Last Updated on January 12, 2022
A brief history of Llangunllo to circa 1800. Compiled by Charles Kightly
Llangunllo, A Border Community
This account attempts to summarise what we know or can reasonably guess about Llangunllo‘s earlier history as a ‘community on the edge’. With the help of others, we hope in future to continue it up to the present day.
Llangunllo (or Llangynllo to purists) means ‘the church of St.Cynllo’, and there is a strong though the unprovable tradition that a church was founded here in around AD 500 by St.Cynllo himself. Exactly who the original Cynllo was is uncertain. Some early sources call him ‘Cynllo Vrennin’-Cynllo the Prince. This probably refers to his descent from some of the semi-legendary great men of ‘Dark Ages’ post-Roman Wales.
One early document makes him the great-grandson of a famous ruler called Cunedda, who came from what is now southern Scotland to North Wales in about AD 420. Another traces his descent from a ruler called ‘Coel Hen’-‘Coel the Old’-who has passed into nursery rhyme as ‘Old King Cole’.
Certainly, St.Cynllo was an important figure in this part of Mid-Wales. In Domesday Book (1087) the whole of what is now north Radnorshire was called ‘Cynllibiwg’–‘Cynllo’s Land’. There were at one time twelve other churches dedicated to him in Radnorshire, including the churches of Llanbister (possibly a ‘mother church’) Nantmel and, originally, Rhayader. There are also four Cynllo churches in Ceredigion, including ‘the other’ Llangynllo, near Llangoedmor, but no other churches dedicated to him anywhere else in Wales or England.
We do not know whether the early church allegedly founded by St.Cynllo served an existing community, or whether (more probably) a community grew up around it. But there were certainly people living in the parish area long before Cynllo’s time. The earliest evidence of their presence, a polished stone axe and a collection of flint implements collected in the 1930s around the Crug Farm, dates from the Neolithic (‘New Stone Age’) period, 4,000-2,500 BC. There are Bronze Age ( 2,500-800 BC) burial mounds on Beacon Hill, and the visible remains of at least two probably Iron Age ( 800 BC-43 AD) settlements defended by earthwork ramparts, ‘Glog Camp’ above Monaughty and a small recently-discovered enclosure for a few huts near Water-Break-Its-Neck waterfall.
A Community On The Border
No evidence of Roman occupation has yet been found in Llangunllo, but by or soon after Cynllo’s time (c. AD 500) the area formed part of one of the independent Welsh principalities which developed after the collapse of Roman rule. Approximating to later Radnorshire, this was called ‘Rhwng Gwy a Hafren’-‘between Wye and Severn’. The Llangunllo area fell into the ‘cantref’ or sub-division called Maelienydd or Melenyth (whose name survives in Melenyth common west of the parish), and the local ‘commote’ of Rhiwlallt, the old name for Weston farm, where a princely residence apparently once stood.
Though well west of Offa’s Dyke, the great earthwork built in the later 700s to divide ‘England’ from ‘Wales’ (one of its predecessors, the ‘Short Ditch’, can be seen near the ruins of Beacon Lodge) Llangunllo was also a community on the edge. For along its eastern boundaries are places whose originally Anglo-Saxon names (like Whitton, Pilleth and Heyope) indicate that English-speaking people settled there at an early date: but to the west all the place-names (like most of the old farm-names within Llangunllo itself) are Welsh.
Neither Wales Or England
For over two centuries following the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, Llangunllo along with the whole Anglo-Welsh borderland was disputed between land-grabbing Norman barons known as ‘Marchers’–meaning ‘borderers’–and the Welsh princes who fought to regain the lands the Marchers had seized. In our area, the foremost Marchers were the powerful and ruthless Mortimer family, whose headquarters were at Wigmore Castle in Herefordshire but who also built outpost earthwork castles nearer Llangunllo, including Cwmaron (Llanbister Road), Castell Dinboeth (Llanbister) and the castle at Pilleth.
