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Early Christianity in Wales (part 2)

Saint David and St David's

The monks of the following century, AD 500 to 600, were less learned and more ascetic. David, the best known of them, was a teetotal vegetarian and an advocate of unremitting physical labour. His monastery on a promontory pushing out to the western sea was well placed to be a major centre of 'Celtic' Christianity; indeed, in language, it may well have been more Irish than it was Welsh.

St David''s Cathedral
St Davids Cathedral has been a site of pilgrimage and worship for many hundreds of years

David died on 1 March somewhere around the year AD 590. Six centuries later, there would be at least 60 parish churches dedicated to him, extending from St David's to Herefordshire, from Gower to the upper Wye Valley. By then, the region of the dedications constituted the diocese of St David's and covered almost half the surface area of Wales. As the feast day of St David's was celebrated in more parishes than that of any other saint, he naturally became the patron saint of Wales. The Welsh form of his name - Dewi - is a south-western dialect form of the Welsh Dafydd. Out of respect for the saint, Dafydd became so popular a name that it probably gave rise to the nickname, Taffy.

David was primarily an abbot. He may also have been a bishop, but the later claim that he was an archbishop with authority over all the other bishops of Wales seems to have no factual basis.

The saints of the 'Age of Saints'

David had a number of saintly contemporaries, Teilo, Cadog, Padarn, Beuno and Tysilio among them. They too had their cults, with Teilo, for example, amassing some 25 dedications by AD 1200. Thus, Llanddewi was joined by Llandeilo, Llangadog, Llanbadarn, Llanfeuno and Llandysilio.

Of the thousand or so parishes of Wales, the names of up to a half begin with Llan. It means an enclosure and was originally applied to a consecrated Christian burial ground rather than to a building.

While David and his contemporaries are well represented, some of the llannau are dedicated to the great figures of Christianity such as Mary, Peter and Michael (Llanfair, Llanbedr, Llanfihangel). Most of the commemorations are, however, of very obscure people; most never aspired to sainthood and may have been no more than the burial ground donors.

Wales and the Christianity of England

While the Welsh of the 'Age of Saints' were in close contact with their fellow Celtic-speaking peoples, they, unlike the Irish missionaries, made very little attempt to convert the pagan English. Roman-style Christianity reached the English with the coming of St Augustine to Canterbury in 597.

As a papal-appointed archbishop, Augustine expected obedience from the bishops of Wales.

As a papal-appointed archbishop, Augustine expected obedience from the bishops of Wales. They rejected his claims and also refused to conform to Roman practices on matters such as the system for calculating the date of Easter.

Over the following century, most of the churches in the Celtic-speaking lands came to accept the Roman Easter. When the English historian Bede was writing his Ecclesiastical History of the English People in 731, Wales was the only substantial territory still refusing to conform - the reason, no doubt, for Bede's hostility to the Welsh.

Wales and the later centuries of the 'Celtic' Church

The Welsh conformed to the Roman Easter in 768. The Church created some fine works of art - Llyfr Teilo (the Book of St Chad), for example, or the sculptured crosses at Margam and elsewhere.

When King Alfred (around AD 880) sought a scholar to add lustre to his court, it was Asser of St David's who was summoned to Wessex. Yet, nearly 200 years later, when William I seized the throne of England, the Church in Wales still had its own peculiarities and its sense of isolation.

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