The first evidence of Christianity in Wales is a vessel dated to about 375 with a Chi-Rho monogram on it. After the Romans had gone the Anglo-Saxons set about securing their grip on the island; the British, called ‘welsh’/‘foreigners’ by the Anglo-Saxons but ‘cymry’ among themselves, were generally in retreat, moving westwards into Wales, Cornwall, Brittany and Cumbria.
The word ‘llan’ is a common place name element in Wales meaning enclosure. The other element affixed to it frequently, though not always, is the name of the founding saint. The number of llans is considered to be 630. Though today we can identify only about 60 of these nevertheless this is indicative of the role of the saints in the early formation of Wales.
In Wales many hermitages, monasteries and churches were founded in these early times. The churches were usually built of wood and the places of the hermits of woven hazel, all surrounded by an earth bank and wooden fence. Only later were the churches rebuilt in stone.
Their place in close proximity to ancient burial places was also deliberate. What happened to tribal ancestors was of huge importance to the living. Christianity by fearlessly putting itself at the centre of this concern proclaimed that Christ had overcome death and eternal life was open to all. In time the circular enclosure was used for burials.
Many such places also had ancient yews. The longevity of the yew is itself a symbol of eternal life. Some of these trees are 2000, 3000, or even 5000 years old.
Many such places were also located at ancient holy wells. Here too Christianity proclaimed that Christ had blessed the waters of the earth at his baptism; such places were then used to baptise the people as they came to faith in Christ.
The density of Christian remains in Wales, especially in Pembrokeshire, the Lleyn Peninsula and Anglesey, is such that the whole landscape takes on a stong spiritual character which is reconisable even today. The point of focus is St David’s, Bardsey Island and Holy Island respectively. This is not to deny that this character is evident elsewhere, it is just that these three are such good examples
In such a landscape the churches, hermitages, ancient grave stones and holy wells, formed a unified landscape in the eyes of mediaevel pilgrims whose habit it was to visit the holy places. The pilgrim looked beyond what passes away; he seeks the Kingdom of God; he looks for the heavenly city which is and which is to come. He meets with saints and angels and is lifted by them. For the pilgrim this experience changed his life. On the other hand the unity of heaven and earth, of Christ and all his Saints together, of the cosmos as one, is celebrated even today in every liturgy.
Bardsey and Anglesey, as with St David’s, were also the goal of a westward journey. Bardsey became the place to be buried near the Saints; so many pilgrims were laid to rest there that it became known as the burial place of ‘20,000’ Saints. Bardsey’s ‘magical’ quality is reinforced by its close offshore position set apart by dangerous sea currents. In the 12 century the pope said three pilgrimages to Bardsey was the equivalent of one to Jerusalem. On the journey down the Lleyn we meet St Cybi, St Beuno, St Gwynhoedal, St Maelrhys, St Hywn, St Tudwal and others.
Anglesey was sacred to the druids (as many places were) and was a holy island in its own right – hence the name ‘Holyhead’. This too is packed with early saints: St Cybi, St Pabo, St Patrick, St Eillan, St Sadwrn, Sy Iestyn, St St Seriol, St Cwyfan, St Cadwaladr and others. The routes onto the peninsula were either from the south or from the East. From the east were stopping points in abundance where St Tanwyg, St Tegai, St Tudno, St Trillo, St Celynin and others had lived, not to mention those clustered around St Winifred at Holywell.
The saints of Wales, as well as those of the other areas of the British Isles were moulded by the tradition that created them. This tradition is a tradition of holiness in Christ the transformation of which began right back in Apostolic times. It is a living tradition, by which we mean it is manifest in a continuity of living persons. This tradition is seen in the martyrs, ascetics and virgins of early times and was displayed with acute brilliance by the Desert Fathers. This tradition is well attested in Wales. Many of the first generations of monastic founders in Wales and elsewhere were regarded, not surprisingly, as saints. This living tradition is attested everywhere in both the Christian east and west, that is in a whole host of Orthodox countries east and west. The evidence for its existence and persistence is there for all to see not least in this synaxarion.
The tradition in the British Isles has to be set firmly within the ambit provided by the church at large. However, in the West the continuity became harder to see. Later some Christians lost touch with it altogether
How the smaller hernitages fared is difficult to know. They were always very vulnerable to marauders. There was of course no parish system. Some places rose to prominence. St David’s being one, Llantwit Major another. Indeed this latter was the centre of the highest learning for all the ‘Celtic’ teritories of Britain, including Brittany and, with the exception of a small break about 1000 continued to do so till the Reformation.
Some saints became the focus of a group of churches dedicated to the same saint. Thus St David had 60 or more places with dedications to him far and wide. The same is true for St Teilo, St Cadoc,St Padarn, St Beuno and St Tysilio. We know in the case of St Teilo there was a ‘familia Teliavi’(family of Teilo’) so these churches had limks with each other and gave each other mutual assistance – as was the case in Ireland.
Evidence of continuity is also seen in the carving of crosses which was still going strong in 1000.
The Vikings attacks harried coastal Britain towards the end of 8 century. They first came to Anglesey in 852. They came again, this time from ireland in 903. Llantwit was destroyed in 987, and rebuilt in 1011. By this time Wales had lost its political independence and was forced by the Normans to submit to the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Yet in the very late 11 century we hear of hermits by the name of Elgar and Caradoc living on Bardsey.
The 12 century saw much new building of churches, many on the site of a saint who lived long ago. This too speaks of continuity. The same century saw the rise of pilgrims, again indicating continuity. A pilgrim church is easily spotted – the size of the aisles built to accommodate the pilgrims.
The remote church of Kilgwrrwg in Monmouthshire is an interesting example. The site, with its circular churchyard on a sloping hill indicates a typical early Christian foundation. It also has an early cross. Within the circle of the trees is a 12 century stone church almost hidden when the trees are in leaf. There is very little about it in the historical record. We don’t even have the name of the saint. 400 years went by and the tradition quietly carried on. By the 19C the church was partly in ruin, indeed it was used as a shelter for sheep. Yet now we see it restored and in wonderful condition as remote and as beautiful as ever.
It even has an icon in it.