The Celts: 7th Century Wales

At the time of the 7th century, the Celtic peoples had been pushed by the Anglo-Saxons in to three main areas of Britain. These correspond roughly to what we call Wales, Ireland, and Scotland today. In the next few posts on my series on the Celts, I will focus on each of these three places in turn.

I’m going to start with Wales, because that lovely little piece of the world holds a special place in my heart, as my mother was Welsh, born in the charming town of Mumbles, on Swansea Bay in the south of Wales.

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Sigh. The rugged beauty of Northern Wales. Image from pixabay

Wales in the 7th century was, of course, not known by that name, although the name “Wales” does originate from this time. It comes from the word, wælas, meaning foreign, strange  in Anglo-Saxon. The word wælisc therefore meant foreigner, or stranger, and it was the word they would use to refer to the Celtic Britons who lived in England at the time. Which is ironic, seeing as the Britons were there first. It gives you a sense of the hostility that simmered between these two groups of people.

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The Welsh flag. The dragon has been used on flags in Wales for centuries. Some suggest it came from the draco military standard brought over by the Roman legions, and was adapted by the prominent Romano-British families thereafter. The green and white stripes were additions of Henry Tudor in the Middle Ages. 

The Welsh called themselves the Cymry (CUM-ree), which loosely translated means, fellow-countrymen. Today the word for Wales in the modern Welsh language is Cymru (also pronounced CUM-ree). But in the 7th century, the place we now call Wales did not have one name.

That is because, like the rest of Britain, Wales was divided up into several kingdoms. These were very much based on tribal and kinship allegiances rather than territory, although of course they did generally correspond to one area or another. The borders were fluid, due to the penchant of the kings’ attempts to expand territory by raids and warfare against other tribes/kings. The history of the various kinship groups and the territories they held are rather murky, and it’s difficult to say for certain a lot about the specifics of Welsh in the Early Middle Ages because of this. Certainly the people of Gwynedd in the north were a prominent group at this time, and we also know some about the kingdoms of Dyfed and Gwent. The kingdom of Powys was not referred to by that name in this time, although it certainly existed, under a different name. The name Powys does not surface until the 9th century.

Wales at this time was very much a rural society, with no large civic centres to speak of. The kings didn’t govern in the way we think of it, they were mainly the chief warriors who expanded the territory of the tribe/kinship group and who doled out the rewards of conquest to his faithful retainers. They might also give judgements on disputes, but only in consultation with the local elders. The local head of the kinship group would be the one to whom people looked to for the day-to-day stuff of making life work.

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The Bodvoc Stone. This dates from the late 6th century-early 7th century, and was originally set on a prehistoric barrow on Margham Mountain in South Wales. The inscription reads “The stone of Bodvoc. He he lies, son of Cattegern, great-grandson of Eternalis Vedomavus.” It’s the earliest known family lineage in Wales. Image from britain express.com

Wales was a Christian society at this time.  There were several monasteries in Wales, the most famous being the one founded by St. David, in the south. The Welsh followed the practices of the Celtic Christian church, which had some differences from the Roman Christian practices, most notably in the style of tonsure and the dating of Easter. There some other, cultural differences, too.

Just as they were never completely subdued by the Romans, the Welsh were never completely subdued by the Anglo-Saxons who followed them. The mountains of the north were a formidable barrier to any invaders, and the fierce independence of the Welsh made them difficult adversaries in any battles. Various of the Welsh tribes/kingdoms did form alliances with certain Anglo-Saxon kings, most notably with Penda of Mercia, in their fights against the Northumbrian kingdoms, and there was some intermarrying that went on as well. They also had some alliances with their neighbouring Celts in Ireland, and would make war with them on the Picts or Anglo-Saxons at times.

For the most part, the Britons who lived in the place we now call Wales were a strong, independent people, well used to defending their territories and their customs against all who encroached upon them. Which is the reason why Wales survives today as a unique part of the United Kingdom.

Cymru Am Byth!* 


For more posts on this series on the Celts, see this introduction to the series.

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*”Long Live Wales!” This is the motto of Wales.

 

The Celts: An Introduction

England in the 7th century was made up of diverse groups of people. I’ve been blogging a lot about the Anglo-Saxons, those descendants of the invaders who made their way to Britain after the Roman legions left the island undefended in the 4th century.

