Henfynyw, St Davids and Llanddewi Brefi
There is no barrier between two worlds in the Church,
The Church militant on earth
Is one with the Church triumphant in heaven,
And the saints are in this Church which is two in one.
They come to worship with us, our small congregation
The saints who built Wales on the foundation
Of the Crib, the Cross and the Empty Tomb.(1)
These are the opening lines of a poem by David Gwenallt
Jones (Gwenallt), a great Welsh poet of the last century, in praise of St David, patron saint of Wales. St David (Dewi Sant) was the son of Non, a nun, and Sant, a King of Ceredigion. According to legend, Sant was led by divine power to Non, and after David’s birth he left his kingdom in order to live as a hermit.
David lived during a period, soon after the Romans had left, which has become known as The Age of the Saints(470-670AD.) It was a period of great evangelisation and missionary activity which saw the founding of numerous churches, monastic in nature. David and other missionary saints, such as Dyfrig, Illtyd, Padarn and Teilo, with God’s aid, spread the Gospel, renewed the decadent British Church and preserved the culture and language of the British who were the ancestors of the Welsh.
Celtic Christianity, a distinctive form of Christianity, developed in Celtic lands like Wales during The Age of the Saints. It was a blend of what remained of Christianity from Roman times, and an infusion of new and fresh ideas from the Christianity of the Eastern Mediterranean. The monasticism which David promoted with such zeal had its origins in the Egyptian desert communities, established by Christians fleeing from persecution. These communities were characterised by a mixture of hard, physical work, fasting, prayer and meditation. Some members would choose the solitary life, living as hermits in rocky caves or holes in the ground.
By The Age of the Saints the Welsh Church (or British Church) had begun to develop in a different direction from the Latin Church of which it was a part. The invasion of Teutonic tribes (450-500AD) and the ensuing relapse of Eastern Britain into paganism cut Wales off from Rome and the Continent. Consequently, it developed a spirit of independence rather than order. The Welsh Church had many bishops but there were no dioceses under particular bishops. Welsh society was tribal. A tribe would have its own bishop who would live in proximity to the tribal chieftain. The most well-known bishop in a kingdom would be considered bishop of that kingdom. In time, this fell to the head of a monastery in the kingdom.
There were other differences too. The tonsure was different. So also were the date of Easter, the translation of the Bible, and forms of baptism and consecration of bishops. (2)
Monks at a Celtic monastery were expected to cover wide areas of the countryside preaching the Gospel, ministering to the sick and founding churches along the way. Despite enormous difficulties, the Gospel was brought to the Picts who had pushed their way down from Scotland, and to the Irish pagans who had settled in the west.
Henfynyw (Old Menevia)
Apart from some earlier references nothing of substance is known about David’s life before the twelfth century. About 1095AD Rhigyfarch, son of Sulien,Bishop of St Davids, wrote a Life of David, in a Celtic monastery at Llanbadarn Fawr, Ceredigion. An abridgement of Rhigyfarch’s Latin manuscript was translated into Welsh by the anchorite of Llanddewi Brefi, Ceredigion, in 1346AD.
The patron saint received his early education at the small Celtic monastery of Henfynyw, Ceredigion, reputed for its soundness of education and learning, under bishop Guistilianus. The thorough grounding in Christian faith and spirituality received was to inspire and sustain his future ministry. According to legend, a dove with a golden beak was seen to appear and hover around him. This was taken to mean that he was marked with divine favour and guidance, and instructed directly by God.
Professor E.G.Bowen in his book, Dewi Sant/Saint David, provides an image of the settlement at Henfynyw at this time. A wattle and daub church would have stood on the site, together with a few huts and protected by an earthen embankment and surrounded by a deep ditch.(3)The outside wall of the present parish church contains an interesting and significant feature. Built into the wall of the chancel is an ancient stone containing part of a Latin inscription. It is believed to be part of a large pillar stone and reads, top down: “TIGEIR(N)”, that is, “the stone of Tigeirnacus.” Archaeologists deem it likely that a monastery and burial ground stood near the site of the church in the seventh century.
St Davids (Menevia or New Menevia)
David is believed to have found his great monastery at St Davids around 560AD. According to Rhigyfarch’s account, he along with three of his disciples, Aedan, Teilo and Ysmael, were directed by an angel to the exact spot in the valley of the river Alun where the monastery was to be built. The present cathedral stands on the site of the original monastery. The New Menevia which was St Davids meant that the monastery at Henfynyw came to be known as Old Menevia in order to draw a clear distinction between the two places.
