The Church is of an ancient foundation and dates such as fifth and sixth centuries have been suggested (Bradney), thought although authorities disagree. The dedication is to a little-known female saint, Cenedlon (see below).
The church stands on higher ground than much of the well-maintained churchyard which is bordered by the brook feeding into the River Monnow. It is a very picturesque spot but in heavy rain can flood leaving the church isolated as happened in October 2019. The church has bells which unfortunately cannot be rung at present owing to the condition of the tower and are variously inscribed:
- Memento mori (a reminder of the inevitability of death) 1665
- Soli detur gloria (Glory to God alone) 1665
- Feare God 1669.
It is also worth commenting on the number of Catholic families of believers in the area who stuck to the faith after the reformation. These recusants as they were called flourished in Rockfield and other parishes in the area. (See the “Mary in Monmouth” blog for more on the Catholic history of the area). Detection was difficult in this Welsh area as probably fellow feeling made them safe from the English authorities.
Under the altar lies a slab under which is buried the Rev. Mathew Pritchard of the Graig. He was a Roman Catholic Bishop who had been Bishop of Myra and Vicar Apostolic. He was the priest at Perth-hir and had been greatly loved by all, especially the poor and afflicted. He died at the age of 81 in May 1750 having been a priest for 57 years and a bishop for 35 years. He was commended for being a man of the highest learning who showed an equal ministry of care to all regardless of who or what they were. A pattern for all of us whether ordained or lay in our ministry to others. He is still the subject of Catholic pilgrimages. Several other Catholic priests are buried in the churchyard.
St Cenedlon, to whom Rockfield Church is dedicated, is a figure of some confusion. There are different accounts of her. Bradney places her in the fifth century, making her the 18th child out of the 49 children of Brychan after whom Brecknockshire is named. Bradney states that though not mentioned in the Liber Landavensis (Book of Llandaff) the foundation of the church doubtless dates from the fifth or sixth century when most of the churches in this neighbourhood were founded. There is another dedication to St Cenedlon mentioned in Carmarthenshire but whether this refers to the same woman is unknown. Certainly many Welsh, Cornish and Bretton saints have more than one dedication.
The Church may well be mentioned in the Book of Llandaff which mentions an ecclesia here which could be a church but often refers to a monastery. Wendy Davies continues in her book, Wales in the Early Middle Ages that South East Wales had many more churches or monasteries than the rest of Wales probably due to the earlier strong Roman influence and the greater fertility of the ground. A history of St Samson indicates that many of his relatives established monasteries in this area and so the presence of a small one in Rockfield seems likely. However we read it Rockfield Church is clearly is of ancient foundation!
Breverton in his book on Welsh Saints says Cenedlon lived in about the seventh century, married Arthfael ab Ithel, King of Gwent and founded Rockfield. St. Michael’s Well in the parish had stones spotted with red ‘blood’ and the antiquary, Lhuyd (1660-1709) recorded that a saint had been beheaded there and this indicated that it predated the St. Michael dedication. Franciscan friars from Rockfield in mediaeval times made annual pilgrimages to the Priest’s Well in Darran wood, a curative well under an ancient oak tree.
There is also references to the dedication of the church to the English St Kenelm. This is made clear along with other interesting information in the Catholic Blog of ‘Mary in Monmouth‘ which is easily found on the web This young Mercian man or boy was killed by his jealous sister who wanted the crown in the early 9th Century. Much more details are provided in her blog which Mary has kindly allowed us to refer to. Renaming might represent an attempt to overturn the earlier dedication to one more acceptable to the English.
Reverend Margaret Cooling adds whatever the truth of Cenedlon, her real story seems lost, but for memory of her to continue after 15 centuries she must have been a good and worthy person. She is one of the four saints carved on the Cross at the St. Thomas roundabout just beyond the Old Monnow Bridge, looking in the direction of Rockfield.
Breverton, TD, 2000: “The book of Welsh Saints” published by Beekman Books Inc
Bradney, Joeseph, 1904: “A history of Monmouthshire, Vol 1 Part 1”, republished in 1991 by Academy Books.
Davis, Wendy, 1989: “Wales in the Early Middle Ages”, Leicester University Press.