The church of Llantrisant is dedicated to the three saints of Illtud, Gwynno and Tyfodwg. These dedications are also reflected in three of the four chapels of ease – Llanilltud Fawr, Llanwynno and Ystradyfodwg. The fourth chapel of ease at Aberdare was dedicated to St John Baptist.
The only firm evidence we have of Christianity on the site of Llantrisant before the building of the early 11th century church is the existence of a cross incised grave slab with a representational crucifixion scene. It dated approximately to the 7th centuries, However it may be the case that the original foundation of Llantrisant could even go back to the 6th century, assuming that the Illtud foundation is attributable to his personal involvement in the community and not his memory.
Llantrisant was also dedicated to two other Welsh saints. Dyfodwg, or Tyfodwg, was a 6th-century Welsh saint. Some say he was a Breton monk, a disciple of Saint Illtyd of Llantwit Major. From the same period comes Gwynno who appears to have been the son of Cau, called Euryn y Coed Aur. Archives at the Vatican record that his festival is 26 October; that he is regarded as a confessor; and that there is said to be a sacred well, Ffynnon Wyno, associated with Llanwonno.
When considering Llantrisant between 1084 and 1246, we are looking at a period not only of Norman conquest, but frequent Welsh counterattack. We can assume that the Norman Lord first provided the church but the boundary may have been modified and reorganised after the final conquest in 1246.
The parish boundary and its chapels of ease certainly embraced the whole of Glynrhondda and most of Meisgyn after 1246. The area of Meisgyn not included was an area south of the Garth including parishes like Pentyrch, Radyr, St Fagans, Llanilltern, Llanfair, St y Nill and Peterston. Some of these may possibly have been established by Norman knights who created their own manors and private churches before the early church of Llantrisant was built or its lordship secured.
What is extraordinary is the sheer extent of the original ecclesiastical parish of Llantrisant which by today includes Llantrisant, Beddau and Miskin. However, the ancient parish extended from Talygarn, south of the Ely River to the border with the lordship of Brecon in the north and from Ogwr Fach in the west to the Taff in the east. This vast land was one of the largest parishes in Glamorgan and was broken down into different chapelries served by curates appointed by the Vicar of Llantrisant including Llanilltud Fardref, Llanwynno, Ystradyfodwg and Abedare. Each of these, by the 16th century at least and probably from the outset, had defined boundaries and were individual units of civil administration.
Therefore there existed not only the enormous area of land with its chapels of ease, but also the smaller area of Llantrisant itself which was served by the Vicar in person. However this in itself was a large enough parish to manager, much greater than that which exists today. Even then it stretched from Talygarn to the River Rhondda and from Ogwr Fach to Llanilltud Faerdref and Pentyrch.
The first enclosure Illtud laid out, the Llan that would bear his name coupled with the names of the two chieftains he converted is still visible. The parish church stands in a reverse D-shaped enclosure, bounded on the east by Yr Allt. The Castle and Guildhall is situated in the second D of the oval.
The theory put forward by arch-forger Iolo Morgannwg cannot be trusted when he stated: “Einion ab Collwyn was a Welsh prince and warrior supposed to have existed in the 11th century. Not mentioned in medieval chronicles, he is the subject of possibly legendary or fictional writings from the 16th century onwards founded Llantrisant after Llangawrdaf was burnt. This Llangawrdaf is supposed to be near the old monastery of St Cawrdav, to the south of Llantrisant.”
Very little of the original Norman church still exists today with the exception of traces of architecture including the Font, a portion of the south door and the lower part of the western arch of the nave. The De Clares on seizing the lordship acquired the church as well and in 1262 named it amongst the lord’s possessions. By 1291 it had a higher value than Llandaff.
The living of Llantrisant lost a good deal of its glamour during Hugh Despenser’s lordship, and in 1349, shortly before his death it became part of the Abbey of Tewkesbury. The Abbey’s obligations included the provision of an adequately paid vicar. Also the giving of certain stipulated alms annually to paupers, and the upkeep of the chancels of the church buildings involved.
