The first known holy place in Brechfa was a spring (now sadly dried up) which provided water for the people of the village until well within living memory. The little wall which once protected it can still be seen in Victoria Park on the banks of the River Marlais. Flowing water was sacred to the pre-Christian Celts as a source of life and a sign of blessing. The saints of the Celtic Church in Wales respected this belief and added to it their own Christian symbolism. The water from holy springs was used for baptism, becoming the outward symbol of new spiritual life. The spring would then be renamed after the Christian holy man or woman who had first used its water to baptize his or her converts. In Brechfa that person was St Teilo and the spring on the bank of the River Marlais thus became known as Ffynnon Deilo. There are at least two other springs with the same name in Carmarthenshire: one near the parish church of Llandeilo Fawr and the other close to the site of the medieval Capel Teilo at Mynydd-y-Garreg.
In his study of The Holy Wells of Wales Major Francis Jones describes the way in which pagan wells or springs were converted to Christian use in the period of the Celtic Church, demonstrating that this usually involved the building of a church or chapel nearby. He identifies 200 ancient chapels and churches in Wales built near holy wells or springs, and many additions can now be made to his original list. One example is Ffynnon Sant Silyn (St Silyn's Spring) in Gwernogle with the nearby chapel of St Silyn, the ruins of which were converted into a farmhouse in the eighteenth century. The original church in Brechfa, not far from Ffynnon Deilo (Teilo's Spring) was another such building. The continuity of Christianity in Brechfa over the centuries is underlined by the fact that many of the older members of the present St Teilo's Church were baptized with water from the same spring which Teilo used to baptize the first Brechfa Christians.
St Teilo was one of the 'Trisant', along with Dewi (David) and Padarn. They were the three great missionary bishops who brought the Christian Gospel to the people of the hills and valleys of West Wales during the sixth century. Each had his own centre: Dewi at what has become Tyddewi (St David's), Padarn at what is now Llanbadarn Fawr near Aberystwyth, and Teilo at the modem Llandeilo. Using these mother churches as their base these leaders established little cells in the surrounding countryside which became places of worship for their converts. These new Christians thought of themselves as a part of the 'teulu' (family) of the saint who brought Christ's message to them. The first Brechfa Christians thus became 'teulu Teilo'-'Teilo's family'.
St Teilo is the subject of a fair amount of folk tradition and legend, though reliable historical information about him is scarce. We can be sure that he was born at Penally in Pembrokeshire and lived in the sixth century and that his missionary activities were centred on Carmarthenshire. When the Yellow Plague struck Wales he left for Cornwall and then Brittany (where he was known as 'Telo'), later returning to continue his work in Wales. The stories told about him suggest that he was a humble, gentle and generous man. In Brittany he is still regarded as the patron saint of horses and apple trees. Two apple trees have been planted in Brechfa churchyard in recent years to commemorate this ancient tradition.
Efengylau Teilo ('The Gospels of St Teilo', otherwise known as "The Lichfield Gospels' or 'The Gospels of St Chad') is one of the most beautiful of the illuminated Gospel-books produced in Britain during the eighth century. Its place of origin is unknown, but the manuscript includes marginal notes which contain some of the earliest examples of written Welsh. One of these tells us that Gelhi son of Arihtuid gave his best horse to a certain Cingal in exchange for the book, which he then presented 'to God and St Teilo.' The volume was apparently placed on Teilo's altar at Llandeilo Fawr.
It remained there until the tenth century when it vanished mysteriously, reappearing in the Cathedral of St Chad at Lichfield. It has been there ever since. One scholar has suggested that Hywel Dda, who was trying to establish an alliance with the Saxons, may have given the book to the English king his an attempt to win him over. Another possibility is that the manuscript was stolen from Llandeilo by visiting monks from Lichfield. Such an occurrence was not unusual during the medieval scramble to obtain relics and holy objects for churches and cathedrals.
