St Mary’s Church, Conwy

On 20th June 2019, about 30 members and friends of the History of Deganwy Group met at St Mary’s Church in Conwy. Once the chimes of the church’s bells (more about these later…) had died away, our chairman, Vicky Macdonald, described the background to the ‘We Are Seven’ tomb. This grave was made famous by Wordsworth’s eponymous Romantic poem, written in 1798 whilst he and Samuel Taylor Coleridge finalised the latter’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Wordsworth had not been to Conwy when he wrote it, but is said to have stayed at Benarth many years later. The poem grew in popularity over the years, and began to draw visitors; when the railway came to Conwy in 1848, an influx of tourists began to take stones from the original grave, leading to its being replaced in a slightly different position.

St. Mary’s Church, Graveyard.

Vicky gave a spirited reading of Wordsworth’s poem over the reconstructed grave, with its distinctive Gothic ironwork – an early design of Herbert Luck North. Unusually, thanks to the pleading of the Vicar, it was exempted from the salvage collection carried out during WW2. Vicky then handed over to Chris Roberts – the church’s organist for 43 years, choirmaster and organiser of the town’s Classical Music Festival – who gave us an enlightening tour of the exterior and interior of St Mary’s.

Chris explained that the church is 100 years older than Conwy Castle, with its origins as a Cistercian monastery dating back to the end of the 12th century. Aberconwy Abbey was founded from Strata Florida; the exact date is debatable but it was certainly at Conwy by 1192, as it is then mentioned in the writings of Giraldus Cambriensis (Gerald of Wales). In 1245, the abbey was sacked by the English who crossed the river from their position in Deganwy, but the most serious setback came from Edward I’s conquest. In 1283, he decreed that the abbey should be moved to Maenan (where nothing now remains – the site is that of the Maenan Abbey Hotel), and it is after this date that the main changes to the structure of the original building were made.

The south transept dates from c.1320, and is the finest feature architecturally – perhaps because it was built by English masons who remained after the construction of the castle and walls. The trefoil windows of the tower belong to the earliest part of the belfry, with the stone course above them indicating the original height. The church’s clock belongs to the town council, but the bells, which hang in a 15th century oak frame, belong to the church. One is 19th century, but the other dates from about 1500, and was brought to Conwy by sea from the abbey at Chester during the Reformation. The clock used to have to be wound once a week, and was accessed via the external staircase. There is also an internal spiral staircase which can be used for maintenance of the bells.

St. Mary’s Church, Bell tower.

In the churchyard, Chris pointed out the piece cut out and replaced on the tombstone of John Griffith; the story is that this part of the slate had commemorated someone who was thought to have been lost at sea, but who turned up many years later – their epitaph was replaced by a suitable quote from a psalm. The churchyard also contains the grave of Thomas Foulkes, who fought in the Peninsular War and at Waterloo, and that of Griffith Owen, who fought at the Battle of Trafalgar.

St. Mary’s Church, modified tombstone.

Llywelyn Fawr (Llewelyn the Great) granted a charter to the Abbey of Aberconwy in 1198, and several Welsh princes were buried in the abbey including Llywelyn himself, who took the monks’ habit for the last few days of his life in 1240. His body was removed to Maenan, and his sarcophagus is now in St Grwst’s Church in Llanrwst. It is possible that the Welsh masons who built the main part of St Mary’s incorporated the heads of Llywelyn Fawr, his wife Siwan (Joan), and other members of his family, as an act of subversive rebellion by carving their faces as the headstops on the columns in the nave, still visible today.

Prominent features remaining from the Abbey of Aberconwy include the three lancet windows at the west end, and the archway below them – although it is now the main entrance, this was not built as a doorway, but was probably originally the arch to the abbey’s chapter house. There is also a small amount of medieval glass dating from 1320 in one of the windows (some of which, unusually, have Welsh inscriptions).

St. Mary’s Church, Main entrance.

There are two windows in the church in memory of the Reverend Morgan Morgan (vicar of St Mary’s from 1838 to 1870) – the very brightly coloured East Window was given in his memory by parishioners and friends, and the ‘Angel of the Tomb’ window was given by his family. Morgan Morgan was notable not least for the success of his sons – Sir George Osborne Morgan, Liberal MP; John Edward Morgan, first professor of medicine at Manchester University; Henry Morgan, Master of Jesus College Cambridge and accomplished Alpine mountaineer. Other later windows feature designs by the Pre-Raphaelite, Edward Burne-Jones.

The rood screen is the most remarkable interior feature. As well as fan-vaulting – often seen in stone, but very rarely in wood – and carvings of dragons and wyverns, it includes clues which date it precisely to 1501-1502. On the top rail, a fish in the claws of an eagle can be seen; this was the emblem of Sir Richard Pole. He was the Constable of Conwy Castle from 1488 to 1505, and had very close connections to the Tudors: his mother was the half-sister of Lady Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII. Pole was a member of the household of Prince Arthur, betrothed at a young age to Catherine of Aragon; her symbol of pomegranates also appears in the rood screen, along with the feathers of the Prince of Wales – one of Arthur’s titles. The screen was almost certainly constructed by craftsmen in Ludlow, whose castle was the seat of the Council of the Marches in Wales, and where both Arthur and Sir Richard Pole had strong links.

The rood screen is echoed in the Victorian tiles on the floor under the tower, which feature the Tudor rose, the Prince of Wales’s feathers, and the fish in eagles’ claws motifs. The church was extensively restored in 1872 by Sir George Gilbert Scott, architect of edifices such as the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras and, more locally, Hafodunos Hall. He raised the level of the walls in the nave, and reinstated previously blocked windows at a higher level.

St. Mary’s Church Floor tiles.

St Mary’s has three unexpected connections with Italy: the first is a bust of John Gibson, the 19th century sculptor, who was born at Benarth. He studied under Canova in Rome, where he remained for many years; Edward VII was one of the subscribers to his memorial. Another artistic connection can be found in the nave, where there is a reproduction of an original painting from the Santissima Annunziata in Florence. Finally, St Mary’s splendid processional cross was bought in 1904 from an antique shop in Italy. It is a finely worked late Gothic piece, probably 15th century, and is reputed to have been used in Monza Cathedral until the 19th century.

Notable tombs inside the church include that of Nicholas Hookes, which makes the remarkable claim that he was his father’s 41st child, and the father of 27 children himself. The impressive hooded tomb in the furthest corner is that of Robert Wynn, builder of Plas Mawr, who died in 1598. The tiles on the wall next to his tomb are possibly floor tiles from the Abbey; their design of interlocking circles was used in the current tiles in the choir. The choirstalls, dating from about 1500, were probably given by William Holland, whose name and initials are carved on them.

St. Mary’s Church Choirstalls.

The church’s organ (built by William Hill & Sons) was donated by Albert Wood of Bodlondeb in 1910, who had bought it for £350 after spotting it being used as a temporary organ in Chester Cathedral during their own organ’s restoration. St Mary’s previous organ was given to St Agnes Cemetery Chapel – when this was demolished in about 1970, two of the stops of the donated organ were added to its replacement in St Mary’s. Other than this addition, the organ is more or less unchanged, and we were able to hear it in all its glory. Chris treated us to a short recital featuring a selection of styles – baroque, Romantic, a Welsh hymn tune by Vaughan Williams, and a final blast in the Renaissance style.

There are undoubtedly more stories that can be told about St Mary’s Church, but the Group left enlightened by Chris’s informative talk, and grateful for all the details which we will now be able to relish on future visits.

Lucinda Smith

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