Early Christianity

Standing within the bounds of our present parish, let us go back in time some sixteen and a half centuries and try to see the district as it was at the beginning of the fourth century. We are standing within the suburbs of the third greatest city in Britain, Isea Silurum, the City of the Legions, or – to give it its Welsh name: CAER LLEON. Looking east from where we stand, we can see, about two miles away, the barracks of the Second Augustine Legion, a garrison of about six thousand soldiers. Outside the barrack walls, stretching west along the river bank past us, are the houses of the civilian population, which numbers about twenty thousand.

Scattered here and there among the houses, palaces and open-air theatres are temples to the pagan gods of the Romans and the Britons, with, occasionally, a small wooden Christian church. These are not easy days for the small band of people who have sworn to follow Jesus Christ, for the Roman Empire regards with uneasy suspicion this new religion which has spread abroad from Palestine, and it does not enjoy the t o ler anc e with which authority looks upon the many other religions. However, the worst is yet to be, for the mistrust and hostility they now meet is soon to turn to violent and ruthless persecution.


In the year 303 the Emperor Diocletian issued an edict ordering the ‘demolition of all churches, the burning of their books and the removal of all Christians who held public office. Other edicts, which quickly followed, ordered the death of all Christians who would not offer sacrifice to the Roman gods. This persecution lasted for the next ten years, but the Christians of Britain were more fortunate than their brethren in many countries for, after the initial fervour of the first two or three years, the Roman governors in Britain, far from the eagle eye of their wrathful emperor, began to relax their pursuit of the Christians.

The British historian Gildas (544 A.D.). describing the persecution in Britain, says: “Many British Christians were despatched with diversity of torture and torn limb from limb in a most barbarous and cruel manner; those who escaped the fury of their persecutors retired to the woods and deserts and hid themselves in caves, where they continued confessors till God was pleased to revenge their usage upon their persecutors and afford better times to the church.”

Among the many martyrs who suffered in Britain 111 the Diocletian persecution were four who are of particular interest to us in this area: our patron saints, Julius and Aaron: Alban, the British proto-martyr ; and his companion, the priest Amphibalus, a native of Caerleon, The nationality of Julius and Aaron is not clear, but there is no doubt at all that they were citizens of Caerleon. Some say that they were British, but the more popular belief is that they were Roman soldiers. Rice Rees, in his “Essays on the Welsh Saints”, says: “They appear to have been Romans rather than Britons, which may account for the circumstance of their having passed almost unregarded by the Welsh people.” S. Barings Gould points out that their feast day occurs in the old Roman martyrology, but is not to be found in the Sarum or York Calendars.

Three Martyrs

Although details of the lives of Julius and Aaron are denied us, there is ample evidence of their existence and martyrdom, for they are mentioned by several authentic writers of great antiquity, such as Constantius of Lyons (500 A.D.), Venantius Fortunatus (530-609 A.D.), The Venerable Bede (731 A.D.), and Gildas. In “De excidio Brittaniae”, published in 544, Gildas says: “God of His own free gift kindled for us bright lamps of holy Martyrs. I speak of St Alban of Verulam, Aaron and Julius, citizens of Caerleon, and the rest who stood firm in Christ’s battle.” Bede writes in his “Ecclesiastical History” in 731: “At that time, Aaron and Julius , citizens of Caerleon, suffered.”

Many historians, seeking an explanation for an early Christian church near Christchurch dedicated to S. Alban, have suggested that he either lived at Caerleon or met his death there. This, however, conflicts too strongly with the generally accepted story of Alban’s death, and I think the better explanation is offered by William Hughes, author of “History of the Church of the Cyrnry”. Hughes suggests that after Alban’s death at Verularn his companion Amphibalus returned to Caerleon, followed by about a thousand men who, converted to Christianity by Alban’s courageous approach to death, sought to be baptised. The heathen inhabitants of Verulam pursued them to Wales, captured Amphibalus, and put his followers to death. As, this great demonstration of Christian fortitude was the outcome of Alban’s martyrdom, it explains why his name should be venerated in this district.

After ten years’ suffering for the Christians, the persecution finally ended when, in 313, Constantine became emperor and, as one of his first acts, granted full liberty to the Christians. And l10W – to quote Gildas and Bede – “the faithful Christians who during the time of danger had hidden themselves in woods, deserts and secret caves, appearing in public, rebuilt the churches which had been levelled to the, ground, founded, erected and finished the temples of the holy martyrs and, as it were, displayed their conquering ensign in all places.”

Christianity was now professed freely throughout Britain and, fur some twelve hundred years. the churches of SS. lulius and Aaron kept alive the memory of our local martyrs.

