A Short History of Wales/Chapter 4

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

We know that the name of Christ, between 200 and 300 years after Hisdeath, was well known in Britain, and that churches had been builtfor His worship. Between 300 and 400 we have an organised church anda settled creed. Between 400 and 500 there was searching of heartand creed, and heresies—a sure sign that the people were alive toreligion. Between 500 and 600 there was a translation of the Biblefrom Hebrew and Greek into the better-known Latin. The whole ofWales becomes Christian; and probably St David converted the lastpagans, and built his church among them.

Between 450 and 500 a stream of pagan Teutons flowed over the east ofBritain, and the British Church was separated from the Roman Church.By 664 British and Roman missionaries had converted the English; andthe two Churches of Rome and Britain, once united, were face to faceagain. But they had grown in different ways, and refused to knoweach other. Their Easter came on different days; they did notbaptize in the same way; the tonsure was different—a crescent on theforehead of the British monk, and a crown on the pate of the Romanmonk. In the Roman Church there was rigid unity and system; in theBritish Church there was much room for self-government. The newlyconverted English chose the Roman way, because they were told that StPeter, whose see Rome was, held the keys of heaven. Between 700 and800 the Welsh gradually gave up their religious independence, andjoined 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 Englisharchbishop of Canterbury, or to have an archbishopric of their own atSt David's? By 1200 the Welsh bishoprics were subject to the Englisharchbishop, 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 calledafter the name of their founder; between 700 and 1000 they weregenerally dedicated to the archangel Michael—there are severalLlanvihangels[1] in Wales; after 1000 new churches were dedicated toMary, the Mother of Christ—we have many Llanvairs.[2]

Times of civil strife, or of popular indifference, came over and overagain; and the old paganism tried to reassert itself. And time aftertime the name of Christ was sounded again by men who thought they hadseen Him. In the twelfth century the Cistercian monk came to saythat the world was bad, that prayer saved the soul, and that labourwas noble.[3] He was followed by the Franciscan friar, who saidthat deeds of mercy and love should be added to prayer, that Christhad been a poor man, and that men should help each other, not only insaving souls, but in healing sickness and relieving pain. In thefifteenth century the Lollard came to say that the Church was toorich, and that it had become blind to the truth, and Walter Brutesaid that men were to be justified by faith in Christ, not by theworship of images or by the merit of saints. In the sixteenthcentury came the Protestant, and the sway of Rome over Wales came toan end; Bishop Morgan translated the Bible into Welsh, and John Penryyearned for the preaching of the Gospel in Wales. The Jesuitfollowed, calling himself by the name of Jesus, to try to win thecountry back again to Rome. Robert Jones toiled and schemed, andsome laid down their lives. The Puritan came in the seventeenthcentury to demand simple worship, and Morgan Lloyd thought that thesecond advent of Christ was at hand. The Revivalist came in theeighteenth century, and, in the name of Christ, aroused the people ofWales to a new life of thought.

After all this, you will be surprised to learn that many of the oldgods still remain in Wales, and much of the old pagan worship. Whodrops a pin into a sacred well, or leaves a tiny rag on a bush closeby, and then wishes for something? A young maiden in the twentiethcentury, who sacrifices to a well heathen god. Until quite recentlymen thought that Ffynnon Gybi, and Ffynnon Elian, and FfynnonDdwynwen, had in them a power which could curse and bless, ruin andsave.

Lud of the Silver Hand was the god of flocks and ships. His cavesare 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 acauldron. Gwydion created a beautiful girl from flowers, "from redrose, and yellow broom, and white anemony." I am not quite sure whatCoil did, but I have heard children singing the history of "old KingCole." 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.