HISTORY OF THE CHURCH IN WALES

From Britain Express

Early Christian Wales

By the time St. Augustine "officially" brought Christianity to the British Isles in 597 at the behest of Pope Gregory the Great, there was already a well established Christian presence in Wales. In addition, Irish monks such as Aidan, had already brought the Christian message to Scotland and Northumbria.

When Augustine attempted to assert his authority as Archbishop of all Britain in 603, he was told by the Welsh bishops that he had no such authority over them. They were right.

Augustine based his authority on the power of the Pope in Rome, but at that time the Pope's authority was by no means universally accepted, certainly not in Wales! The struggle between Canterbury and Welsh church leaders was one that would continue in many forms down through the following centuries.

One of the major bones of contention between the Celtic Church and the Roman tradition was over the date of Easter. At the Synod of Whitby in 664 many Celtic leaders gave way and accepted the Roman dating.

Through this acquiescence they essentially acknowledged the supremacy of Rome and the Pope in the Christian world. But Wales did not follow their Celtic brethren in this acquiescence. They clung stubbornly to their own traditions for at least another century.

The Age of Saints

The Christian church had an uncertain start in Britain. During the Roman occupation Christianity was but one of several popular cults. After Constantine the Great proclaimed Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in 313, it flourished - or at least, more people paid lip service to it.

After the departure of the Romans from Wales in the late 4th century, Christianity, which had been primarily a religion of the Romanised upper classes, suffered. There is even some suggestion that it died away completely. If that is the case, it was due for a startling resurrection, led by a few major figures in south-east Wales.

The first of these "saints" of Celtic Christianity was Dyfrig (Saint Dubricius), a bishop at Ariconium in the kingdom of Erdig. Dyfrig probably lived from about 425-505AD.

Dyfrig was heir to the Roman tradition of Christianity, and may well have been a disciple of Germanus of Auxerre. The details of Dyfrig's life are scanty; more important is the knowledge that through him and his followers the Christian tradition was kept alive at a time when paganism was in ascendance in Britain.

After Dyfrig's death his position as leader of Christian Wales was taken by Illtud. Unlike Dyfrig, Illtud was an abbot, not a bishop. This in itself is interesting, for it shows that the monastic lifestyle had taken root in Wales.

Illtud's fame, however, rests on his scholarship; he was abbot of the monastic school at Llanilltyd Fawr (Llantwit Major in Glamorgan). At this early stage of monasticism in Wales, monks had not yet adopted the severely ascetic, isolated life that they would later embrace. So Illtud's school at Llantwit Major drew scholars from across the Celtic world, from Ireland, Brittany, and Cornwall.

These scholars included the monk Gildas, whose later work "De Excidio Britanniae" (Concerning the Fall of Britain) is one of the best (read one of the few) written records we have of this early period of Welsh and English history.

Illtud himself was later inter-twined with the legends of King Arthur. Some tales had him being one of the three knights entrusted by Arthur with the Holy Grail. Others state that Illtud was Sir Galahad. These tales are interesting not so much for their factual basis (dubious at best), but for the way in which the "heroes" of Welsh Christianity were merged with tales of secular heroes like Arthur and his knights.

Many of the monks who would later spread Christianity to Ireland were educated in Wales at this and other monastic schools. Over the course of the early 6th century the scholarly impetus lost ground to the ascetic impulse; monks left organised communities and settled in isolated areas to lead extremely simple lives of prayer and personal communion with God. This is the true "Age of Saints" in Wales. The Welsh saints were often not concerned with spreading the Christian message to the masses, but in retreating from society as far as possible.

Christian communities did spring up. These llannau - basically a consecrated enclosure for burying Christian dead - were frequently dedicated to the patron who granted land, though this does not explain the large number of llannau dedicated to Christian leaders like Dewi (David) or Teilo.

The Celtic Church

The term "Celtic Church" can be misleading. The early saints of Wales were not part of a separate Church, indeed there was only one Christian church organisation, and that a very loose affair, which allowed for a wide degree of local beliefs, traditions, and practices throughout the Christian world. It is only in later centuries, especially after the year 800AD, that Christianity adopted a more uniform set of beliefs and structured practise.

Saint David of Wales

David is the patron saint of Wales, and the details of his life are now clouded by a mix of myth and legend that may obscure the truth of this remarkably influential Christian leader. Much of what we know about him was not set down in writing until the early medieval period.

It seems that David was born to the royal house of Ceredigion, some time around 530AD. Another version has him born at Henvynyw (Vetus-Menevia) in Cardiganshire. He became a monk and founded the monastery of Mynyw (Menevia) at what is now St.David's in Pembrokeshire. The current St.David's Cathedral was built on the traditional location of David's monastery.

Like many contemporary church leaders he was a bishop as well as an abbot. His monastery was a popular centre of learning, especially among Irish scholars.

A host of legends sprang up about David after his lifetime, and it can be hard to determine the truth amongst so much hyberbole. One of the tales credits David with responsibility for the traditional Welsh symbol of the leek. The tale goes that the Welsh were preparing to do battle with the Saxons. On the advice of St.David they all put leeks in their hats so they could easily distinguish themselves from their enemies in the heat of battle.

