5: Early Christianity in Wales

The character of the Celtic Churches

In the 500 years after the fall of the Roman Empire, the Christianity of Wales had its own marked characteristics. It shared them with the other Celtic-speaking countries: Ireland, Cornwall, Brittany, the Isle of Man and most of Scotland, thus giving rise to the rather misleading notion that there was such a thing as the Celtic Church.

The Celtic religious tradition was the central feature of 'Far Western European Civilization'

The Roman Church was organised on the basis of bishops located in cities, each bishop with his own clearly defined diocese and a hierarchy of officials. The Celtic-speaking countries had virtually no urban centres; the abbot in his monastery was more revered than the bishop in his cathedral and there was little of the Roman-type bureaucracy. According to the historian Arnold Toynbee, the Celtic religious tradition was the central feature of what he called the 'Far Western European Civilization'.

Were the Celtic Churches 'Protestant'

When the Protestants broke with Rome in the 16th century, they considered the Celtic churches to be early examples of Protestantism, free of the errors of the 'Romish' Church. That view is a mistaken one. All the central doctrines of the Celtic churches, above the role of the mass in worship, were those of mainstream Christianity.

If the Pope's power did not loom large, it is not because the Celtic-speaking peoples felt themselves separated from the universal Church. Rather was it the result of geographical distance and of the fact that papal claims to sovereignty were not yet fully developed.

The origins of the early Christianity of Wales

There has been much debate about the origins of the 'Celtic' churches. Was it a development from the Christianity planted in Britain under the Roman Empire, or did its origins lie elsewhere?

The present tendency is to believe that the British Christianity of the Empire survived in south-east Wales, the only part of the Roman province of Britannia not overrun by people from beyond the imperial frontier. It is there that we locate Dyfrig, the first of the 'saints' of the Celtic church. The centre of his monastery or clas was at Henllan (Hentland on Wye, now in Herefordshire). Any dates in this period are tentative, but Dyfrig probably lived from about AD 425 to 505.

The monastery at Llantwit Major

Dyfrig's successor as the leading figure among the Christians of Wales was Illtud, founder of the monastery at Llanilltud Fawr (Llantwit Major). Llantwit can be reached by sea, and its traditions suggest the influence of people travelling the western sea routes.

St Illtyd's Church. Photo Mike Baker and Jacqueline Swift Photography.
St Illtyd's Church, Llantwit Major

They introduced monasticism, the notion that the best path to holiness is to retire from the world and live in a community dedicated to prayer. The Llantwit monastery stressed learning as well as devotion and was the hub of the Christianity of the Celtic-speaking countries.

Samson, the father of Breton monasticism, left Llantwit for Brittany in around AD 540. One of his fellow students was Paul Aurelian, a key figure in Cornish monasticism, and it was from Illtud and his successors that the Irish sought guidance on matters of ritual and discipline.

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