Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Friday, 8 April 2011

St Derfel

Last Wednesday, April 6th, was the feast of the Welsh St Derfel, who is associated with the church at Llandderfel near Corwen and with the site of another chapel at Cwmbran in the south of the Principality.

There is an account of his life here.

I have written and edited the following piece using material from a Cwmbran website and from the Diocese of St Asaph's online history of Llanddefel, together with some points of my own:

Derfel is celebrated in medieval Welsh poetry as a follower of King Arthur, and as one of only seven survivors of King Arthur’s
last battle at Camlan, in the 6th century. The poet describes that Derfel survived through the strength of his spear.

Derfel is said to have retired into the church after the battle and to have built two churches in Wales, one in North Wales at what is now Llandderfel village, and the other in Cwmbran at what is now known as Llanderfel Farm, within what was the Lordship of Caerleon. He finally became the abbot of Bardsey Island (the island of 20,000 saints), and to have died there in 660.

Both churches became sites of pilgrimage in the medieval period. Every year during the pilgrim season, numerous pilgrims visited these shrines to pray to St Derfel, as it appears to have been a tradition that Derfel could enter Hell and retrieve the lost soul of a relative of the praying pilgrim.

Hundreds of pilgrims came to Llandderfel in the middle ages to pray at the huge wooden image of St Derfel and to offer gifts in return for a blessing on their animals and for other favours. The cult appears to have been one of those of which there is little written evidence, but which had considerable popular appeal, and one of those devotions with deep roots in the local folk memory and practice.

Parish Logo
Llandderfel church as rebuilt at the end of the medieval period

In the later period there was a wooden statue of St Derfel in the church at Llandderfel, apparently with a legend attached to it that if burnt it would burn down a forest. The statue was taken from Wales by order of Thomas Cromwell under King Henry VIII in 1538 - the year which saw the destruction of the statues of Our Lady from Walsingham and elsewhere.

The Welsh devotion to such statues was described as the “idol worship of gargoyles”, and it was decided that the statue was to be used as part of the pyre for the public burning in chains at Smithfield of
John Forest, an Observant Franciscan Friar, and a former confessor of Catherine of Aragon, for refusing to except King Henry VIII as the Supreme Head of the Church of England. The Oxford DNB life of Fr Forest can be read here. This was one of those show-piece executions which occurred in these years - events designed to not only punish the condemned but to make a polito-theological point, with Bishop Latimer preaching and many councillors and officials in attendance. This one took place on May 22nd that year - and so St Derfel set a Forest ablaze. Apart from the discussion in the ODNB article there is more about the martyrdom of Fr Forest here, which is a post from Elena Maria Vidal's Tea at Trianon blog, citing material from Fr Schofield's Roman Miscellany.

Hall’s Chronicle of 1539 relates that, “upon the gallows that he died on was set up in great letters these verses following”:

Derfel Gadarn
As sayth the Welshmen
Fetched outlaws out of Hell,

Now is he come with spear and shield,
In armour to burn in Smithfield,
For in Wales he may not dwell,

And Forest the friar,
That obstinate liar
That willfully shall be dead,

In his contumacy
The Gospel doeth deny
The King to be supreme head.

The grim gallows humour of the period loses nothing of its unpleasantness with the passage of time.

It appears possible that it was only the figure of St Derfel that was burned - the carving of his horse may have been left behind at Llandderfel. There still survives a carving of a red stag known as the "Horse of Derfel" which is now situated in the church porch. In 1730 it was removed from the church and decapitated on the orders of the Rural Dean - the spirit of the reformers was still alive in the eighteenth century it would appear. This may refer to the persistence of "folk religion"in rural Wales, which is well attested in academic studies.


The remains of St Derfel's 'horse' from Llandderfel Church

Last year a new statue of him was unveiled at Cwmbran on April 6th.

1 comment:

elena maria vidal said...

Thank you very much for the link, sir.