The Romans left behind the Romano-British people, including, some speculate, the legendary Arthur, who fought against the Saxon invaders. But the other group of people who were there were the British Celts, the original inhabitants of the British Isles.

The Romans had never really conquered the Celts, just subdued them and made alliances with them when they could, and put up Hadrian’s Wall in the north to stop the raiding Picts and British Celtic tribes they never did tame. And in the west, the Welsh Celts retreated into their mountain strongholds but were never subdued. The Irish Celts, of course, continued their lives on their remote island much as they ever had.

The Druids were the priestly class of Celtic society. Their place in society gradually diminished until the old religion was pretty much wiped out by the 8th century in Britain, but in the 6th century, St. Patrick still acknowledged the high status of Druids by allowing that oaths could be made in front of them. Image from Harbinger451

Things remained much the same when the invading/colonizing Germanic tribes came along. The people groups we now call the Welsh, Scottish, and Irish did not welcome the newcomers with open arms, but by the time of the 7th century there existed a fair amount of cooperation and even intermarriage between them. The Picts in Northern England also had embraced the Christian faith by this time.

The Celts and the Anglo-Saxons had similar societies, being that they were warrior societies, based around strong kings and familial ties.

But there were definite differences, as well.

  1. 1. Christian vs pagan – by the 7th century, the Irish and Welsh had pretty much been Christianized*, and had begun to set up their monasteries which were centres of learning and innovation. They had access to the wisdom of the ancient Greeks and Romans and they were beginning to bring this wisdom and knowledge back to the rest of Europe who had lost it during the chaotic centuries after Rome fell and the barbarians took over. The Anglo-Saxons were beginning to be Christianized by the Irish monks as well, but there were still kings who held onto the pagan ways of their forefathers, most notably, Penda of Mercia. In fact, the 7th century was a time when the future of Christianity in Britain and even in Europe was very much up in the air. Whichever religion won over the society was going to be the religion held by the strongest king. And with the way the power shifted from one king to another over this century, it was far from certain that the Christian faith would come out on top.
  2. Nature gods vs Norse gods – the Irish and Welsh Celts were Christians, but they came from a pagan background of nature worship. Theirs was a religion where trees, water, and the natural world were held sacred. Echoes of this still survived in the practice of their Christian faith. The Saxons held to the worship of Woden, Thunder, and Frig, the Nordic gods of their ancestors. It’s not entirely clear how either of these cultures practiced their religions, exactly, although we have some hints here and there. But the foundations of their worldviews would have been very different. For example, the Saxon idea of Fate, or wyrd, would have been much different from the way the ancient Celts, and most certainly the Christian Celts, saw the world.
  3. Place of women – I have mentioned before that Anglo-Saxon women had more rights and a more powerful place in society than their Middle Ages counterparts who followed them. It was similar for  women in Celtic societies, and maybe even more so. I have heard it said that the Celts practiced matriarchy, but in the research I have done it does not seem that was the case. But certainly women could be warriors and even lead armies, be judges, and otherwise hold a considerable amount of power among the Celts. You see this translate over to the Irish church, where women such as Hild could be leaders of both women and men in the double monasteries.
  4. Tribal Chief vs King – the Celts had a tribal, familial based society, as compared to the Saxons, whose loyalties were centered on the warrior-kings. In practice, this might look similar, but it was nonetheless a subtle inference between them. Family ties were important in Anglo-Saxon life, of course, but not to quite the same extent as the Celts.
  5. Language – the Anglo-Saxons spoke various dialects of what we now call Old English. For example, the Mercians had slight differences from the language the Angles in Bernicia spoke. But it was all the same basic root language, derived from the one spoken by their ancestors who had originally migrate to Britain after the Romans left. The Celts spoke their own language, which also had the same root language called Brythonic but by the 7th century it had diverged from its common root into distinct languages amongst the groups we now call the Welsh, Irish and Scots.

In future posts on the Celts I hope to touch on more of these elements of their society in more detail. Stay tuned!

*When I say “Christianized”, I mean that the faith had gained acceptance among both the ruling class and mainstream society. That’s not to say that there might not have been some hold-outs who clung to the old ways, however.

Featured image from The British Museum

St. David of Wales

I have written here on the blog about St. Aidan of England, St. Columba of Scotland, and St. Brigid of Ireland. So it’s high time to shine the spotlight on St. David of Wales. My mother is Welsh, and I have a certain fondness for St. David, myself! But as he doesn’t really fit into the story and setting of my book (Northumbria, 7th century AD) I have left him until now.

