Cadwaladr, Bishton Patron Saint

The present village church of Bishton is more than 600 years old. Yet its full name – the Church of St Cadwaladr – demonstrates far older origins during the shadowy era following the collapse of Roman rule in Britain after 410 AD. Cadwaladr was the last of the Welsh Kings to claim the title of chief Sovereign of Britain. He reigned from 655-682 AD, at a time for which accurate records are scanty. Myth and reality are intertwined in the mists of our post-Roman past in the area which later became part of the Welsh Marches. Yet we do know that Cadwaladr was a real person, a Celtic king who reigned at a time when the former Roman province of Britannia was dissolving into rival, warring princedoms, most of whom were now led by Saxon (English) invaders and their descendants. The name of the church surely commemorates Cadwaladr's part in this story.

Cadwaladr was the son of a famous father, Cadwallon ap Cadfan, who became the King of Gwynedd in about 625 AD. Cadwallon is documented by Bede as the warlike King of the Britons. He formed a Celtic-Saxon alliance with Penda, king of Mercia, which led to the invasion and conquest of the powerful Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria. The army of Cadwallon and Penda killed the KIng of Northumbria at the battle of Hatfield Chase, near Doncaster. However Cadwallon’s dominance was short-lived - a year later in 634 AD he was killed in battle by Oswald at the battle of Heavenfield (near Hadrian’s Wall) which ended Welsh rule in Northumbria, and ushered in the decline of Gwynedd under his successor Cadfael, a commoner.

Cadwaladr as King, Saint and Welsh Legend

Cadwalader's own reign after succeeding Cadfael in 655 was not marked by any confirmed military successes, although he was apparently active in combating growing English domination further south, which may have brought him to the Bishton area. Two devastating plagues happened during his reign, one in 664 and the other in 682, and according to the medieval Annales Cambriae (“Annals of Wales”) Cadwaladr himself died as result of the outbreak in 682. Prior to that he had clearly begun to establish a reputation as a supporter of the early Christian church man as well as a military leader. He was called Cadwaladr Fendigaid in Welsh – “Cadwaladr the Blessed”. In fact his name was an oxymoron : “Cadwaladr” means “battle-leader” in Welsh.

After his death Cadwaladr’s reputation and achievements were augmented by the imagination of the 12th century writer and cleric Geoffrey of Monmouth, creator of the Arthurian and Merlin myths. Cadwaladr then emerged as a messiah-like figure in Welsh history, who sacrifices himself to redeem his people and restore them to their promised homeland. By the time of the Wars of the Roses, Cadwaladr had become a legend, invoked by both sides to establish a claim to the monarchy through descent from an authentic Celtic, “British” king.

Cadwaladr's penitence is said to have assured his sainthood. He appears to have been connected with a number of churches although within Wales only three - one in Anglesey (within ancient Gwynedd) and two in the borders (Lansilin Powys and Bishton) survive as “St Cadwaladr’s” . Given Bishton's later emergence as a major religious centre it is perhaps not so surprising that our church continues to bear his name, and appears to have done so from a very early period.

Bishton - A Rich Religious Tradition

The name of Bishton itself is short for “Bishop’s Town” - Trefesgob in Welsh although the original name was perhaps Llan Cadwaladr, the Welsh name which now appears on some of our local road signs. Here in our village the most powerful early Christian leaders in South Wales - the Bishops of Llandaff - set up their palace headquarters. Earthworks near Castle Farm in Bishton mark the site, which is also known as “Llangadwaladr Castle”. The bishopric was wealthy – historical records talk of an initial endowment of “Llan Cadwaladr with all its land and wood and sea coast”. All this was given to the Bishop of Llandaff in 570 A.D. by a Welsh prince called Guidnerth in the hope of obtaining God’s pardon after killing his brother Merchion in a fight for control of the kingdom. The account suggests that the land corresponded approximately to the present boundaries of the Parish of Bishton, but with a major difference – virtually all the land would have belonged directly to the Bishop's’ estate.

For about a thousand years the Bishops of Llandaff enjoyed the accommodation, produce and revenue of the Episcopal Manor of Bishton, even if their duties and desires often cast them in the role of absentee landlords. Until the seventeenth century they would often pay a curate to perform the priestly duties of the parish, paying low wages. The Bishop of Llandaff installed by Henry VIII is charged with having been “a miserable impoverished in letting out or selling in very long leases almost all the lands belonging to the See” and to have “almost ruined it”. However even the Bishops were not immune to the hazards of medieval life – in 1361 Bishop John Pascal of Llandaff travelled to his palace in Bishton from Cardiff to try and escape from an outbreak of the Plague, bringing with him Ifor Hael and his wife Nest, ancestors of the Lords of Tredegar. The escape was to no avail, however, and all three died of plague in Bishton later in 1361.

Bishton Church Architecture

The original wooden church was rebuilt in stone after the Norman occupation. The church we see today has many features typical of 14-15th century ecclesiastical architecture in the early English and Perpendicular styles. Highlights include the tall 15th century tower with embattled parapet, a late medieval octagonal font, a 14th century two-light window in the South chancel wall, and a 15th century inner doorway. The chancel arch has four carved stone heads known as the priest, the monk, the nun and the happy man. In 1535 the church was valued at 2 pounds, 13 shillings and fourpence. The single church bell dates from 1663, and was probably installed as a thanksgiving for the Restoration of the Monarchy and the Anglican church after the Cromwellian period. Much of the church was restored in 1887 when the porch was added. At about the same time a Rectory was built in Bishton.

In 1949 a mysterious stone coffin was revealed in the churchyard. This turned out to be medieval and contained remains of a male burial. A previous rector of Bishton and Llanwern, the Rev Stanley Jones, speculates in his History of the two Parishes (published in 1967) that this was the body of Ifor Hael, who died of plague with his friend Bishop Pascal in Bishton in 1361.

Bishton Church

History of Wilcrick and its Church

wilcrick church

Wilcrick Hill is a local landmark, and the site of an Iron-Age Celtic hillfort. Medieval Wilcrick was a much larger place and there is considerable evidence of deserted settlements in and around the village, recently recognised at the Public Enquiry into the proposed M4 by-pass. Wilcrick’s Church of St Mary the Virgin was first mentioned in 1254. It was built in the Early English style, and restored in 1860 by Percy Herrick, Lord of the Manor. It still contains a large “tub” font dating from the Norman period. There is a single church bell, cast in Chepstow in 1726. Services are still conducted in the church once a month.

Flying Scotsman

In June 2016 the most famous British steam train of all - the 80-year old Flying Scotsman - paid a very brief visit to Bishton, thundering through the edge of our village as thousands of trains have done since the line was opened in 1850, en route to the Severn Tunnel following an excursion in South Wales. Here is a photo one of the Councillors took from a vantage point opposite Bishton Church.

flying scotsman train