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The Sacred Life of St Margaret Marloes, Llandawke

Author: Dr John Morgan-Guy

Dr John Morgan Guy is Honorary Research Fellow at the Roderic Bowen Library and Archives of the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, Lampeter and a trustee of the Friends of Friendless Churches. In 2019, in celebration of the Visit Wales ‘Year of Discovery’, John explored stories from ancient and sacred spaces in the forgotten corners of rural Wales.

St Oudoceus’s Church at Llandawke, just a mile or so from the bustle of Laugharne, is set in a leafy dell – accessible only through the garden of the former Rectory. Llandawke is, and always was, a tiny parish; in fact its boundary is shared with that of the main farm here.

A 6th century inscribed stone within the church shows its ancient foundation, but the building we see today dates from the 14th century. And within the church lies a large, intriguing and well-worn sculpture in local stone, also dating from the 14th century. This is the effigy of St Margaret Marloes.

But who was she? Her name doesn’t appear in any calendar of saints – nor is any feast or festival associated with her. In fact she was the daughter and namesake of the sister of Sir Guy de Brienne (or Bryan) Lord Marcher of nearby Laugharne – who then married Sir Robert Marloes. The De Brienne family had extensive land-holdings in the locality, in Pembrokeshire and in Devon – a prominent family with significant wealth.

We know Margaret dedicated herself to the Religious Life – but she wasn’t a nun (there were only three communities of nuns in Wales, two following the Cistercian Rule and one the Benedictine, and all three were ‘enclosed’). It’s thought instead that her uncle, Sir Guy, rebuilt Llandawke Church in the 14th century as a cell or chapel specifically for his niece.

And then Margaret seems to have gathered about her at Llandawke what is known as a ‘beguinage’ – community of like-minded women who lived together without taking vows or withdrawing from the world. This gave the women a degree of freedom of movement – enabling those drawn to a life centred upon worship and prayer to live and work together. One of the rectors of the church was Philip Marloes, thought to be St Margaret’s brother, who would have acted as chaplain to her informal community.

The unusual sacred community Margaret created may well not have outlasted her own lifetime – but her own life was clearly one of recognized holiness. And as such she is that a rare example of local ‘canonization by acclamation’ – in other words her life and work were so special that she was acclaimed locally as a saint.

But why is her effigy so weather-worn? And broken into three pieces? Local legend has it that she was cut into three pieces by robbers, or perhaps, as The Gentleman’s Magazine described in 1838, destroyed by Cromwell’s troups sent to spike Llandawke Castle. We can only imagine what circumstances caused it to be cast out of the church and languish, covered in moss and bramble, until it was finally brought back inside in 1838.

The figure we see today wears a flowing robe, typical of the time, with tight sleeves, and buttons along the outer seams. And what is she holding clasped in her hands? We believe this is a rare 'heart burial' – that Margaret's heart is buried here at the church, and the rest of her body elsewhere, perhaps Eglwys Cummin or Laugharne, being family holdings. Her hands are clasped together in the same pose as many other heart burial effigies from the period.

It's unlikely that we will ever know where the heart of St Margaret was originally interred – in the church? Or the churchyard? But her effigy is now safely inside the church, in the chancel, close to the altar, and to God – as she no doubt would have wished to be.

This delightful little church off the beaten track, with its weather-worn tower and hidden history, is well worth a visit. In the silence broken only by birdsong, contemplate the life of Margaret Marloes and her community, who 600 years before, lived a life of holiness in this secluded spot.