Llantwit Major: seat of learning
These days visitors to the tiny community of Llantwit Major (Llanilltud Fawr in Welsh) will know it as a sleepy little town, the third largest in the Vale of Glamorgan - smaller than Barry and Penarth, but larger than nearby Cowbridge.
View of Llanwit Major (photo: Kati Elizabeth)
Yet this small community, nestling quietly and almost invisibly into the coast, was once a seat of learning that was unrivalled anywhere in the western world. It was where St Illtyd came in about 500 AD - the exact date is unclear - travelling from Brittany to found a monastery and a college where monks, religious men, even the sons of nobles and princes, could study and learn.
The college was called Cor Tedws and at its height had more than 2,000 students. Apparently the place was graced with at least six separate halls and was able to boast around 400 teaching houses and places of accommodation. Naturally, an infrastructure to cope with such an influx of people began to develop and the beginnings of the modern town were created as businessmen and women quickly realised there was an opportunity to make a living.
St Illtyd was not the first person to settle in the area. The remains of an Iron Age fort have been found at the nearby beach, just a stone's throw from the present town. There was also possibly a Neolithic settlement here and the Romans certainly knew the area well - a Roman villa, excavated at Caer Mead, had been occupied for over 300 years before the Romans pulled out of Britain in the early fifth century.
It was with the early Christian scholars and holy men, however, that Llantwit Major began to assume significant status and importance. From approximately 500/550 AD people came from all over Britain to study here, many even travelling from places such as France and Brittany on the continent. For anyone who was interested in academic and religious study, this was clearly the place to be.
According to legend, or at least to local folk lore, men as learned and famous as St Patrick, St David, the poet Taliesin and the historian Gildas all studied here. And, of course, there were countless others whose names are now long forgotten.
Situated in a small hollow, just a mile from the beach, St Illtyd had founded his first establishment on the banks of the Ogney Brook, more or less in the area where the present-day St Illtyd's Church now stands.
The advantages of the location of the monastery and college, close to a sheltered and accessible beach, would not have been lost on the holy men. From there they could travel off across Europe - and, of course, newcomers could arrive directly on the college doorstep.
The other advantage of siting the establishment inland, down in a hollow, was for protection. You would have to know the college was there as it was certainly not visible from the sea, and in times when Norse raiders prowled the western oceans this was a significant factor. It was not always a successful ploy - the college was destroyed by Vikings in 987 AD.
The place was rebuilt and by 1111 it was up and running again. It suffered at the hands of the invading Normans - themselves of Viking descent - but managed to continue running as an independent church and college, governed or overseen by Tewkesbury Abbey in Gloucestershire, until Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries finally finished it off in 1539.
The church that visitors see today at Llantwit Major lies close to the old college but it is a 13th century building - in itself a significant fact. It holds a fascinating collection of ninth century inscribed stones and there are also some late medieval wall paintings.
The ruins of one of the original teaching houses lie in the church yard and the town itself is a curious amalgam of 15th century buildings and old narrow streets. There are modern developments and the advent of the RAF base at nearby St Athan, particularly in the years immediately after World War Two, gave the town a vibrant feel that lasted until the RAF mostly pulled out in the early 21st century.
Llantwit Major, for most visitors, is a town that belies its historic past but it is well worth a visit, just to stand there and remember that this was once a major seat of Christian learning.