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Denbighshire Churches Survey

Church of St Mael and St Sulien , Corwen

Corwen Church is in the Diocese of St Asaph, in the community of Corwen in the county of Denbighshire. It is located at Ordnance Survey national grid reference SJ0788943411.
The church is recorded in the CPAT Historic Environment Record as number 72143 and this number should be quoted in all correspondence.

Corwen Church, CPAT copyright photo 527-17.JPG


The church of Ss Mael and Sulien lies at the centre of the small town of Corwen in the valley of the Dee some 9 miles west of Llangollen. Without doubt it was founded in the early medieval period and became a mother church for the area. The medieval structure had a west tower and transepts but the south transept was demolished when an aisle was built in the 19thC, and both the tower and the body of the church have seen considerable reconstruction, though at least it survived a 1765 plan to erect a completely new church. The main roof is late 17thC, and significant fittings include an early font, a 14thC priest's effigy and a pillar stone used as a door lintel. A monolith of putative prehistoric date is built into the porch wall and there is the shaft of a fine 12thC cross in the churchyard. The churchyard itself is surrounded by buildings and its shape has almost certainly been modified over the centuries. It contains a good range of grave memorials, many dating back to the 18thC.

Original date of the tower is uncertain but claimed to be 14thC. It reveals some rebuilding at belfry level, most noticeably on the west side.

Nave and chancel in similar fabric and largely original, though date uncertain for no guidance from architectural features; claimed to be 12thC-13thC. All windows are of Victorian date except perhaps in tower and the lancets in the east wall of chancel. The latter could be renovated originals and Thomas claimed that in 1729 such narrow lancets had existed throughout the church. Nave was extended westwards, presumably in medieval era and before tower built, perhaps using stone from former west wall. It should be noted that Webb claimed a small window high up in the east wall of tower (i.e. the west wall of nave) which would have let in light before tower built.

The north transept is complicated. It may have been added on to existing nave, but the sequence is difficult to unravel.

Parts of the following description are quoted from the 1986 publication The Buildings of Wales: Clwyd by Edward Hubbard


The dedication is to two 6thC saints, although earlier authorities - Edward Lhuyd, Thomas Pennant - refer to Sulien alone. The churchyard shape and location as well as the dedication suggest an early medieval genesis.

The earliest documented reference to Corwen is in 1222 when the Shrewsbury Cartulary referred to 16 clerics here. This tends to confirm that in the early medieval era there was a clas community at Corwen which functioned as a mother church to the area.

The 1254 Norwich Taxation refers to 'Ecc'a de Coruaen' with a value of 2 13s 4d, while in 1291 its several portions totalled 28.

The Rural Dean's report of 1730 noted that Corwen was "a very large church with little light". His report also indicates that the transepts were each lit by four lancets, "astonishing and monstrous"; that the church was roughly paved, and that the Creed, Lord's Prayer etc were written on the walls but it was too dark to read them. The vicar only rose "from his stupor for a lucrative funeral or wedding". Plans to build a new church in 1765 failed through a lack of funds.

In 1777 renovations included the new porch, new windows as replacements for existing?lancets, a plaster ceiling (on which the date was incised) and the repair of the north transept. New bells were added at this time.

Sir Stephen Glynne visited the church in 1824 and again in 1849 recording a plain cruciform church with a west tower and north porch, and the exterior whitewashed. The tower had plain battlements and slit windows, but modernised belfry windows. The three lancets in the east wall received special mention, as did the font, the sepulchral slab, Iorweth's effigy and slab, and 'a curious chest made of a solid piece of wood'.

In 1871 the south aisle with a new arcade was added by Benjamin Ferrey, but the south transept was removed. At this time too, the lancets in the east wall were unblocked, but other windows were replaced, the roof repaired, the north porch repaired, a new stone arch inserted for the north transept, the pews were removed, the altar moved to a different location and the chancel fitted with encaustic tiles. Restoration cost 2500.

West vestry erected in 1898.

Tower restored in 1907; this involved the top stage from below the string course, re-setting of old window dressings on new sills and the insertion of new louvres. Inside the tower there was new flooring, new dressings to the entrance from the nave and a new door. At this time too, graves found beneath the tower when the heating chamber excavated.

The church was hit by lightning in 1984, resulting in a new ceiling for the chancel.


