One of the commonest features of early Celtic Christian sites is the presence of holy wells, used by the missionary saints for conducting baptisms. This was certainly a distinctive feature among the missionaries in the neighbouring small Welsh kingdoms of Brycheiniog and Eywas. Brycheiniog was the stronghold of the dynasty of Brychan, the early Christian king of Irish descent, who ruled from Talgarth to the South, probably from the nearby massive hillfort of Castell Dinas, the highest castle in England and Wales.
Brychan, who is reputed to have had 22 sons and 24 daughters, sent his many children out as missionaries and most of them are now numbered among the Celtic saints of Wales and Cornwall, including St. Cynidr of Glasbury and St. Eigion of Llanigon. It should hardly be surprising then to discover that this area later emerged as one of the earliest wellsprings of the Baptist church and became the centre of the Baptist Church in South Wales.
The church in Olchon Valley is at Llanveynoe, towards the foot of the valley and dedicated to St Bueno and St Peter. The church is believed to have been founded by St Bueno (c.600 C.E.) who had been given land in Eywas Valley by Kentigan, King of Caerwent. He later moved to North Wales leaving three disciples to continue his work in Olchon and died at Clynnog in the Lleyn peninsula around 648.
Although the current church was rebuilt in the 13th Century, there is a mound west of the churchyard that may have been its original site. Incorporated into the wall of the nave are two large stones inscribed with images of the crucifixion and the XPC (Chi-Rho monogram) and an inscription “HAES: DUR FECIT CRUCEM ISTAM” (translated as “Haesdur made that cross”). These are dated from the 9th or 10th Centuries, as is a further cross standing upright in the churchyard. Two further early Christian stones were found in the valley; one set in a barn wall and the other since destroyed. The short-arm cross in the churchyard (only erected in 1929 after being found below the church) has a groove clearly cut in its rear for water to flow along and it has been speculated that it may have been used for baptismal ceremonies.
The majestic range of the Black Mountains of the Brecon National Park take the form of a hand with a long Northern ridge and long fingers stretching down to the South East towards England. These enclose several long narrow valleys, the longest and most eastern of which are Eywas Valley and Olchon Valley, directly to the South of Hay. Blocked by Hay Bluff to the North and with the ridge of Bal-Mawr to the West and the Hatterall Ridge to the East, separating Wales and England, the sides of the valley climb 2000 feet on either side with a width described by Gerald of Wales as “three bow shots” wide and a length nearly all the way to Abergavenny. The first road up the valley was only built 150 years ago, up the Eywas Valley from Llanthony, and until then the upper end was accessible only by a narrow path, “Gospel Pass”, from Llaneigon and which passes through Penyrwrlodd. It is still a narrow and difficult drive from either end, but quite spectacular and well worth the effort.
Eywas Valley is very beautiful. It’s tightly overshadowing mountains create an atmosphere that is mystical and mysterious and a micro-climate that is lush and fertile. The area has long been a magnet for artists and poets. JMW Turner visited Llanthony at least twice and painted several watercolours of the Abbey looking along the valley.
The ruined abbey was later bought in 1807 by the romantic poet Walter Savage Landor (1775-1864). Later, in the 1870s, Rev. Joseph Leyster Lyne (‘Father Ignatius’) built a small monastic retreat at Capel-y-ffin near the top of the valley. In the 1920s the sculptor Eric Gill with the poet and painter David Jones established a small commune of artists there. It was here that Gill designed his most celebrated typefaces; Perpetua and Gill Sans. There are even romantic legends that Joseph of Arimathea, together with the young Jesus, visited the valley from Glastonbury.
More plausibly, Olchon is arguably the site of the first known Baptist community and was undoubtedly the centre from which the Baptist Church spread across South Wales. What is also beyond doubt is that the valley provided a safe haven for dissenting Christians for long before they adopted the name of Baptists. The very name of the valley, Olchon, is Welsh for ‘baptism or washing’ (though this could equally refer to the washing of wool).
The following description of the location of Olchon Church is taken from ‘A Brief History of the Old Baptist Church at Olchon’, written by John Howells. “Olchon is on the Welsh border. It is situated in the County of Hereford. The ruins of the oldest Chapel belonging to the Primitive Baptists stand on the banks of the swift flowing stream from which the narrow and romantic Valley of the Olchon takes it’s name. There is another old Baptist chapel in a state of rapid decay at Ilston, in the peninsula of Gower, in the County of Glamorgan. But the Mother Church doubtless was this one at the Gellis, the old historians called it, from the woods that fringe the steep hill-sides between here and the picturesque little town familiarly known as the Welsh Hay. Near to the old ruin in the which now more than three hundred years ago our Baptist forefathers worshipped, on the hill above it, to the westward is Capel-y-fin or the boundary Chapel, so named because of the junction at this singular place of the three Counties of Brecknock, Monmouth, and Hereford.”