David was also woven into the fabric of Arthurian legend. Many medieval versions of his life say that he was Arthur's nephew, though Geoffrey of Monmouth - a writer not noted for his historical accuracy - calls him Arthur's uncle.

Some versions say that David was educated by Illtud at the monastery school of Llantwit Major. Given the wide influence and reputation of Illtud's school, this account at least seems plausible.

David was reluctantly persuaded to attend the Synod of Brewi, where a hill miraculously rose before him. He preached so loudly from the top of this hill that he converted Pelagian heretics from their folly. Subsequently David is said to have asked King Arthur to allow him to move his Bishop's see from Caerleon to Menevia. This granted, he ruled the church in Wales until his death at the ripe old age of 147 years.

It seems likely that David died around 589, a respected and influential leader of the early Christian church in Wales. It also seems likely that under David and his fellows, the Welsh undertook a certain amount of missionary work, though little of this was aimed at the neighbouring pagan English, but rather their fellow Celts in Cornwall, Ireland, and Brittany.

The Welsh-Norman Church

The Norman English did not rely solely on military might to subdue the Welsh. They also used religion; they realised that the aims of the Church of Rome were compatible with their own.

The papacy in Rome wanted to achieve uniformity of faith throughout the Christian world - a uniformity under its own control. The Normans, perhaps not cynically - or not completely cynically - supported those aims.

The Normans vigorously encouraged monastic settlements in Wales. The rigid faith of the early Benedictine monks was a perfect foil to what the Normans saw as Welsh deviation from the Christian faith as they knew it. Although the Welsh had followed the Roman lead in observing Easter since 768, in other matters of faith they were unacceptibly independent.

By 1150 the Benedictines had established 17 priories and cells in Wales, most as daughter houses of larger French or English monasteries. At the same time other monastic orders established new houses in Wales with Norman support.

In addition, the Augustinian order established priories (for priests, not monks, as the Benedictines did). Many of the existing Celtic "clasau", or abbeys, were converted to parish churches, while others became possessions of English monasteries.

The Welsh church at the time of the Norman invasion probably had only 3 bishops, at Bangor, St. David's, and possibly at Llandaf. But the structure - or lack of structure - of the Welsh church was something the Normans could not countenance. The Welsh church was reorganised under Norman influence to bring it under Roman control through the Archbishopric of Canterbury.

Some of the early bishops appointed by Canterbury were interesting characters. Bishop Urban of Glamorgan (1107-34) rebuilt the church at Llandaf into a cathedral worthy of holding his bishop's seat. He reorganised his diocese along Roman lines, and claimed lands between the Tywi and the Wye.

He made the more outlandish claim that his bishopric was the natural successor of Dyfrig and Teilo. He had Dyfrig's bones carried to Llandaf from Bardsey Island to join the remains of Teilo (one of three competing sets of the saint's bones!) that he already possessed.

Under Urban the Book of Llandaf was written, a remarkable collection of charters, biographies, and other documents purporting to show that the diocese of Llandaf had a proud history - and a very large territory. The veracity of the Book of Llandaf must be called into question - certainly the Bishops of St. David's questioned it, and refused to cede more territory to the acquisitive Urban.

One of those Bishops of St. David's was Bernard (1115-48), who owed his appointment to Henry I. He paid homage directly to Henry for the lands of the diocese and swore an oath of allegiance to the Archbishop of Canterbury. This act would later come back to haunt him and undermine his greatest ambition.

Bernard rebuilt St. David's as a Romanesque cathedral, and did much to popularise David among the Normans outside Wales. He campaigned for David's canonisation, which was granted sometime around 1123.

Bernard also made his bid for pre-eminence among Welsh bishops through David. He claimed that the saint had been an archbishop (un unlikely claim), and therefore he, Bernard, should be made an archbishop too, with precedence over the other Welsh church leaders. He argued that Wales was a separate nation, and should be granted its own archbishopric.

After much lobbying, the claim was refused by the pope on the grounds that Bernard had sworn the oath of allegiance to the archbishop of Canterbury, therefore he could not be an archbishop of a separate country.

The diocese of Bangor was filled in 1120 by a Welshman named David the Scot (!), who also swore allegiance to Canterbury. In 1143 a fourth diocese was created in Wales, at St. Asaph, also under Canterbury's control.

Monastic Orders

The early monastic orders had been used by the Normans to establish control over the Welsh church. But now the Welsh would use the same methods to enhance their own growing sense of national identity. The vehicle for this transformation was the Cistercian order.

The first Cistercian house in Wales was established under Norman patronage at Whitland in 1140. The second was Strata Florida, a daughter house to Whitland, established in 1164. After this inauspicious start, a succession of Welsh rulers encouraged Cistercian houses throughout their territories.

There were several reasons for this; the Cistercians owed direct allegiance to the head of their order, who was located in Citeaux, Burgundy, outside English control. The Cistercians also sought out isolated places for their monasteries, preferring the simplicity of life away from the corridors of power. In this they followed the heritage of the early Celtic Church in Wales.

Yet for all their emphasis on simplicity, the Cistercians needed land for farming and land for raising sheep. It has been claimed the these "White Monks" were responsible for the birth of the Welsh woollen industry.

The Cistercians were conscious of their debts to the Welsh princes who gave them land; they enthusiastically supported the Welsh rulers - so enthusiastially that the English saw them as a threat.