Growth of the Church

We can well imagine the Christians of Caerleon joyfully returning from their places of refuge and eagerly setting to work to build churches to commemorate their brother Christians who had died for the Faith. The Christian Church now began to flourish, bishops once more publicly assumed their spiritual leadership, and all set about the task of repairing the ravages of the past ten years. Caerleon was, at this time, the seat of the third metropolitan see of Britain, the others being London and York. These three bishops, while not using the title of “Archbishop”, had under their jurisdiction a number of suffragan and itinerary bishops, and are sometimes referred to by later historians as archbishops. We have a record of the Bishop of Caerleon as early as one year after the end of the Diocletian Persecution, for Sirmondus (Concilia Gallic.) has preserved a list of the bishops who attended the Council of Arles in 314, and among them is Adelfius, who was undoubtedly Bishop of Caerleon.

Book of Llandaff

There is no indication how soon it was after their martyrdom that churches were built to the memory of  Julius and Aaron, but that the churches were in existence before the end of the fifth century is proved by a reference to them in the Liber Landavenis (The Book of Llandaff) as belonging to Dubricius, or Dyfrig, who was Bishop of Caerleon from 490 to 521. A long detailed description in archaic Welsh of “the whole territory of the martyrs Julius and Aaron” is contained in the Book as a gift to Nud, Bishop of Llandaff’, about the year 775. Among a list of eighteen merthirs (places of martyrs) in the Liber Landavenis is the ‘Merthir Iun (orIulii) et Aaron”,

Further mention of the churches is found in the deeds of the Benedictine Priory at Goldcliff, published in Dugdale’s “Monasticon” (12th C.) Robert de Chandos, Lord of Caerleon , had founded the Goldcliff Priory in 1113 as a cell of the Abbey of Bec, Normandy and on the advice of King Henry I, he granted certain lands and possessions to the abbots of Bee .. “I gave also to them all the churches in my wardship … with lands and tithes belonging to them, namely, the Church of the Holy Trinity (Christchurch) and the church of Julius and Aaron.”

There is no doubt that there were at least three churches in the district in those days, and possibly there were more. The Chapel of S. Julius , graced with a choir of nuns, stood on the site of S. Julian’s Mansion, near Cumberland Road, off Caerleon Road. S. Aaron’s Chapel, to the east of Caerleon, near the, Avon Llwyd, was staffed by an order of canons; this church, according to Geoffrey of Monmouth (1100 -1154), was the metropolitan church of the province, but other historians refer to three churches – one to Julius , one to Aaron and the third the seat of the Archbishop. There was also a church near Christchurch dedicated to S. Alban and this, no doubt, was also attached to the Goldcliff Benedictines, but it probably fell into disuse after 1113 when the community built the church of the Holy Trinity at the cross- roads at Christchurch, a spot holy to the Britons before the Christian era. A summary of the Christchurch endowments in the “Valor Ecclesiasticus” of 1526 contains no mention of a chapel of S.Alban. Archdeacon Coxe, who toured Monmouthshire in 1804, says that a stone coffin was found on the site – now Mount S. Alban’s on the Catsash Road – in 1785, but there was no other trace of the church.

Primacy of Caerleon

Describing Caerleon, which he visited early in the 13th Century, Giraldus Cambrensis says: “lulius and Aaron, after ‘suffering martyrdom, were buried in this city and each had a church dedicated to him. After Alban and Amphibalus they were esteemed the chief proto-martyrs of Britannia Major. In ancient times there were three fine churches in this city, one dedicated to Iulius the martyr, graced with a choir of nuns, another to Aaron, his associate, and ennobled with an order of canons, and the third distinguished as the metropolitan see of Wales. Amphibalus was born in this place and here also Archbishop Dubricius ceded his honours to David of Menevia, the metropolitan see being translated from this place to Menevia, according to the prophecy of Merlin Ambrosius – “Menevia shall be invested with the pall of the City of Legions.”

The metropolitan see remained at Caerleon until the end of the episcopate of Dyfrig, Archbishop of Caerleon and Bishop of Llandaff who in 519 resigned in favour of David (the Welsh patron saint). David moved the see to his home town Menevia and founded there St David’s Cathedral. The bishops of St David’s continued to act as metropolitans for the whole of Wales until, in 1115, Bernard, Bishop of St David’s, a Norman appointed by Henry I, professed subjection to the see of Canterbury. In 600 at a conference with Augustine, the Welsh bishops had refused to recognise the authority of Rome and in 664, at the Synod of Whitby, the Welsh Church was declared schismatic. By the end of the eighth century, however, it had become part of the Church of Rome and towards the close of the twelfth century, it was merged into the Church in England. In this district, union with England took place earlier than in the rest of Wales, for Urban, Bishop of Llandaff, submitted to the authority of Canterbury in 1107. In 1284 Peckham, Archbishop of Canterbury, paid his first official Visitation to the Welsh Church and in July of that year he stayed in Newport. Haddan and Stubbs (Ecclesiastical Councils and Documents, 1869) quote a letter to Edward I reporting on the situation in Wales, which Peckham wrote from Newport.

