Penrhys is a village in Wales, in the Rhondda Valleys on a hillside overlooking both valleys of Rhondda Fach and Rhondda Fawr and was one of the holiest sites for Christian pilgrims in Wales until the late sixteenth century.
The site of Penrhys has a rich religious history dating back to medieval times, although very few settlements can be traced to the area except for farmsteads. Penrhys is had a medieval monastery, the holy shrine of “Our Lady” built at the holy spring of Ffynon Mair.
During the early 16th century the antiquarian John Leland visited the area and wrote that he saw “Penrise Village, where the Pilgrimage was suggesting that a settlement had built up in the area. In 1538 the shrine was destroyed during the English Reformation and the area fell into decline. During the 19th century interest in the religious history of Penrhys resurfaced with the industrialisation in the Valley .
An archaeological dig at the old chapel was carried out in 1912 and a new statue of the Virgin Mary was unveiled in 1953. In February 1927 the first burial took place at Penrhys cemetery.
The Shrine of Our Lady
A statue of the Virgin Mary appeared in the branches of an oak tree near to the holy well. The statue was said to have been incredibly beautiful and a gift from heaven. Many people tried to remove the statue from the tree but it resisted all attempts to the point where ‘Eight oxen could not have drawn the Image of Penrhys from its place…‘ The statue would only allow itself to be retrieved once the chapel and shrine were built. The original statue survived at Penrhys until 1538 when, under Henry VIII‘s dissolution of the monasteries, Bishop Latimer wrote to Thomas Cromwell suggesting the destruction of the shrine. With the shrine burned during the night, the statue was taken to London where it was publicly burned with other religious artefacts.
The Shrine of Our Lady was still visited throughout the following centuries with records showing devotion up until 1842; though by this date little of the original shrine survived. In the early 20th century Miss M. M. Davies of Llantrisant, a Catholic convert, supplied funds for the construction of a memorial church to be built at nearby Ferndale. She would also procure a wooden replica of the original Statue of Penrhys, which is still housed at the church. In 1936, Rev P.J. Gibbons, parish priest of the church at Ferndale revived the pilgrimages and in 1939 the Rhondda Borough Council, recognising the importance of the site, took measures to restore and protect the Holy Well. On July 2 1953, a new statue was revealed by Archbishop McGrath at the site of the old chapel. Standing on a plinth and although much larger than the original, was carved from Portland stone using the descriptions left behind in medieval Welsh poetry. More than 20,000 people attended the first pilgrimage after the erection of the new statue. Due to its religious importance, Penrhys is part of the Cistercian Way, and many people still make pious pilgrimages to the site every year.
Penrhys chapel was originally built as part of the manor. Little remains of the building, though excavations in 1912 discovered that the chapel was made up of a nave and chancel divided by a cross-wall, with a series of buttresses on the outside of the nave. This original building was at some time destroyed or demolished and a new chapel rebuilt on the original foundations. Dressed stones and fragments of green glass discovered at the site place the chapel at no earlier than the 14th century. The site now houses the modern statue of the Virgin Mary.
The Monastery was originally believed to be Franciscan built under orders of Henry I. Although by accounts Welsh king Rhys ap Tewdwr was beheaded by the Normans at the site. Many books state them as fact. The village even takes its name from one of the legends as it was originally called Pen-Rhys ap Tewdwr (the head of Rhys ap Tewdwr). Surviving documents refer to the site as a ‘manor’ belonging to Cistercian Abbey of Llantarnam in Gwent. The manor could have been a sheep farm or grange, but by 15th century had become a place of pilgrimage. The manor consisted of three large buildings, a well, chapel and hostelry; the hostelry probably created as a service and commercial undertaking to accommodate the pilgrims.
Ffynnon Fair (also: Ffynon Mair), St. Mary’s Well, is a holy well which lies on the hillside overlooking the village of Llwynypia. The well has been the focus of religious activity in Penrhys and is the oldest recorded Christian site in the Rhondda. It is recognised by some historians that the site may date back further, though could be pagan in origin. The waters from the well were believed to have the ability to cure ailments, particularly rheumatism and poor eyesight, and were reported by Rhisiart ap Rhys;
“There are rippling waters at the top of the rock
Farewell to every ailment that desires them!
White wine runs in the rill,
That can kill pain and fatigue!”
A vaulted stone building was built around the well which, although heavily restored, still exists today. The structure over the well is entirely built of local Pennant sandstone, with one side built into the sloping hillside. The interior of the small rectangular building consists of stone benches around three walls; a cistern occupies the south wall. The floor is paved with dressed flagstones, and a niche in the north wall was believed to have housed a statue of the Virgin Mary.