The status of Llantrisant before the Dissolution of the Monasteries is obscure. A Geoffrey de Comeyane is described as Rector in 1343. In the same year the surveyor of Tewkesbury. Roger Panter, accounted for the church of Llantrisant valued at £26 12s 4d.
Following a long period of depression there was signs of recovery in Glamorgan from the mid 15th century onwards. What Rev John Morgan, vicar in 1470, thought of the class of lesser gentry who had large families of illegitimate children is unsure! It was twenty years later that the church tower was erected, completing the parish church and creating an even more stunning landmark on the skyline.
Confusion and turmoil came with the break with Rome. When Tewkesbury Abbey was dissolved in 1539, the living of Llantrisant came under the Dean and Chapter of Gloucester who remained in charge until 1885 before being governed by the Bishops of Llandaff.
During the reign of Edward VI saw the destruction of altars and ornaments in the church and the 1552 law enforcing church attendance on pain of a fine of 1s payable to the churchwardens all had repercussions. It was period of disseminating new doctrines such as new prayer books, although it would be years before these were translated to Welsh. In Elizabeth’s reign the vicar was Thomas Herbert, later chancellor of Cardiff and nephew of the 1st Earl of Pembroke by an illegitimate line.
By the 17th century the great tithes of Llantrisant were leased from the Dean and Chapter of Gloucester by the Basset family of Beaupre and this resulted in many of them becoming vicars. Richard Bassett, son of Edward Basset of Beaupre was vicar from 1611 to 1644 succeeded by Thomas Basset of Bonvilston.
The Bassets were well known in Glamorgan with the family seat in old Beaupre near St Hilary. They owned Lanelay Hall with Thomas coming from the Bonvilston of a branch with a clerical tradition. His father William was rector of Newton Nottage. His brother Theodore was rector of St George super Ely and his daughter Catherine married Evan Price, rector of Neath and William Evans, vicar of Cardiff.
He was well connected, loyal to the church and a fervent royalist. He witnessed the chaos of the established church during the civil wars which saw the beheading of Charles I. In 1647 he had nine churches in his charge. Besides Llantrisant, one of the largest in Wales, he was rector of Llandough, Leckwith and Cogan. Curates were in short supply and he complained: “I have been in such extreme want of a curate that a parish of mine was forced to be without prayers all Christmas Holy Days”. He even asked a former schoolmaster to take up holy order and be his curate. He wrote to the bishop Robert Maxwell of Killmore in Ireland who was caretaker to Llandaff: “The harvest is great, the labourers few…I hope your honour shall not stand too rigorously upon the abilities of curates. The present construction in the universities and the lives of many thousand brave scholars who expired a voluntary sacrifice to the royal cause render a general exactness of learning impossible”.
Basset was troubled for the welfare of his parishes and concerned for the future because unless they could be properly staffed, then “none are like to be employed but thieves and robbers, these that enter not in at the doors, men of no calling at all”. In 1648 he was imprisoned and deprived of his livings. He was convinced his royalist sympathises would lead to his execution and one of his surviving papers, dated March 12 1648/9 contains a farewell speech intended for delivery from the scaffold.
In May 29 1660 Charles II returned to London as king and in Llantrisant, under “an act for the confirming and restoring of ministers” all elected ministers were restored to their benches as before on December 25 1660. As a result Thomas Basset, vicar of Llantrisant and Prebendary of Llandaff was back in the parish in time for Christmas after 12 years of absence. He died in May 1666 and was buried at Bonvilston. He was succeeded by Rev David Lloyd of Llancarfan.
For the next ten years until 1678 Rev Anthony Jones, Archdeacon of St Davids was vicar. He was the son-in-law of Sir Richard Bassett of Beaupre and reported 146 conformist families of households in the parish and 14 nonconformist. He was succeeded briefly by Thomas Evans, vicar of Cardiff, and son-in-law of Thomas Bassett. A series of short incumbencies follow. In 1695 Francis Jones, yeoman of Pentyrch presented Walter Morgan to the living.
