Southern Wales has a rich religious and cultural heritage dating from pre-Roman times. Christianity was introduced by Roman traders and soldiers and, unlike England, it continued into the Dark Ages and beyond. This was the result of the work of the Celtic saints, itinerant preachers who used the western seaways to link Wales with Brittany, Cornwall, Ireland, the Isle of Man and Western Scotland.
Thus a visitor to this part of Wales will find churches founded by, or in the name of, Celtic Saints such as Dyfrig, Illtud, Teilo, Cadoc, and many others. But time does not stand still, and these churches were often rebuilt and extended by the Normans in medieval times. The five churches featured in this brochure are outstanding in their history and architecture, and represent centuries of devoted Christian worship.
The Celtic Church did not have a structure of Dioceses and parishes; these were imposed by the Normans after about 1093. The Celtic foundation at Llandaff (Llandaf) was elevated to cathedral status, while those at Margam and Ewenny became the centres of worship of a Cistercian Abbey and Benedictine Priory respectively.
Llanilltud Fawr (Llantwit Major) was one of the earliest and largest monasteries in Wales, and St. Illtud’s Church remains as one of the most historically important parish churches in the country.
With the Industrial Revolution in Wales, there was a rapid expansion of industry and trade, a rise in population and the growth of towns, the largest being Cardiff. The demands for worship resulted in a myriad of churches and chapels. The parish church of St. John the Baptist is a focal point of worship in the city centre.
CELTIC DISCOVERY TRAIL
A visitor to South East Wales will discover churches which date back to the very beginnings of Celtic Christianity, pre-dating the return of the faith to England by about a hundred years. Christianity was brought here by the Romans, and when they left the Gospel was preached by itinerant priests (the Celtic saints) travelling over lands linked by the western seas.
THE MODERN PILGRIM
These five churches are all within easy reach of each other by car or public transport. They are open every day, usually until dusk, and entry to every church in Wales is free. Each one is also a convenient centre to visit neighbouring churches, often close enough to walk or cycle. The Cardiff city centre church, St. John’s, is linked to the Cathedral by the Taff Trail, which is well signposted. Information on it can be found in any local tourist office.
Close to all these “Beacon Churches” are villages – Kenfig, Merthyr Mawr, St. Donats, Llanmihangel, and many more – which contain smaller and attractive churches well worth visiting. Each church is an education in itself, and school groups are always welcome. The modern pilgrim can see everywhere the work of craftsmen and artists who have served Christ through their skill, devotion and care through the centuries. These holy places illustrate, through their history and architecture, the Christian spirit which is still alive and well in the welcome these churches offer.