Destruction & Decline

Earlier, brief mention was made of Goldcliff Priory, a religious house run by the Benedictines. Archival records show that the Benedictine monks also administered to other chapels and churches which were then attached to the Priory. Two such places were the chapels of St Julius and St Aaron.

About 1424 a very severe tempest completely destroyed Goldcliff Priory and everything in the immediate neighbourhood. This may well have hindered the ministerial work the monks rendered to these attached chapels at Christchurch, Caerleon and at the site where the St Julian’s Mansion once stood. There is no evidence, however, that these churches had to close. It is much more likely that the churches continued to revere the memory of these local martyrs at least until 1547, when Henry the Eighth entered into the shameful destruction of many churches and monastic buildings throughout the land. Many churches in Wales suffered the Cromwellian destruction, on the orders of the King, including Tintern, Margam and Lanthony. Today many of these destroyed relics are visited by thousands of pilgrims I visitors every year. The Chapel of Julius and that of Aaron, both suffered the fate of destruction and for the next three hundred years the religious needs of the St Julians district were met by the Parish Church of Christ- church, and the memory of our local martyrs was not observed by any church dedicated to them until the present Parish Church of St Julians was built and dedicated to these local saints in 1926.

St Julians Manor

The ruins of the old monastic chapel of St Julius were finally destroyed sometime in the fifteenth century, when Sir George Herbert built a Manor on the site and gave the manor the name of “St Gillian’s” a corruption of “St Julian’s”. Another old corruption of the name is “St Jelian’s”, and yet another is” St lelian’s”, thus the names of our local saints were preserved in the district.

At the end of the eighteenth century the population of Newport was less than one thousand souls and the religious needs of the whole town could easily be served by two churches, Holy Trinity, Christchurch, and St Woolos. By 1840 the population had grown to 40,000. It was then decided to form a new parish on the east side of Newport with a large new church building. It was this new parish, St John the Evangelist, which was to play such a big part in the formation and very early life of the present Parish of St Julians.

The Guild of St John the Baptist

The mid 19th century Anglican Church in Newport was inclined to be Evangelical in its churchmanship despite the ever growing effect that the High Church Movement (The Oxford Movement) was having throughout the rest of the ”State Church” in England. The very staunch Churchmen of Newport were soon to have a great shock, for in January of 1868, the English Church Union arrived in the town and held a conference, the result of which gained much publicity in the local press.

Anglican and Free Churches were having none of this ‘popish nonsense’ and very soon retaliated by holding a Anti-Ritualistic Demonstration at the Victoria Hall, Newport, in March of the same year. This demonstration meeting attracted about two thousand people, including the Town Mayor, local notabilities and most, if not all, the Clergy of the town.

Following this Anti-Ritualistic Demonstration, a small band of Anglicans fired with a zeal for reform in the Church, formed themselves into a guild and took the name,”The Guild of St John the Baptist”. The guild wished to see rapid changes within the local Anglican churches with a return to the devotions of the pre-reformation Church and to see the abolition of the “Pew Rent” which practically closed the church to the poor.

In 1876, The Guild of St John the Baptist now greatly enlarged, set up a mission church in Barnardtown to serve the needs of the poorer classes in Maindee parish, The site acquired was situated in Church Road and was directly opposite the present church dedicated to St Matthew (web editor’s note – this church has since been demolished).

The Vicar of Maindee, Archdeacon Sleeman, was sympathetic to the High Church Movement and on the morning of December 3rd, 1876 celebrated the first Mass at the Barnardtown Mission Church.

Fr Birkmyre was appointed the first priest-in-charge and for the next six years the mission church in Barnardtown enjoyed, what was then, very simple ceremony at the Mass.

Unfortunately the days of the mission church were numbered. The Vicar of Maindee was forced to retire because of ill health and there were still people who were against these high church tendencies and made their views known at every possible opportunity. The new Vicar, Revd T Griffiths, dismissed Fr Birkmyre and promptly closed the mission; and on March 27th, 1882, the communicants of the mission met for the last time to bid a sad farewell to a church they had known and loved for six years.