The Dean and Chapter of Gloucester presented Rev James Harris and unseemly fights in the churchyard began as Harris undertook a series of law suits as Walter Morgan was tried forcible to collect tithed from the folk. In 1718 a peal of six bells was hung in the tower. A final two bells followed in 1926 when a Carillon system was placed against the north wall of the ringing chamber.
His son Richard (1728-1766) followed and Robert Rickards became the next vicar of the parish (1767-1810). Rev James and Richard Harris made notable contributions to the education system in the town. Abergavenny born and educated at Jesus College, Oxford, James Harris graduated in 1685, with an MA in 1687. He was rector of Bryngwyn near his home in Monmouthshire but came to Llantrisant in 1695 as vicar on the nomination of the Gloucester chapter. Rev Harris became the chief workers for SPCK schools in Glamorgan from 1699 until his death and there are numerous references to him. His letter of April 8 1701 gives a vivid insight into the moral and spiritual sate of Llantrisant. He stated: “There are two schools in Llantrissent. That the poor are numerous, lazy and mutinous and so much addicted to sports even in Divine Service that he has been forced to become church warden in order to better retrain them.”
“Several of my parishioners who are more than five miles distant from the church do not frequent my or any other assembly, and upon discourse with the most sensible of them, I find a spice of atheism or indifference runs through the family and has done for some generations”.
His son Richard acted as his father’s curate in Llantwit Faerdre and on succeeding him continued his work of Christian education for the next forty years. The Griffith Jones circulating schools worked in the vast parish on several occasions and Harris himself, on inheriting his father’s library, which when he died was valued at £30 – a tenth of his material possessions, taught classes.
In 1763 Rev Richard Harris responded to Bishop John Ewer’s visitation query of 1763 and said: ”My good lord! There are about two hundred and fifty families in the parish of Lantrissent, about 90 families in Lantwit minor. We have but only family of Quakers, and four Presbyterian families in the hilly parts of the parish, who have one licensed meeting house. We have no public or endowed school but several private schools, where the children are duly taught the church catechism and brought the church. I can’t judge the number of children that are taught but there generally comes about 29 to 30 to say their catechism.”
He goes on to explain: “Divine service is performed at Llantrissent twice every Lord’s day and every hold day, and every Saturday evening, with a sermon every Sunday. At Easter, WhitSunday and Christmas at Llantrissent we have about one hundred and forty communicants but at the monthly sacrament there are not above ten or eleven.”
The next incumbent, Rev Robert Rickards came from Radnorshire, and was a minor canon and librarian at Gloucester Cathedral. At a time when many parishes possessed at best inadequate or dilapidated parsonages and at worst none at all, Rickards created a new parsonage house. In 1763 there was a monthly celebration of holy communion but only ten or eleven came – this under the population of 340 families. Under Rickards the number dropped to four a year and remained that way until the 1800s. During his time as Vicar, the decline saw fewer services and the growth of nonconformity in the town with meeting houses and chapels being built.
In 1771 Dr Josiah Tucker of Laugharne and Dean of Gloucester visited Llantrisant and said of the chancel that it had been “lately well repaired under the direction of the vicar with a new large window over the altar, the two side ones being stopped up”. The church was restored in 1873 at a cost of almost £3,000. In 1894 the Tower and west end of the Nave were restored at a cost of £1,200 when the bells were rehung and the white marble Baptisery, for baptism by immersion was placed under the Tower.
The living of the church at the end of the 19th century was a Vicarage in the Archdeaconry and Diocese of Llandaff, endorsed with the tithes of the parishes of Aberdare, Llantwit, Llanwonno and Ystradyfodwg in the Dean and Chapter of Gloucester. These tithes were collected at this point by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners of England and Wales.
A further £6,000 was spent on the parish church during the 1960s when the tower was repointed and the roof tiled and restored to its medieval appearance under architect George Pace. A new wooden pulpit was added by Miss Rosie Silkstone in memory of her parents. It was dedicated on 18 June 1967 by Dr Glyn Simon, Archbishop of Wales.