What would life have been like in a Celtic monastery in those days? We have an idea from Rhigyfarch’s Vita Davidis.Monastic life in St Davids, according to Rhigyfarch, was characterised by hard manual work and austere living. Wearing animal skins (or furs in winter) the monks would labour in the fields for long hours using mattocks and spades, hoes and saws. They would place the yoke on their shoulders in order to draw the plough. Such work was considered a sound religious discipline.
The pattern of daily life at Menevia was governed by strict asceticism. For example, David and his brother monks adopted a practice derived from Eastern Christendom of going into the river and standing up to their necks in cold water, meditating for long periods, even in wintertime.
Lewys Glyn Cothi (Fifteenth Century) gives a stark picture of David when he writes: “He took bread and cress, or water from cold rivers; and wore a full-length horse- hair garment, and did penance beside a spring”(4)
After the completion of the day’s manual work the monks would devote their time to “ reading, writing or praying.” Rhigyfarch’s account also relates how after the evening bell had sounded they would go into the church in silence to chant psalms and to “humble themselves on bended knees until the appearance of the stars in the heavens should bring the day to a close.” (5)
Later, they would return and spend three hours in “watching, prayers and genuflections.” At dawn they would begin their devotions again.
The form of worship used, for example at the office of Matins or at the Eucharist, followed the Roman pattern, interspersed with practices from the Christendom of the East. Chanting and singing played an important part in their worship.
The monastery at Menevia was self- sufficient. What the monks had they shared, not only amongst themselves but also with the poor and needy “and all pilgrims on their travels.” A typical meal, such as the one after the evening service, consisted of bread, herbs and vegetables and water. David in keeping with the strict asceticism of the Egyptian desert communities would only drink water and eat fish but not flesh. An early reference describes him as Aquaticus (the Waterman) It comes from The Life of St Paul de Leon written in 884AD by Gourmonoc, a Breton monk, in the Abbey of Landevennec in Brittany.
David’s missionary activity involved endowing his church communities with a set of values which would enable them to live in peace and harmony. The time was ripe for such values. South West Wales had witnessed an influx of Irish settlers during the fifth and sixth centuries, which had resulted in hostilities and struggles for political, cultural and linguistic control.
These values, as Patrick Thomas points out in his book, Candle In The Darkness, have survived to the present day in the Welsh-speaking areas of West Wales. They include “respect”, “being lowly,” having a sense of “belonging” to God, and of being “at home” with him as well as others.(6)
Gwenallt in his poem, Dewi Sant, goes on to interpret the patron saint’s missionary activity in a modern-day context in order to highlight its spiritual content:
I have seen David going from county to county like God’s gypsy
With the Gospel and the Altar in his caravan;
And he came to us in the Colleges and schools
To show us what is the purpose of learning.
He went down to the bottom of the pit with the miners
And cast the light of his wise lamp onto the coal face;
At the steel works he put on the spectacles and the short grey overall
And showed the Christian being purified like metal in the furnace;
And he led the industrial people to his disreputable Church.
He carried his Church everywhere
Like a body, having life, mind and will
Doing things small and great.
He brought the Church into our homes,
Put the Sacred Vessels on the kitchen table,
And took bread from the pantry and cheap wine from the cellar,
And stood behind the table like a tramp
So as not to hide from us the wonder of the sacrifice.
And after the Communion we had a talk around the fire,
And he spoke to us of God’s natural Order,
The person, the family the nation and the society of nations,
And the Cross which keeps us from turning any of them into a god.
He said that God has fashioned our nation
For his own purpose,
And its death would be a breach of that Order. (7)
“Lords, brothers and sisters, be happy andkeep your faith and your belief, and do the little things that you have heard and seen me do.”
This last sermon which David preached on the Sunday before his death on the First of March has served to strengthen and encourage Christians over the centuries, and still does today. It is not Rhigyfarch’s own account that is quoted here but the version of it in Welsh written by the hermit whose monastic cell was at Llanddewi Brefi where the Synod of Brefi met, at which the patron saint preached.
Llanddewi Brefi (“the second capital”)
Rhigyfarch gives a detailed account of David as bishop preaching at the Synod of Brefi against the heresy of Pelagianism. The particular events which have captured the imagination of generations of Welsh people are the stories of the ground rising beneath his feet, and of the dove descending to rest on his shoulder as he preached. The Synod was one of great significance in the history of Wales and in the life of the patron saint.
Pelagianism taught that salvation was possible by human effort alone, without the need of God’s grace. During the fifth century it had become rife. Therefore, the Pope dispatched St Germanus of Auxerre and St Lupus of Troyes to Britain to eradicate it. Rhigyfarch relates that they were successful in their mission.
