The little church of Llandyfeisant, nestling in the woods of Dynevor Park, seems to belong so naturally to its setting that it's almost part of the landscape itself. Its history is long and varied, if poorly recorded, and its independence, although so close to Llandeilo, is equally long and deeply entrenched. Llandyfeisant was for centuries a separate ecclesiastical parish, and into our own time was also a separate unit for civil administration.
The history of the site may well stretch back to pre-Christian times. In the early nineteenth century, the foundations of walls were discovered in the churchyard, and it was conjectured that these might have been Roman. Local stories tell of a Roman mosaic floor discovered when a new grave was being dug. An urn of Roman coins was found three hundred yards west of the church in the early nineteenth century. Unfortunately the haphazard observations of the pre-Victorian antiquarians (always anxious to ascribe remains to the prestigious Romans) have not been verified by any more recent archaeological work on the site.
The Tyfei to whom the church is dedicated was said to have been a nephew of Teilo: Tyfei's mother, Anaumed, was supposedly Teilo's sister. Tyfei's father, Budic, was a native of Cornugallia in Armorica (Britanny), and his brother, lsmael, is commemorated in several churches in Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire. As well as here at Llandyfeisant, Saint Tyfei is also commemorated at Lamphey (Llandyfei), between Tenby and Pembroke.
The fact that the two churches dedicated to him lie near sites associated with Teilo lends credence to the stories that Tyfei and Teilo were related.
Of Tyfei's life we can know nothing for certain. Geoffrey, brother of Bishop Urban of Llandaff (d. 1133), tells us in his 'Life of St. Teilo' that Tyfei, together with his brother Ismael, were disciples of St. Dubricius. However, another story, contained in the twelfth-century 'Book of Llandaff', relates that Tyfei was killed as a child by a wealthy man of Penally named Tutuc in a dispute over property. In the 'Life of St. Oudoceus' (also twelfth century), he is referred to as: 'Tyfei the martyr, who lies at Pennalun. It is impossible to weave these late and contradictory notices into any detailed picture of the saint's life, beyond a conviction that his main associations were with south Pembrokeshire, an assumption that he was linked with St. Teilo, and a suspicion that he suffered a violent death.
The church which perpetuated Tyfei's name is first mentioned in the Ecclesiastical Taxation of 1291. 'Landevaysen' appears as the poorest of the thirteen churches in the Deanery of Ystrad Tywi, worth £1. 6s. 8d. per year (compared with Llandeilo's value of £13. 6s. 8d.). In a charter of 1324 (Cal. Pat. Rolls, 17 Ed.II), 'Lantevassan' is listed as one of the many churches in the district which had been given to Talley Abbey by Rhys, grandson of Rhys the Great. When Henry VIII's servants surveyed the property of the monasteries (1535) as they prepared to dissolve them, they found that the chapel of 'Llandevayson' was annexed to the Abbey of Talley, and was worth £4 per year to the Abbey.
The one tangible point of contact we have with the church of the medieval period is a window, probably of the thirteenth century, which was re-used on the south side of the church when it was rebuilt in the nineteenth century. It may be that the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century was a time of new prosperity for Llandyfeisant church when the building was either replaced or enlarged.
In 1875, a coin was found under the porch of the church. At the time wrongly (but inevitably) identified as Roman, it is a silver penny of a type introduced by Edward I in 1279, and belongs either to his reign (died 1307), or to that of Edward II (1307-27). If it was accidentally buried at the time of a rebuilding of the church, as seems quite possible, then there was a rebuilding some time after 1279. The existing window would belong to the work of that period.
We may reasonably speculate that this work on this church was connected with the establishment of the borough of Newton on the present site of Newton House. The existing borough of Dinefwr at the gates of the castle, which also lay in the parish of Llandyfeisant, had its own church dedicated to St. David, mentioned in 1324 (Cal. Pat. Rolls, 17 Ed.II). But Newton had apparently no church. Newton is first mentioned in 1297, the same period in which it appears that Llandyfeisant was rebuilt. It seems quite probable that the little church was rebuilt to serve as the parish church of the new borough.
