19 October 2015

St Margaret’s of Roath: dragons and angels and monstrous beasties

Coming as I do from a relatively new country, I sometimes find the antiquity of places in Britain difficult to contemplate. On the site where the Church of St Margaret’s now stands, in the Cardiff suburb of Roath, Christians have been worshipping their God for more than 900 years.

Of course, the current church isn’t that ancient, but a Norman chapel once stood here. According to the church website,  

There was a chapel here – ‘the Chapel of Raht’ – soon after 1100, founded by the Norman Lord Robert Fitzhamon, as a Chapel of Ease to his Priory Church of St Mary in Cardiff. A little whitewashed building, thick-walled and low, served the needs of this ancient hamlet, inhabited since Roman times, and now, for the Normans, the home farm for the castle, its pastures supplying meat, fish, butter and cheese.
St Mary’s and its chapels were given by Fitzhamon to his monastic foundation of Tewkesbury Abbey, which provided clergy, wine and wax to the chapel of Roath until the Reformation, and in return received its tithes. The ghost of a long-dead Benedictine chaplain is said to haunt the church to this day!

The ghost was nowhere to be seen the day I visited, probably put off by the hubbub of the Heritage Weekend Open Day. The church was full of folk enjoying, as I did, the fascinating guided tour that was on offer, as well as parishioners trying to raise funds for the church through sales of jams and various bric-à-brac, and visitors enjoying tea and cake and a gossip about parish goings-on. Genealogists were buzzing about too, as the tombs in the Bute mausoleum were littered with facsimile copies of the parish registers for anyone to check for births, death and marriages.

The original mausoleum had been built in 1800, by the 1st Marquess of Bute for his family, in a building adjacent to the old church. His great-grandson built the current church, in the grand style of Victorian Gothic, between 1870 and 1873, and then a very grand north aisle chapel was added to the new building between 1881 and 1886 as the new mausoleum for the Bute family tombs.

It is an exceedingly ornate resting place, housing seven massive red granite sarcophagi (said to resemble those built for the tsars of Russia), which contain the bodies of John Stuart, the 1st Marquess of Bute, and his two wives, Charlotte Jane Windsor and Frances Coutts, as well as various other members of the Stuart family.

The church itself is not quite as grand as the mausoleum. It was designed by the architect John Pritchard, who specified that a wide variety of coloured bricks and coloured stone were used to decorate the internal walls, in red, blue, white, grey-green and pink. It is an unusual but very effective design.

As in most churches, the stained glass windows are beautiful, filling the interior with rainbow-coloured rays of light. The dates and subjects of St Margaret’s windows vary greatly, from an illustration of the Holy City from the Book of Revelation, dating from 1917, to the Ascension and the four patron saints of St Margaret’s daughter churches depicted above the altar, dating from 1952.

Behind the altar, the Reredos, which dates from 1925 and is by Ninian Comper, depicts the Risen Christ and his 12 Apostles. The central figure is made of alabaster, the others of gilded wood.

Being fascinated by architecture and architectural decoration, I found the exterior of the church almost more interesting than the inside. Take, for example, the carvings beside the original main entrance, which is only used now for weddings and funerals. The church is dedicated to St Margaret of Antioch, who, for those who don’t know the story, had a life-threatening encounter with the devil in the form of a dragon. Being a good Christian girl Margaret bravely confronted the dragon clutching her cross in her hand. The dragon found itself unable to swallow the throat-irritating cross, so Margaret was miraculously saved from death by dragon! This, then, is the reason for the little dragon carvings either side of the doorway.

To my eye, the church is not a pretty building, being rather a jumble of square and rectangular boxes. This impression isn’t helped by the church tower, which is square and squat – Prichard envisaged it would be topped by a spire but, sadly, that never got built. It would perhaps have bestowed a bit more elegance to the building. The current tower was designed by John Coates Carter, as a war memorial, and was only completed in 1926.

The angels high up on the north side and on the north-east corner are lovely adornments, and that corner also boasts a rather unusual conical turret, which doesn’t exactly fit with the rest of the structure but adds visual interest. My favourite architectural decoration can be found towards the tops of both the north and south walls, where there are lines of stone carvings, depicting the heads of various monstrous beasties.

Parts of the boundary wall that surrounds the church date from medieval times and the large, leafy trees look equally ancient. Though the graveyard around the church looks almost empty, it is actually full to capacity but, sadly, most of the headstones were removed in a totally misguided 1969 decision to ‘clean up’ the grounds. Whoever made that decision should be fed to St Margaret’s dragon!

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