When I started this blog, I promised myself I wouldn’t overload it with pictures of all the churches I like to visit. Then I chanced upon St Stephen’s Church, Old Radnor, and immediately broke the promise I made to myself ! But trust me, this church is something really special.
It is very likely the present church of St Stephen’s is built on an older, sacred Celtic site. You just have to look at the position of the church on a prominent hill within the valley and the circular old boundary that is still there today – taking in both the present day church and the pub next door.
The church is also the only one in Wales dedicated to St Stephen – but even this dedication is likely to be an accident. The original Celtic church was probably dedicated to Ystyffan, a 6th century member of the royal family of Powys. When the Normans conquered this part of Wales Ystyffan was transmuted to Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr and a popular Norman dedication.
The medieval church was largely rebuilt in the late 15th and early 16th century, after the earlier church had been burned down during the rebellion of 1401 led by Owain Glyndwr. Like most parish churches, St Stephen’s also saw some Victorian ‘restoration’ work which likely removed much of the material that was recorded as being brought to the church from nearby Wigmore Abbey. Luckily for us, the Victorian restoration work was more sympathetic that most, and many of the medieval and early modern features remain.
The building consists of a nave and chancel, north and south aisles, a south porch and west tower. Features inside the church suggest there were originally five altars, inferring it was a high-status religious building.
St Stephen’s Church is full of medieval and early modern features that make it, in my opinion, one of the most special churches in the whole of Wales. There is no one standout feature here – there are several.
As I entered the church, I was greeted on my left by the largest font I have ever seen. It is rather rudimentary looking – just a hollowed out boulder on stumpy legs. I was not surprised to later find out the font is a serious contender for both the largest and oldest font in Wales. Attempts have been made at dating it, usually to around the 8th century, but local legend states the font was originally part of a group of prehistoric standing stones found in the valley below.
The magnificent organ case in St Stephen’s is the oldest in Britain, dating to approx. 1500. It is a beautiful Renaissance piece of work, featuring dolphins, wyverns and foliage.
The Medieval Window
There is one remaining example of medieval glass in St Stephen’s Church, in a small ante-room hidden behind the organ. The subject of the window is St Catherine, along with her martyr’s wheel. We also find white roses present, the royal badge of Edward IV. Apparently, there is a little devil hidden in the design as well but I spent ages staring at the window and was unable to find it!
The Rood Screen
The rood screen is one of the largest examples I have seen in Wales – running the whole breadth of the church – and is decorated with a simple but beautiful intertwining vine carving. However, I personally feel the screen is a bit plain, and perhaps the lost loft above was more intricate.
Other notable features in the church include the oak wagon roof with Tudor rose bosses in the nave, and the clusters of beautiful medieval tiles throughout the church.
George Cornewall-Lewis (1806 – 1863)
The south aisle chapel is dominated by an imposing 18th Century memorial to the Lewis family of nearby Harpton Court. This family produced the Victorian cabinet minister George Cornewall-Lewis, who is buried in the family vault below.
Cornewall-Lewis was both Chancellor of the Exchequer and Home Secretary during Viscount Palmerston’s Liberal administration, and he was instrumental in arguing against British intervention in the American Civil War.
John Bull (1562 – 1628)
When most people hear the name John Bull, they think of the round-bellied, Union Jack waistcoat-wearing personification of Great Britain. However, John Bull was also a renowned Elizabethan and Jacobean musician and composer. And it is extremely likely he was born in Old Radnor and learnt to play on St Stephen’s magnificent organ.
Bull was one of the most famous composers of keyboard music of the early 17th century, and we are fortunate that much of his music has survived and is still played today. He was so talented a musician, he was appointed as tutor to Elizabeth Stuart, daughter of James I and Anne of Denmark. He is also of the candidates put forward as the potential composer of God Save the King.
However, Bull also had a bit of a reputation – the Archbishop of Canterbury said of him ‘the man hath more music than honesty and is as famous for marring of virginity as he is for fingering of organs and virginals’. He got into trouble with the law more than once for his less-than-proper with relationships with women, and had to flee the country after charges of adultery were bought against him, spending his last years in Antwerp.
St Stephen’s Church, Old Radnor is without doubt one of the finest medieval churches I have had the pleasure to visit. It is an architectural manifestation of all the different elements that make the Welsh borderlands so special – ‘a church that looks English to a Welshman and must feel Welsh to an Englishman’ (T.J.Hughes).