JUST at this time there was a very important religious revival in Wales; and part of the revival took the form of an intense devotion to the name and character of the Virgin Mary. So it was that many churches were built in her honour. The name " Llanfair " is a common name in Wales, and wherever it is found it signifies, as a rule, that a church was erected and dedicated to the Virgin Mary about this time.
It, was during this revival, sometime in the XIIth century, that a church was built in Dolgelley-not the present structure, but one similar in character to that at Llanelltyd, and long since swept away.
The first documentary evidence of this church is dated 1253 A.D., when its name is mentioned, under the spelling Dolkelew, in the Norwich Taxatio, as subscribing the sum of 20/-. It is mentioned again in the Taxatio Ecclesiastica of 1291. After that, we have no mention of it until Camden, writing in the XVIth century, speaks of the outer structure as seemly, and the interior as little better than a large barn with a roof supported by oaken beams. This refers, undoubtedly, to what remained of the first church built on the spot. Here we may trace what happened to the church in subsequent years.
A print exists, dating back to 1662 A.D., showing the old XIIth century church as it then existed. It is of interest because it shows the church was without a bell-cote, and the church-bell is depicted as suspended in a yew-tree. That continued to be its position until the middle or end of the XVIIIth century.
The old church was demolished in 1716 A.D., to make place for the present building, which, if we can forget the roof, is pleasing enough outside, but somewhat crude internally. It has little architectural merit save its tower, which has a certain massive dignity; and the sole thing of any interest in the church - all that has survived from the past - is an effigy of Meurig ap Ynyr Fychan, who was the grand-father of the famous Hywel Sele, and who died in 1350 A. D.
Some doubts have existed as to who is represented by the effigy; but a study of the type of costume, in which the recumbent figure is clad, shows it is of the XIVth century, and it corroborates the tradition that it was fashioned in honour of Meurig ap Ynyr Fychan. Meurig Fychan was, in his way, a notable figure, famous for his somewhat extravagant hospitality.
The position of the effigy recalls an interesting fact connected with the building of the church. The existing church was built around the older one, which continued to be used for service while its successor was being erected. When the latter was completed, and not until then, the old church was removed from within it; and the effigy, which had stood in the chancel of the older church, was removed to one of the northern windows. The window-sill was found to be too small to hold it, and consequently a piece of the wall was removed to make room for the feet of the effigy.
The wooden pillars of the church - a rather striking feature of the interior and brought by oxen all the way from Dinas Mawddwy-were, for many years, covered with brass coffin-plates, bearing the initials of the departed; for it was an old-time custom in Dolgelley to remove such plates from the coffins when the latter were lowered. They were then nailed to the pillars. Some reformer, about 1860, took them away, more the pity, for they were preferable to many of the memorials, which now appear upon the walls.
The later story of the church can be summed up rapidly. The tower was altered in 1809, when the clock and bells were inserted. It was the occasion of violent opposition by one of the leading local residents, who, to show his contempt for the proposal, subscribed a half-penny towards the building fund, and was extremely indignant to find it duly acknowledged in the printed list of donations!
However, there was much to be said for him, for he thought that it would be far wiser to raise money to drain the water-logged town, than to spend it on a clock in a land where time is not of the supremest importance.
The body of the church underwent extensive alterations in 1864, at a time when artistic perception was at its lowest, which accounts for the fact that the interior to-day is hardly beautiful. The church was at one time the proud possessor of a barrel-organ, which could actually play thirty hymn-tunes, but it, fortunately has suffered eclipse, and has disappeared.
The bells of the church ring the curfew every evening at nine, and then toll out the date of the month. No one knows when the custom started, but it cannot be an old one, as age goes in these parts.
It has, too, a bell, known as the Cader bell, which rings out loudly whenever news is brought in that a visitor to the land has been lost on Cader Idris. It is a summons to all to turn out to search for the missing one.
Dolgelley church was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and one of the ancient names of the town is said to have been Llanfair Bryn Meurig, though there is no documentary proof of that. At any rate that name did not hold its own against the more popular one of Dolgelley.
No one knows for certain what the origin of the name Dolgelley may be; but all sorts of fanciful explanations have been offered, the most popular, as it is the most erroneous, being that the word should be spelt " Dolgellau," meaning either the " meadow of the hazels," or the " meadow of the groves".
The derivation and spelling is purely fanciful, and no one appears to have dreamt of it until the XIXth century.
In nearly every deed relating to the place, from the reign of Elizabeth on, the name has been consistently spelt " Dolgelley," with variations of "Dolegelli," "Dolgelly," and the like, but never "Dolgellau." Pennant, in his Tours, spelt the word " Dolgelleu" and that form is found, in the Church Registers, for the first time in 1723, but it was not maintained.
In 1836, Sir Robert Vaughan, in his account books, adopted the spelling "Dolgellau" and this form is found for the first time in the Church registers in the year 1825. In the Vestry books that spelling was not adopted until 1831; but 1 have come across an old book of Travels in Wales, dated 1816. in the first part of which the name is spelt Dolgelley, and in the second part, on one occasion only, " Dolgellau".
The earliest spelling of the name after the "Dolkelew" of 1253, which we happen to possess- it is dated 1285-is " Dolgethley"; and if we remember that Norman and English scribes did, in those days, represent the sound "ll" by "thl" as many English people, quite inaccurately, pronounce it to-day, we can see that the very oldest form corresponds with that in use to-day, and which some people wrongly cavil at as a foreign perversion.
There is a meadow on the Machynlleth road, known, until lately, as Dolgelley, and the town seems to have derived its name from this meadow. The word "gelli" is a common name in Merioneth for a farm situated in a sheltered nook, so probably Dolgelley really means just "the sheltered meadow."
If a new spelling be needed, it should be not be "Dolgellau" but "Dolgelli," which is how Owain Glyndwr spelt it, though he did insert a "u" between "g" and "e".
We have wandered far from the foundation of out the question of the name sometimes burning question in the neighbourhood, books also argue a good deal about it; so the statements of a few facts is not out of place.