The marginal notes made while the book was still in Llandeilo include references to grants of land. One of these contains the first ever mention of Brechfa. Unfortunately the passage is incomplete, part of it having been cut away by a careless bookbinder. What remains was translated by the nineteenth century scholar W J. Rees, Casgob, as follows:
'This writing sheweth that Rhys and Hirv Brechva as far as Hirvaen
Gwyddog, from the desert of Gelli Irlath as far as Camddwr. Its rent payment is sixty loaves, and a wether sheep, and a quantity of butter. Almighty God is witness; Sadwrnwydd the Priest, witness; Nywys, witness; Gwrgi, witness; Cwdhwlf, witness; of the laity, Cynwem, witness; Collwyn, witness; Cyhorged, witness; Erbin, witness. Whoever will keep it shall be blessed; whoever will break it shall be cursed.'
It is clear from a similar grant elsewhere in the margins of the manuscript that the missing words must have included 'gave to God and St Teilo.'
Brechfa is spelt 'Bracma' in the Gospels of St Teilo - an indication of the primitive nature of the Welsh used in the marginal notes, as was realized by the great eighteenth century philologist Edward Lhuyd. In Middle Welsh the 'm' mutates to 'v' and in Modern Welsh to T. Another example in the same passage is 'Hirmain' which changes to 'Hirvaen' in Middle Welsh and 'Hirfaen' in the modem spelling. A 1324 Latin charter of the lands of Talley Abbey proves that the reference in the Gospels of St Teilo is to the present-day Brechfa. It also contains the names 'Brechva' and 'Hyrvaynguduac' (Hirfaen Gwyddog).
The note in the margin of the Gospels of St Teilo both confirms the ancient connection between the church in Brechfa and its patron saint and also provides a direct link between the parish and the beginnings of Welsh culture. In May 1993 a group of pilgrims from Brechfa visited Lichfield Cathedral. They were shown the Gospels of St Teilo by Canon Tony Barnard, and the Rector of Brechfa then celebrated the Holy Eucharist in the Lady Chapel. This was the first time that a Welsh language service of Holy Communion had been held in Lichfield Cathedral in the whole of its long history.
The link between Brechfa and its mother church in Llandeilo lasted until the beginning of the thirteenth century when the parish was given to Talley Abbey. The abbey at Talley had been established towards the end of the previous century by Rhys ap Gruffydd (1132-97), Lord of Deheubarth. Its monks were Welshmen who belonged to the Premonstratensian Order. They were known as 'White Canons' because they wore white cassocks, cloaks and caps. The Lord Rhys seems to have founded the abbey in an attempt to counteract the Normanizing influence of the Cistercian monasteries which had become a major influence in South Wales.
One of the first abbots of Talley was called Iorwerth or Gervase. For a century the English kings had made sure that their Norman nominee always became bishop of St Davids. When the see fell vacant in 1215 however, King John was deeply embroiled in the struggle with his barons which led to the signing of Magna Carta. He was in no position to interfere in the appointment of a bishop to a distant Welsh diocese. The cathedral chapter of St Davids, backed by Llywelyn the Great, were thus free to elect their own candidate: the good Welshman Iorwerth, Abbot of Talley. He soon made his name as an effective reforming bishop.
Bishop lorwerth did not, however, neglect his old abbey. In its early years Talley had been both poor and vulnerable. The greedy Cistercians of Whitland had at one point even tried to take the abbey over with the help of an armed gang of laymen. Bishop Iorwerth decided to secure Talley Abbey's future by giving it the ancient lands of St Teilo. These included Bryn-yr-eidon (now in Brechfa parish) and Brechfa itself. Brechfa became a 'grange' of the abbey, farmed by monks, lay-brothers and hired labourers. F.G. Cowley describes the characteristic medieval monastic grange in South Wales as 'a group of buildings which included a granary, stalls and pens for livestock, living quarters for the lay-brethren and hired labourers, and in some cases a chapel.'
In Brechfa the little church whose origins dated back to Teilo's time became the chapel for the monastic grange. The list of churches and chapels belonging to Talley in the abbey's charter of 1324 includes not only Llandeilo Fawr and its chapelries but also 'Lanteilau Brechfa' (the church of Teilo at Brechfa). Professor Melville Richards, writing about 'The Carmarthenshire Possessions of Talyllychau' in Carmarthenshire Studies (1974), had no doubt that this referred to the Carmarthenshire Brechfa.