Whatever lease of life the borough of Newton brought to Llandyfeisant seems to have petered out by the early sixteenth century, when, as we have seen, the church was worth a mere £4 a year. This is not surprising, since the borough itself never thrived, and by the early sixteenth century had become a mere straggle of tumbledown buildings. In the mid-1530s, at much the same time as Henry VIII's agents were assessing the wealth of the church, the traveller Leland recorded his impression of the physical state of the town which Llandyfeisant may once have served. At Newton he found only 'sumtime a long streat nowe ruinus'. Llandyfeisant must have suffered in this decline. But as the borough decayed, local landed families arose to new prominence, and Llandyfeisant church was entering a new era, in which these families would play a prominent part.
The fortunes of Llandyfeisant Church are from now on dependent on the rise to prominence of a local medieval dynasty to one of the wealthiest and most powerful gentry families in the area. The descendants of the ferocious warrior-knight Sir Rhys ap Thomas (1449-1525) would soon become the gentrified Rices of Newton House, Llandeilo, and finally the Barons Dynevor in 1780. It was Rhys ap Thomas who is credited with killing Richard III at the battle of Bosworth in 1485, which saw his kinsman Henry Tudor ascend to the English throne as Henry VII. The extensive Tywi valley lands given to Rhys ap Thomas in 1485 as reward for his support of Henry VII didn't stay in the family for very long after his death, however. Just six years, in fact, when they were confiscated by Henry VIII in 1531 for the treason of Rhys ap Thomas's grandson, Rhys ap Gruffydd. (The family only lost their lands; Rhys ap Gruffydd lost his head.) Although the family recovered some of the land in subsequent generations they were never to achieve such political power again as Rhys ap Thomas had exercised before them.
(There is a separate item on Rhys ap Thomas in the People section of this website.)
The fifteenth century saw the decline of castles in military importance - the earlier introduction of gunpowder into Europe had put paid to their impregnability - and the economic activity of Llandeilo had already shifted away from Dinefwr Castle to where the town stands today, centred around the parish church of St Teilo. The small township that had grown up around Dinefwr Castle and nearby Newton House disappeared, and with it went the need for Llandyfeisant Church which had served the inhabitants. Dinefwr Castle had long been abandoned in favour of nearby Newton House, and in the seventeenth century the owners of Newton House had even built a purely decorative summer house on top of the castle's circular military keep, the ruins of which can still be seen today. The age of the style guru had arrived, and earlier than we realise. For a short time in the Middle Ages Llandeilo had in fact been two quite separate townships - Llandeilo Fawr, which had grown around St Teilo Church, and Newton, served by Llandyfeisant Church, just a mile downstream of the river Tywi.
But after the blood-letting of the Wars of the Roses (1455-1485) Britain steadily evolved from a society whose magnates were constantly at war with each other into one which increasingly waged war on other nations instead. There was one more major upheaval to come in the seventeenth century which historians insist on calling the English Civil War, 1642-1649 (as this included invasions of Scotland, Ireland and Wales it should more correctly be known as the British Civil War). From this time on Britain settled down to an economy increasingly dependent on agriculture, trade, colonisation and, later, manufacturing, and the owners of Newton House evolved from medieval robber-barons into country gentlemen (who robbed their peasantry in much the same way but were more likely to wield the law rather than an axe to do so). Eventually this shift in the economic activities of the Rice family of Newton House would revive the fortunes of Llandyfeisant Church, but for a while the old building suffered badly from this de-population.
An idea of the decline in this part of Llandeilo can be seen in an 18th century inspection of Llandyfeisant church. Here we find that church services can only be delivered in dry weather due to the absence of a roof!
The Church consists of two aisles, the roof of the north aisle has no tiles upon it, the Timber which has been very good, & still might be of use, is expos'd to rot in the weather. The other aisle is very much decay'd in the tiling. In fair weather the Minister that assists at Llandeilo reads prayers here once every Sunday, but in wet weather he is forc'd to omitt them there being no convenient place in the Church for keeping him or the people dry. No Bible, Common-Prayer Book, Homilies, Canons, Table of Degrees, nor Register Book. My Lord Carbery who holds the Tithes as Tenant to the Bishop of Chester allows 40 shilling a year to the Minister. Question. Whether any preaching? I believe not.
The date of the above 'visitation' (ie, inspection)? July and August of 1710. But by the 19th century the farm workers, retainers and servants of a renovated Newton House and rejuvenated Dynevor estate provided a sizeable congregation for Llandyfeisant church, which was completely rebuilt in the Victorian period, as described in this survey by the Welsh ancient monument organisation, CADW:
Small stone church of medieval origin but almost entirely rebuilt in later C19, possibly to designs by R. Kyrke Pearson, architect of Oswestry who redesigned Newton House for Lord Dynevor. Plan of unified chancel and nave with medieval (?) South aisle set back to left … Church of moderate architectural interest in an exceptional location at Dinefwr Park. Fine steeply sloping burial ground with old headstones.