Joshua Thomas (1719-97), who was Minister at Olchon from 1746-54, in his book ‘The American Baptist Heritage in Wales’ traces the American church to its roots in Olchon and details the existence of the ancient Christian enclave there citing evidence going back to the 6th Century, as well as documenting its spread outwards from Olchon in the period leading up to the signing of the Baptist Confessions in 1644.
The Baptist Church properly begins during the early 17th Century, but can show clear lines of descent from earlier Chistian non-conformist movements such as the Lollards and Mennonites (Anabaptists). The Welsh Baptists are sometimes referred to as Primitive Baptists, as they emerged gradually out of the older Lollard movement and may even pre-date that.
It should be stressed here, to avoid causing offense, that it is the origin of the ideas later adopted by churches denominating themselves as Baptist that is being considered here, and the community of believers that shared and propagated those ideas, not any strict interpretation of who was or was not a subscribing Baptist per se or any formal line of succession of particular Baptist confessions.
Lollard connections with Olchon
An interesting aspect is the number of significant Lollard protestant reformers that have associations with Olchon. Joshua Thomas believed Walter Reynard (also known as Reynard Lollard), from Mainz, was given refuge there around 1315. While it cannot be proven Lollard actually went to Olchon, it is known that the European Anabaptist went to Wales. Thomas notes that Lollard was aware of the existence of Olchon before arriving in Wales. Upon returning to Europe, Lollard was captured and burned alive, in Cologne, in 1322.
Thomas Crosby in his ‘History of the English Baptists’ of 1738 also records Lollard residing in Britain for some period of time. “In the time of Edward II, about the year 1315 Walter Lollard, a German Baptist preacher, a man of great renown among the Waldenses, came into England; he spread their doctrines very much in these parts, so that afterwards they went by the name Lollards.”
This derivation of the name of the Lollards is disputed. The low-German word ‘lollard’ is sometimes interpreted as ‘mumbler’ which may have referred to the charismatic use of the gift of tongues by ecstatic believers, but has the same derivation as ‘lullaby’ so could refer to religious chanting of scriptures during memorisation exercises.
Thomas states that Dr Thomas Bradwardine (1290-1349) was born in the county of Hereford, near Olchon and Hay, in the village of Bredwardine from which his family originated, though other sources suggest his family as coming from Sussex where some members of the Bradwardine family had moved some generations earlier. The village of Bredwardine stands only a few miles from Hay and was home to the diarist Francis Kilvert. A Thomas Bradwardine is listed among the gentry of Herefordshire in 1433, which may be the Doctor himself or a relative of his, which at least demonstrates a connection with the area. He believed that the famous theologian sometimes attended services in Olchon, though his visits were infrequent because of the press of his busy life.
Bradwardine was a contemporary of Chaucer and is praised in ‘The Nun’s Tale’ as equal to Augustine and Boethius. He was a celebrated mathematician, scientist and diplomat for King Edward III. He is known as a proponent of the Art of Memory and for his theological radicalism, which may have been why he narrowly failed to become Archbishop of Canterbury in 1348 when the king withheld his consent after Bradwardine had been elected to that office and appointed his Chancellor, John de Ufford, instead. The following year Ufford died of the plague and Bradwardine succeeded to the appointment, though Bradwardine himself died of the plague only 40 days after his consecration.
John Wycliffe (1328-84), who translated the Bible into the English language, is claimed to have lived near Olchon in 1371 and to have been influenced in his faith by Bradwardine while at Oxford. He argued for scripture as the basis for authority, rather than the institution of the church, and translated the bible into vernacular English which was published as the Lollard Bible in 1380.
Wycliffe was unfortunate in that the Peasants Revolt that erupted in 1381 was openly Lollard in sympathy and one of its principle victims was the Archbishop of Canterbury who was murdered by the mob after being dragged from the Tower of London where he had sought refuge. One of the leaders, John Ball, was a Lollard preacher. Much of the blame for the Peasants’ Revolt was, unfairly, heaped onto Wycliffe, despite is well-established abhorrence of violence, and by 1382 all his writings had been banned. By 1407 the Lollard Bible had been banned.
Lollard preachers travelled in pairs, and were distinguished by simple red robes. Many of them were women. The Lollard movement was particularly strong in Herefordshire around the Olchon Valley, where it is particularly associated with two men: Walter Brit (or Brute) and Sir John Oldcastle.