Corwen church comprises a long nave and chancel, a south aisle shorter than the nave, a west tower attached to the nave, a north transept, a north porch near the north-west angle of the nave, and two vestries on the south side, one in the angle formed by the south aisle and the tower, the other in the angle of the south aisle and the chancel.

The church is oriented south-west to north-east but for descriptive purposes 'ecclesiastical east' is adopted here, though the churchyard is described in conventional terms.

Fabrics: 'A' comprises rubble masonry, small to large medium blocks with some slabs; random coursing; better dressed blocks for quoins; limewash traces. Stone thought to be shale and in a variety of colours: grey, buff, pink etc; also some quartz. 'B' is very similar to 'A' but rubble is generally smaller. 'C' consists of long slabs of grey, slatey shale, with irregular coursing, and limewash remnants. 'D' is of shale with some lumps of granular sedimentary rock and also large blocks of quartz; random coursing. 'E' is of irregular blocks of grey shale, uncoursed; some limewash remnants. Similar to 'A'. 'F' is as 'E' but more variable colours to stone. In places sooty deposits on the stone which also has more extensive limewash residues than elsewhere. 'G' small lumps and slabs of shale and slate, grey and brown in colour; not coursed; heavy rendering makes identification difficult.

'A' is medieval, 'F' could be original medieval (13thC?), but also reused in nave, and 'E' used for extension of nave at some stage in?medieval period. 'B' almost certainly from 1907, 'C' probably of 1777, but 'D' could be earlier. 'G' of unknown date.

Roof: slates, red clay ridge tiles; cross finials to porch, north transept, chancel and west vestry.

Drainage: concrete-edged drainage gully along south aisle. A gully, too, along parts of north side and side walls of transept and porch; in places drain cover provided by old graveslabs.


Tower. General. In 'A'. Concrete chamfer to plinth at base level (0.1m+). First stage of tower rises uninterruptedly to string course above belfry windows; battlemented parapet.

North wall: five steps up to square-headed doorway; lintel carries inscription "This tower was restored AD 1907", together with names of vicar and churchwardens. Above this a slit window, off-set because of clock face, with surround of smaller rubble, and a small slab as a lintel. Above and slightly to west is large clock face set in circular surround of bricks - from 1907 or perhaps earlier? Next a louvred, belfry window with a triangular-headed arch formed by slabs of shale on edge and projecting to form hoodmould; two lights, also triangular-headed, with the heads formed of longitudinally cleaved slates, but at springer level a slight downturn to give curve of a proto-ogee head and with a lozenge-shaped light above; no jambs; window is broad in relation to height and design if not materials may be from 1907.

East wall: nave roof rises to well over half way up first stage. Standard belfry window partially surrounded by 'B'; this and the stone of the parapet is rather darker than rest of wall face: an indication of the 1907 rebuilding?

South wall: lower wall face disguised by west vestry. Half way up an off-centre slit, comparable with that on north. Standard belfry window with some 'B' around it.

West wall: at ground level a standard slit window. Standard, too, is the belfry window, though this does have a deliberate curve to one of the arch stones mimicking an ogee. Much of stone at belfry level is 'B' extending down to 3m or more below window.

Porch. General. Reportedly dates to 1777. Heavily pointed in places. Fabric 'C'.

North wall: two-centred arched doorway in yellow sandstone with small pillars rising from pyramidal stops and carried over the arch as ribbing. Though in 'C' masonry, it is more irregular above archway and is evidence of insertion of this doorway, as too are the sandstone kneelers; thought to have been undertaken during restoration of 1871. Ornamental iron gates have date 1891 on them.

East wall: plain. 'C' only at north-east angle, otherwise 'D' incorporating a monolith (perhaps prehistoric) known as 'Carreg i Big yn y fach rewllyd' (the pointed stone in the icy nook); one stone in 'D' has graffiti initials though set upside down.

West wall: in 'C'. Tie rod set through front (north) wall holds the two together.

Nave. General. Wall face pointed very heavily to about two-thirds of its height.

North wall: west of the porch masonry is 'E' with 'F' above; trefoiled light with two-centred head, all in Victorian buff-yellow sandstone and showing signs of insertion. East of porch there is variable pointing and heavy render-like cover hinders identification. Quoins built into wall above east edge of porch indicate a straight joint and suggest that all the wall to the west is an extension. Wall east of quoins looks like 'F' or at least a variety of it. In this section one Victorian two-light window, the lights with trefoil heads and a quatrefoil above, a two-centred arch and a head-stopped hoodmould; a few signs of insertion.

