The site is thought to have ancient origins as a place of worship and the present church building, which dates from the fifteenth century, is Grade I listed. It is the burial place of Katheryn of Berain, the ‘Mother of Wales’, so named for her extensive network of relatives and descendants.
The church dates from c.1500 in its present form, but the site is visibly an ancient place of worship. The building was certainly preceded by an earlier medieval church and it sits within a yet older raised Celtic Llan that can be seen as the existing churchyard enclosure. The road through the village is what was, until the eighteenth century, the main road to Ireland.
Katheryn of Berein, by Adriaen van Cronenburgh, 1568.
Copyright. Amgueddfa Cymru. National Museum, Wales
KATHERYN OF BERAIN, 'MOTHER OF WALES' (c.1535-1591)
The chancel of the church is the final resting place of Katheryn of
Berain, dubbed the 'Mother of Wales'. The subject of scurrilous rumour
stemming from her repeated marrying, she is one of the most familiar
faces of Wales from the Tudor period. Her maternal grandfather was
the Breton knight Sir Roland Velville, a confidant and probably the illegitimate son of Henry VII (making Katheryn a second cousin of Elizabeth I). Katheryn was extremely conscious of her noble descent and conducted various advantages marriage alliances for herself (marrying four times) and her children.
For much of her adult life she lived at Berain, a house in the parish of Llannefydd, but she also lived for a time in Antwerp (where this portrait was painted), Hamburg, and at Gwydir Castle (Llanrwst). She was a keen patron of bards and visitors to her home would have encountered the poetry and music of Tudor courtly life. She encountered tragedy when her eldest son, Thomas Salusbury, was implicated in the Babington Plot of 1586 and was executed as a traitor for his part in plotting to replace Elizabeth I with the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots. Katheryn's many descendants include Hester Thrale (1740/1-1821), diarist, lexicographer, patron of the arts, intimate acquaintance of Samuel Johnson and author of what has been seen as an early feminist history; and Sir John Salusbury (1707-62), diarist and a founder of modern Canada.
An exhibition on Katheryn can be found in the church.
Constructed in the perpendicular style, the church has the twin-nave layout seen in other late-medieval churches within the Vale of Clwyd. It retains its original arch-braced collar truss roof in both naves and has several monuments of interest, including a fourteenth-century sepulchral slab. The glazing of the windows and probably also the bellcotte date from 1859, while the pews, chancel, choir, screen and pulpit date from an extensive refurbishment programme undertaken in 1907. The church was formerly lime-washed; this is known to have been the case in around 1800, in common with other churches in this period.
Over the centuries, and as with most medieval churches, the interior of the church has been subject to significant changes in layout. What you see now, with the pews facing the altar at the eastern end, the location of the pulpit, the chancel and screen, reflect the ideas of the Oxford Movement (begun in the nineteenth century) and its desire to restore a medieval configuration of separate spaces for the congregation and the clergy, and giving greater prominence to the altar. This layout is the legacy of the 1907 renovations, prior to which there was a centrally located communion table, surrounded by wooden box pews and a gallery, with the pulpit located in the middle of the north wall (the cover of which can still be seen).
This earlier layout was much more typical of post-Reformation church interiors. Without a chancel and screen, and with a central communion table, the fundamental division between clergy and congregation signalled in pre-Reformation layouts was removed. It was devotionally more egalitarian than what had gone before. However, it was not necessarily socially egalitarian: in many churches, box pews were sized and ordered according to social divisions and hierarchies. And in some churches, box pews belonging to the gentry are known to have had opulent furnishings and even fireplaces! The family names with which the box pews were marked in Llannefydd can now be seen mounted on the wall to the left of the organ, with a sample door from one of the pews.