Church of England Diocese of Hereford Much Dewchurch


A lovely church with a rich history and an especially fine monument to the Pye family

History of Saint David's Church, Much Dewchurch

This history is made up of short extracts of a more full history in the words of Hubert Reade written in 1936. 

St. David's Church is the Parish Church of Much Dewchurch, the Welsh name of which may have been LLANDEWI FAWR RHOS Y CERION, i.e. "Great St. David's on the moor with the Medlar Trees." There is also a suggestion that it could have been: LLANDEWI CILPEDEC (= cil bedwg), "St. David's in the hollow in the birch country."

It is situated on a ridge which separates the head waters of the Worm from the brook running down from Orcop Hill which is known as the Mynde Brook, and commands the ford over the Worm on the road from Callow Hill to the main road at Much Dewchurch, which is known as Low(e) Lane, and which forms a part of the original highroad from Hereford to Abergavenny and the coast of the Bristol Channel at Caerleon and Ogmore, and on the other side to Monmouth and Chepstow at the mouth of the Wye. This road is thought to have passed through the churchyard. As for centuries the Worm formed the frontier which divided the English and Welsh speaking parts of Herefordshire, Much Dewchurch was an important military position. The parish was originally included in the Welsh Principality of Archenfield, and as early as A.D. 531, a large portion of it became the property of the See of Llandaff, which until A.D. 1131 included much of South Herefordshire east of the Worm. The present parish forms part of the Wormelow Hundred Benefice which in turn forms part of the Ross and Archenfield Deanery in the Diocese of Hereford.

The Welsh Principality of Archenfield became Christian at a very early date possibly before A.D. 180, if not a century earlier, for according to Welsh tradition which is most probably correct, the first Welsh Christian was Bran the Blessed, the father of Caractacus, the champion of British independence who was taken as a captive to Rome in Nero's day, and whose daughter or niece Claudia was the wife of the Senator Pudens, with whom St. Paul was so intimate. (2 Tim.4.21)

As the Saxons did not occupy any part of Archenfield until after A.D. 640, when many of them were already Christian, it is not too much to say that Much Dewchurch has been a Christian parish ever since the Roman Empire became Christian in A.D. 314.

However this may be, Much Dewchurch had long been. a Christian parish at the time when, in A.D. 596 St. Augustine and his band of Roman Missionaries landed at Pegwell Bay in the Isle of Thanet to bring back Christianity to Eastern England, where but for a few scattered remnants it had been nearly stamped out by the Saxon invaders 120 years before. And when the great evangelist from Rome travelled to the Severn to meet the Christian Bishops who still ruled in the Welsh Marches, a Bishop of Hereford seems to have been one of those who met him, and who refused to recognize him as their superior.

The Church:

It seems probable that the lower courses of masonry in the south wall of the nave of Much Dewchurch, at least as far up as the sills of the large windows, are of Welsh origin, and that the brown stones covered with a design worked out in a kind of basket work which lie in the porch are part of the canopy which covered the altar of that building. In any case they cannot be later than 800 A.D. and are certainly of Celtic work.

Archenfield, of which Much Dewchurch was a parish, placed itself by treaty under the King of England, Edward the Elder, about 937, preserving its own laws. For the administration of Archenfield the Hundred Court met at Wormelow round a funeral mound said by tradition to cover the remains of Mordred, that nephew of King Arthur who was murdered by his uncle on the highway at Gamber Head.

Much Dewchurch, however, from its position at the ford over the Worm was a more important place than Wormelow, where there (are) not any very old houses, and consequently was the ecclesiastical centre of the district.

The first church, which remained in use until the Eleventh Century, was evidently a long, low building stretching from the entrance to the Tower on the West to the chancel arch on the East, and probably ended in a small semicircular apse.

The Church as rebuilt in the year before the Conquest must have been a position of some strength. Its thick walls and narrow windows, some of which still remain, were by no means insignificant means of defence in days when sieges were mostly carried on with bows and arrows, as must have been the case with these border districts.

The Chancel Arch shows most probably that the Church must have been lengthened about 1060 when a square end replaced the former semicircular apse. The base of the tower is, however, of a somewhat later date, and is believed to be of Twelfth Century origin, whilst the upper part is probably of the early Thirteenth Century.

Thus this long narrow building with its thick walls, pierced only with narrow window slits and entered by heavy doors, formed in itself a fortress which could be used in times of danger from Welsh marauders to store the property of the villagers, and served to protect the highway leading up from the ford along the ridge leading towards the Monnow and South Wales which ran between the marshes to the West and South.

It was not until the Fourteenth Century that any great changes were made in the structure of the Church. Windows had gradually become larger, and the narrow loopholes of the early Norman period had been transformed into large casements formed of several lights, which by the time of Edward III had made their way into every village church. Thus it became necessary to pull down the upper part of the original structure and to rebuild the walls in the eastern part of the nave and chancel in order to allow of the change in the windows. At Much Dewchurch the reconstruc­tion had been finished before 1350 when the ravages of the Black Death by decreasing the population checked the progress of the so-called decorated architecture, and caused it to be replaced by a style known as the Perpendicular, which was more economical of labour and material.