Pelagian ideas, however, began to re-emerge and spread during the sixth century, not least among the Irish settlers within David’s parochia of South West Wales. The situation became so serious that a “universal” synod was convened at Llanddewi Brefi, which was attended by a vast gathering of tribes, kings, princes as well as one hundred and eighteen bishops from all over Britain.
Through David’s persuasive and eloquent preaching the heresy was finally eradicated. His preaching at the Synod also brought him great acclaim. Thereafter, according to Rhigyfarch, he was made archbishop by popular consensus and his monastery was raised to metropolitical status.
His preaching at the historic Synod had marked him as the outstanding bishop of his time.
An inscribed stone discovered during the seventeenth century inside the church founded by David, is the earliest reference to the saint. Now badly damaged, it dates from the first half of the seventh century. The inscription (from the Latin) reads:
“Here lies Idnerth, son of Jacob, who was killed while defending the church of holy David from despoilation.”
It is not surprising that Llanddewi Brefi has been called David’s “second capital,” second only to St Davids.
Saunders Lewis, in his poem Saint David’s Last Sermon, writes:
There was never so imperial a sunset
As David’s proceeding from the synod of Brefi
To his dying in the dawn and the vale of roses.
Just a week before, at the morning service,
The banns of his liberation had been published to him
By an angel in the choir; and by an angel
The word was spread through the churches of Wales and the churches
Of kindly Ireland. They came thronging to Ty Ddewi,
The saints of both islands celebrating the funeral of their saint; (8)
David was canonised five centuries later during the pontificate of Callistus 11.(11.19-11.24) who also pronounced that two pilgrimages to the saint’s shrine at St Davids would equal one to Rome, and that three pilgrimages would equal one to Jerusalem.
St David’s day, the First of March, is celebrated throughout Wales, and beyond, with many cultural events. A discussion over whether or not to declare this day a national holiday is ongoing.
Every time the Litany of the Saints is chanted in the Orthodox Church the name of David of Wales is mentioned among the British saints. His name also appears in the Roman Calendar, as well as the Calendar of Saints of the Church in Wales. For David, the aesthetic monk of Henfynyw, Menevia and Llanddewi Brefi, who was consecrated bishop by the Patriarch in Jerusalem and canonised by the Pope is not only patron saint of Wales but is also regarded as a saint by the whole of Christendom.
He lived during the First Millennium when the Church was united and Christendom was One. In his time national identity was seen as a spiritual state. In 1054AD. came the Great Schism which divided the Church into East and West; and further division has followed since.
Christianity in Wales today, with its emphasis upon Ecumenism and common spirituality, is witnessing a rediscovery of the ancient shrines of the land. Bardsey, the island of twenty thousand saints, and Pennant Melangell, the shrine of St Melangell in the Berwyn Hills, are but two examples of forgotten shrines coming to life again.
The search for our christian heritage has led to a growing awareness of holy sites as places of healing and renewal which can bring comfort and encouragement now and in the future.
Recent years have seen a marked increase in the number of people who make a spiritual retreat. There has also been a revival of the practice of going on pilgrimage, which was once a common feature of Christian life.
While the spirituality of St Davids continues to draw large numbers of pilgrims and visitors annually, a hermitage has recently been established at Llanddewi Brefi. One of the sayings of Abba Joseph of Panephysis, an Egyptian Desert Father, was: “you cannot become a monk unless you become like a consuming fire.” The consuming fire of God’s love which was so evident throughout David’s ministry was first kindled not at St Davids nor at Llanddewi Brefi but at Henfynyw, one mile south of Aberaeron, Ceredigion.
(1)Original in D.Gwenallt. Jones, Eples (Llandysul,1951), tud 63-4.
(2) O. M. Edwards, Hanes Cymru, Rhan1,-Hyd1063 (Caernarfon,1895), tud118-9.
(3)E. G. Bowen, Dewi Sant/ Saint David ( University of Wales Press,1983), p19 et seq.
(4) Lewys Glyn Cothi (Detholiad), edited by E. D. Jones (Cardiff,1984), p101.
(5) J. W James, Rhigyfarch’s Life of David(Cardiff,1967), pp30-1.
(6) Patrick Thomas, Candle in the Darkness(Llandysul,1993),p128.
(7) Original in Eples (Llandysul, 1951), pp63-4.
(8)Saunders Lewis, Selected Poems : trans J. F. Clancy (Cardiff,1993), pp14 –5.
Thinking about St David and his shrine, which I have visited once, and remembering many happy holidays in north Wales as a boy makes the Clever Boy rather yearn for a visit to Wales as both pilgrim and historian.