The 12" century church of St Michael and All Angels nestles in a hollow in what would have been the centre of the village in medieval times. It is one of the white churches of Wales which collectively have been described as resembling stars in a cloudless sky.
The church of St Michael and All Angels was built in 1111 by William de Londres in the early English style though it is likely that it stands on the site of an earlier church as it lies on a prime Celtic site with running water, a southerly aspect and in a hidden location. An ancient cross in the church has been dated as 10th century indicating that a place of worship existed some 200 years before the construction of the present church.
St Michael’s church (Colvestone) was granted to the Abbey of St Peter’s, Gloucester in 1141 by Maurice de Londres (son of William de Londres) along with the church of St Bridget (St. Brides Major) with the chapel of Ugemore (Wick) and of de Lanfey (Llampha) “with the lands, meadows and all other things belonging unto them freely and willingly in free almoigne in order that it become a convent of monks”. The church eventually formed part of the endowments of the Abbey of St. Peter’s dependent priory of Benedictine monks at Ewenny. The church was one of moieties ie divided into two benefices with two parsons. A deed of Bishop Nicholas declared that on the death of the two parsons, the church should revert to the monks of Ewenny and this seems to have happened by the end of the 12th century. The next record dates from 1291 when the churches of Colwinston, St Bride’s Major together with Ewenny Priory were valued at £40. There were further valuations but a 1771 visitation valued the living at £70, the incumbent was the Reverend John Nicholl and the patron was David Thomas, Gent.
At the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1537 Ewenny Priory together with St Michael’s Church was leased to Sir Edward Carne. Sir Edward Carne was the last English Ambassador to the Holy See before Henry VII broke off relations with the Papacy. The tenants were now obliged to attend the Leet Court (annual court of record held by the lord of the manor who had jurisdictional rights over his tenants who had to pay 'fence' (loyalty?) . In 1545 Sir Edward Carne purchased Ewenny Priory from the Crown for £727-6s-4d.
In the Middle Ages all churches displayed wall paintings in order to import religious knowledge. Traces remain in St Michael’s Church on the west wall of the chancel arch and most likely depict the consecration of St Nicholas, Bishop of Myra and the story of the young mother who left her baby in the bathtub to attend the service and whose baby was miraculously saved from death by boiling while his mother attended the bishop’s consecration. The wall paintings are reckoned to be 600 years old and are painted in tempura on a fine lime plaster. The mural was possibly whitewashed at the time of the Reformation to cover up all signs of idolatry.
It had originally been customary to celebrate the Eucharist on a stone altar slab or “mensa” representing the tombs of martyrs. The “mensa” was usually inscribed by 5 crosses representing the 5 wounds of Christ, one in the centre and one in each corner. After the Reformation, the Puritans would not accept the sacrificial aspect of the mass and its association with ritual slaughter and substituted a wooden holy table. In the case of St Michael’s the stone altar was thrown into the churchyard and lies on the south side of the churchyard at right angles to the gravestones.
The Pre-Reformation bell which the square medieval tower with its battlement was built to carry has survived with its Latin inscription “Sancte Michael ora pro nobis “ (Pray for us St Michael) invoking the saint to which to church is dedicated. There were originally 3 bells in the tower but two were broken and the metal sold in 1722 to pay for the reseating of the church.
There was resistance to the momentous changes that took place in the 16th century. The state of those who refused to attend Anglican services was known as recusancy and the individuals as recusants. Many parishioners would have been Welsh speaking for whom the new English liturgy had little meaning. Colwinston remained one of the pockets of recusants with the priest continuing to administer the sacrament according to the Roman rite resulting in the priest, John Lloyd, being arrested and hung, drawn and quartered on the Heath at Cardiff in 1679.
The church would originally have had a rood-loft which has not survived. The only evidence of its former existence is the rood-loft staircase its steps built into the wall, the three stone corbels and another on the south wall which would once have supported the main beam of the loft and a window set high in the wall of the nave to provide light to the loft and known as a sanctum squint allowing those in the rood-loft a view of the altar.
