A little over a mile away from the busy Welsh town of Llandrindod Wells, in a long and twisting loop of the river Ithon there is a little church laying upon a relatively flat spur of land in the shadow of a dramatic hill where there once stood a great castle. This is the church of Saint Michaels at Cefnllys, but the church is solitary for the village of Cefnllys is long gone. All that remains of the village are a few grassy mounds and piles of rubble, with one or two you can see the rough outline of what was once a house, but nothing more.
Located in the historical cantref of Maelienydd, the origin of Cefnllys is hotly debated with suggestions that there existed an Iron Age fort atop the hill long before any castle and/or that Elystan Glodrydd the great grandfather of Cadwallon ap Madog had a fortress there in the 10th century. The name Cefnllys lends credence to there having been a native royal Welsh court at Cefnllys, for the name is literally derived from the word cefn which means ‘ridge’ and llys is thought to mean ‘court’. The presence of the round churchyard is certainly pre-Norman and the Yew trees ringing the burial ground are thought to be over a thousand years old.
Whatever the truth of this, Cadwallon brings us the first link between Cefnllys and the Mortimer family. In 1179 after attending the court of Henry II, Cadwallon was ambushed and murdered by men in the pay of Roger Mortimer of Wigmore who was imprisoned by the furious King at Winchester for around two years for the crime and Cadwallon’s son inherited the cantref. During the reign of King Richard Lionheart, and with his backing, Roger invaded Maelienydd which he had largely conquered alongside the neighbouring Elfael by 1200. Despite semi constant warfare, Maelienydd was to remain almost continuously in the hands of the Mortimer family and between 1240 and 1246 Roger’s son Ranulph Mortimer, husband of Gwladys Ddu (a daughter of Llewelyn the Great), built the first castle at Cefnllys and the first recorded mention of Cefnllys as Keventhles is in 1246; the year the castle was completed.
The church of St Michael was probably first built around this time and the village of Cefnllys was built around it. In November 1262 the castle was captured and burned by rebels of Maelienydd who were eventually reinforced by Llewelyn ap Grufydd, the first cousin of the lord of Maelienydd; Roger Mortimer, 1st baron Wigmore. It is not recorded as to what happened to the village but one would assume that Llewelyn accepted the inhabitants as his subjects and they escaped relatively unscathed. The ruined castle, the village and the lordship of Maelienydd remained in the hands of Llewelyn until 1267 when it was agreed that Roger could return to the land after the Treaty of Montgomery. He promptly abandoned the original castle and built another on the other end of the hill summit protected by a rock cut ditch.
Despite the changing of hands and warfare, Cefnllys appears to have been quite prosperous initially. A market charter was granted by Edward I in 1297 and seven years later it is recorded that Cefnllys had 25 households and a mill on the river. A toll was set up on the bridge crossing the Ithon, perhaps were the modern day bridge is situated. This was the halcyon of Cefnllys and as a little as 20 years later the village was already in decline. By the time of the Owain Glyn Dwr uprising the castle had a very small garrison and the castle and village were “laid to waste” in 1406.
Despite some rebuilding work by Richard duke of York in 1430’s Cefnllys was left to rot and the castle was in ruins by 1540. However, this was not the case for the village itself. Excavation has thrown up many Tudor finds, although oddly, very little in the way of medieval. It is believed that the village was populated until mid-way through the eighteenth century when it was finally abandoned in favour of the nearby Llandrindod Wells, a new and fashionable spa town. St Michaels Church however seems to remained in the heart of the people and in frustration the rector of Llandrindod Wells had the roof removed. This was done to deliberately force the old church into decay and thus move the congregation to the new church in the fashionable new town of Llandrindod Wells. This was deeply unpopular and just two years later the roof was replaced and the church restored. As aforementioned, it is the only surviving structure of Cefnllys, surrounded by ancient Yew trees, the graveyard is full of eighteenth century memorials and poignantly, new modern graves also, which shows that even though Cefnllys is gone; it is not forgotten.
Having visited Cefnllys on several occasions, it is a remote place that you would not find unless you were looking for it. Access is via the ‘Shaky Bridge’ which crosses the River Ithon which in heavy rain is extremely fast flowing and tends to flood. The bridge is located at a sharp bend in the road at the foot of a very steep hill. In bad weather (as I found), it is very difficult to get to the church let alone the ruins of the castles which are nothing more than piles of collapsed rubble. But there is a lonely and wild beauty to Cefnllys and it is very difficult to believe that it was ever a bustling little town with a market, a quiet village or the scene of battles between the Mortimers and the native Welsh Princes. The only excitement to be found there now are the sheep which roam freely over the land and have a habit of following you around, bleating in protest for the disturbance of theirs and Cefnllys peace.