Radnorshire author, W H Howse, writing in 1949, said that the church at St Harmon appeared to be the oldest Christian foundation in the county. But the site of the church, on a raised, circular mound, also suggests pre-Christian origins. The church was founded about the sixth century and is dedicated to St Garmon, or Germanus of Auxerre, who died in 448 AD. It originally belonged to a Celtic Christian monastic tradition and probably comprised a group of thatched huts, presided over by an abbot. Over many centuries the Celtic Christians gradually came into line with mainstream European Christianity. By about the ninth century the church had evolved into a clas, or mother church, serving the cantref of Gwethrynion, including Rhayader and Nantmel.
St Curig’s Staff
In the twelfth century Gerald of Wales (Geraldus) wrote ‘In the provincee of Gwarthrenion and in the church of St Germans there is the staff of St Curig’‘ covered on all sides with silver and gold.’The staff had healing powers and sufferers were expected to pay a penny. Geraldus relates that one person gave only a half penny, found that his tumour ‘subsided only in the middle’ and had to pay another half penny for a complete cure.
At some stage the wooden buildings would have been replaced by a stone structure. The stone font dates from the eleventh or twelfth century and is very similar to the fonts at Rhayader and Llanwrthwl.
Barn-like, Long, Low and Dark
Jonathan Williams, writing in 1818, noted that ‘The church of St Harmon is situated on the right bank of the River Marteg, nearly in the centre of the parish. It consists of a nave, chancel, porch and a low turret containing one small bell. The whole edifice is in a very dilapidated state. The old church, like all other old churches in Wales, was built in a barn-like fashion – low, long and dark.’ In 1821 this church was demolished and replaced by a smaller building with a porch to the south door. It had a fine plastered ceiling, western gallery for the organ and the choir, a three-decker pulpit and box pews. Richard Haslam refers to its pleasant Regency, Gothic windows. Above the south door is a stone tablet commemorating the rebuilding of the church and naming the masons, carpenters and church wardens.
A tradition of ‘proprietary pews’ began during the seventeenth century. Pews were bought and sold and handed down through generations. The more wealthy local families bought the best pews. The poorest had to stand. When the new St Garmon church was built in 1821 the new pews were paid for by individual families, who then claimed the inalienable right to their pew thenceforth. Each pew had the name of a local farm painted on its door.
In 1876 Francis Kilvert, the renowned Victorian diarist, became the vicar for a two-year period. He was not fond of the building. He described it as ‘hideous’ and referred to a bare cold squalid interior, a ragged faded altar cloth and a broken organ. And the roof leaked.
By the end of the century the church evidently need to be restored. In 1908 it was comprehensively transformed. The box pews, pulpit, west gallery, the Regency windows and the fine ceiling were all swept away. A new bell turret, chancel and vestry were constructed. In the 1930s the bell turret became unsafe and was taken down. In recent years a small extension has been added to provide modern catering and servicing facilities.
No Manor, No Vicarage – a Poor Parish
On the south wall of the church is a list of vicars since 1623. There have been interregnum periods without a vicar and often the incumbent has been shared with neighbouring parishes. St Harmon was a poor parish. The parish terrier of 1720 (land registry) says that there is ‘no Vicarage House or Barn, or any manner of building, nor any meadowing ground.’ Unlike some nearby parishes, there has never been a landed gentry presence locally, or people of sufficient wealth to support and nurture the church. Around 50% of the land was owned by absentee landlords. For most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries there was no official residence for the clergy and they were nearly always forced to live outside the parish. Eventually an official vicarage was built in 1904, just south of the church at Tawelog and was occupied by the clergy for the next 50 years or so. Today the vicar is based in Rhayader and his parishes include St Harmon and seven other churches.
© PB 2016
Leaflet by K R Clew, 1982 Clwyd Powys Archaeological Trust
The Buildings of Powys , Richard Haslam, 1979
Radnorshire , W H Howse, 1949
Culvert’s Diaries 1870-1879 , Rev Francis Kilvert
The Parish and Place Names of St Harmon , Jonathan Argoed Pugh, Radnorshire Society Transactions, 1934
A Faithful Vicar of St Harmon, David H Williams, Radnorshire Society Transactions, 2001
History of Radnorshire, Jonathan Williams, 1859
Graham Williams writes:
Germanus of Auxerre (Welsh: Garmon Sant ) (c.378- c.448) was a bishop of Auxerre in Gaul. He is saint in both the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, commemorated on July 31. He visited Britain in around 429 and the records of his visit provide valuable information on the state of post-Roman British society.
The principle source for the events of his life is the hagiography written by Constantius of Lyon around 480. Constantius was a friend of Bishop Lupus of Troyes, who accompanied Germanus to Britain, which provided him with a link to Germanus. He was the son of Rusticus and Germanilla, and his family was one of the noblest in Gaul in the latter portion of the fourth century. He received the very best education provided by the distinguished schools of Arles and Lyons, and then he went to Rome, where he studied eloquence and civil law. The emperor sent him back to Gaul, appointing him one of the six dukes, entrusted with the government of the Gallic provinces. He resided in Auxerre. He was consecrated as bishop 7 July 418.
Around 429, shortly after the Romans had withdrawn from Britain, a Gaullish assembly of bishops chose Germanus and Lupus, Bishop of Troyes, to visit Britain. It was alleged that Pelagianism was rife among the British clergy. Germanus came to combat the threat and satisfy the Pope that the British church would not break away from the Augustinian teachings of divine grace. Germanus was able to defeat the Pelagians using his superior rhetorical skills.
Germanus and Lupus then visited the shrine of Saint Alban, promoting his cult.
Germanus led the native Britons to a victory against Pictish and Saxon raiders, at a mountainous site near a river, of which Mold in north Wales is the traditional location. His whole army of Britons shouted out ‘Alleluia’ so loud that the barbarians thought they were facing a mighty army and ran away.
His journey to Britain is commemorated in his dedications at Siouville and at Saint-Germain-les-Vaux in the Contentin (Manche).
The former priory church at St Germans in Cornwall bears his name. Other churches in Cornwall are dedicated to him as is the church at Germansweek in west Devon.
An Anglican church by Bodley explicitly dedicated to the saint of Auxerre, Anglicised as St German’s, opened in Adamsdown, Cardiff in 1884.
Hagiography is the biography of a saint or ecclesiastical leader.
Pelagianism the belief that original sin did not taint human nature and that mortal will is still capable of choosing good or evil without special divine aid.
Bodley was an English Gothic Revival architect, 1827-1907.
ST GARMON CHURCHYARD
Jonathan Argoed Pugh of Berth wrote a note about St Garmon Churchyard in Radnorshire Society Transactions, 1934 see Welsh Journals Online.