Walter Brit lived at Olchon Court in the upper Olchon valley. He was described by John Foxe (1517-87) as ‘eminent in learning, gifts, knowledge, zeal and grace’ and had been influenced by Wycliffe while he was at Oxford. In 1391 the Bishop of Hereford was granted permission by King Richard II to arrest Brit for preaching heresy and for conducting unauthorised religious meetings, probably in the Olchon Valley. He defended himself vigorously in his testimony, issuing a fierce and unrepentant denunciation of the Pope as Anti-Christ. For reasons unknown the case was dismissed before it came to trial and Brit disappears from history. The house at Olchon Court still stands, though is of later medieval construction. In the fields above it are a narrow path passing over the mountains to Eywas Valley and the overgrown remains of a small stone building at the junction of two narrow streams that is claimed by some as the earliest Baptist chapel.
Probably the best known of all Lollard leaders and martyrs of England is Sir John Oldcastle ( d1417), of Oldcastle, lower in Olchon, who led the most significant and widespread Lollard uprising which in many respects anticipated the later English Civil War. He was a close friend of King Henry V and is known to history as the basis for Shakespeare’s character Falstaff, who originally named as Oldcastle but the name was changed at the request of his descendants. He helped Henry IV suppress the rebellion of Owain Glyndwr, where he served with the young Prince Henry (later Henry V), capturing 300 rebels near Usk. He also served with Henry V in Burgundy as a close and trusted aide but later became associated with religious radicalism and unlicenced Baptist preaching. It is claimed he was baptised by Walter Brit in Olchon Brook, close to Olchon Court.
Oldcastle was protected by the King for some time but finally arrested in 1411 after his Lollard beliefs became too flagrant to ignore and was held in the Tower of London to be tried as a Lollard. Large demonstrations were held in his support until Archbishop Chichely persuaded the reluctant King to have the ringleaders rounded up and 39 of them were hanged or burned at the stake. Oldcastle, however, escaped in 1413, with a price of 1,000 marks on his head and, according to some accounts, fled to Olchon from where he tried to organise an uprising in the Welsh Marches.
Lollard hopes of reform on Henry V’s accession to the throne in 1313 had been high, given his close friendship with Oldcastle and his known hostility towards Thomas Arundel, Archbishop of Canterbury, but it seems those hopes were dashed when the new King immediately sided with the established order. Oldcastle’s plan was to establish a Lollard Commonwealth, along much the same lines as after the later Civil War, with the King and his brothers under restraint and himself as Regent. Henry was warned by a spy and escaped the ambush and capture by Oldcastle. Under Oldcastle’s plan all abbeys were to be dissolved and their wealth distributed to the people. A series of abortive revolts and plots followed around the country in 1414 (London), 1415 (Southampton) and 1416 (Scotland).
He was finally apprehended (according to one version at Olchon Court itself) in 1417, being severely injured attempting to jump out of an upper window, and, on the orders of King Henry V, tried and sentenced to death for heresy. He was taken in chains to St Giles field and suspended between two gallows while a fire was lit below him to be slowly burnt to death, gallows and all.
In 1428, 44 years after his death, Wycliffe was declared a heretic and his bones were dug up and scattered. There was a further brief Lollard uprising in 1431 and then various trials of individuals for Lollard heresy finally ending in 1559 when anti-Lollard legislation was repealed.
Among the many other notable figures associated with Olchon is Walter Tyndale (1494–1536) who was born close to Olchon, though he grew up in Gloucestershire, and whose family name is associated with the Olchon Valley. According to Davis in ‘History of the Welsh Baptists’, Llewellyn Tyndale and Hezekiah Tyndale were members of the Baptist church at nearby Abergaverney. Certainly in his writings Tyndale expresses Baptist views quite eloquently, particularly on the subject of baptism itself, and on occasion deliberately uses Baptist terms, such as word ‘congregation’ instead of church, and only recognises clergy by the offices of ‘pastor’ and ‘deacon’. He uses the word ‘elder’ instead of ‘Bishop’ and challenged clerical celibacy.
What is clear from this is that within South Wales, centred on the valley of Olchon, was a long tradition of protestant dissent from at least the 13th Century onwards, manifesting ideas that later consolidated into the Baptist Church. Lollards had long propaged the idea of a secret ‘invisible’ community of ‘true Christians’ within but distinct from the outward and corrupt form of the established church institution. Olchon has long been cited by Baptists seeking to prove continuity of their church through the ‘invisible church’ all the way back to Jesus, though such claims are not now generally accepted.