Ffynnon Fair (St Mary’s Well) at Wigfair, south of St Asaph, lies in open countryside in the broad valley of the River Elwy. Beside it lie the remains of a chapel. The clear defining feature of the well is the star shaped surround of the basin, immediately reminiscent of the well basin at Ffynnon Wenfrewi, (St Winefride’s Well) at Holywell some twelve miles distant. Why this well, out in a riverside meadow should have had such a complex design remains the subject of much conjecture. St Winefride’s well was built in its current design at the very start of the sixteenth century. Were both wells built by the same designer or builder, or has Ffynnon Fair been created subsequently as a copy of its illustrious neighbour? It is suggested that the well at Wigfair was an important location on a pilgrimage route that led from St Winefride’s well at Holywell to the site of her burial at Gwytherin, which clearly implies a strong linkage between the two.
During the Victorian period,, however, the chapel gained another reputation reputation, that of having once served as a Welsh Gretna Green. A previous post on the blog provides an introduction to Ffynnon Fair at Wigfair; the purpose of this article is to explore the reasons why it gained this reputation and examines whether such a title is justified.
Capel Ffynnon Fair
The well chapel appears to be of late medieval construction, excavation work carried out in the 1960s suggests that the earlier parts of the church date from the early fifteenth century with later sixteenth century additions. Although it is known that the chapel and the well appear to have been reconstructed at times during the nineteenth century as part of a landscaping scheme.
Although Brown Willis in the 18th century suggested that prior to the Reformation the chapel was used as a chapel of ease to St Asaph, Thomas in a later history concludes that there is no evidence for this status and Grey Hulse suggests that it was never more than a votive or devotional chapel prior to the reformation.
We should note that it appears explicitly on maps and documents in the mid sixteenth century and throughout the seventeenth century as Capel Ffynnon Fair rather than Capel Fair or similar, so it clearly identified as a well chapel. Its explicit naming as such on Saxton’s 1577 map of Denbighshire (below) might be taken merely to imply its size gave it significance then as a landmark feature within the landscape.
Hulse points out that the earliest evidence of a cult existing at the chapel dates to the initial construction of the chapel in the 12th century and the fact that it was extended during the 15th century points to its endurance as a cult centre. The earliest recorded record of its use dates from a pre Reformation couplet which refers to sports and words (ie secular celebration and liturgical performance) at Ffynnon Fair being held on the first feast of St Mary in the harvest (15th August) – however we see later that reference is made in 1613 to the wake day at the chapel which suggests a popular continuation of the pilgrimage to the well surviving 100 years after the Reformation.
By the seventeenth century it was essentially a domestic or private chapel; and it would have been these vestiges of pilgrimage and the use of the chapel by local families retaining the Catholic faith through the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries that helped to keep the structure intact. On this basis it would seems as though seem that it continued to represent a site of some importance for Catholics or others throughout the late sixteenth century and into the seventeenth, but clearly the condition of the chapel structure deteriorated over the century. It is reported that during the time of Catholic king James II there were attempts to restore it, but its slow deterioration continued. At the end of the seventeenth century antiquarian Edward Lhuyd recorded that the chapel is “now quite ruinous” and a 1720 account noted that “the walls are still standing and some of the timber of the roof…”
The Gretna Green of Wales
While St Winefride’s well at Holywell has been dubbed the Lourdes of Wales, St Mary’s Well at Wigfair for a while was represented as being the Gretna Green of Wales.
As far as I can find, this title was coined first in 1860 by J O Halliwell in his Notes of Family Excursions in North Wales. He describes a “short and charming walk to the comparatively little known Ffynnon Fair or St Mary’s Well”
The shrine work which covered it has disappeared but a small portion of the cruciform chapel, although a mere ruin, still remains, nearly covered with ivy, and embosomed in trees, the whole in a most secluded spot. The ruins appear to belong to a building of the fifteenth century, It is curious that, some time after the Reformation, this place should have been a kind of Gretna Green. Here runaway couples were married.
The description is picked up on and was repeated in similar guides over the half century following, for example Henry Irwin Jenkinson in his Practical Guide to North Wales
…here stands the ivy-mantled ruin of an ancient chapel, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and close by it is the well of Ffynnon Fair, Mary’s Well. The well is surrounded by iron rails and stonework, and the water flows from it as a tiny rill. In bygone days this was a famous holy well used for baptismal purposes and the place was also a kind of Gretna Green, where runaway couples were married
Sabine Baring-Gould (1903) noted
There is a holy well, Ffynnon Fair in the parish of Cefn, in a beautiful situation, once very famous, but the chapel is in ruins, though the spring flows merrily still. It was the “Gretna Green” of the district, for here clandestine marriages were wont to take place…”
Owen Rhoscomyl, in his 1896 historical romantic novel For the White Rose of Arno, sets a secret wedding at the well-side.
