St Issui Church, Patrisio

This is a long blog post but it is needed as this is an extraordinary church in many ways. Its setting, tucked into the side of a steep hill surrounded by farmland in seeming isolation provides it with a unique feeling of isolation. Though when this church was built there were many more people working and living on the surrounding farms compared to today, and it would certainly not have seemed isolated to them. Unlike many churches which were improved by the Victorians in the 20th century, St Issui still encapsulates the many years that it has borne witness to over the past 1000 years. Its position in the landscape can only have been influenced by the Celtic of reference for the spirit of place. Inside the fantastic rood screen illustrates the original Catholic screened rituals and relics still provide a window on the past, followed by the Protestant plastering of extracts from the Bible, all encapsulating how religious life in Wales has changed over the centuries. In the Middle Ages, however, Patrishow was on an important east-west route, between England and Wales, across the ridges of the Black Mountains.

Dedicated to St Issui, a holy hermit who lived beside Nant Mair below the site of the present day church. There is still a shallow spring feeding a pool now known as Ffynnon Issui. The story goes that St Issui lived perhaps in the 6th century, but it not certain even whether he was a real person. However this place was called Merthyr Issui (the martyrdom of Issui) in the Book of Llandaff, written in 1120s and the saint’s legend is that he was murdered by an ungrateful passer-by whom he had sheltered in his cell.

I can never be confused with a Church Historian, and so for the description of the church I have relied upon the excellent pamphlet available in the church written by Oliver Fairclough – I certainly couldn’t do any better. So I offer my thanks to him for teaching me through his pamphlet.

As you look at the church from the south it appears to be spilt into two main sections. The smaller building to the west may the oldest part of the current Church. It is thought to the Eglwys Bend or Shrine Chapel protecting the body of St Issui. In the early 20th century this was almost destroyed by subsidence and had extensive repairs. You enter through a small 14th centre door in the south wall. This small chapel contains an offset stone altar, inscribed with six consecration crosses, probably over Issui’s grave. The square opening above it allows anybody in the chapel to see the altars of the main church and hear mass there. The chapel probably passed out of use at the Reformation. It has an inserted chimney and was later used as a schoolroom, and as a store. It was rededicated in 1991, and a fine trefoil headed niche by the altar contains a statue of St Issui in aluminium by Frank Roper (1914-2000), made in 1995.

The main church has no aisle through the nave and chancel and it is thought it was probably built in the 12th century. As you walk through the door you come across the font on your left (which is not in its original position). This has a Latin inscription ‘MENHIR ME FECIT I(N) TE(M)PORE GENILLIN’, which reads in English ‘Menhir made me in the time of Genillin’. Genillin or Cynhillin, who was alive in 1056, was the son of Rhys Goch, Lord of Ystrad Yw (he vale of the yew trees) – the Welsh district or commote around Crickhowell.

Tucked behind the rear pew is a piece of treasure, an oak chest hollowed out from a single tree. This may also be mediaeval, but its date is not known.

The nave was rebuilt in the 15th century and has a plaster barrel-vaulted ceiling, with wooden ribs and deep moulded cornice. Only the cut-down pulpit remains of the nave’s early 18th century fittings and box pews. The chancel arch (obscured by the later rood screen) has polygonal responds of the early 1400s, and moulded capitals. The chancel with its Tudor-arched priest’s door and round-headed window lights was rebuilt in the 16th century. The fret-cut baluster rail before the altar was installed around 1640, when Archbishop Laud sought to introduce a greater formality into Anglican worship shortly before the Civil War.

But we explore the rest of the church until we consider the wall paintings. These arrest your attention wherever you are in the church, surely thier original intention. The interior walls of the church were probably painted with biblical scenes in the Middle Ages. After the Reformation they were whitewashed and inscribed during the later 16th and 17th centuries with texts from the Bible and Prayer Book, framed in red ochre panels. These include the passage from Romans 13 commanding obedience to the state as well as the Creed on the North wall and on the South wall, the Ten Commandments or Decalogue.

Although this was a Welsh-speaking community until the late 19th century, the texts are all in English, the language of officialdom and public record.

Contemporary with these is the Doom figure on the West wall, a skeleton bearing an hour glass, scythe, and spade, reminding us that in time all must be cut down and ale. There is also a faded and re-worked Royal Arms of Charles II on the North wall which were placed here soon after the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660.

The church is divided into two distinct areas by the rood screen supported by two stone altars. The purpose of the 16th century ornately carved oak rood screen was to separate the nave where the community was allowed from the chancel, the domain of the clergy. Until about 1550 hanging above the loft or passageway at the top of the screen would have been the Rood, a great carved figure of Christ on the Cross, flanked by the Blessed Virgin Mary and St John the Evangelist. At this time many churches in Wales and England had rood screens, but for various reasons these have been removed or destroyed over the years. Virtually every Rood in the country was destroyed as idolatrous during the reign of King Edward VI (1547-1553) following the Protestant Reformation, and in many cases the screen was also taken down or mutilated. About a hundred rood screens have survived in churches along the Welsh border from south Shropshire to the Severn Estuary. Most date from the years either side of 1500, when the area seems finally to have recovered from the devastation caused by Owain Glyndwr’s revolt of a hundred years earlier. Only ten of these are substantially complete, and retain their rood lofts, as here in St Issui. The carving is made up of seventeen openwork tracery panels, carried on a great horizontal beam or bressumer carved with three trails of running ornament. The topmost of these, a vine trail between two wyverns (or armless dragons) is especially beautiful.

The church served, and continues to serve, the small parish of Patricio (also called Patrisio or Partrishow) on the Western, or Brecknockshire, side of the Grwyne Fawr valley, a place of scattered hill farms and cottages, and it always shared a rector with the neigibouring village of Llanbedr. As the only church in the upper part of the Grwyne Fawr, it drew its congregation from beyond its parish boundaries as is evidenced by some of the house names on the exuberant carved and painted 18th century memorial tablets that line the chancel walls. Many of these were made by the Brute family of masons from nearby Llanbedr, and they commemorate the wealthier farming families of this remote Black Mountains valley. Note particularly those to Thomas Lewis (died 1744) and William Saunders (nave – died 1757) signed by Thomas Brute (1698-1767), to William Powell (died 1766) by his son Aaron Bute (1731-1801) and to William Price of Fforddlace (died 1789) and Anne Griffiths of Coed Dias (died 1804) by his grandson John Brute (1752-1834).

Outside in the church yard there is another treasure, the 14th century preaching cross dominates. The upper part of the cross, known as the lantern was destroyed, probably at the Reformation. It was replaced in 1918 by W D Care who had earlier carried out the restoration of the church. The lantern has figures in niches of the Virgin and Child, a Rood, St Issui and Archbishop Baldwin of Canterbury. The last was included because Baldwin, whose journey through Wales in 1188 was chronicled by Giraldus Cambrensis, is said to have preached the 3rd Crusade here.

This was a rather long blog post, but there was so much to describe here. If you did manage to get to the end I hope it didn’t bore you too much.

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