St Govans Chapel History

St Govan Chapel

Tucked away in a cleft in the rocks on the south coast of Pembrokeshire near the village of Bosherston is one of Wales’ most magical buildings. It is a tiny chapel dating from perhaps the 13th century, though it may stand on the foundations of something much older. It marks the site where St Govan, a 6th century hermit, chose to live a religious life, with only the sea birds for company.

Nobody knows the real identity of St Govan. Was he Gobhan, the abbot of a monastery near Wexford in Ireland? Or might Govan really be Covan, the widow of an Irish king who chose to retire from her regal lifestyle to spend her last years in this lonely spot? Perhaps, as one story tells us Govan was none other than Sir Gawain who, after the death of King Arthur, came here to follow a life of contemplation and prayer.

Whatever the true identity of St Govan, the chapel is shrouded in legend and the tales begin before you even step inside it. To reach it from the cliff top you must make your way down a flight of steps polished smooth by the feet of generations of visitors. Take your time and count the steps carefully. Then do the same when you return. A long established tradition says that you will never reach the same total.

When you reach the doorway to the chapel, look carefully at the stones of the door frame to your right. You should be able to make out the sign of a fish, a symbol of Christianity carved there many centuries ago.

The interior of the chapel is dark and mysterious. The roof above you is vaulted and to your right, another doorway leads down to a rocky inlet. To your left, a narrow rectangle in the floor marks one of the holy wells for which the site was famous. It is dry now but in past centuries it was treated with great respect, for the waters healed many ailments. Those seeking a cure would scoop up the water with a limpet shell and drink it and it was commonly thought that the spring never overflowed to flood the floor of the chapel.

The second well, of which more later, can be found outside the chapel overlooking the shore line.

An ancient altar still exists in the chapel and just behind it and to one side is a narrow cleft in the rock. Enter it carefully and peer into the crevice on the left. You should spot some strange, rib-like markings on the rock face. These have a legendary origin.

They mark the spot where St Govan took refuge from a group of marauding pirates who were landed in the cove below intent on stealing the silver bell that Govan used in his daily service of prayer. The saint had spotted the approaching vessel and squeezed himself into the crevice, offering up fervent prayers that he would not be discovered. Miraculously, the rock closed protectively about him and he was never found. It must have been a tight fit, however, for the rocks have born the imprint of his ribs ever since. It is said that if you manage to fit yourself into the crack and can turn round three times without touching the rock face, you will be granted a wish.

Although the pirates didn’t find St Govan, they did steal his silver bell. There are many versions of what happened next. One story is that a mighty storm arose and sank the pirate ship. The bell was lost with it, or became embedded in a rock on the seabed and can now be hear chiming out during rough weather.

Alternatively, Govan received in compensation a wonderful stone that, when struck, rang out with a chime identical to that of the lost bell. A third legend is that the bell itself was magically transported to the edge of the second well that exists outside the chapel, where it was embedded in a stone that rings out when tapped.

As strange as these stories may seem to be, they only emphasise the reverence in which this building was once held - and still is by many people. You will often find flowers on the altar, left as a mark of respect to St Govan, who is said to lie beneath the altar.

The second of the healing wells of St Govan can be found below the chapel, halfway down to the shoreline. Sadly now dry, it still retains its stone canopy. In past centuries pilgrims came here in the certainty that they would be cured off illnesses such as rheumatism, failing eyesight and lameness. The water of the well could be drunk or was used to bathe the affliction. It could even be mixed with red clay from the surrounding cliffs to form a poultice. Whichever method was chosen, it seems to have worked for even as recently as the end of the 19th century it wasn’t unusual to see a pile of cast-off crutches beside the well, or heaped up on the altar within the chapel.    

To end with, I can do no better than to quote the poem written many years ago by A.G. Pryse -Jones. It is still a favourite of many people and seems to sum up all that is special about this much loved spot:

St Govan, he built him a cell

By the side of the Pembroke sea,

And there, as the crannied sea-gulls dwell.

In a tiny, secret citadel

He sighed for eternity.

St Govan, he built him a cell

Between the wild sky and the sea,

Where the sunsets redden the rolling swell

And brooding splendour has thrown her spell

On valley and moorland lea.

St Govan still lies in his cell,

But his soul, long since, is free,

And one may wonder - and who can tell -

If good St Govan likes Heaven as well

As his cell by that sounding sea? 

Categories:History, Pembrokeshire