We should note that this title seems freely bestowed, both Builth Wells and Tresilian’s cave near Llantwit Major have been likened to a Welsh Gretna Green in print at various times.
Marriages at Gretna Green in Scotland became popular from the mid-18th century when in 1753 marriage laws in England (and Wales) were tightened to restrict the ability of under 21-year olds to marry without their parents’ consent and decreeing that all marriages should take place in church. Scottish law allowed a much more relaxed process whereby couples could marry on the spot with just two witnesses and the assurance that they were free to marry. Gretna’s location as the first village on the major road over the Scottish border led to thousands of runaway couples heading there to marry in the following two hundred years. Thus, Gretna became a byword for runaway and secret marriages.
Thus, the reason for the popularity of Gretna Green was the ability for couples to avoid the restrictions of English Law and marry under the different laws of Scotland. The fact that English law always applied equally in Wales means that such a loophole was never available in Wales.
The story of the weddings at Wigfair arose from the rediscovery in the early nineteenth century of a record generally known as the Cwtta Cyfarwydd, a manuscript chronicle of notable local events which was kept by Peter Roberts between 1607 and 1646. Roberts was a public notary and resident of Cefn Meiriadog close to Wigfair. The rediscovered manuscript circulated among antiquarians and historians from around the 1840s, it was noted as being in the possession of historian Angharad Llwyd in 1847. It was eventually published in book form by D R Thomas in 1883.
Roberts recorded all the births, marriages and deaths that came to his attention alongside other notable political and meteorological events that took place in the area. Over the 40-year period for which the record runs, he records about 163 marriages. These clearly date from before the 1753 Marriage Act which took force in Wales and England so at this time it was not a necessary condition of marriage for a ceremony to take place in church. So long as a marriage could be proved to have taken place then the lack of banns or licence, the location or timing of the ceremony or the lack of an ordained priest performing the ceremony did not invalidate the marriage.
Of the marriages Roberts records roughly 20% did not apparently take place in a recognised church and of these 60% were noted specifically as being clandestine weddings. We cannot be certain to the extent to which Roberts’ distinction between two kinds of marriage depend on specific criteria or are merely a style of recording, but it was certainly the inclusion of the word “clandestine” that seeded the analogy with Gretna Green into the minds of later Victorian writers.
There were a number of reasons for marrying outside church, and usually it would be perfectly respectable and legal to do so. In his discussion of Roberts’ chronicle Owen (1961) identifies three forms of marriage – public, private and clandestine. The public form took place in church following the reading of banns and forms the largest proportion of the weddings recorded by Roberts. A private wedding required the issuing of a licence and this would more than often take place outside a church and outside normal canonical hours often for the convenience of the families involved. The Clandestine marriage did not require a licence, this may have been an option for those who could not afford a licence but would also be the method adopted in cases of abduction or elopement. This is the marriage form most closely linked with customs at Gretna. Roberts records evidence of elopements but also at least one case of a clandestine marriage which was later followed up by a “lawful” marriage in church.
It was from Roberts’ records of the use of the chapel at Ffynnon Fair for the practice of private and clandestine marriage that appears to have subsequently earned it the title of the Welsh Gretna Green. Note that Wigfair was known by the name of Wickwer at the time.
The Cwtta Cyfarwydd record begins in 1607, so it is more than probable that marriages took place before that date for which we have no record. Moreover we can have little idea of the accuracy of Roberts recording, it is probable that the was aware of events in his local area and had a wide circle of contacts, his record is extensive and covers a large number of baptisms, marriages and deaths, but we cannot tell what he chose to omit or what he missed, in particular with respect to secret marriages.
So, to what extent were these really secret weddings? Of the seven weddings at Ffynnon Fair, just two were specifically identified as having been clandestine, and four involved sisters from the same local family. The four were daughters of one of the leading gentlemen of the area and three had substantial marriage portions settled on them. A £300 marriage portion in 1630 has a purchasing power of some £50,000 in present day prices. There is absolutely nothing in the record to suggest that these were anything other than respectable family weddings.
The Lloyd family can be traced at Wigfair to at least the 1550s. Evan Lloyd was a clerk of the Council of the Marches, the primary administrative body for the region based in Ludlow Castle, where Evan died in 1631. He lived originally at Meriadog and later at Wigfair. He married twice, firstly to Elizabeth who died in 1596 and a second marriage to Katherine Wen in August 1597. Anne and Katherine, who married at the chapel in 1615 were daughters from his first marriage, Elizabeth married in the chapel in 1626 and Marie who married there in 1633 were daughters from his second marriage. He had four sons and two further daughters.
The name Evan Lloyd of Wickwer appears on a list drawn up by James Cosin in 1745 of the names of the “Roman Catholic Nonjurors and others who refused to take the oath to his late majesty King George”, which provides a clear connection between the Lloyd family and the well chapel.
