We don’t know when Saint John’s Church was built, but we do know that there was a priest here in 1189. His name was Glou and he was witness to a charter setting up the ‘novam villam’ or new town, ‘y drenewydd yn notais’, the New Town in Nottage, a small port.
Glou is the last priest we know anything of until 1400. However, by 1330 the two parishes of Newton and Nottage had been united and the earlier, Saxon, church at Nottage abandoned.
There were three manors in the parish – Pembroke, Herbert and Lougher – and they presented the rector, or parish priest, in turn until the church was ‘disestablished’ in 1921 and the gift of patronage ceased.
Saint John’s church was originally dual purpose – designed by the Normans for worship and for defence against the Welsh and marauding Irish pirates. The tower originally had a flat roof and the eight corbels jutting out on the east side suggest the presence of a look-out platform or possibly a roofed-in platform for archers.
Jasper Tudor of Pembroke, the uncle of Henry VII, was responsible for having the church rebuilt (the chancel roof timbers have been dated at 1503) and there have been various other, less extensive, restorations in 1831, 1865, 1927 and 2004.
The 2004 restoration was undertaken with the help of grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund, Cadw and monies raised by parishioners. The church has been re-plastered with a lime plaster and lime-washed, returning it to its original finish.
The porch was once used as a parish meeting place and schoolroom – there are plenty of carved initials from bored children! Inside the porch door you can see the huge socket originally used to bar the church against the native invaders.
Immediately inside is the font, carved out of one single block of sandstone, big enough for the total immersion of babies. The bowl is octagonal, on an octagonal shaft chamfered off to rest on a square base. This rests on an older foundation and is probably dated about 1300.
The pulpit dates from the 14th century and is rare, if not unique. Until the 1827 restoration it protruded 1½ metres into the nave; the Rector at the time altered it and placed it in its current position. It would have been brightly painted.
Above the arch are two angels with wings framing their head and lying horizontally. Their heads are towards the centre and they hold a chalice ( the Cup used for communion) between them. On the body of the pulpit a vine scroll decorates the cornice, below which is shown the flagellation, or whipping, of our Lord before his crucifixion. He is tied to a post with his hands behind his back and is naked apart from a loin-cloth. He is, unusually, clean-shaven, with shoulder-length hair. A soldier stands each side; in one hand they hold the end of the ropes securing the feet to the post, in the other a whip of knotted cords.
The symbolism is this:
The design of the angels holding the chalice represents the Latin word ECCE (behold!).
The five crosses immediately below on the lintel represent the five wounds of the crucified Jesus.
The vine scroll on the cornice represents the AGNUS DEI or Lamb of God.
There are signs that the pulpit was once painted, as were all the walls.
Entry to the pulpit is only for the slim and sure-of-foot, being through a staircase within the wall. The walled-in arch above the door is part of the original, Norman church.
Next to the pulpit are the remnants of a medieval wall painting. Uncovered in the 1990s, it was over-painted in the 17th century. The painting shows the Beheading of John the Baptist, the dedication of the church. Wall painting was used for decoration and instruction, just as stained glass still is. The wall painting opposite, possibly of the Archangel Gabriel, was uncovered in 2004 and is part of a much larger original destroyed when the window was widened in 1865.
Above the arch separating the chancel from the nave you can see two squints, allowing a view of the altar from the screen which once separated nave and chancel. The screen, known a ‘rood’, was destroyed by the Puritans.
The altar was moved back away from the wall and rebuilt in 2004. The mensa, or table-stone, is some 2½ metres long. Stone altars were commanded to be destroyed during the reign of Edward VI (1548-1553) but somehow this one survived.
The East Window showing Jesus as King of Kings flanked by Saint Peter and Saint John is by Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898). Like the pulpit the Christ here is beardless. The large ‘Saint Francis’ window and the ‘Luke & John’ window are both good 20th century work, as is the War Memorial window near the tower, a complex and colourful work by Halliday.
The tower was built for defence and holds a light ring of eight bells (tenor 8¾ cwt or 440kilos), two originally from 1622 and two from 1689 were recast into 6 in 1905 and then augmented to 8 in 1981.
The clock was restored and given an electric winding mechanism in 2004. The movement is about 250 years old.
The Church owns a cup given by Queen Elizabeth in 1580 and a silver plate dated 1722, the gift of Anne Lougher, daughter of Richard Lougher, Lord of Tythegstone, the last of his line. The rest of the silver is modern.
The earliest register is marked number 2 and dates from 1754. Number 5 follows and is the marriage register from 1813-1866. The name ‘Porthcawl’ is first recorded in the registers on May 28th 1828.
All that remains of the original Churchyard Cross is the 14th century base. The Cross was rebuilt in 1927.
(History provided by Gwyn Petty, June 2007)