The connection between Brechfa and Talley may have been the cause of a brutal episode in 1287. In that year Rhys ap Maredudd rebelled against the English and was besieged by a large army in Dryslwyn Castle. He managed to escape before the stronghold was captured and Robert de Tibetot, the Constable of Carmarthen, sent a party of soldiers after him. They plundered and pillaged their way up the Cothi Valley as far as Brechfa. Although they inflicted great misery on the inhabitants of the area, they failed to catch Rhys. He remained on the run until 1291. Tibetot's soldiers may have come to Brechfa to look for him because of its links with Talley Abbey. Rhys had been patron of the abbey and had tried to stop the English king from replacing its Welsh canons with English ones.
When Iolo Morganwg came to Brechfa in June 1796 to visit his friend and fellow Unitarian Tomos Glyn Cothi (or 'Twm Penpistyll' as he was known locally), he described it as
'A village of about 7 or 8 houses, the church small and simple not, I am told, subject to the jurisdiction of the Bishop of St. David's, or of any other British bishop, as it is, they say, in an Irish diocese or peculiar of some archbishop of Ireland, but of which none could tell me.'
There seems to be no historical foundation for this Irish connection, and it is probable that someone from Brechfa had been pulling lolo's leg. The 'church small and simple' however was almost certainly the building which had once been used by the monks of Talley.
In 1534 Talley Abbey made a return of its income as part of the process which led to the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII. It included the following items:
Mill of Beghbacothy 0 16 8
Chapel of Brechva 2 13 4
The mill was Felin Fforest, which had first been mentioned among the possessions of the Abbot of Talley in the Taxation of Pope Nicholas in 1291. When the dissolution of Talley Abbey came into effect its lands at Brechfa were seized by the Crown. King Henry then leased the grange of 'Bechfa Gothy' to a certain Richard Dauncey, who is described as 'a member of the King's household.'
After the dissolution of the monasteries the Carmarthenshire countryside remained dotted with a variety of small churches and chapels-of-ease in varying states of repair. Many of them, like the little church at Brechfa, had formerly been linked to an abbey or a monastery. Some of them gradually fell into ruins and disappeared, others (like Capel Sant Silyn in Gwemogle and Capel Mair at Nant-y-ffin) were converted into houses or farm-buildings. Many survived as churches, partly as a result of the faithfulness and dedication of their parishioners and sometimes also because of the generosity of the local gentry.
Brechfa Church was among those which survived, though its history in the second half of the sixteenth century and for most of the seventeenth century remains obscure. A ray of light emerges on the 22nd of September 1688 when among the newly ordained deacons who signed the Subscription Book of Bishop Thomas Watson of St Davids was 'Joannes Gwynne, ord' Diac', Cur' de Brechvah, co. Carm.' Seventeenth century bishops' registers are often frustratingly vague documents and there seem to have been other clergy in the diocese named John Gwynne, but it is probable that the Curate of Brechfa was also the 'Joh. Gwynne' whom Bishop Watson collated as Rector of Cregrina in Radnorshire in 1691, because shortly afterwards he sent someone else to Brechfa. John Gwynne had served three years in the parish as its first recorded incumbent. His successor was John Lloyd, ordained priest on the 3rd of June 1691, to be Curate of Brechfa. Gwynne, ord' Diac', Cur' de Brechvah, co. Carm.' Seventeenth century bishops' registers are often frustratingly vague documents and there seem to have been other clergy in the diocese named John Gwynne, but it is probable that the Curate of Brechfa was also the 'Joh. Gwynne' whom Bishop Watson collated as Rector of Cregrina in Radnorshire in 1691, because shortly afterwards he sent someone else to Brechfa. John Gwynne had served three years in the parish as its first recorded incumbent. His successor was John Lloyd, ordained priest on the 3rd of June 1691, to be Curate of Brechfa.