But this week we celebrate St. David’s Day (March 1st) , so I thought this would be a great week to explore the life of the patron saint of Wales.

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The Welsh flag

David, (or Dewi, as his name is spelt in the Welsh language), is a bit of a tricky person to hunt down. There most certainly was a great Bishop of that name in the 5th-6th century in Wales*, but his dates are a bit uncertain. He is said to have been born in 454, 487, 520, 542, or 544 AD. And similarly, the year he died is also unclear, with 560, 589, or 601 AD being given as dates. Depending on which dates you choose, you can understand why there are some traditions that state he was over one hundred and forty years when he died!

Most of what we know of David’s life comes to us from the writings of an eleventh-century monk named Rhygyvarch, who was the son of Bishop Sulien of Saint David’s Cathedral in Wales (as far as I can tell, a legitimate son. Clergy could be married in those days!). Rhygyvarch claims to have gathered his material from older, written sources which have since disappeared. The earliest mention of David that we know of comes from an Irish Catalogue of Saints compiled in 730 AD.

As wth all the hagiographies we look at here at The Traveller’s Path, Rhygyvarch’s Life of David was more than just an accounting of the saint’s life. It is likely Rhygyvarch wrote it to promote the Welsh church through popularizing its favourite saint, in order to support its independence from the English Church in Canterbury. So we have to take everything he says with a grain of salt. Medieval historians, Bede aside (and even he had ulterior motives in his History), were not necessarily concerned about exact facts.

You may wonder why Bede, who was so meticulous in giving us the stories of Aidan, Cuthbert, and Columba, ignored David. Well, in a nutshell, Bede didn’t like the native Britons (Welsh) very much. He made allowances for the other three because they all had a part in the growth of the Anglo-Saxon church, through their evangelical out-reach to the Anglo-Saxons and their establishment of monasteries throughout Northumbria.

However, the Welsh had a very different outlook on their relations with the Anglo-Saxons who came to Britain after the Romans withdrew in the fourth century. The Romano-British had a thriving church on the island, and after the soldiers left and the Romano-British society started to fall apart under the pressure of raids and upheaval from the Irish and the Picts and other invaders from the continent, the native British Christians withdrew into the west and north, and pretty much stayed there, remaining unconquered by Saxons and Vikings alike.

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You can see that the British Celts (the Britons) had a lot of territory in the 600s, including today’s Wales, Scotland (most of it) Ireland, and substantial parts of today’s northwest England.

Although David and others took the Gospel to their fellow British in Wales, unlike the Irish Celts they were seemingly uninterested in evangelizing the Anglo-Saxons. And in fact, when Augustine arrives from Rome in 595 AD to re-evangelize this supposedly pagan nation of Britain, he is met by a delegation of Celtic British monks and priests, who don’t take too kindly at his arrogant ways.

So, strike one in Bede’s mind was that the Welsh had no part in the building of the Anglo-Saxon church. Strike two would be that they were Celtic Christians. Their monks wore the odd Celtic tonsure and more importantly, had not moved on along with the Roman church and changed their method to date Easter. The Celtic/British church still followed the old, archaic method, and this refusal to see the error of their ways and bow to the Pope’s authority in this matter was heretical in Bede’s mind.

So, as David gets no mention in Bede’s History, we are pretty much left with Rhygyvarch’s Life of David and a few other mentions here and there.

And an interesting tale it is! No matter the year you ascribe to David’s birth, his beginnings are highlighted by violence and upheaval, a small window into the times. His mother, named Non, was by all accounts a beautiful high-born daughter of a Pembrokeshire chieftain. Her beauty attracted Sant, a local chieftain or king (who may have been related to King Arthur) and he raped her. Non goes into hiding and gives birth during a violent storm somewhere just south of where St. David’s Cathedral is situated today. A medieval chapel, now in ruins, marks the spot today.

His mother at some point became a nun (or perhaps was a nun when she was raped, the stories are a little unclear) and David was raised in her convent as a young boy and there nurtured in the faith. He was educated in the monastery of Hyn Fynyw and then studied under the monk St. Paulinus. Already at an early age several miracles are attributed to him, including that while he was still in the womb his mother went to church and the priest was struck dumb, unable to continue while in David’s presence. He is also said to have cured Paulinus of blindness.