Durham Road

The population of Maindee Parish having increased with the fast growing developments of Newport, it was soon decided that a church was required again in the Barnardtown district of the town.

A church of iron construction which had stood in Dock Street for the past nine years as a chapel-of-ease was acquired by Maindee parish and once again erected in Church Road opposite the former Mission church, where its services and teaching remained firmly rooted within the Evangelical low church tradition.

Following the decision to construct the present permanent church dedicated to St Matthew which stands in Church Road (web editor notes: since demolished), the iron church, which had once again become surplus to requirements, found its final resting place in Durham Road, where, on December 3rd 1891, it was opened as a mission church under the title, “St Julian’s Church”. The Durham Road church maintained its Evangelical tradition, and like many churches of. that tradition, when it opened no cross adorned the altar.

All seemed to go well with the church for the first year, but when the new church of St Matthew opened for worship in Church Road it appeared to have a disastrous effect on the life of the Durham Road church, both financially and on church attendance. It was not unknown for a hat to be passed around after services to make up the four shillings required to pay the caretaker.

The first ten years in the life of the Durham Road church saw no less than seven clergymen serving the church:- Titmus 1891; Cross 1894; Russell 1895; Jones 1896; Clunn 1899; Howell Jenkins 1900; Bancroft 1901. One can only assume that the work was so disheartening that these first seven ‘felt moved to seek employment elsewhere .. but all this was soon to change. Enter John Albert Cottrell.

John Albert Cottrell

In 1901, the appointment of John Albert Cottrell saw what was to be the beginning of a new era in the life of the Church in the district of St Julian. (One has to be reminded that at this time St Julian’s was not yet a Church Parish)

J A Cottrell came down from Durham University and was invited to serve his title at the Durham Road mission church by the Rev D.E.Uewellyn Jones, Vicar of Maindee. That Cottrell even accepted the offer, for he surely must have known that he was to be number eight in a decade, gives us some idea of the insight and vision this young man had.

Curate Cottrell was born in West Derby, Liverpool, and was the son of a corn and flour merchant. The first ten years of his working life were spent as an employee of the North and South Wales Bank, chiefly to find the means for a university course. After a three year course at Durham he was ordained Deacon by the Bishop of Llandaff in September 1901 to start what was to become his life’s work within the Parish of St Julian’s.

St Julian’s Mission Church was not a promising sphere of work for any newly ordained deacon, and to some might have appeared positively daunting, but Curate Cottrell came with no illusions. The Vicar of Maindee had already told him that the only use he thought the iron church could serve was as a place for the Sunday School and Mothers Union meetings, but the vicar gave this young curate a glimmer of hope by adding that a small number of people might come because they liked the ‘High Church Services’ and had been annoyed at the closing of the Church Road Mission some twenty years previously during the time of Rev Birkmyre.

The introduction of Catholic style worship into the parish certainly had its opposition among the die-hard Evangelicals and many parishioners refused to contribute to the Curacy Fund as long as Fr Cottrell was to benefit from it. Opposition came also from well beyond the parish bounds, for in their anti-ritualistic campaigns, the Kensits paid two visits to the parish in 1904 and in 1906

Undaunted by these intruding anti-ritualistic campaigners, Father Cottrell plodded on with the work of sowing the seed of firm Catholic worship and slowly but surely gathered around him a faithful congregation. In 1915, some 15 years after the arrival of Fr Cottrell, the ever growing importance of the district was recognised by making St Julians a Conventional District. Talks in regard to a permanent Parish Church had already taken place just prior to the Great War 1914-18.

The cost of a larger and fine looking church had been estimated at about £15,000, for which plans had already been drawn. However after the Armistice which was to end that war, it was found that the costs of producing such a church building had doubled to £33,000. Fr Cottrell together with his people was not to be put off by a mere £18,000, for the solution to this temporary problem was to build a church which could serve the needs of the parish, yet allow for extensions and additions to be made later to the building to implement the original plans, as and when, the funds became available to do so. Modified plans were drawn up and a church built on a less grand scale, much as it stands today. There can be no doubt that extensions were intended as signs of this can be seen by looking around the interior walls of the church and by looking at the ends of the external walls of the church which have been left toothed for any such future plan of work to be carried out. (Web editors note – an extension has since been added to the east end of the church, forming the Ty Williams rooms and extended Lady Chappel – so these toothed edges are no longer visible)

The Iron Church in Durham Road was to remain the Parish Church of the conventional district of St Julian’s, with Fr Cottrell as the first Vicar for another four years. Induction as Vicar was carried out by the Archdeacon of Monmouth just twenty-four hours before the creation of the new Diocese of Monmouth.

Further Reading