Rhossili Church

St. Mary's Church

The original church at Rhossili spent its early days at the foot of Rhossili Downs known today as the Warren. The church here, possibly dedicated to a St. Sulien or St. Sili, with a history stretching back to the 6th Century, was further built upon by the Anglo-Norman settlers some time before 1150. There is even exists some documentation in early charters that Rhossili was the site of an even earlier monastic settlement dedicated to St. Cynwal. However, it is claimed that during the 13th century, huge storms erupted which lashed the west coast of Gower with forceful winds and rain, engulfing both village and church with a mountain of sand.

Rhossili ChurchDuring the early 13th century, the new church and village was built upon the clifftop to avoid the neverending threat of wind, sea and sand.

Rhossili Church door archwayThe locally celebrated carved door archway is considered to a very rare and fine example of Norman architecture, complete with dog-tooth mouldings, chevron, with battered carved heads as label stops and nook shafts ornate with scalloped cushion capitals. A rare scratch dial (a type of sundial) rests on the left post. The archway is believed to have been rescued from the old besanded church and reset in its present position. Apparently, one or more of the stones were lost in the process, hence the slightly lop-sided look! Indeed, during the 1980 archeological dig of the old church, the original porch was discovered missing.

The site of the old Rhossili settlement is now protected by law as an Ancient Monument - some of the excavated walls can still be observed along the steep pathway leading to the beach.

From the early part of the 13th century church, dedicated to St. Mary the Virgin, became the property of the medieval Order of the Knights Hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem, sanctioned by William de Turberville. This gift is documented in a confirmatory charter of Bishop Anselm of 1230. Their order was dissolved during the reign of Henry VIII, and rectors were appointed on behalf of the Crown by the Lord Chancellor, until 1920 when the Church in Wales was disestablished.

The present structure still exhibits some of the original Norman structure but much was changed during extensive renovation work commissioned during the 19th century. The church consists of chancel, nave, small western tower and south porch. On the south side of the chancel there is a 14th century 'lowside' or 'leper's window' where it is believed feared outcasts of Medieval society could participate in mass and attend confessionals without entering the building.

Against the towering backdrop of Rhossili Downs the distinctive saddle-back tower was once used as a landmark by passing ships; it is the only one in Gower not to have a masking parapet or battlements. At one time the tower housed two bells. One of them was made in the 14th or 15th century bearing the inscription:

"Sancte Tellant ora pro nobis"

... which means 'Saint Tellant pray for us'. Bearing in mind that there is no saint of the name Tellant, it has been suggested that the engraver of the bell was somewhat illiterate and the name should have refered to the 6th century Celtic Saint, St. Teilo! Local tradition states that the bells were salvaged from the wreck of a Spanish ship, however, similar inscribed bells can be found throughout churches in Wales, Oxwich Church being another local example. The bells were rung by striking them with a hammer and it is assumed that this action finally cracked one, deadening its sound. This bell was eventually converted into a safe sometime during the early 20th century; an iron door was fitted and a wooden base attached, though sadly this was stolen from the church in 1993. In 1893 three new bells were purchased from the foundry of J. Warner of London for £55.

Several repairs were undertaken on the roof in 1856, however, extensive restorations were made in 1891 under the direction and fund raising of the Reverend J. Ponsonby Lucas. After nearly 2 years of fundraising, helped along by the significant funds of £550 donated by Miss Emily Talbot, restoration work was directed following the guidance and supervision of architect Ewan Christian of Whitehall, London. The work resulted in many new additions and replacements of the original porch, roof, pulpit, lectern, choir stalls, and seats were made of pitch pine for 120 parishioners. The chancel floor was tiled, a new altar rail was erected and the base of the Norman doorway and south walls were cleared of the accumulated soil that had crept higher and higher over the years. Also, two new windows were introduced to the nave; one on the north side, the other facing south. When completed, the church was reopened for service on Friday, 27th June, 1891 by the Bishop of St. David's.

Inside the church, a small white marble tablet depicting an Arctic scene tells us briefly of the death of Petty Officer Edgar Evans (born in the Ship Cottage, formerly the Ship Inn of Rhossili) who died 17th February 1912 with Captain Scott, on the ill-fated journey back from the South Pole. This memorial, erected by his wife Lois Evans, bears the inscription:

"To seek, to strive, to find and not to yield."

A horizontal sundial can be found, though is not so noticeable due to its height, on a pillar to the left of the entry gate of the churchyard. The dial is made of (possibly Welsh) slate and has a brass gnomone at the correct angle of latitude (51.5°) for Rhossili. It is theorised that the sundial was made by the same maker of the horizontal dial found at Llangennith, which had been engraved with the name West, of 41, Strand, Charing Cross, London. This would date both dials at late 18th - early 19th centuries.

The church is open from Easter to the end of October.

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