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Tourist postcard of St David's Church, Betws, in 1931

Source: Betws Mas o'r Byd (Betws out of the World). Published by Betws History Group (2001). A full account of Betws Church, from which this page has been summarized, will be found in this book. Betws Mas o'r Byd gives the history of Betws from the Old Stone Age to the present day. The book covers, with paintings by Betws artist Patrick Murphy, are reprinted at the end of this essay and all proceeds from sales will go to fund the building of a library for the children of Betws Primary School.

Church History
The historical record of Betws Church has suffered badly at the hands of time, or rather at the hands of man, and documentary records have disappeared twice over its lifetime. The first time was at the hands of Henry VIII's henchmen as Betws Church suffered the fate of thousands of churches, abbeys and monasteries when its records were destroyed during the Protestant Reformation. Again in 1706 its history was consigned to dust, or rather ashes, when a fire destroyed a nearby cottage in which the records were being stored.

Medieval History
St David's Church, Betws, is described as being medieval, possibly 13-15th century (see CADW report below). Despite extensive renovation in 1872 it still retains about 60% of its medieval core fabric. The church was originally in the parish of Llangyfelach (modern Morriston) just over the Betws mountain which also included modern day Hendy. The name 'Betws' suggests that there was once a 'bedehouse' in the area, thought to have been a building on the nearby Maes y Betws field. Along with all the other bedehouses in Wales this building has long disappeared. They were all either destroyed or incorporated into present church buildings. A bedehouse was a place of sanctuary, and also associated with almshouses. They had a 'bedesman' in residence whose task was to pray for the founder. The 'bedes' of the name are the rosary beads used in the Catholic Church. Of course, all British churches were once Catholic, until Henry VIII invented a novel way of obtaining a divorce by changing his, and the rest of the country's, religion.

We can do no better than to quote Betws Mas o'r Byd on the medieval history of the church:

'... the church was restored in 1872 and a transeptal vestry was added. The pre-restoration church is depicted in a plan of 1872. The plan was signed by J. Harries, a Llandeilo architect who certified that it was a correct copy of the original plan of the old Betws Church.
....It can be seen that before the alterations of 1872 there was an external staircase, which led into the west gallery. The gallery was removed and the doorway was blocked. The plan also shows a priest's door in the south wall of the chancel, this door was also blocked.

Plan of Betws church before its conversion in 1872. Note the external staircase (bottom right), demolished in the conversion

....A recent archaeological study of the structure of the building suggests that the nave and chancel may date back to 1300. The south porch, which is the entrance to the church, was added a little later but might also belong to the 14th century. Elements of the nave and porch roofs are thought to be 17th century and the bellcote has been dated to 1696.
.... The west wall has medieval buttresses at each end and is pierced by a doorway with chamfered segmental surround of 15th century style. The doors are also thought to be medieval. It was re roofed in 1872 using many of the early timbers, which are said to have been identified as being of 17th century origin.
....On the south side of the sanctuary, there is a plain recess in the wall. This would have been the position in the medieval church where the piscina would have been found, or basin for washing out the holy vessels after the celebration of Holy Communion.
....In the west end of the church a deeply, curious, recessed small circular window is noted. On viewing the window from the outside, it can be seen that it occupies the head of a round-headed arch, the remainder of the windows having been filled in with stones, a plain sill stands out slightly at the foot of the wall. This section of the wall is thought to be medieval and it has previously been suggested that the form of the arch may assign it to a date no later than the 12th century'. (Betws Mas o'r Byd, p 42-43)

12th century circular window in the west wall of the church

Possible Celtic Origin of the Church
The current church has a great deal of history and the site may well be older even than its medieval structure. There are clues which suggest a link with the age of the saints which followed the exodus of the Roman legions in 410 AD. The early Christian saints are reported to have crossed Betws mountain on their missions to convert the local people to Christianity. Saint David was probably familiar with the route, as the churches on either side of the mountain ascribed to his patronage show (Betws, Llangyfelach and Neath chuches are all called St David's). Betws Mas o'r Byd again:

St David's church is situated on a large sub circular parcel of land which is also of archaeological interest. The circular wall enclosing the church and its dedication to Saint David are an indication of a possible ancient Celtic 'Llan'. The boundary of the large circular enclosure is now best seen around the western side of the church but the parish Tithe Map (1848) shows a more complete circuit.
.... In its early days, the church was in the extensive Parish of Llangyfelach along with the chapelry of Llansamlet and the ancient church of Llandeilo Talybont (Hendy). Llangyfelach was an important religious centre in the early Christian era, its large curving churchyard probably indicative of a monastic enclosure. Llangyfelach Church is dedicated to Cyfelach and also St. David.
.... There is a theory that Saint David's, Betws, originated as a monastic cell of the monastery at Llangyfelach. In its original state there was probably not a great difference to the present building. It would have been smaller as the vestry was not added until 1872 and the walls would have been white washed, as all places of worship were in the early days of Christianity. It is also believed to have been a resting-place for pilgrims and travellers. They would stop at the church before embarking on the journey across Betws Mountain. (Betws Mas o'r Byd, p39-40)

Dogs in church and parking areas for livestock
Although the parish register details activities at the church and in the parish only from the fire of 1706, one curate of this time however, did keep quite detailed records during his tenure and a vivid picture of eighteenth century Betws emerges from them:

'The curate of St. David's from 1731 to 1776 was Jonathan Griffies. During his forty five years service he fortunately documented matters relating to the church and parish in a clear fashion. In 1737, he expressed concerns as to there being no almshouse, hospital, or anywhere in the parish to house the poor or the sick. He also mentions that there was no school available to educate the poor, apart from a small private school, which taught reading and writing for a small fee. Jonathan Griffies stresses that there were no Papists residing within his parish and no problems of an immoral nature with his parishioners. He reports that the main difficulties arose through the insistence of those attending church on bringing their dogs with them. The dogs were apparently left in the porch and would fight with one and other, causing constant interruptions to the service.
.... There was a stone 'fold' adjoining the wall at the front of the churchyard where worshipers could place their livestock for safe keeping, whilst they attended service or stopped by to pray. The fold is no longer there, but visible evidence of its existence remains.
.... Jonathan Griffies also served Llandeilo Talybont Church in Hendy and Llandybie Church. He travelled between all three churches either on horseback or on foot. All available evidence suggests that he served all three diligently. He was a respected and influential figure within the church. Jonathan Griffies is buried in Betws churchyard'. (Betws Mas o'r Byd, p42, published 2001)

It is to Jonathan Griffies also that we owe the knowledge of the first non-conformist chapel in Betws, the forerunner of all other chapels in general and of Christian Temple in particular. In 1742, Griffies referred to worshippers in the parish calling themselves "Methodists and Independents" and meeting at the "Methodist Meeting Hall" ie, Argoed Fawr House. In 1748 an order was placed so that "The house of John Hopkin called Argoed Fawr in the parish of Betws be registered as a place of religious worship for dissenting Protestants and that a certificate be given thereof." (See the entry for "Christian Temple" in this section).

The renovation of 1872 saw some original medieval features obliterated, but it wasn't the last time this was to happen. In 1872 an external staircase was removed and a sundial also disappeared sometime in the nineteenth century. But as recently as 1930 the original wall frescoes were plastered over, as related in Betws Mas o'r Byd:

'The interior walls were re-plastered around 1930. Lyn Griffiths, a local builder, was an apprentice at the time. He remembers assisting his father to carry out the work and has a vivid recollection of the walls having been decorated with frescoes. He believes that the frescoes illustrated the Stations of the Cross. His recollection is supported by an account written by his brother, Elwyn Griffiths. Elwyn wrote in detail regarding these frescoes, as you will see in the following lines:

'Before the walls were replastered they were painted green and red and were trimmed with a black border but they were stripped and redone spoiling the antiquity of the church. The walls were decorated with frescoes with Latin and Hebrew inscriptions on them. These layers were removed to satisfy the foolish yearnings of man'. (Written sometime during the 1930s). (Betws Mas o'r Byd, p44)

We are a little more respectful of our past these days, but acts of vandalism against our heritage are not unknown and "the foolish yearnings of man" are still keen to be satisfied.

Betws Mas o'r Byd

Betws Mas o'r Byd – front cover
Betws Mas o'r Byd – back cover

The painting of St David's Church, Betws on the cover is by local artist Patrick Murphy.