South wall: hidden by south aisle.

North Transept. North wall: base battered to maximum height of 1.2m, then vertical wall face for further metre, finally the rest of the wall inset above this. All in 'C'. Windows both in buff-yellow Victorian sandstone. Main one has three lights with roundels above, all under a two-centred arch with curious geometric stops. In gable is a slit window.

East wall: heavy pointing. Mainly 'G' though Some large slabs below; appears to butt against nave wall. One Victorian lancet window in buff-yellow sandstone.

West wall: at north-west angle walling is 'C' but this rapidly gives way to 'F' at base of wall and 'G' over the rest; heavily rendered wall face. Window as on east side, inserted through render.

Chancel. North wall: wall face east of transept is probably 'F' all over, but confused by two different types of pointing above and below window sill level. Ordnance Survey map shows some sort of feature here, now gone, and this may account for a shale lump with a socket in it set into the wall near the transept. Two two-light windows, each with foiled lancets and a roundel above, a two-centred arch and a hoodmould with foliate stops, all in yellow sandstone.

East wall: faint batter to wall which is all in 'F'. Three lancets, all unchamfered, but frames inset like modern windows; edge stones as voussoirs. These are 13thC in origin but have been completely renewed. In the gable is a roundel within which is a trefoil window; the gable heavily pointed could be rebuilt.

South wall: presumed to be in 'F', though some rebuilding at south-east angle. Two windows as north side, that to the west showing more signs of insertion than the easterly one. In front of this wall is the east vestry with its own porch beneath the westerly window.

South Aisle. General. Lean-to against south wall of nave. Slope of roof line all but continuous with that of nave.

South wall: this has some 'C' mixed with large medium-sized blocks, quite well shaped. Four sets of triple lancets in buff sandstone. Vestry butts against quoins of this wall at west end. Commemorative slab set in west wall of aisle and reset when vestry built for it records 'This corner stone was laid by the Hon[ora]ble C.H.Wynn August 22nd 1871. Removed by him June 25th 1898'.

East Vestry. General. Gabled with paired lancet windows.

West Vestry. General. Fabric of grey slatey shale blocks more regular than that of south aisle. Window in south wall has round mini-columns comparable with those of north doorway to porch. Marble slab over west door has date of 1898.


Porch. General. Floor tiled in red and black; walls plain, plastered and painted; roof of simple, close-set, collared trusses.

East wall: wooden bench along wall.

South wall: segmental-headed doorway with stopped chamfers, all in pale sandstone and of no great age. Plaque recording grant of 30 from Incorporated Society for Building and Churches in 1870.

West wall: as east wall.

Tower. General. Four steps up from nave. Not accessible.

Nave. General. One step up from porch. Red and black tiled floor with carpet over it in many places; heating grilles along walls; benches raised on wooden boarding. Walls plastered and painted. Roof of six bays, one truss dated to 1687 and the whole likely to be 17thC, though repaired in 19thC. Some variation in the trusses: tie-beams resting on wooden corbels, queen-post collars, struts, and considerable cusped decoration. Between the transept arches is a supplementary, foiled collar truss.

North wall: splayed window; broad two-centred arch in buff sandstone, of Victorian date, into north transept. Five 19thC and 20thC memorials, one of 1780.

East wall: chancel arch, broad, two-centred of two orders, springing from large foliate corbels set into side walls: Victorian of c.1871.

South wall: four-bay arcade, the last on the east filled by the organ. Plain two-centred arches with capitals of similar appearance to the corbels of the chancel arch, and cylindrical piers - Victorian, of c.1871.

West wall: high two-centred arch to tower, chamfered, but the dressings date from 1907 restoration. Nine memorial tablets, mainly in marble. Three of the 18thC, the rest 19thC and early 20thC.

North Transept. General. Used as a small side chapel from 1931, and prior to 1845 it functioned as a school. Wooden block floor with altar raised on a small dais; standard wall finish. Roof of three bays with arch-braced collars and raking struts; two tiers of cusped windbraces. Late medieval? A couple of 20thC memorials on walls.

South wall: highly decorated screen of 1931.