The pointed arch in the wall of the nave under the Westernmost of the new windows probably marks the grave of the rebuilder of the church, but nothing remains to show who he was.

We know that the Black Death must have committed great ravages in Much Dewchurch as in other parts of Herefordshire, for in 1348 three vicars held the parish within the year.

The Southern porch of the Church dates from about 1370, and the figures of a King and a bishop on the springs of the outer arch are generally said to be portraits of King Edward III on the East, and Adam or Orleton - that Bishop of Hereford who had raised him to the throne by assisting to depose his father Edward II - on the West. It seems, however, more probable that the Bishop is Lewis de Charleton who built the White Cross at Hereford, and held the See about 1361.

After the large windows had been inserted about 1345, the church suffered comparatively little change until after the Reformation when the side altars were removed, and a large gallery built at the west end of the nave, almost blocking up the entrance leading from the nave into the tower. This gallery remained until 1876, when the Church was thoroughly restored by the late Sir James Rankin Bt. To replace the gallery, the quarter part of the north wall of the nave was pulled down, and an aisle now known as the "Shepherds Aisle" - from the first window placed in it - and a vestry which allowed room to be made in the chancel for an organ, were built out into the churchyard to accommodate those who had previously sat there.

At the same time the old chancel rails were pulled down and replaced by a stone balustrade covered with Algerian onyx, and seats for the choir were placed in the chancel. None of the glass in the Church is old. The oldest window is that in the south wall of the nave with pictures of the Raising of Lazarus and dating only from 1858.

The pulpit which is elaborately carved in the Jacobean style was probably erected about 1630, and stands on the site of one of the side altars.

The bells date from 1721 and were cast by Rudhall of Gloucester.

Memorials in the church:

Sir Walter Pye began life as a lawyer and by marrying into the family of Rudhall of Rudhall, whose beautiful monuments are still to be seen in the Church of Ross on Wye, and whose representative had taken part with Sir Richard Grenville in that attack on the Spaniards in the Azores in 1596 in which the "Revenge" made herself immortal, he had acquired not only some money but also connections with several families who had influence at Court, - for it must be remembered that nearly everyone who rose to power under the Tudors (including Burleigh) had family relationships with Herefordshire and the Welsh Marches.

It was probably owing to this marriage that Walter Pye became connected with the Court and he found his opportunity when Buckingham - then the penniless George Villiers - first came under the notice of James I.

Pye, to judge from the effigy on his tomb and from a portrait by Cornelis Janssens in the collection of his descendant Sir Geoffrey Cornewall at Moccas, was a strikingly handsome man with black hair and a sunburnt face, and he had evidently a courtly bearing and a great taste for art and painting, for his name occurs frequently in the correspondence of the great painter Rubens, who seems to have known him well. He was a clever lawyer and a shrewd financier, and must have been of great use to Buckingham during his rise to power, for he was eventually appointed Attorney General of the Court of Laws, and as such had much to do with the marriages of some of the greatest heirs and heiresses in the Kingdom. In London he was more envied than respected and backbiters railed at him as a butcher's son. That he was the friend of the Duchess of Buckingham, by birth a Manners, as well as of her husband, is evident from the fact that his tomb is closely modelled on those of the Rutland family at Bottesford in North Leicestershire .

Pye, by birth a small landowner of very modest means, when he died in 1637 left an estate of about £25,000 a year which, in our money, would be worth about £113,000, and nearly all of which was spent by his heirs within the following 80 years in supporting the Royalist cause. He left a family of 14 children whose effigies can be seen on his monument.

His consort Lady Pye, a worthy woman who certainly had not the fatal gift of beauty, died in 1625, and his monument bears an epitaph which seems strange from the pen of Buckingham's trusted agent : "Fides et spes sunt anchora animae" - "Faith and hope are the anchor of the soul".

The other monuments in the Church are not very striking and mostly date from the 18th and 19th centuries. Those in the Chancel are to the Symons family, the earliest dating from 1763, whilst in the nave is one (copied from a slab dated 1716 in Much Dewchurch Churchyard) to the late Sir James Rankin, M.P. of Bryngwyn who, as has been said, was a great benefactor to the Church.

We ought not to omit to mention the font, which is of very early Norman work, and has heads representing the virtues and vices sculptured on its base. In the porch are lying a stone with a knight's head scraped out of it which was used as a Holy Water basin and dates from the Eleventh Century. The long and short work on the left hand side of the Chancel Arch is also of a very early design.

The Churchyard is most beautifully kept by the caretaker Mr. George Payne (1936) and the large yew tree near the Church door goes back to mediaeval times. None of the monuments go back further than the late Seventeenth Century, but a tomb on which are planted figures made of some kind of evergreen, trimmed to represent three foxhounds in pursuit of a fox is worth notice.

The old vicarage to the east of the Churchyard contains work as early as the Thirteenth Century, and the Church House at the west gate was built in Elizabeth's time by one of the Pyes.

It is now (1936) used as a house for the schoolmistress.

Such are the Church and Churchyard of St. David's Much Dewchurch.