Accommodation was increased in the 18th century by the addition of a west gallery. Ina poor parish this was cheaper than providing an extra aisle. This gallery was swept away during restoration work carried out in the latter part of the 19th century.
The church was restored in 1879 by Henry J Williams of Bristol in the course of which the rood loft was discovered and the doors at the entrance and upper level replaced and a new door placed in the porch. New windows were inserted in the nave, the old stone pulpit replaced by an oak one and a new oak communion table, lectern and chancel furniture installed. The contractor was Thomas Thomas of Colwinston and the cost of £800 defrayed by Mrs Mary Collins Prichard who had recently come to live at Pwllywrach and as patron of the living wished to put the church in a good state of repair. In 1881 when additional accommodation was required for 64 parishioners the architect John Prichard simply reseated the church with open benches at a cost of £120.
Further restoration work was carried out in 1971 following a fire which badly damaged the chancel, destroying the brass tablets either side of the altar displaying the Ten Commandments. It was at this time that the words “Holy, Holy, Holy” painted in beautiful scroll work above the chancel arch were painted over.
The most recent restoration work was carried at the millennium with the benefit of a major grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund together with grants from other bodies and funds raised by the villagers. A much needed vestry, kitchen and toilet were built on the north side of the church, the interior and exterior walls were lime-washed and the roof repaired at a cost of £350,000.
The church consists of chancel, nave, south porch and western tower, all built in the Early English style of architecture. The semi-circular chancel arch is Norman of Sutton stone. The stain glassed window depicts the figures of St Michael and St George, the two warrior saints and is a memorial to Lieutenant Gordon Fairfax Raymond Prichard (whose head and shoulders portrait appears at the base of the left hand light who was killed in South Africa in 1900. The oak altar rails were presented to the church in 1934 by the parishioners as a memorial to the Reverend Robert Cure Thomas, vicar of the parish for 24 years. The chancel is lit on the south side by two Early English lancets of Sutton stone with trefoil heads. In the window-sill of the one nearest the altar is a square drain piscine. On the south side of the chancel there is also the customary priest’s door with a pointed arch. On the north side there is a square aumbry in the wall where consecrated bread and wine were kept.
There is also on the north side a white marble monument displaying the arms of Iestyn ap Gwrgant “Gules three chevrons argent” for Thomas. The monument was erected to the memory of David Thomas of Pwllywrach (died 1769) and several other members of his immediate family.
The church has always had close connections with the manor house of Pwllywrach. Several of the vicars in the 18 and 19" centuries were from the Thomas family of Pwllywrach. Further brass memorial plaques, memorial tablets on the walls and stained glass windows commemorate other members of the Thomas and Prichard families.
A brass plaque in the nave commemorates Major Hubert de Burgh Prichard who died in France in 1944. Major Hubert de Burgh Prichard was married to the daughter of the crime writer Agatha Christie who stayed at Pwllywrach occasionally and attended the church.
A memorial tablet in the church records the death of the Reverend Evan Jones in 1843 at the ripe age of 90 years, “curate of Colwinston for 48 years and vicar of 11 years”.
In the north wall of the chancel under an Early English canopied niche lies the effigy of a man in the shape of a coffin carved from Sutton stone. The effigy is very worn but the hands clasped in prayer are visible and it is dated to the early part of the 13th century.
The stained glass window of three lights in the south west wall erected in 1963 is a memorial to Elizabeth Gullen (1946-1960). The subject of the window is light itself with the centre light depicting light radiating to the corner of the three windows with the words “Let there be light”. The window is the work of the contemporary stained glass
artist by John Petts of Abergavenny.
The nave is lit on the north side by a two light round headed window, the stained glass depicting the Christ as the Good Shepherd and is a memorial to two infants.
The octagonal font is of Sutton stone on an octagonal stem with a square base.
The south porch is large, its outer door is late Perpendicular but the inner door is sharply pointed. On the east wall is a marble memorial tablet “in honour of twenty three men of the parish who served in the Great War 1914-1918 all of whom returned safely. For this reason Colwinston is known as a “Thankful Village”, one of only three in Wales.
All that remains of the churchyard cross is a rather stumpy cross on an old pillar with a stepped base which have been eroded by exposure to the elements.