By around 1100 the Mortimers controlled Maelienydd (including Llangunllo), which despite many upheavals they held until and after Edward I finally conquered Wales in 1282. But even then, Llangunllo and the borderlands did not become part of either of Wales or England. Instead, the ‘Marcher lordship’ of Maelienydd remained one of about 50 privately-owned independent ‘lordships’ large and small–including for instance the lordships of Knighton, Presteigne and Glamorgan–stretching all down the Anglo-Welsh border and along the south coast to Pembrokeshire. Known collectively as the ‘March’ or ‘Marches’ of Wales, they belonged neither to England to the east nor to ‘Pura Wallia’–‘Welsh Wales’–to the north and west. The memory of their distinctiveness still endures in the local belief that Radnorshire is neither completely Welsh nor wholly English, but just itself.
From the late 1200s, more settled conditions and a few documents let us start to build up a picture of Llangunllo itself. There was probably a mediaeval church here by around 1287, whether or not on the site of Cynllo’s building we do not know. Fragments of it survive in the present Victorian church. Certainly, a church existed here in 1323 (when the village was called ‘Llangetlau’) and in 1395 (when it was spelt ‘Llankenllowe’, not too far from the present-day pronunciation).
Villagers must also have been used to meeting monks from Abbey Cwm Hir, which owned an outlying farm by the Lugg at the eastern end of the parish. This is possibly represented by the earthwork ‘moat’ near Dolly Cottage, and certainly by the name Monaughty (‘Mynach ty’–‘Monks’ house’) of the Elizabethan mansion and its hamlet just outside the parish boundary.
The abbey’s lands, and probably the village too, suffered badly during the last major Welsh uprising against English rule, led by Owain Glyndwr from 1401 until about 1415. During the campaign which led to Owain’s victory over a Mortimer-led English army on Bryn Glas hill above Pilleth church on 22 June 1402, the whole area and many local churches were plundered and burned by the rebels. Yet only a few years later, in 1409, the first known rector of ‘Langwynllo‘, one David John, is recorded: and later in the 15th century the church could apparently afford a fine processional cross (Photograph in the present church).
Life in late mediaeval Llangunllo was probably far from peaceful. The Marches of Wales had always been proverbially lawless, and by 1500 the Radnor Forest area was the most troubling section even of the anarchic Marches, ‘an abode of rank robbers’. In the 1530s Henry VIII’s warrior-bishop Roland Lee, President of the Council of Wales and the Marches based at Ludlow, set about taming the region: defying ‘even the thickest of the thieves’ at Presteigne, this ‘hanging judge’ was reputed to have executed 5000 local felons in six years.
Tudor And Stuart Llangunllo
The days of anarchic Marcher independence were indeed now numbered. By the Acts of Union of 1536 and 1542, the Marches were abolished, and the borderlands were for the first time organised into counties, ruled by English law. Llangunllo became part of the new county of Radnorshire, with its county town first at New Radnor and then at Presteigne. Order seemingly brought prosperity to Llangunllo, with a fine new Elizabethan mansion rising at Monaughty, just outside the parish, and another within it at Weston (later much altered). Another big Tudor house once existed at the Crungoed (demolished in 1878), and others, sadly, fell into ruin or were demolished during the 20th century.
The Civil Wars of 1642-51 and their aftermath also affected even remote Llangunllo. Though no fighting is recorded in the parish, the Royalist rector Charles Browne was ‘ejected’ in 1649 by the Puritan Committee for the Propagation of the Gospel in Wales, but in 1651 was employed by them as schoolmaster of the first known school in Llangunllo, one of six new schools established in Radnorshire to provide free education for children of both sexes. This pioneering and enlightened scheme apparently collapsed when King Charles II was restored in 1660, and Browne regained his rectorship.
