Pilgrimage grew in popularity in Wales in the fifth and six centuries, with the emergence of well-known native saints such as St David and St Teilo. With the arrival of the Normans in Wales at the end of the eleventh century, sites associated with many of these saints were developed into major pilgrimage centres, some of which claimed international fame. In south east Wales, the most important pilgrimage site at that time was the shrine of St Teilo in Llandaff Cathedral, though there were several holy well and relics which attracted pilgrims.

By the fifteenth century, the most popular pilgrimage site in the area was the statue of the Virgin and Child, and nearby holy well, at Penrhys in the Rhondda. It was controlled by the Cistercian Abbey of Llantarnam, who profited from the offerings made by pilgrims. Penrhys was popular with people in South Wales and across the River Severn. They came to seek healing and give thanks, and several Welsh poets composed works praising the Virgin and her holy site at Penrhys.

The Virgin Mary was always a popular figure for pilgrims, but by the fifteenth century sites dedicated to Mary were among some of the most popular in Wales: at Pwllheli on the Llyn Peninsula, Cardigan Priory in Cardiganshire, and Kidwelly Priory in Carmarthenshire, pilgrims all worshipped at statues of Mary.

But the site at Penrhys was the most famous of them all. In 1538, so alarmed were the reforming authorities by the popularity of Penrhys, under Thomas Cromwell’s orders the statue of Mary was secretly removed and taken to London. Our Lady of Penrhys was burned to ashes alongside Our Lady of Walsingham and Our Lady of Ipswich.

Although the practice of pilgrimage dwindled after the Reformation, the footpaths between Cardiff and Penrhys survived, as did the holy well. In 1953, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Cardiff installed a new statue of Mary, carved from Portland stone, on the site of the Cistercian chapel.

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E-mail: post@penrhyspilgrimageway.wales

Penrhys is an island at the forest's edge 
With consecrated bread and holy water

by Gwilym Tew circa 1470

Working in partnership

Cardiff Caerdydd, Rhondda Cynon Taf