Tucked away – almost literally - among the rolling hills of the Vale of Glamorgan is the small Welsh town of Llantwit Major (Llanilltud Fawr). Although to-day it has a sprawl of dull suburbs, the old town, with its rambling narrow lanes of stone cottages, is a delight. There’s a 15th century town hall, some fine 16th century inns (I recommend the Old Swan for well-kept real ale), and at its centre, the church of St Illtud (sometimes Illtyd).
The church, although modest in scale, is one of the most important historically in Wales. Here, in 496 AD, the aforementioned St Illtud - a Breton by birth - established a monastery, which rapidly became a major seat of learning in Dark Ages Europe: at its height, it is reputed to have had 700 houses, 7 halls, and 2,000 students from all over the world, studying theology, poetry and rhetoric, geometry, grammar and arithmetic. Recognised as the earliest centre of learning in the UK, the ravages of Viking raids in the 8th and 9th centuries and the relative decline of Celtic Christianity saw the college peter out in the mediaeval period. Had it survived, it would pre-date Bologna as Europe’s oldest University by 500 years.
Alas, it did not; but the monastery church did, and it is a fascinating monument. The building unusually retains its form of having two churches: a western church for the parishioners, and the main eastern church reserved for the monks, which has both a second nave and a chancel. The tower and crossing separate the two. Ruins of a Galilee Chapel beyond the western part indicate it was once larger still.
The western church is rather scrubbed now, but it has a lovely 15th century wooden roof, 13th and 16th century tombstones, and an important collection of 7th to 9th century Celtic crosses, commemorating the Welsh kings and saints buried here. Despite their quality and importance, these appear strangely unappreciated – they were hemmed in by stacks of chairs during my last visit.
The crossing itself, dating from the 13th century, is of little interest save for the large decorated Norman font, but the nave of the eastern church – now the main worship space – certainly is. The architecture is a spare and primitive Gothic, with pointed arches resting on square pillars, and whitewashed walls, bare of carving, presumably reflecting the relative impoverishment of the local mediaeval economy. But extensive remnants of frescoes survive, dated around 1400, including a fine (and larger-than-life) St Christopher carrying Christ, a well-preserved one of St Mary Magdalene, and some geometric decoration. There are also stone carvings and tombs from the 14th century, and in the chancel a very fine 15th carved stone reredos, donated by the Raglan family.
The church’s modern surroundings are lovely: the graveyard is beautifully maintained (more arboretum than cemetery, with yews, oaks and palms). On my last visit, the nearby cottage gardens were veritably bursting with lilac and hawthorn.
Burial Lane, Llantwit Major CF61 1RA Website