At any rate, he was with Paulinus for at least ten years, by all accounts a star pupil, and also studied under St. Illtud of Llanilltud Fawr.**

David was ordained as priest and began missionary work in Wales, eventually establishing over fifty churches and twelve monasteries, including Glastonbury and the one at Mynyw, now called St. David’s Cathedral. He also made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, where he was consecrated bishop. In 550 AD he was made Archbishop of Wales. Although there is some dispute about this, too. In general the Welsh had the same Celtic Christian style of church hierarchy, which was not nearly so organized as the Roman one that followed it. It is possible that, like Aidan, David was both Abbot and Bishop).

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St. David’s Cathedral, in Pembrokeshire. Image from Wikicommons

It is told he had a lovable and happy disposition, and was tall and physically strong. Which is a good thing, given that David practiced an extreme form of aestheticism. The Celtic Church in general was greatly influenced by the ancient Desert Fathers, Christians who withdrew to the Egyptian desert in the 3rd and 4th century to separate from the surrounding disintegrating Roman/pagan society. They practiced a very aesthetic form of Christianity, and David embraced that life-style whole-heartedly. He ate only bread, herbs (probably watercress), and vegetables. The patron saint of vegans, perhaps? Due to the fact that he only drank water and no alcohol, he was known as Aquaticus or Dewi Ddyfrwr (David the water drinker) in Welsh.

He would also stand up to his neck in cold water and recite Scripture as a form of penance (which seems to be a standard practice for the Celtic monks, as other prominent churchmen such as Aidan and Cuthbert did this as well).

So it’s not surprising that David initiated a particularly strict Rule on his monasteries. He did not allow oxen to pull the plough, the brothers had to do it themselves. The monks were allowed only one meal per day of bread, vegetables and salt, and they were also forbidden alcohol. They also kept silence, which was not necessarily unusual for the times but was enforced perhaps a little more strictly at his monasteries.

David himself followed an even stricter discipline than his fellow monks, often staying up alone all through the night to pray.

The major religious controversy in Britain at the time was the Pelagian heresy, which had been growing since the monk Pelagius began its teachings in the fourth century.  It’s a bit complicated but basically, from what I understand, it is a doctrine that denies original sin. Around 550 AD David preached to great effect against Pelagianism at the Synod of Brefi, it is said that while he preached the ground rose up under his feet so that others could hear him better and a dove alighted on his shoulder. Later on he presided over the Synod of Caerleon in 559 AD known as the “Synod of Victory” where Pelagianism was officially condemned by the church.

David either founded Glastonbury Abbey (according to Rhygyvarch) or renovated it (according to William of Malmsbury who wrote a history of England about forty years after Rhygyvarch’s work). At any rate it is said that he donated a sapphire altar to the abbey at that time, and indeed there is a manuscript that indicates that the soldiers of Henry VIII confiscated a sapphire altar from the abbey during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century.

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The ruins of Glastonbury Abbey today. Image from flickr

David died on March 1st, which is now celebrated as St. David’s Day in Wales. As I said before, the exact year is uncertain, but the best guesses are 589 or 601 AD. Rhygyvarch records that his last words were in a sermon at Mynyw:

Lords, brothers and sisters, Be joyful, and keep your faith and your creed, and do the little things that you have seen me do and heard about. And as for me, I will walk the path that our fathers have trod before us.

There is a tradition that during a battle between the Welsh and the Anglo-Saxons, St. David told the Welsh soldiers to pin a leek on themselves to distinguish them from their enemies. Thus the leek became one of the emblems of Wales, and is still worn on St. David’s Day today in Wales.

David was buried at Mynyw, and his bones kept in a shrine there. During the Reformation the shrine was stripped of jewels and the relics confiscated.

But David’s legacy still lives on, in the churches he founded and the faith he defended. I think he would be happy with that legacy!


*Just a quick reminder: the word “Welsh” is a modern term. But in order to make this less confusing I will continue to refer to this part of Britain as “Wales”, although at the time it was a conglomeration of native British Celtic kingdoms, such as Powys, Gwynedd, and the like.

**Llanilltud Fawr, located on the southern tip of Wales, was the first major Welsh monastery and the first centre of learning in early Britain. It was an important hub of Celtic Christianity, and besides St. David, also educated many famous figures of the early medieval period including St. Patrick, Gildas, and Taliesin, as well as royal princes. At its peak it had around 2000 students.