Chancel. General. Two steps up from nave, one to sanctuary, one to altar. Floor as nave with carpet over; encaustic tiles in sanctuary; choir stalls raised on wooden boarding. Walls as nave. Wagon roof with one truss on corbels; 36 panels replaced in 1984 after fire.

North wall: splayed windows. Priest's effigy of?15thC, in a relatively modern alcove with chamfered segmental arch. 19thC and 20thC memorials.

South wall: splayed windows; 19thC memorial.

South Aisle. General. Tiled floor. Standard wall finish. Simple lean-to roof of rafters and three arch-braced half trusses rising from corbels.


The churchyard is now heptagonal, and though one suspects its sides have been cut back there is no evidence at all that it was originally curvilinear. A small stream runs past its north-western boundary but the downwards slope within the churchyard is towards the east and north-east, the churchyard being located on the lower southern slopes of the Dee Valley. The churchyard is well-maintained and is still used for burial, on the eastern side of the north transept.

Boundary: buildings back against the churchyard on most sides except the south-east; on the west is a drystone wall up to 1.9m high and the ground is internally banked against it; on the south-east is a mortared wall but blocked embrasures indicate that buildings formerly filled part of the yard here. On the north-west there is a low wall between the yard and the stream.

Monuments: marked graves are common to the east, south and west of the church, less dense to the north; much of the south-eastern sector near the perimeter is also clear. Re-organisation has occurred: some are propped against the perimeter wall, slabs have been used for paving and edging in places, and there is a uniformity of layout elsewhere. A large number of 18thC gravestones and ledgers survive, the earliest seen being of 1715 to the east of the church, although a record made at the beginning of the century noted two of 1654 on the south side of the church, as well quite a number from the period 1670-1690 to the south-east. The listed building schedule notes that it as an exceptionally rich set of monuments.

Furniture: cross shaft and base, the shaft 2.2m high and 0.3m square, the base 1.6m in diameter and 0.3m deep; top of shaft has 'capital' with interlace ornament; on east face a small Latin cross in relief; generally attributed to the 12thC; immediately to south-west of church. Triple-stepped plinth near lychgate on north side has sundial with gnomon dated 1992. It replaced a carved wooden pillar that supported a sundial with a date of 1715.

Earthworks: it is difficult to determine whether any part of the yard is raised: no evidence of such on the east and south-east. The church itself is set on a slight platform, for the ground rises quite steeply and there may be some deliberate terracing. The only sign of the former south transept is a slight dip in the ground.

Ancillary features: lychgate has timber superstructure on stone foundation walls; no inscription, but it is known to have been built in 1886. Small metal swivel gate on west, a pair of iron gates on east. Tarmac path from lychgate to porch; grave slabs provide path around north side to east gate.

Corwen College, consisting of six small houses on the south side of the churchyard, was rebuilt in 1750 under the will of William Eyton of Plas Isa, Corwen (dated 1710), and repaired in 1938; a plaque faces the church.

Vegetation: one immature yew to the west of the tower; a large oak in the south-east, some pines on south and near tower.

Sources consulted

Cadw Schedule of Listed Buildings 1995
Church guide 1992
CPAT Field Visit: 10 September 1996
Crossley 1945, 158
Faculty 1871: NLW - restoration
Faculty 1898: NLW - new vestry
Faculty 1906: GAS/Z/PE/19/27 - restoration
Glynne 1884, 269
Gresham 1968, 169
Nash Williams 1950, 167
Owen 1886, 16
Quinquennial Review 1985
Quinquennial Review 1993
Ridgway 1997, 62
Thomas 1911, 144
Webb 1987
Click here to view full project bibliography

Please note that many rural churches are closed to the public at certain times. It is advisable to check when the church will be open before visiting. Information about access, or how to contact parish clergy, can often be obtained from the relevant Diocesan Office which can be found through the Church in Wales website. Further information about Corwen Church may also be found on the St Asaph Diocese website.

The CPAT Denbighshire Churches Survey Project was funded by Cadw as part of an all Wales survey of medieval parish churches.

This HTML page has been generated from the Cadw Churches Survey database & CPAT's Regional Historic Environment Record - 17/07/2007 ( 22:01:26 ).
Further information about this and other churches surveyed is available from the Regional Historic Environment Record, Clwyd Powys Archaeological Trust, Curatorial Section, 7a Church Street, Welshpool, Powys, SY21 7DL tel - (01938) 553670, fax - (01938) 552179, email -, website -

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