St Illtud’s Church
“…abundantly the most beautiful church in Wales”
- John Wesley, 1777
St Illtud’s is a church of two halves. The West Church was built on the site of the old Celtic church by the Normans. This was the parish church in medieval times, rebuilt in the 15th century, with a fine Irish bog oak roof. At its west end is a collection of Celtic Christian crosses and 13th and 16th century effigies. The East Church was built in the 13th century as the place of worship for the monks of the medieval monastery. Wall paintings dating from the 13th and 15th centuries survive, showing St Mary Magdalene and St Christopher, and there are traces of decorative panels. In the Lady Chapel is a rare 13th century carved representation of the ancestry of Christ, the Jesse Niche. The reredos to the High Altar was carved in the 15th century.
There can hardly be a parish church that can offer more to a visitor than St Illtud’s Church Llantwit Major. This church, on a site where Christ has been worshipped for over 1,500 years without a break, has a remarkable story, which is not yet finished.
It was originally a Celtic foundation, at a spot on the Ogney Brook where Illtud settled about the year 500. Illtud was one of the Welsh saints who travelled by the western seaways, keeping the Gospel alive after the retreat of the Romans. The school which he founded at Llantwit has been identified as the oldest centre of learning in Britain. From here, its priests set up churches in his name all through South Wales and Brittany.
The Normans came here and built the first stone church, then added to it in the 13th century, a great period of church building in the Vale. Visitors can see a range of medieval and later treasures – a rare 13th century Jesse niche carved in stone, wall paintings of St Christopher and Mary Magdelene, a medieval alter that was once a gravestone, medieval and Elizabethan effigies, and a remarkable reredos, made of stone brought from Portland and the Mendips.
It was no wonder that when John Wesley preached here in 1777 he described St Illtud’s in his journal as the most beautiful church in Wales.