Note that little put-down, describing the church as being in an exceptional location but only of 'moderate' architectural interest. Any walk through an old churchyard is also a walk back through time and Llandyfeisant is no exception, though not many country churchyards have peers of the realm buried there as does Llandyfeisant:
Reading the tombstones in the church's burial ground will reveal the old social structure of this small parish: tradesmen from Bridge Street (now part of Llandeilo town), farmers, lords, emigrants to the colonies and European refugees. They also tell of the uncertainties of life, particularly poignant for the Thomas family, a hundred years ago, whose story can be read from the inscriptions on their monolith, on the left, just before you leave the churchyard.
By the late eighteenth century the fortunes of the Rice family had recovered considerably from their setbacks in the sixteenth century. By 1775 the family had reached sufficient status and wealth to employ the celebrated landscape gardener Capability Brown to affect a makeover of the old Tudor grounds into a high-fashion landscaped park. Then, in 1780, the Rice family were elevated to the peerage as the Barons Dynevor (the current Lord is the 9th Baron Dynevor). Seventy years later, with the Dynevor's wealth even greater, the architect Richard Kyrke Penson was hired to completely rebuild Newton House between 1856 and 1858, this time converting the 18th century gentleman's residence that Capability Brown had known into a mock-gothic, turreted mansion designed in the grim style so beloved of the Victorians. It was Kyrke Penson, too, who rebuilt Llandyfeisant church at the same time, leaving little evidence of the old medieval ruin behind except for a window in the south wall.
During the last hundred years there has been a drop in the population of Llandyfeisant associated with the decline in the social importance of Newton House, the enlargement of farms and the mechanisation of agriculture. But in 1851 Dinefwr Farm Estate occupied a thousand acres and employed 26 agricultural labourers. There were 9 other farms in the parish, the smallest being 9 acres and the largest 100 acres.
These 26 agricultural labourers and their families, along with the household servants of Newton house, and the tenants of the surrounding farms, created a congregation of sufficient size to justify rebuilding the old church. But the church's new lease of life would not last long, when the population of Llandyfeisant parish declined yet again:
Thirty years later these peripheral farms had been reduced to 7, ranging in size from 16 to 200 acres. Now there are only 3 farms and much of the grazing land is let to tenants from other parishes. Lord Dynevor no longer owns land in the parish. The main land managers are now the National Trust, the Department of the Environment and the West Wales Naturalist Trust.
This population decline owed more to efficient farming techniques than any diminution of the Dynevor's wealth, for as late as 1883 the Dynevor estates consisted of 7,208 acres in Carmarthenshire, 3,299 acres in Glamorgan, besides 231 acres in Oxfordshire, Wiltshire and Gloucestershire. Total: 10,738 acres, worth £12,562 a year income and the principal residence was Newton House in Llandeilo. (Source: The Complete Peerage of England, Scotland, Great Britain and the United Kingdom, Vicary Gibbs, London, 1916.) According to Bank of England figures, the pound had a present day purchasing value of £45.67 in 1883 so the above income represents £573,596 a year at today's values.
The Dynevors, though, were not the largest landowners in the county; far from it. That distinction must go to the Scottish Earls of Cawdor, whose vast land holdings dwarfed even the substantial acreage of the Dynevors. Their 10,738 acres in 1883 look puny compared to the 33,782 acres the Cawdors owned in Carmarthenshire alone, with another 17,735 acres in Pembrokeshire, and to which can be added 50,119 acres in their home county of Nairn in Scotland. The total of 101,657 acres brought in an annual income of £44,662 in 1883 (that's equivalent to £2,039,714 a year at today's prices). Interestingly, the 51,000 acres of prime agricultural land in Wales yielded the Cawdors an annual income of £35,042 (£1,600,000 today) but the 50,000 poorer Scottish acres were worth just £9,620 per annum (£439,000). Their principal residences (note the plural) were Stackpole Court, Pembrokeshire; Golden Grove, Llandeilo; and Cawdor Castle, Nairnshire, Scotland. Our source for this information, the 'Complete Peerage', by Vicary Gibbs, also informs us that Earl Cawdor was one of the 28 noblemen who in 1883 owned over 100,000 acres in the UK.
