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A Short History of Abergele Parish Church

A Christian settlement must have existed at Abergele in the 8th century AD when Elfod the Bishop of Bangor gave a gift of land to the Church there. Before the Roman invasion in AD 47 , Britain was occupied by pagan Celts and few of the occupying Romans would have been Christian before the conversion of the Emperor Constantine in AD 312. The earliest evidence of Christianity in North Wales is the inscribed stones set up to commemorate the dead and these are most common to the west, suggesting that evangelism came from the Irish sea routes rather than from occupying Romans.

There were already bishops in Britain when Augustine was sent by the Pope Gregory to Christianise Britain in AD 597 but in Wales it was a distinctive Celtic church with self contained ecclesiastical communities or clasau, consisting of an abbot and a group of hereditary canons, sharing a common income but living as secular clerks (claswyr). The claswyr would have lived in a group of wooden huts in a rounded enclosed area, so it is not surprising that no trace of such a community has been found. There is however the suggestion of the rounded outland to the older part of the church yard at Abergele which supports the suggestion that this was the site of a clas.

In the middle ages the area between the Conwy and the Dee had something of the nature of a border area with fighting regularly occurring between the invading Irish and English and the Welsh. However Abergele was usually under the rule of the Prince of Gwynedd, with the church under the Bishop of Bangor.

The Norman Conquest in 1066 brought a more structured form of Christianity to England and parts of Wales. To the Normans the clas structure with its wooden huts, rather than stone buildings, married priests and hereditary offices was a corrupt and archaic institution. A system of tithes was introduced by the Normans and stone church building began; in the early 12th century Gwynedd was said ‘to shine with white-washed churches, like stars in the firmament’. Indeed Abergele church continued to be whitewashed up to the 19th century.

The Prince of Gwynedd ruled North Wales until Edward I annexed Wales in 1284 and built his series of castles along North Wales. Wales was then divided into shires, each with a sheriff; Abergele being put under the Lordship of Denbigh. Abergele church is recorded in Norwich taxation of 1254 and Lincoln taxation of 1291.

By the 14th century Abergele had grown into a market town; Abergele had 24 burgesses in 1311 and the first record of a “beast market in Abergele” was in 1320. The church is built of local limestone and sandstone. It is possible that one or other of the naves is 14th century and the church retains its medieval roofs. The features of the church that can be dated to the 14th century are

  • the lower part of the rood screen

  • the perpendicular font pedestal

  • the oak chest

  • some sepulchral fragments

  • one slab

  • a few fragments of glass

Troops are thought to have occupied the church during the English civil war of 1642-49; two of the pillars are said to show the marks of swords or arrow heads being sharpened. There are nine fragments of late medieval glass windows, reset in the vestry window and these may have been part of a Jesse window destroyed at this time. The bowl of the font is dated 1663, 200 years later than its pedestal, the original bowl probably also having been destroyed by the troops.

The prosperity of the area increased during the industrial revolution (1660-1800), due to the demand for local raw materials, such as lead and limestone; some of the local landowners become very wealthy. The Napoleonic wars from 1793 to 1815 made it impossible for the rich to travel on the continent, so travel in Britain became popular. Abergele began to develop into an important watering place; the air was regarded as salubrious, there was a beach for bathing and rural areas if tranquillity was desired. All this prosperity was not accompanied by an increased interest in the church; in 1729 the number of Sunday communicants was reported to be very slender, usually six or seven, though the church was clearly still important to people at significant moments in their life; the monuments round the church date from 1668 to 1804

Sometime between 1824 and 1836 Sir Stephen Richard Glynne described St Michael’s as follows.

‘This very large church, which is of unusual length, may be said to consist of a west tower, a nave and chancel, with north aisle extending along the entire length. The style is, as usual, late and plain Perpendicular. The tower is rude, with a battlement, but no buttresses. The whole exterior is whitewashed. The windows are some square-headed, some pointed; many with good tracery; the two at the east end are of five lights each, of very good character, and having five pieces of stained glass. The division between the body and the aisle is formed of six Tudor arches, springing from light octagonal columns. Part of the west end of the aisle is used as a school. The rood screen is of rather crude woodwork, of a character not very common in Wales, and not altogether with bad effect.’

In the 19th century the religious reawakening led to the church being restored. The stained glass in the north nave east window was installed by Lloyd Bamford Hesketh in 1857, to commemorate the Lloyds of Gwryth. The tower was raised in 1861 and windows and buttresses added. In 1878-9 there were major alterations to the church including

  • re-flooring the whole church, partly because the floor was giving way due to interments

  • reseating the church with open benches to replace the enclosed pews belonging to the principal local houses and the backless benches for the poor of the parish. The pews were described as ‘high backed and varying in size and shape with seats therein facing hither and thither as the case may be.’

  • moving the 17th century pulpit from the north wall

  • adapting the chancel aisle for the choir

  • erecting the organ

  • screening off the rear of the church as a vestry

The porch and the lychgate are Victorian. The porch bears the date 1879 and was built during the Victorian renovations, replacing a previous stone one. The lychgate was erected to commemorate Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee in 1887. The peal of bells was restored at that time; the sanctus bell is both the smallest and the oldest of the church’s bells and bears the date 1723. A new heating system was installed in 1903 and has lasted well; it is hope to begin replacing it in 2006!

The number of English residents in Pensarn rose during the 19th century and tourism increased when the the railway line from Manchester along the North Wales Coast was built in 1885. These holiday makers rented the large houses on the main street in Pensarn for their family and the large staff needed to look after them; the staff could include cooks, maids, nannies, tutors and housekeepers. in 1880 St David’s church was built to meet the needs of all these English residents. It was built of tin and intended as a temporary building but was still used nearly 130 years later, though badly in need of repair. However by 2010, after a great deal of hard work by the steering committee and various local support groups, sufficient funds were raised to replace the church with a modern building which can be used as both a church and a community centre. This building, known as the Canofan Dewi Sant Centre, was opened by the Bishop of St Asaph on Monday 7th February 2011.

In 1891 a Parish Room was built in Groes Lwyd and when this was later enlarged, it became known as Church House. The building was used by both the church and local organisations for many years but is not currently in use..