Eglwys Cymyn Church is the most interesting of the local churches - and the key-keeper lives over the road. The great treasure of the church, the Avitoria stone, is now kept safely under lock and key. It is a fifth-century memorial stone to Avitoria the daughter of Cunegnus, inscribed in Latin and Ogham (the Irish system of writing with groups of strokes down the angle of a stone).
In early documents, the church is called Eglusgluneyn or Ecclesia Cumano, ‘the church of Cumanus’ (or ‘Cunegnus’). According to legend, St Cynin was the son of St Cynog and grandson of the great Brychan, king of Brycheiniog (modern Breconshire). Brychan is credited with at least 24 children and all of them saints. (We came across another of his children, Tanglwst, on the route from Llantarnam to Penrhys.) The church was rededicated in the 14th century to St Margaret - but which St Margaret? An early 20th century window in the church depicts the three candidates: St Margaret of Antioch the virgin martyr, St Margaret of Scotland and the legendary local ‘St’ Margaret Marloes.
The rededication probably took place after the church was rebuilt by the local Marcher lord, Sir Guy de Bryan, lord of Laugharne. His family claimed descent from St Margaret of Scotland, so she is the most likely candidate. Sir Guy is also credited with rebuilding the churches at Pendine and Llan-dawc and rededicating them to his family saint.
The de Bryan family often named daughters Margaret as a reminder of their royal (and saintly) connections. Sir Guy had a sister Margaret who married another local landowner, Sir Robert Marloes of Tremoillet. Their daughter, another Margaret, is traditionally said to have become a nun and to have lived in (or even to have founded and been the Mother Superior of) a little religious community at Llan-dawc.
Now, we have no other record of a religious house at Llan-dawc. The only nunneries in medieval Wales were the Cistercian houses at Llanllyr and Llanllugan and a Benedictine priory in far-away Usk. It is possible, though, that Margaret Marloes lived in one of the more informal religious communities which were called ‘beguinages’ on the continent. They were usually small groups of women who wanted to lead lives of prayer and devotion but without the strict enclosure and rigid daily routine of the regular religious orders. Some of these communities looked after hospices for pilgrims and almshouses for the sick and elderly. They could support themselves by begging or by gifts from those they had helped, but many were maintained by the families of their members.
The local tradition which made this Margaret into a saint and dedicated the church to her obviously needs to be treated with caution but should not be rejected out of hand. It all depends, after all, on what you mean by ‘a saint’. Is a saint someone who has been formally canonized by the church, or someone who has inspired others by their exemplary life? And is the dedication of a church a ritual with incense and consecration crosses, or does it have more to do with the beliefs of the congregation?
Much of what we know about the history of these churches comes from the writings of the London lawyer and antiquarian G. G. T. Treherne, who died in 1923. He was responsible for restoring the church in the early 20th century. He was also an inventive fund-raiser. Part of the money for the restoration came from his appeal to all Welsh women called Margaret to contribute a shilling each to the work on St Margaret’s church.
Most of the present building dates from the fourteenth century but the church is obviously much older than this. It has a virtually circular churchyard, set within two more concentric enclosures, the usual sign of an early medieval foundation. To the north, more earthworks indicate the site of a deserted medieval settlement. The churchyard wall is carved with initials and dates recording the local farmers who were responsible for maintaining sections of it. Near the path to the porch is the base and shaft of the old churchyard cross.
Inside, the church has a steeply-vaulted stone roof and the narrow chancel arch from an earlier building. The stained glass is typical early twentieth-century in style but gives a fascinating account of the saints and traditions associated with the church. Here are Brychan, king of Brycheiniog, with three of his saintly children on his lap; Brychan’s grandson Cynin himself as warrior and king; Teilo, carrying his model of Llandaff Cathedral and baptising the seven rescued boys in the River Taf; David, patron saint of Wales, holding a model of his own cathedral and standing on the hill he created by a miracle so that he could be heard at the Synod of Llanddewi-Brefi; Sir Guy de Bryan and his wife Elizabeth Montacute; St Nicholas, St George and the Archangel Michael; and the three St Margarets.
On the north wall of the church the Ten Commandments were written in the seventeenth century, part in Welsh and part in English. Under this are traces of an earlier, medieval painting, possibly a saint. A tablet over the chancel arch commemorates Sir John Perrot, lord of Carew, who was according to some the illegitimate son of Henry VIII. He fell out with Elizabeth I and died ‘of grief’ in the Tower of London after being convicted of high treason.
Another memorial tablet commemorates the Rev. Peter Williams, curate at the church in 1744. The son of a local family, he published an annotated Welsh Bible. He may also have translated the great Welsh hymn ‘Guide me, O thou great Redeemer’ into English, for the benefit of his English-speaking congregation. A guide book in the church has a lot more detail about the stained glass and other features of interest.