For a comparison here are the other great landowners of Carmarthenshire in 1873. The estimated annual rental incomes of 1873 have been converted using the equivalent for the pound in 2003 of £37.56 (Bank of England. Figure).
|Owner||Address||Size of estate
in 1873 (£)
in 2003 (£)
|Lord Cawdor||Golden Grove||33,782||20,790||780,497|
|Sir J. S. Cowell-Stepney||Llanelli||9,841||7,047||264,685|
|A. H. C.Jones||Carmarthen||7,662||4,610||173,152|
|Sir J. H. Williams-Drummond||Edwinsford||6,900||5,096||191,406|
|J. W. M.Gwynne-Hughes||Tre-gib||6,797||3,990||149,864|
|A. J. Gulston||Derwydd||6,744||10,976||412,259|
|A. H. S. Davies||Pentre, Pembs||3,702||3,118||117,112|
|C. W. Mansel-Lewis||Stradey||3,139||4,265||160,193|
In 1877, and again in 1899, Llandyfeisant Parish Church received further renovation, indicating there was still plenty of money around:
Llandyfeisant Parish Church is situated half a mile west of Llandilo. The Church of St Tyfei, delightfully situated in Dynevor Park, is an edifice of stone in Gothic Style, consisting of Chancel, Nave, South Aisle, Western Porch, with two bells. In 1877 it was thoroughly renovated and re-seated, at a cost of £1,800. In 1899, a New Vestry was added, and the Bell turret was re-erected at the expense of Lord Dynevor. There are sittings for 200. The register dates from 1755.
Whether those 200 sittings were fully occupied every Sunday we don't know but whenever the Dynevor family were back from their London home and in residence at Newton House, local people would turn up just to stare at the good Baron attending the family church in all his finery:
On Sunday mornings when the Dynevor family were in residence, we would often watch the coach bringing the family to church. The big coach, like an old stage-coach, was drawn by four horses. Brooks, the coachman, was accompanied by a groom on the driving seat, and two smartly-dressed footmen at the rear. It would draw up with a crunching noise on the road outside the church-yard gate, the footmen would jump down and assist the passengers to alight. Then the footmen would re-mount, and the coach would withdraw, to return at the end of the service. The scene had a great deal more drama and dignity than the arrival of a Rolls Royce on a similar errand.
In the 19th century Llandyfeisant Church was regarded as the family church of the Lords of Dynevor at Newton House, but had fallen into near-dereliction by the 1980s. The 9th Lord Dynevor had lost his ancestral home of Newton House in 1974 when it had to be sold to help pay death duties incurred by the demise in quick succession of the 7th Lord in 1956 and the 8th Lord in 1962. The church had already ceased being used for worship in 1961 when its font and stained-glass window war memorial were removed to nearby St Teilo Church for safekeeping. This was not the first time, though, that the church had been allowed to fall into a ruinous state, as we've just seen, and nor can the restless twentieth century carry the blame alone for the neglect of our architectural heritage.The church has since been restored with the help of unemployed labour from the Manpower Services Commission and opened briefly as an information centre and shop in 1986, though it's currently locked. We may be a more secular age than back in 1710 but our lack of piety hasn't stopped us caring for our religious heritage any less. A few yards away from the church lie the ruins of a gamekeeper's lodge, open to the elements now, and untended graves scattered under the steadily encroaching trees lend the scene a melancholy air tinged with a little mystery. Not somewhere for those of a nervous disposition to find themselves as nightfall approaches, either.
Though the church itself is no longer open, it is well worth a visit for its location in the lovely Castle Woods nature reserve, itself a part of the equally splendid Dinefwr Park. The Castle Woods reserve has been described by Mr. Peter Crawford (a senior T.V. Producer with the B.B.C. Natural History Unit) in his book The Living Isles as follows:
This is one of the most exciting woodlands in South Wales and is on the lime rich bluff above the Afon Tywi. The woodland is primarily oak and wych elm, the latter decimated by disease. The shrubs and ground cover are outstanding with cherry, holly, spindle, dog violet and the parasitic toothwort. Lichen communities are of importance and include the rare lungwort. Overlooked by the romantic Castle of Dinefwr the fine old parkland has a herd of fallow deer. The mature trees attract woodpeckers, redstarts and pied flycatchers. In winter the water meadows draw large number of ducks.
The Early History section of this article has been adapted from an item initially published in the Parish Magazine for St Teilo Church, Llandeilo. The Recent History section has been written for this website.