Historic St. Illtud’s Church in South Wales stands on what was once one of the earliest centers for learning in the British Isles—a kind of university of Celtic saints.
St. Illtud’s Church draws pilgrims from around the world because of its connection to early Celtic Christian history as well as its Norman, Tudor and Victorian architectural features.
The saint for whom the church is named founded a community here around the year 500. It grew to become one of the most important centers for early Celtic Christianity. In addition to a monastery, it included a school that attracted men and women from throughout the British Isles. From here they spread the Gospel to many places in the Celtic lands of Wales, Cornwall, Ireland and Brittany.
The earliest structures here would have been small buildings made of timber and thatch. When the Normans arrived in 1093, they replaced these with what is now the West Church. The East Church was added in the thirteenth century.
The church’s earliest history is preserved in its Galilee Chapel, a part of the building that had long lay in ruins before being restored in 2013. The annex now houses several Celtic stones dating from the ninth through the eleventh centuries.
The most significant is the Houelt Cross, an exceptional example of a traditional Celtic “wheel cross.” About six feet high, it’s made from a single piece of sandstone and dates from the ninth century. Other artifacts on display include the tenth-century Samson Cross (also known as the Illtud Cross) and the Samson Pillar from the late ninth century. The latter, which is made of a type of quartzite, may be the earliest inscribed standing stone in Britain.
Inside the Norman-era church (which was rebuilt in the fifteenth century), look for the Norman-built arch and a Norman font. In the East Church, take note of the medieval wall paintings and medieval and Tudor effigies. And at the east end is a Victorian stained glass window featuring four saints linked to the school and church: Samson (a Celtic saint known for his missionary wanderings), Illtud, and David and Patrick (the patron saints of Wales and of Ireland, both of whom may have been educated here).
Another treasure is a thirteenth-century “Jesse niche” of carved stone dating from the thirteenth century. At its base is the sleeping figure of Jesse, the father of the Biblical hero David. A tree grows from his side, with the branches extending upwards. The branches bear the heads of the kings of Judah, while at the top is the head of the Lord. The tableau references a verse from Isaiah about a rod coming forth out of the stem of Jesse. Inside the niche is a modern Celtic cross that was created by the Design & Technology Department of the Llantwit Major Comprehensive School.
In the churchyard is a ruin that was once the home of a chantry priest (during the Middle Ages, chantry priests said masses for the benefit of wealthy patrons). After the dissolution of the chantries in 1548, the building had a variety of uses, including as a carpenter’s workshop and smithy. In 1940 the building was destroyed by a German bomb, along with windows on the south side of the church.
In 1777 John Wesley preached at St. Illtud’s and described it in his journal as “abundantly the most beautiful and the most spacious church in Wales.”
When you visit St. Illtud’s, you partake in a rich history spanning many centuries.
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Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of books that include Holy Rover, Near the Exit, The Soul of the Family Tree, and Every Step Is Home. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.Share This!