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Updated:  Aug 12, 2013
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Welsh Monastic Foundations

If we follow the British Church when driven into Wales in the fifth century, we meet at once with saints and scholars, whose names are little known to English-speaking Catholics

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Errata* for Welsh Monastic Foundations:

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* Published by Encyclopedia Press, 1913.

WELSH MONASTIC FOUNDATIONS.—Few saints of the early British Church, as it existed before the Saxon invasion, are known to history; the names of St. Alban, SS. Julius and Aaron seem to be the only ones that have come down to us of the countless martyrs slain in Britain in the time of Diocletian. But if we follow the British Church when driven into Wales in the fifth century, we meet at once with saints and scholars, whose names are little known to English-speaking Catholics. Wales became a home for the saints. Within its borders there are no less than four hundred and seventy-nine villages and towns that derive their names from local Saints. Thus Llandewi marks the spot where St. David, Bishop of Caerleon and then of Menevia (fifth century), is said to have finally refuted Pelagius; Llangybi near Caerleon recalls the name of St. Cybi; Llanbadern near Aberystwith that of St. Padern: Beddgelert is associated with St. Celert; Llangattock with St. Cadoc; Llandudno with St. Tudno, etc. The old Celtic idea of sanctity inclined for the most part to a great love for the eremitical life. Each locality seems to have its hermit who in his lonely chapel celebrated the Divine Mysteries (if a priest), recited the Psalter every day, and practiced austerities.

The arrival of St. Germanus of Auxerre in Britain (fifth century), to oppose the heresy of Pelagius, seems to have given the first impetus to the formation of monastic schools. On his second visit, accompanied by St. Severus, Bishop of Trier, he established seminaries throughout the land. These schools soon became famous; those of Ross and Hentlan on the Wye in Herefordshire alone contained one thousand scholars. "By means of these schools", says Bede, "the Church continued ever afterwards pure in the faith and free from heresy". The saint ordained St. Dubricius Archbishop of Llandaff, and St. Iltutus (Iltyd) priest, recommending to them and others the multiplication and assiduous care of these monastic schools where sacred learning was to be cultivated. Almost immediately a great development of monastic life took place and all over Wales monasteries and monastic colleges arose which became renowned sanctuaries of holiness and homes of sacred learning.

Llancarvan monastery in Glamorganshire, three miles from Cowbridge, and not far from the British Channel, was founded in the latter part of the fifth century by St. Cadoc (Drane, "Christian Schools and Scholars", I, 56). He was the son of Gundleus (Gwynlliw), a prince of South Wales, who some years before his death renounced the world to lead an eremitical life near a country church which he had built. Cadoc, who was his oldest son, succeeded him in the government, but not long after followed his father's example and received the religious habit from St. Tathai, an Irish monk, superior of a small community at Gwent near Chepstow, in Monmouthshire. Returning to his native county, Cadoc built a church and monastery, which was called Llancarvan, or the "Church of the Stags". Here he established a monastery and college, which became the seminary of many great and holy men. The spot at first seemed an impossible one, an almost inaccessible marsh, but he and his monks drained and cultivated it, transforming it into one of the most famous and attractive religious homes in South Wales. The plan of the building included a monastery, a college, and a hospital. The ancient Iolo MS. (Welsh) gives an account of the numerical strength of this monastery: "The College of Cattwg [Cadoc] in Llancarvan with three cells [halls or subject houses] and a thousand saints [monks], together with two cells in the Vale of Neath" (Cambria Sacra, 388 sq.).

St. Iltut (Illtyd) spent the first period of his religious life as a disciple of St. Cadoc at Llancarvan. St. Gildas the Wise was invited by St. Cadoc to deliver lectures in the monastery and spent a year there, during which he made a copy of a book of the Gospels, long treasured in the church of St. Cadoc. The Welsh felt such reverence for this book that they used it in their most solemn oaths and covenants. Seeing his monastery thoroughly established, St. Cadoc visited several of the famous religious houses and colleges in Ireland, and then undertook a pilgrim-age to Rome and Jerusalem (A.D. 462). From the latter city he brought home with him three altar-stones which had touched the Holy Sepulchre. He died at Benevenna (Weedon) in Northamptonshire in the beginning of the sixth century, leaving Ellenius his successor as abbot, "an excellent disciple", says Leland, "of an excellent master".

