Llanynys is a pretty little village with an outstandingly interesting church and not much else – but this was once the centre of the southern Vale of Clwyd. Here the local saint, Saeran, founded his monastery in the 6th century, and it became the mother church for this part of the valley. It may originally have been called Llansaeran, and it was for a time known as Llanfor, the Great Church.
The present name of the village does not mean Island Church but Church of the Watermeadow. According to the 17th century antiquarian Edward Llwyd, though, the parish was sometimes an island.It lies between the rivers Clwyd and Clywedog and when the rivers flooded the village was sometimes cut off. The church is on a slight rise - Saeran obviously knew what he was doing. The guidebook in the church records local memories of severe floods when parishioners had to go to church by boat, or by swimming with their horses. The parish is a scattered one and many parishioners rode to church. There was a Parish Stable next to the church so that they could shelter their horses and possibly eat a meal while waiting for the afternoon service. Eventually this was replaced by the Cerrigllwydion Arms, built by Edward Edwards of Cerrigllwydion Hall (see the church guide book for more details).
The church has an elaborate Tudor porch with the date 1544 carved above the door - a sign of enduring local pride in the traditional church in the turbulent days of the Reformation. Inside, the church is surprisingly large for such a small community, in line with its earlier importance. The typical double Denbighshire nave gives it a light and spacious feel. There are late medieval hammerbeam roofs over both naves.
What hits you as soon as you enter the church is the huge painting of St Christopher, in its usual place on the north wall, directly opposite the entrance. According to legend, Offer was a mighty giant who wanted to serve the most powerful ruler in the world. For a while, he served the devil, but twhen the devil saw the sails of a windmill making the sign of the cross, he was terrified and Offer left him. He met a hermit who convinced him that God was the most powerful ruler in the world. Offer chose to serve God by carrying travellers across a dangerous river. One stormy night, he agreed to carry a young boy across. The boy became heavier and heavier and they were nearly drowned. When they reached the other side, the giant’s staff burst into flower. The boy revealed that he was in fact Jesus, and the weight that had nearly drowned the giant was the weight of the sins of the whole world. Henceforward, the giant was known as Christopher, Christ-bearer. The medieval church assured believers that if they saw an image of St Christopher and said the appropriate prayers, they would be safe from danger that day. Most churches obligingly put their paintings of the saint so that they could easily be seen from the door.
The Llanynys St Christopher is one of the best-preserved in Wales.Like most others, it depicts the giant carrying the small boy across the river. Fish twine around his feet. The boy carries a small globe representing the world. Like many medieval paintings, this one represents several stages of the story. Christopher is still crossing the river, but his staff is already starting to flower. To the left of the painting is the windmill which terrified the devil. To the right, the hermit holds up a lamp.
Immediately under the wall painting is a tomb with a battered carving of a medieval priest - possibly Bishop Richard of Bangor. The bishops of Bangor were officially rectors of Llanynys. Bishop Richard took refuge in this remote parish from the political turbulence of north Wales in the mid-thirteenth century and died there in 1267. The worn figures on the side of the tomb chest are probably much later in date.
The church has another carving of a bishop - a mitred figure on a hexagonal standing stone who may be Saeran himself. He has a crozier in his hand and is standing on what looks like a muzzled bear. On the other side of the stone is a carving of the Crucifixion. The stone is generally said to be fourteenth century but it is probably considerably older. The figure of the crucified Christ is not the suffering figure of late medieval art, sagging in exhausted agony from the Cross. It is upright and powerful, Christus victor triumphing over pain and death. Carvings of Christ triumphant on the cross are the norm until the 11th century but then they become increasingly unusual. The stone was found in the churchyard and is said to have marked the saint’s tomb. Its shape, though, is more like a gable finial. It could have come from one of the gables of the church, or possibly from a stone reliquary like the reliquary of St Melangell which can still be seen at Pennant Melangell.
As well as stone carvings, the church has some wonderful woodwork. There are 16th century carved panels near the altar with strange beasts and plants. They come from the great house of the local Salesbury family at Bachymbyd, about 1¼ miles south of the church. Some of the old pews have been made into choir stalls, and you can still see the names of the farms whose owners once had the right to sit in them. The church even keeps its old dog tongs. Dogs were allowed to accompany their owners into church until the eighteenth century. Altar rails became necessary to keep them away from the altar itself. But dogs are prone to fights – so most churches would have had tongs like these, so that angry dogs could be removed safely.
The church has an excellent guide book with a lot more on the history of the parish. More information can also be found in the Denbighshire County Council’s Enjoy Medieval Denbighshire web site; in Edward Hubbard’s The Buildings of Wales: Clwyd; and on the Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust’s web site.