The Angelystor of Llangernyw.
‘When the bell begins to toll,
Lord, have mercy on the soul.’
The Venerable Bede, 672-735.
Our forefathers were fearful of the devil. They understood that Satan and his followers congregated around churches hoping to steal souls. Devils and demons, it was believed, were most fearful of the sound of bells. In Ireland evil spirits were driven away by the ringing of church bells. The same is true in Scotland. In Wales the mournful toll of a church bell, known as the passing bell, would start when a person was on their death bed. During the funeral, the church bell was often accompanied by the ringing of a second, smaller, hand bell. This corpse bell, as it was known, would be carried in front of the body, as it was carried to its final resting place, to protect the soul of the dead person from Satan.
Many Welsh churches were built with north and south facing doors. Before a funeral or christening, the north door would be opened then, the priest would enter through the south door. The north door, commonly known as the devil’s door, would remain open during the service so that evil spirits in the church could flee from the ringing bells they feared so much.
Despite these and other precautions, evil spirits were still a problem in churches. One church with a particularly unpleasant kind of demon was St. Dygain’s in the village of Llangernyw. The demon was an Angelystor or ‘Recording Angel’ so named because, at the stroke of midnight each All-Hallows Eve, the demon would whisper the names of those who would pass away in the coming year.
When a new tailor named Shon Ap Robert moved into the village he was amused to learn about the messenger of death that haunted the church. Shon was a strong confident young fellow, full of life and always ready for some fun.
“An Angelystor you call it, who can foretell the future. What nonsense. I don’t believe in spirits,” he said one evening in the tavern.
“Don’t scoff at things you don’t understand,” warned his drinking companions.
As the evening passed and more ale flowed, Shon grew bolder.
“I’ll prove there’s no such thing, this very Halloween, by waiting in the church until the clock strikes twelve,” said Shon.
“Don’t be a fool,” replied the landlord.
“Leave the Angelystor in peace if you value your soul,” said another.
“How much do you wager that I will hear no names?” challenged Shon with a swagger.
“I will stake five shillings, you will hear a name and that person will be dead within the year,” said a drinker by the bar.
“Sir, I accept your wager,” cried Shon.
Every day the villagers tried to dissuade the tailor from his quest. The priest warned him it was a mistake. The doctor told Shon he was a fool and the tavern keeper, frightened for the young mans sanity, tried to stop him.
“A bet has been made and as a man of principle I am obliged to honour it,” replied the confident tailor and would not be swayed.
October passed quickly and late on All-Hallows Eve he entered the church alone. His solitary candle flickered casting strange dancing shadows on the walls. Shon ap Robert sat quietly on a pew, near the altar and waited. Outside the great yew that grew in the churchyard was being buffeted by the wind. Shon held his pocket watch up to the candle. It was ten minutes to twelve. Slowly, the minutes ticked past. The cold church air was chilling Shon to his very marrow and he felt less confident than that convivial evening in the tavern.
“Even if I hear a name, it cannot harm me,” said Shon to himself and waited nervously in the gloom.
There was a bang and the north door of the church burst open. A gust of wind blew out Shon’s candle. Then the door slammed shut, leaving Shon in darkness.
“Who’s there,” shouted Shon but there was no reply.
Instead, he heard something shuffling across the floor.
Shon wanted to jump up and flee but the church was dark as ink and he had no idea where the door was. He sat as if riveted to the pew.
“Shon Ap Robert, Shon Ap Robert,” whispered a voice, close by.
Shon could feel putrid breath near his face.
“Hold. Hold. I’m not ready,” cried the tailor and fumbled for a match.
“Shon Ap Robert,” whispered the voice again.
He struck the match. There was no one there. He was alone in the church. Shon looked at his watch. It was one minute past twelve.
The people were shocked when they saw the tailor, the following morning. His hair had turned white with shock and his face was wrinkled with age.
“Did you see the Angelystor?” asked the villagers.
“I saw nothing,” replied Shon.
“Tell us. Did he whisper the names,” asked the priest.
“Just one,” replied Shon and wearily handed over the five shillings he had wagered.
Shon Ap Robert never told the people of Llangernyw who the messenger of death had named that fearful night but, when he died within the year, they knew. Everyone in the parish was at the funeral and the corpse bell was rung loudly to protect the unfortunate tailor, who had dared hear the Angelystor, as he was laid to rest.