The dedication to St Michael suggests that this church was founded in the latter part of the Celtic Church era, after the ‘Age of the Saints’, when many churches were named after their founder, but before the Norman Conquest.
Nothing visible remains of that earliest ‘Betws’ (from the word ‘Bede House’, meaning a house of prayer). The whole church seems to have been rebuilt during the 14th–15th century.
There was no parish of Betws until relatively recent times. The township of ‘Betws Wyrion Iddon’ was part of the large parish of Llanrychwyn (today centred on Trefriw), the district of ‘Llanfihangel y Betws’ was divided off in the 16th century and served by its own clergy, but the first Vicar of Betws-y-Coed was only appointed in 1879.
The opening of Thomas Telford’s A5 road from London to Holyhead through the village in the 1820’s put Betws-y-Coed on the map as a place for visitors to stay. The rise in the number of people attending services led to the repair and enlargement of 1843, where the gallery at the west end of the church was removed, and the north transept added (the gallery had been previously used as the village schoolroom). This restoration was done under the patronage of Peter Robert, 21st Baron Willoughby de Eresby and 2nd Baron Gwydir (d. 1865). As the then owner of the Gwydir estate, Lord Gwydir enthusiastically invested in the locality: as well as the church of St Michael’s, he restored Trefriw, Llanrwst and Dolwyddelan churches. In addition, he revamped the Llanrwst Almshouses, restored Dolwyddelan Castle and implemented many estate improvements.
The ‘piece de resistance’ in St Michael’s Old Church is the stone effigy of Gruffydd ap Dafydd Goch, grandson of Dafydd, the brother of Llewelyn ab Gruffydd, the last native Prince of Wales. Gruffydd himself fought under the Black Prince, son of Edward III at the battle of Poitiers in 1356, lived nearby at Fedw Deg, and died circa 1370-80. He is depicted in armour of the period, dating from the third quarter of the 14th century.
St. Michael's also contains two painted wooden boards, one on either side of the altar, which have the Lord's Prayer and the Apostles Creed in Welsh.
The continuing growth in the population, together with the arrival of the railway in 1863 led to the opening of the Church of St Mary in the centre of the village in 1873. And so the congregation moved over the road to St Mary’s, which was dedicated as the parish church, and since that date, St Michael’s has only been used for special services and funerals.
Many of the visitors to Betws-y-Coed in Victorian times were artists, and St Michael’s Old Church was frequently the subject of paintings done by the ‘artists colony’, as well as photographs taken by commercial photographers over the years. The artist David Cox (1783-1859) painted ‘Funeral at Bettws Church’ in 1852, (now owned by Bury Art Gallery & Museum, Lancashire). St Michael’s continues to be painted today, with ‘Eglwys Sant Mihangel/St Michael’s Church, Betws-y-Coed’ painted in 1996 by Barbara Shorrocks Carter, a member of the Friends of St Michael’s.
‘Funeral at Bettws Church’ by David Cox, (Courtesy of Bury Art Gallery & Museum, Lancashire)
‘Eglwys Sant Mihangel/St Michael’s Church, Betws-y-Coed’ by Barbara Shorrocks Carter.