By this time the population of Llangunllo parish is estimated at around 300 (compared with 369 for the community council area in 2011) of a Radnorshire county total of just over 16,000. (Then as now, sparsely-settled Radnorshire had the lowest population of any Welsh county). This made 17th-century Llangunllo one of the biggest Radnorshire communities, comparable in population to New Radnor, though exceeded by Presteigne and Knighton with around 500 people each.
The Village Takes Shape. The 18th Century
Most of these Llangunllo people probably lived in outlying farms, rather than in the village centred on the church and the crossroads. So suggests an invaluable ‘snapshot’ of the parish, made in 1696 or 1697 by the indefatigable Edward Lhwyd, who spent years touring Wales, knapsack on back, collecting information for a ‘Geographical History’ which was never published.
In Llangunllo, his anonymous local informants told him, there was a vicarage and ‘about’ 6 houses in the village, plus two hamlets, one ‘above’ and one ‘below’ the church. The parish feast day, then as now, was held on 17 July, St.Cynllo’s Day. ‘Seats of the gentry’ in the parish and their owners were Weston (Mr Thomas Holland); ‘Bryngoed’ (‘Mr Vaughan, priest’); ‘Keven Sweren’–Cefnsuran (Mr William Chambers); ‘Lhwyn coch’–Llancoch (Mr Robert James); and Lea Hall (Mr Evan Williams). Dolyfan is described as a former (rabbit) warren belonging to Sir Standish Herston.
Natural features noted included ‘Hengen mountain’ (Beacon Hill?); the river Lugg, rising at ‘Cwm Llugw’ near ‘Pont y Phrwyd’ and flowing through the parish; and the ‘Nant y Phrwd’ brook ‘which hath a great fall over a great rock called Craig y ffrwd [now Water-break-its neck?] and falls into the Lugg.’
Lhwyd’s Llangunllo contacts provided their information partly in English and partly in a local form of Welsh. But the accounts of the Llangunllo churchwardens and ‘overseers of the poor’, which begin in 1693 and are thus among the earliest in Wales, are from the beginning entirely in English (albeit sometimes ‘Radnorshire English’). Because churchwardens were at that time local government as well as church officials, their accounts provide for the first time a picture of everyday life in the parish. ( It is hoped one day to fully transcribe and even digitise them).
Thus for instance we find the churchwardens not only pursuing the supposed fathers of illegitimate children for maintenance but also paying bounties for killing ‘vermin’ including ‘chewetts’ (a local word for jackdaws), foxes, ‘fumarts’ (polecats) and on one occasion a ‘great wild catt’–presumably the wild species rather than a feral moggy. They also paid for lining the church with moss once a year, and from 1730 for financing the school held in the church, to which in 1769 £2 5s was bequeathed annually for teaching poor children.
There are other indications that 18th-century Llangunllo was a flourishing community. A (still-existing) silver plate was presented to the church in 1736 by Anne Chamberlayne of Cefnsuran, daughter of James Footman, a former vicar, and a two-handled silver communion chalice was acquired in 1766. Great House and its buildings (‘a rare Radnorshire survival of a Georgian farmstead’) were built in the mid-18th century, and the Stores in the village street and possibly the back part of the Greyhound Inn (where clay tobacco pipes dating from c.1760 have recently been found) may date from the same period, though they could be even older.
It is hoped in due course to continue this history up to the present day, including those three major local events of the Victorian period: the building of the present school in 1862, the coming of the railway in the mid-1860s, and the rebuilding of the church in 1878.
Charles Kightly: November 2014
W.H. Howse: Radnorshire E.J.Thurston, Hereford, 1949 [invaluable but long out of print]
J.E.Lloyd: A History of Wales from the earliest times to the Edwardian Conquest London 1912 [out of print]
K.Parker: Radnorshire from Civil War to Restoration Logaston Press, 2000
P.M.Remfry: Castles of Radnorshire Logaston Press, 1996
R.Scourfield and R.Haslam: The Buildings of Wales: Powys [New edition] Yale, 2013.
R. Suggett: Houses and History in the March of Wales Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, 2005