St Michael's Church of Wales, Kerry
The church of St Michael and All Angels in Kerry, standing in its large churchyard above the valley floor of the Mule, has been the focal point of life in the locality for many centuries. It is around the church that the village of Kerry has grown.
This article summarises the historical timeline of the church and highlights some of the main features of interest of the building.
For a greater level of detail of the church’s history, there is a wonderful booklet entitled ‘Kerry, the Church and the Village’, written by Noel Jerman in the 1970’s, that forms the source text of this article, and remains the seminal documentation available. (History of buildings such as these moves relatively slowly!). Copies of this booklet can be obtained (preferably for a kind donation) directly within the church.
Unfortunately nothing is known of when the first church in Kerry was founded. Expectations are that a church existed for several centuries prior to 1176, although no traces of any building has been found.
The first recorded information about the church dates from 1176, when the current church was re-built and re-dedicated. An event that gave rise to a celebrated confrontation that occurred between Bishop Adam of St Asaph, and Giraldus Cambrensis, the Archdeacon of Brecon, part of the diocese of St David. Its a long story – and fully documented in the Noel Jerman booklet. But to summarise, Giraldus prevailed as the victor, and Kerry remained part of the diocese of St Davids.
The 1176 Church
According to Noel Jerman’s text, the late 12th century church seems to have consisted of an aisled nave of three bays with a small square chancel, rather narrower than the nave. Of this aisled nave, only the north arcade survives. It has massive round piers whose plain moulded capitals have necking and abacus. The arches are of two square orders, the inner one later reworked in a 14th century design. Jerman’s text has further details, but his conclusion is that the size and ornament of the church is exceptional for 12th century Wales.
Enlargement in the 14th Century
In the early 14th century, the church appears to have been doubled in size, adding a four bay chancel to the east. Architectural decoration, based on that used in Wigmore Castle, indicates English influence after the Lordship of Kerry passed to the Mortimers, Lords of the Marches, in 1276. It appears that the new chancel was linked to the original chancel, which was retained, with the result that the church was almost two separate buildings connected by an arch.
Later in the 14th/15th century, further extension work was undertaken to unify the two chancels, with a lot of detail in Jerman’s text about exactly how this unification was achieved. The massive western tower, with its adjacent staircase, also dates from the period of this extension. Evidence of its 14th century construction can be derived from the use of the ‘Caernarvon arch’ (taken from Caernarvon castle) in the three lowest windows of the tower.
Restoration during the 18th and 19th centuries
There was no real work on the church between the 15th and early 18th centuries. Based upon records held by the St Davids diocese, by the early 18th century, the church was in a sad state of disrepair. There is, however, documentation that implies that the church was ‘beautified’ in 1714, and the weathervane that surmounts the tower bears the date of 1718. From this point onwards, there are records of ongoing maintenance payments for work performed on the church almost every year.
Nevertheless, by 1811, the roof of the north aisle was in a serious condition, and a bank loan was raised to repair it – paid back by money raised in the Parish over the following six years. Further work, including the installation of heating stoves, continued during the second quarter of the 19th century. But all the work seems to have been on a ‘make do and mend’ basis.
The 1883 Restoration
A major program of restoration was undertaken in 1883, following a large scale public appeal for funds. The opening paragraph of the appeal pamphlet of about 1881 reads “This ancient edifice, having become so dilapidated as to be insecure and unfit for the reverent worship of God, it has been determined to raise a Fund for the Re-building of the fabric on the present site, and in accordance with its original character”. By all accounts the alternative was a complete demolition and re-building of the church!
The eventual cost of the restoration came to £3,777, with major contributions of £1,000 from each of James Walton of Dolforgan Hall, and John Naylor of Brynllywarch Hall. Restoration began in November 1882, and was completed within the year. The re-dedication service took place on 26th October 1883.
As before, Noel Jerman’s text has loads of details regarding how the restoration took place and what was done. In summary, work was undertaken on the main roof, the windows (most of which were replaced), and the doorways. The interior of the church was transformed, with the removal of the gallery, reworking of plasterwork, replacement of all of the pews, and the conversion of the north aisle into a vestry room and organ chamber.
20th Century changes
The funds available for the 1883 restoration were not sufficient to enable any work to be done on the tower, which was in a dangerous condition. In 1924, additional funds were collected through subscription and fete to enable restoration of the tower as the final part of the full church restoration
In 1976, to commemorate 800 years since the original 1176 re-dedication, a new Chapel of the Resurrection was created in the north aisle, adjacent to the re-decorated organ.
Objects of Interest in the Church
Noel Jerman’s booklet ‘Kerry, the Church and the Village’ highlights many objects of interest that can be seen within the church and churchyard. These include:
The 15th Century Font, at the west end of the north aisle
The Chained Bible. An old Welsh Bible, printed in Oxford in 1690, chained to the present lectern
The Pulpit, incorporating some fine old tracery panels, which dates from the 1883 restoration
The Piscina, for the washing of the communion vessels, possibly dating from the 14th century
The Organ, installed in 1890 at a cost of £300
The Bells, of which there are three, supported by substantial oak framework in the belfry. They date from1728, 1679 and the centre bell from about 1400.
The Clock, restored at the time of the 1883 restoration.
Hatchments on the north wall of the north aisle depicting the arms of the Herberts
Various monuments and tablets that dedicated to local benefactors of the parish and other notable parishioners
The Latest Update
St Michaels Church in Kerry has been the centre of Kerry village for over 800 years (and probably longer than that), and has seen weddings, funerals, baptisms, Christmases and Easters since the 12th century. It is a thriving and prospering church with a fascinating and well maintained architectural heritage. And now, parishioners are worshipping in even greater comfort with the brand new installation of a complete new heating and lighting system throughout the church.