St Govan’s Chapel in Pembrokeshire Wales, is one of those places that has stories seeped into it. There’s not a lot of information, but it’s a fascinating place so in the tradition of Historical Ragbag, I thought I’d write about it. Especially because my last two posts have been so long and in depth, I thought something with a few more pictures and a little bit shorter might be nice too, so I settled on St Govan’s.
I wanted to start with the coast that St Govan’s is nestled in. The spectacular coastline is part of the Pembrokeshire National Park, but St Govan’s itself is actually situated on land owned by the Ministry of Defence. It’s called the Castlemartin Range, and means that it isn’t always open to visitors when the military is using the area. The Pembrokeshire National Park and The Ministry of Defence work closely together to preserve and protect this bit of coastline. You can see just how beautiful if is in the photos below.
You would be forgiven for missing St Govan’s. I had no idea it was there certainly. I was lucky enough that the owner of the BnB I was staying in knew I was interested in medieval history and drove me to some of the best medieval sites in the region. St Govan’s is nestled so close into the rock, it is almost invisible.
In winter waves can break over the Chapel. I was lucky enough to be there in excellent weather, it is still somewhat of a precarious descent though.
When you reach the bottom of the steps, you are met with a secluded door.
Once you walk through the Chapel, you can see why it is so prone to incursion by the sea.
So the history of this little Chapel, built into the cliffs of Pembrokeshire, is actually quite up for debate. All sorts of stories have grown up around it over time, it is even arguable who St Govan was and how he came to give him name to the Chapel. The spelling of ‘Govan’ is relatively contemporary with earlier maps referring to the chapel as St Gouen, Gowen, Goven, Gofan and Gobin. He could have been the nephew of St David, or possibly a disciple of St Eilfyw who baptised St David, or both. According to the information sign at the chapel, St Govan was most likely St Gobham who was the Abbot of Dairinis in County Wexford in Ireland, but there is an argument that this St Gobham was a totally seperate person who became confused with Govan over time because of the similarity of the names and two sources that got confused. It also gets murky because there is the possibility that the name Govan is a bastardisation of Gawain, one of King Arthur’s knights. This is unlikely (apart from the fact that Gawain is probably legendary), it is a story that has become woven into the history of the chapel over the centuries, and doesn’t seem to have any vaguely contemporary references. Most likely St Govan, if he existed at all, was a local saint possibly connected to St David. Regardless of who he was; at some point in probably the 5th century Govan came to the area and set up a monastic hermitage on the site the chapel now stands on. The current building dates to later than this, but I’ll return to that in a moment.
So the next question is, why did St Govan decide to set up a monastic hermitage on this site? Now, as you’ll see will become common in the history of St Govan’s, there’s a few different version of the story. The basic narrative is that he was being pursued by pirates, or the local villagers, or bandits of some kind and he couldn’t find safe refuge, so he prayed and a cleft in the rock opened miraculously for him to hide in. In one version the rocks closed so tightly around him to protect him that his ribs left an impression in the stone. Then in thanks he built a hermitage there and stayed the remainder of his life. St Govan’s Chapel is certainly in a small cleft in the rock, though I don’t think it was opened miraculously by God.
The other part of this legend is St Govan’s Bell. Again there are different versions, but the gist is that St Govan had a silver bell that he used to warn people of pirates in the area. The pirates stole the bell and St Govan prayed for its return and angels brought the bell back and set it in stone, so St Govan could still send out warnings. The large rock to the right of the Chapel is said to be this bell, and is still called bell rock.
Another, slightly more poetic version of the story can be seen in the BBC Cymru clip below, it also gives you a great idea of the landscape surrounding St Govan’s.
So, so far we aren’t sure exactly who St Govan was, or why he was there, or what he was doing, but there are lots of good stories. Now let’s turn to the Chapel itself. It was built on the site in either the 11th, 12th, 13th or 14th centuries, depending on who you talk to, and it is possible that versions of it were built in all of these centuries. It was definitely restored in the 1980s, which is why it is so intact. In particular I think the roof is the most recent. The Chapel itself is a single chamber measuring 5.5m by 3.7m with three doors, one of which opens into a natural cave which you can see in the photo below.
This cave is known as the saint’s cell, and it most likely here that the original St Govan set himself up before any version of the chapel was built, it is also possible that this is where he hid from the pirates (or whoever else was chasing him). It is right next to the altar in the chapel proper. There are a couple of intriguing legends that tie to the saint’s cell, one is that Jesus hid in there at one point, possibly from pirates (though no one seems clear on why Jesus was in Wales hiding from anyone). There is also the legend that if you climb into the cell and can turn around while making a wish, that it will come true. So again St Govan’s history is almost more of myth than of fact, but that in many ways makes it more interesting.
So the interior of the Chapel proper is quite sparse there is an altar, a piscina (a place for disposing of holy water etc), some stone benches and a well, along with some small windows looking out to sea. I will return to the well in a moment. You can see the interior of the Chapel in the photos below.
But to return to the wells. There are two at St Govan’s but only the one outside the Chapel is named for the saint. You can see it under the little domed cover in the bottom right of the photo below.
So this is a holy well. The stories of the powers of Welsh holy wells and St Govan’s in particular is a long one, and one that has been covered in detail by this excellent article from the Pembrokeshire Historical Society. http://www.pembrokeshirehistoricalsociety.co.uk/famous-cure-diseases-st-govans-well-350-years/
So the well at St Govan’s would have been famous locally for centuries, but the earliest recorded mention of it as a place to visit is from 1662 where a traveller John Ray said “Thence the same day to St. Gobin’s Well, by the sea side, where under the cliff stands a little chapel, sacred to the saint, and a little below it a well, famous for the cure of all diseases. There is, from the top of the cliff to the Chapel a descent of 52 steps”
Before I return to the well, I just want to quickly make a point about the steps. There is a legend that it is impossible to exactly count the number of steps down to the Chapel. Every account certainly seems to give a different number ranging between 50 ish and 70.
Returning to the well though. “Cure of all diseases” is a lovely catch all. Pilgrims did definitely go there to be cured over the centuries, and even into the 19th century sick people were visiting St Govan’s well in the hope of miraculous cures. As travel became easier more people were able to visit the well and it became known for cures for “scrofula, paralysis, dropsy, and other complaints” according to one account from the late 19th century. By 1922 however, the well was dry, as it remains today and St Govan’s story, and the Chapel’s story began to drift back into obscurity. Though it has remained a lovely and rather fascinating tourist destination, as well as having a very real history interwoven with myth. It’s definitely well worth visiting for the location alone, but I wouldn’t be looking for a cure for COVID there (sadly).
Site visit 2012
All the photos are mine.