Volume 18 Number 2
The Second Battle of Pilleth
01 April 2005

This is border country with a long and turbulent history. Everyone knows that borderlands can be flash points.England and Wales meet here and in the past fought it out, stealing each other’s cattle, firing villages and building castles to enforce the ownership of occupied lands.

Juliet Boobbyer tells the story of the restoration of a church on
the site of an historic battle between the Welsh and English.

On a hillside, standing sentinel over one of the most beautiful valleys on the Welsh Marches, stands the ancient and weatherbeaten church of St Mary’s, Pilleth.

This is border country with a long and turbulent history. Everyone knows that borderlands can be flash points.England and Wales meet here and in the past fought it out, stealing each other’s cattle, firing villages and building castles to enforce the ownership of occupied lands. For ordinary people it must have been a precarious existence.

This history has produced a people with an identity of their own. They don’t consider themselves either Welsh or English: ‘We are from Radnorshire,’ they say, using the old county name. Families intermarried over generations and land meant status.

Two miles down the valley runs the 149-mile-long Offa’s Dyke, constructed by King Offa of Mercia in the 9th century to mark the border between his kingdom and Wales. When raiders crossed the dyke, beacons were lit and defenders mustered.

St Mary’s Church has been burnt twice. The first time was in 1402 AD, during the Welsh Wars of Independence. At the Battle of Pilleth, fought on the hillside behind the church, Owain Glyndwr, Prince of Wales, vanquished and captured the English Edmund Mortimer. The last battle in which the Welsh beat the English, it has gone into folklore.

Glyndwr was a great Welsh patriot who united Wales, founded a Welsh parliament and was a consummate guerrilla captain. But on the English side of the border the battle is remembered as one of great carnage. Glyndwr’s raids through the borders left a swathe of land where no substantial building was left standing and 52 churches were burned. The twist in the tail of this story is that Edmund Mortimer changed sides and married Glyndwr’s daughter!

Glyndwr was one of the establishment, not just of Wales but of England, a big player on the political scene. Part of his education was in London, in the English king’s court. His revolt was triggered by an unjust verdict in a land claim, which finally ignited the smouldering resentment in the Welsh at the way they were treated by the English.

History needs to be told truthfully. It is salutary and humbling to face the truth about one’s own people, just as it is about oneself. Telling the truth can begin to heal buried resentments. But there is another side too: all too often the grievances of history are wheeled into service in support of a contemporary political agenda—as in recent historical films that have been at the very least selective with the truth. In some the historical facts have been altered. This is art in service of a lie.

In the newly restored church of St Mary’s at Pilleth there is a notice which says, ‘Here is a place for quietness and prayer. A place in which to lay down the burdens of the past and look to the future with hope and confidence’—not just our personal burdens, surely, but also those laid on us by history. As we lay them down, our minds can be freed to create the kind of society today where all our people, from so many different cultures, can feel at home.

The second time St Mary’s was burned was at the end of the 19th century due to a faulty central heating system. A local benefactor restored the church 12 years later, albeit with a temporary roof, until sufficient funds were available for a permanent one.

Nearly 100 years later the church was still in use, but nearly derelict. The ‘temporary’ roof was rotten and past patching. So the parish decided to seek funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund to restore the church with a new and traditional roof. This was the beginning of what might be described as the second Battle of Pilleth.

The parish was unaware of how contentious the whole area of restoration can be. Central to the opposition that sprang up seemed to be the issue of who controlled the project. Also a very small but vocal minority, considered to be ‘incomers’, began pressing their own views contrary to the wishes of local people. Here people are incomers for, at the very least, a generation!

To their credit the Heritage Lottery Fund proved more than equal to the situation. After four plans, two architects, six years, an independent architect’s enquiry and a consistory court (the ecclesiastical equivalent to a public enquiry), they offered a generous grant on the condition that the parish raise a quarter of the funds needed, approximately £80,000.

St Mary’s, with its nearby holy well, can best be described as a pilgrimage church. Hundreds visit it each year but apart from a few farms it has no natural community around it and no wealthy benefactors. Trying to put together this sum seemed well-nigh impossible at first, but the professionally designed publicity material, all given free, and excellent press coverage generated widespread support.

Fund-raising events included three major art exhibitions, concerts, sponsored walks, pub quizzes, lectures on history and roses, fashion shows and a battle re-enactment to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Pilleth. This was a great occasion, which ended with a service of reconciliation on the field, ‘for the healing of the nations’. In his address, Bishop David Thomas referred to the Daily Telegraph’s headline to an article about the battle, ‘Wales’ finest hour’. It was not, he stressed, Wales’ finest hour to leave hundreds dead on a hillside. The climax to the occasion was the announcement of the award of the grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Simple country churches like St Mary’s are not just buildings. They are the silent memory and the roots of a community. They speak of the poor and the simple. In our rapidly changing society they remind us of where we come from and who we are. A small group of people, of which I was part, was responsible for the hands-on running of the project—but it was supported by the goodwill, expertise and generosity of hundreds of others. A precious piece of our heritage has been secured for generations to come.

Unexpected benefits have followed from our response to an urgent practical problem. Across the gaps of culture, background and personality, trust and friendship have grown among people who would otherwise never have got to know each other. The community has been invigorated, a spirit of optimism is abroad. Ordinary people have achieved the seemingly impossible.

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