There are a hundred names in Wales—or more—that begin with ‘llan’. Why is that and what does it mean?
The Welsh prefix llan has evolved in its meaning over time, first indicating a burial enclosure, then a cemetery with a church, then the church itself, and now it refers to ‘the parish settlement around a church’. Regardless, in Wales, a placename that contains llan implies a continuous Christian locality going back centuries if not millennia. Thus, with a name like Llanrhychwyn you have ‘llan’ as the prefix and then Rhychwyn, which, as is the case with many, many churches in Wales, is the name of the saint who founded it.
Last week, I mentioned that early Christianity in Wales, specifically during the 5th and 6th centuries, is often referred to as ‘the age of Saints’. These ‘saints’ journeyed as missionaries along the western seaways between Brittany, Cornwall, Wales and Ireland to spread Christianity. Probably the most famous of them all was St. Patrick, who was born Briton (or Welsh as we’d say today) but became the patron saint of Ireland.
In Wales, the pre-eminent Christian figure was Dewi Sant, or St. David. The fact that he is a native born patron saint speaks to the deep roots of Welsh Christianity by the time of his birth around the early sixth century. That David had a tradition to build on is because, as we talked about last week, by the late Roman period, Christianity was already diffused throughout Britain. As such, the foundations for a Welsh church had already been laid, and the saints built on that foundation.
In the case of Saint Rhychwyn, the legend states that he was one of 12 sons of Helig ap Glannog, who lost his court to an inundation by the sea. As a result, many of his sons became monks, one of whom was Rhychwyn. Although today Llanrhychwyn is a very remote spot (to say the least) above the Conwy River Valley, throughout the medieval period up until the 19th century it was a village of several hundred inhabitants.
Most of the church is extremely old and is credited with being the oldest church in Wales. The roof beams, for example, date to the 11th century, and are the earliest example in Wales. The baptismal font dates to this time period as well, and is the oldest known font in Britain. Much of the rest of the building dates to the 12th century, including the ancient wooden door, which has wooden hinges. The bell at Llanrhychwyn possibly came from Maenan Abbey, since destroyed, and dates to the 13th century. This is the time of Llywelyn Fawr, the Prince of Wales, who is known to have worshipped at Llanrhychwyn with his wife Joan.
Overall, with its double nave, exposed beams, and overall simplicity, the church is a good example of what native Welsh churches looked like.
We are going to talk more about these early churches and saints next week, with a visit to Llanrhychwyn’s brother church, and my personal favorite, Llangelynnin.