A Short History of Wales/Chapter 4

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The name of Christ had been heard in Britain during the period of Roman rule, but we do not know who first sounded it. There are many beautiful legends—that the great apostle of the Gentiles himself came to Britain; that Joseph of Arimathea, having been placed by the Jews in an open boat, at the mercy of wind and wave, landed in Britain; that some of the captives taken to Rome with Caratacus brought back the tidings of great joy.

We know that the name of Christ, between 200 and 300 years after His death, was well known in Britain, and that churches had been built for His worship. Between 300 and 400 we have an organised church and a settled creed. Between 400 and 500 there was searching of heart and creed, and heresies—a sure sign that the people were alive to religion. Between 500 and 600 there was a translation of the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into the better-known Latin. The whole of Wales becomes Christian; and probably St David converted the last pagans, and built his church among them.

Between 450 and 500 a stream of pagan Teutons flowed over the east of Britain, and the British Church was separated from the Roman Church.By 664 British and Roman missionaries had converted the English; and the two Churches of Rome and Britain, once united, were face to face again. But they had grown in different ways, and refused to know each other. Their Easter came on different days; they did not baptize in the same way; the tonsure was different—a crescent on the forehead of the British monk, and a crown on the pate of the Roman monk. In the Roman Church there was rigid unity and system; in the British Church there was much room for self-government. The newly converted English chose the Roman way, because they were told that St Peter, whose see Rome was, held the keys of heaven. Between 700 and 800 the Welsh gradually gave up their religious independence, and joined the Roman Church.

But there was another dispute. Were the four old Welsh bishoprics—Bangor, St Asaph, St David's, Llandaff—to be subject to the English archbishop of Canterbury, or to have an archbishopric of their own at St David's? By 1200 the Welsh bishoprics were subject to the English archbishop, and Giraldus Cambrensis came too late to save them.

But through all these disputes the Church was gaining strength.Churches were being built everywhere. Up to 700 they were called after the name of their founder; between 700 and 1000 they were generally dedicated to the archangel Michael—there are several Llanvihangels[1] in Wales; after 1000 new churches were dedicated to Mary, the Mother of Christ—we have many Llanvairs.[2]

Times of civil strife, or of popular indifference, came over and over again; and the old paganism tried to reassert itself. And time after time the name of Christ was sounded again by men who thought they had seen Him. In the twelfth century the Cistercian monk came to say that the world was bad, that prayer saved the soul, and that labour was noble.[3] He was followed by the Franciscan friar, who said that deeds of mercy and love should be added to prayer, that Christ had been a poor man, and that men should help each other, not only in saving souls, but in healing sickness and relieving pain. In the fifteenth century the Lollard came to say that the Church was too rich, and that it had become blind to the truth, and Walter Brute said that men were to be justified by faith in Christ, not by the worship of images or by the merit of saints. In the sixteenth century came the Protestant, and the sway of Rome over Wales came to an end; Bishop Morgan translated the Bible into Welsh, and John Penry yearned for the preaching of the Gospel in Wales. The Jesuit followed, calling himself by the name of Jesus, to try to win the country back again to Rome. Robert Jones toiled and schemed, and some laid down their lives. The Puritan came in the seventeenth century to demand simple worship, and Morgan Lloyd thought that the second advent of Christ was at hand. The Revivalist came in the eighteenth century, and, in the name of Christ, aroused the people of Wales to a new life of thought.

After all this, you will be surprised to learn that many of the old gods still remain in Wales, and much of the old pagan worship. Who drops a pin into a sacred well, or leaves a tiny rag on a bush close by, and then wishes for something? A young maiden in the twentieth century, who sacrifices to a well heathen god. Until quite recently men thought that Ffynnon Gybi, and Ffynnon Elian, and Ffynnon Ddwynwen, had in them a power which could curse and bless, ruin and save.

Lud of the Silver Hand was the god of flocks and ships. His caves are in Dyved still, and his was the temple on Ludgate Hill in London.Merlin was a god of knowledge; he could foretell events. Ceridwenwas the goddess of wisdom; she distilled wisdom-giving drops in a cauldron. Gwydion created a beautiful girl from flowers, "from red rose, and yellow broom, and white anemony." I am not quite sure what Coil did, but I have heard children singing the history of "old King Cole." Olwen also walked through Wales in heathen times, and it is said that three white flowers rose behind her wherever she had put her foot.


  1. Mihangel = Michael. Llan Fihangel= St Michael's.
  2. Mair = Mary. Llan Fair= St Mary's.
  3. About 1921 the abbeys of Aberconway and Strata Marcella had over a hundred cows each, Whitland over a thousand sheep, and Basingwerk over two thousand.