Of the four, only Elizabeth’s marriage is recorded as being clandestine, the reason for this distinction might be unclear although interestingly this is the only one of the four that does not record a marriage settlement portion. . She was aged around 19 or 20 at the time and her partner came from outside the immediate local area, Coyber (Cwybr) is some six miles away to the north of Rhuddlan. Although she married at what appears to be the traditional family location, this could certainly be views as a case of elopement or the selection of a husband contrary to the wishes of the family, Roberts in his record perhaps pointedly identifies the groom as one John ap Richard. In passing, we note that Elizabeth was Roberts’ god-daughter. This certainly stands out as a different situation to that of the other three sisters. Some five years later their first daughter was christened at Wigfair.
A clandestine marriage did not preclude a marriage portion, and it seems that such weddings could be organised, one record notes a 1627 marriage noting that on a Saturday “… were clandestinely married, by report, the marriage and marriage portion being concluded upon the Friday before” .
There are three further weddings not related to the Lloyd family
- Piers Gruffydd and Jane (1611) happening at night, it was Jane’s second marriage.
- David and Grace (1613) on the wakes day at the chapel, and Grace’s second marriage
- William Davies and Ann Holland (1640)
The 1611 wedding was that of the son-in-law of Peter Roberts, he states brother-in-law in the text, but from the family trees included in the Cwtta son-in-law in today’s terminology makes more sense. Piers had previously been married to Katherin, daughter of Peter Roberts and married Jane, his second wife in at Capel Ffynnon Fair in 1611 on a Friday at night.
David Holland was High Sherriff of Denbigh in 1596 and 1602 and had the Kinmel estate. John Holland acquired the Wigfair estate in the 16th century and the family acquired a mansion house in Wigfair in 1599. Members also lived at Plas Newydd in Cefn Meiriadog. In his will he left a small amount to Foulk Lloyd son of Evan Lloyd of Wickwer. It might be assumed likely that Ann was a part of this family. She may have been a daughter of William Holland, a branch of the Holland family which appeared to have close links with the Lloyd family throughout the period of the Chronicle, however a definitive link is yet to be proved.
I have so far been unable to identify the final couple which give use patronymics rather than a surname and are hence more difficult to trace.
Describing Capel Ffynnon Fair as the Gretna Green of Wales seems a romantic notion and could be considered fitting for such the romantic site that these ruins had become by the early Victorian period. However, clearly Gretna Green’s reputation was built on the number of runaway weddings that took place there capitalising on the differences between Scottish and English law in the later eighteenth century. The weddings we have identified at Wigfair, a century or two earlier, show scant evidence of being runaways from elsewhere in the country and the chapel did not provide a means of avoiding the marriage laws as they then stood, since at the time the ceremonies carried out there could equally legally be carried out anywhere within Wales, England or Scotland. At least five and probably all the weddings recorded were associated with local families of good standing in the area. Although we cannot be certain how selective and complete Roberts record actually is and this might bias the distribution of such marriages identified.
Thus, if the epithet of the Gretna Green of Wales is based solely on the Cwtta Cyfarwydd then it appears to be entirely misplaced. It provides us with the records of seven marriages, and although some have been be classed as clandestine these are but seven out of some thirty recorded in the area during the period, and the cluster here seems primarily due to the fact that four members of the same family married here. Two marriages at Wigfair are described as clandestine by Roberts, and we can suggest that these were either elopements or not wholly favoured marriages within local families. So this record cannot be used to demonstrate that Capel Ffynnon Fair was a particular attractor of clandestine marriages, instead such weddings occurred fairly regularly at all manner of locations. Additionally local weddings away from a church were recorded as taking place including three weddings at David Foulkes house, Plas Newydd in Meiriadog, and two at John Lloyd’s house in Wigfair.
Chapel Ffynnon Fair differs only in the fact that it is an actual church location. It may be supposed that the chapel here was a traditional site for weddings in the families involved predating the records of the Cwtta and that it continued in use as a private chapel during the seventeenth century. It is highly likely that its use is associated with the survival of the Catholic faith within the Lloyd and other families involved. There is a record of earlier weddings between 1595 and 1606 attached to the published version of the Cwtta and but this doesn’t identify the locations of weddings not held in church.
In passing we note that the presence of the well doesn’t appear to have a significant influence, although at the same time we can recall Myrddin Fardd’s account of Ffynnon Dudwen (St Tudwen’s well near Aberdaron, Gwynedd) in which he remarks that “it is a pity that records of the many clandestine marriages that took place nearby in centuries past have not been recorded.” It may not be unfeasible that in some locations a venerated well could prove an additional draw for a secret wedding ceremony.
Certainly, the ruined chapel and its links with the old religion would have provided a suitably religious and locally convenient setting for a wedding, closer to home for the couples than any other church, and thus potentially an appropriate location for a family wedding. We have records of probable couples marrying there following elopement, but to identify it as the Gretna Green of Wales appears to be a Victorian misreading of the record and an over-romanticisation of a remote and picturesque ruin.
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