, who died in 1640. Unfortunately, the graves of these bishops are all unmarked, but a stone at the east end of the north aisle may well have marked one of the graves.

Contents of the Church
There are two fonts in the south west corner of the nave. One is medieval; after being used until 1881, this disappeared for over sixty years. When E.T. Davies came to the parish in 1943, some of the older inhabitants told him that the old font lay buried under the church porch. Two nights of excavation duly revealed the font, which after being cleaned, was rebuilt and is now used for baptisms. The window in the north west corner contains fragments of medieval stained glass which show the arms of Bishop Marshall.

In a vestry meeting on 22nd April 1882, the parishioners accepted the specifications of John Pritchard, the diocesan architect, for the re-seating of the church, together with his designs for a new font and pulpit, and consent was given for these alterations..The work was entrusted to an Abergavenny contractor, William White, and its cost was £2,500.

The old box pews were removed and replaced by the present seats; the sepulchral slab which can now be seen beneath the north east window was removed from one of the window-sills; the south side was re-roofed; the ceiling which concealed the old roof of the nave was removed; the lovely arch leading to the tower was relieved of a gallery which projected into the nave; the vestry screen was built; pieces of stained glass collected from windows in the north aisle were assembled in the south west window, the east window was given by the Reverend Robert Vaughan-Hughes; the rood loft door and the two hagioscopes were revealed, as were also the two apertures above the chancel arch, and the chancel was re-roofed, refurnished and re-floored.

The altar table and the pulpit were given by the Reverend Robert Vaughan-Hughes; the alms dish by the Misses Jones of Moyne’s Court and the lectern by Mrs. Hartley of Larkfield. The bells were rehung by Messrs. Llewellyn & James of Bristol, surplices for the choir were given by Mr. Waddington of Gwentlands, and the Reverend Robert Vaughan-Hughes gave a new Bible and service books.

Significance for Mission
St Tewdric’s Church Mathern is a very early church. The building is used for social and musical concerts The strength of the building is that it is a classical structure of great antiquity, and these features attract many visitors, some of whom stay for Sunday services. It is very popular for wedding services and other religious ceremonies - All Saints Day, All Souls’ Day and Armistice Days etc. During the week, it is a great attraction to overseas visitors and walkers.

Following our services, volunteers provide tea, coffee and other beverages, with biscuits, and sometimes Welsh cakes! This is a chance for regular worshippers and visitors to get to know each other, and better understand the conviction of our faith.

The churchyard is predominantly laid down to grass which is mown and maintained regularly. Mathern Village has entered the Wales in Bloom Competition regularly and has won this award seven times, including in 2021. The judges have always commented on how well the churchyard is kept. Permission is being sought to establish a new crematoria remains plot as the popularity of cremation continues to increase.