The website for the parish of Betws with Ammanford (All Saints church, Ammanford; St Michael's, Ammanford; St David's, Betws; St Thomas, Wernoleu) can be found on: Parish of Betws with Ammanford.

CADW Survey
Perhaps the age and history of St david's church should be left to the Welsh ancient monument organization CADW who surveyed the building in 1990 (Cadw is Welsh for 'to keep'). Some of their findings may have to be amended, however, when the results of the recent archaeological survey are published. The church has been re-roofed in recent years at a cost of £30,000, all realised by local fund raising efforts. CADW's report contains highly technical architectural language but is worth reprinting nonetheless:

CADW Survey of 1990

Authority Carmarthenshire Grade II
Date Listed 25/10/1990
Community Betws Date Amended 29/05/1997

Locality Betws Grid Ref 26317 21168
Record No 11166

Name: St David's Parish Church
Street No, Name Betws Road
Street Side NW

Situated on SE side of Amman Valley, approx. 0.5m SE of Ammanford. Triangular shaped churchyard adjacent to Betws Rd. Sited diagonally to road.

Site apparently dates to the early Christian period. Medieval church, possibly C13-15, with C17 roofs, restored in the C19. Substantial restoration in 1872, following a fire, by J Harries of Llandeilo. Plans were produced by R K Penson, but were not utilised, at least not in original form. Vestry, EE style windows, doors, and buttresses, all of 1872. During restoration, a nail-studded door was removed which contained a date of 1662.

Small rectangular building with nave and chancel, 1872 gabled N vestry, and medieval S porch. Walls are random-rubble, hammer-dressed masonry, local stone, with ashlar dressings and copings. Roof has graded sandstone tiles, with crested terracotta ridge-tiles, and exposed rafter-ends at eaves. Coped gable parapets have cross-finials, with weather-cock on bell-cote. Grouped and single leaded lancet windows, with cusped-heads. Construction breaks visible around some windows indicate alterations. Gables have angle buttresses, single nave buttresses. South porch has a voussoired pointed arch. Porch roof has a single, oak, collared roof-truss, with cusping over collar, and curved extended feet, probably medieval. Pointed inner door, with roll and cavetto moulded, red-sandstone dressings, possibly C17.
.... Small stoup on right side of the door. S nave wall has 2 single-lancets with a twin lancet to right of porch. The W end has a double door in a voussoired cambered opening, and a part-blocked round-headed voussoired opening over, of uncertain date, with modern circular light. Three sets of twin lancets in N wall, and twin lancet with roundel over, in N vestry. Single E vestry door with pointed-head, and flat-chamfered dressings. N chancel wall has a twin lancet, while E chancel window is 2-light with bar tracery, and there are 2 sets of twin-lancets in the S chancel wall.

Cement-rendered walls. No chancel arch. Fifteen bay roof to nave and chancel. Nave has oak, arch-braced collared trusses, with unconventional cusping over collars, and chamfered purlins, possibly C17. Chancel roof is similar but possibly later. Both roofs have notches for a removed plaster ceiling and removed ridge-purlin. Stoup and piscina niche are possibly medieval. C19 square font. S nave wall has 2 two-light windows, with rich dramatic coloured lights, by John Petts of Llanstephan, 1971 and 1976. N wall 2-light by B Tobias Evans of Celtic Studios 1961, 'The Charge to St Peter'. E chancel window has a rich coloured work, 'Light of the world' by Sir Lawrence Lee, 1960, designer of glass at Coventry Cathedral. C20 oak wainscoting in chancel, and oak Gothic panelled altar and reredos. C20 oak lectern and pulpit. The organ is pitch-pine with two cases set on opposite sides of the choir.

Listed as a sole example of medieval church in Betws area, retaining much of its pre-C19 fabric, including surviving ornate roof. Important also in relation to the history of the church in Wales.

Welshman, 7th Nov. 1873
J Llewelyn, St. David's Church, Betws: A Brief History 1967
Carmarthen PRO: Plans by RK Penson, 1872-73
Major G Morgan-Morris, and Rev D. F. Donald Jones, 1871-1971 Centenary of the Restoration of St David's Parish Church, Betws
Lambeth Palace ICBS File, 07378, Grant For Enlargement, 1871-76

Date this page last updated: August 31, 2010