Llaniltyd Vawr Monastery, also known as Llan-Iltut and Llan-twit, situated on the sea-coast in Glamorganshire, not far from Llancarvan) was founded and governed for many years by St. Iltut (Iltyd), a noble Briton, who was a native of Glamorganshire, and a kinsman of King Arthur. It was St. Cadoc who inspired him with a contempt of the world and a thirst for true wisdom. Iltut renounced his large possessions, received the tonsure at the hands of St. Dubricius, Archbishop of Llandaff, and then came as an humble disciple to place himself under the spiritual direction of St. Cadoc at Llancarvan. There he perfected himself in the science of the saints and acquired great skill in sacred learning. He was subsequently ordained priest by St. Germanus. It was probably by the advice of St. Cadoc that he left Llancarvan to found Llaniltyd, which became one of the most famous religious houses in Britain. Here the saint presided over a community of three thousand members, including many saints and scholars of note, as St. David, St. Samson, St. Magloire, St. Gildas, St. Pol de Leon, the bard Taliesin, and others. Here according to the Triads, an ancient authority on Wales, the praises of God never ceased, one hundred monks being employed in chanting the Divine Office throughout the day and night. Llaniltyd might rather be called a monastic university than a monastery or college. The Iolo MS. (p. 556) gives us some idea of its extent: "Here are the names of the cells [halls or subordinate colleges] of the college [collegiate monastery] of Iltyd, the colleges of St. Matthew, St. Mark, St. Luke, St. John, of Arthur, St. David, Morgan, Eurgain and Amwn. Of these colleges Iltyd was principal, and the place was named Bangor Iltyd and there were three thousand Saints [monks]." St. Iltut while governing his immense community labored with his own hands, and exercised himself in much watching, fasting, and prayer. Out of a love of holy retirement he passed three years in a lonely cave, in great austerity and assiduous prayer. Before his death he took a journey to Brittany to visit his disciples and friends there, arid died at Dole in the sixth century. He is to this day the titular saint of a church in Glamorganshire.

The monastery of Bangor of the Dee was known also as Bangor-is-Coed, i.e. "the eminent choir under the wood". The name Bangor was applied to several large monasteries, and is said to be derived from "Benedictus Chorus", shortened into Benchor, and subsequently written as Bangor. The monastery on the Dee was distant about ten or twelve miles from Chester, and its ruins witness to its former extent and importance. St. Bede the Venerable (lib. II, c. ii.) says that it was filled with learned men at the coming of St. Augustine into England. Of the founder of this religious house and its history little if anything seems to be known, as all its chronicles, documents, etc. have been lost or destroyed. We know, however, of its tragic extinction about the year 603. While the forces of Cadvan, King of North Wales, engaged those of the pagan and usurping Edilfrid of Northumbria, the monks were assembled on an eminence a short distance from the place of conflict. "The two armies", says Lingard, "met in the vicinity of Chester. On the summit of a neighboring hill, Edilfrid espied an unarmed crowd, the monks of Bangor, who, like Moses in the wilderness, had hoped by their prayers to determine the fate of battle. `If they pray', exclaimed the pagan, `they fight against us'; and he ordered a detachment of his army to put them to the sword.... Chester was taken, and Bangor (monastery) demolished. The scattered ruins demonstrated to subsequent generations the extent of that celebrated monastery" (Hist. Engl., II, 96). He adds in a note: "The number of monks slain on the hill is generally said to have been twelve hundred; but St. Bede observes that others besides the monks had assembled to pray. He supposes that the victory of Edilfrid fulfilled the predictions of Augustine."

The monastery of Bangor (Benchor) near the Menai Straits owed its origin to St. Daniel, the fellow disciple of St. Iltut. The place chosen was near the arm of the sea that divides Anglesey from Wales, where a city was soon afterwards built by King Mailgo, the same who undertook to defray the charges of St. David's funeral. Of the number of religious we have no information; but judging from the other monasteries of this period in Wales, vocations must have been plentiful. The Iolo MS. (p. 556) tells us that there were 3000 saints [monks] at Iltyd; 2000 in St. Dubricius's monastery on the banks of the Wye; 1000 in Llancarvan; 500 in St. David's monastery, Menevia; 5000 in Tathara monastery in Caerwnt; 1000 in Elvan monastery, Glastonbury; and 1000 in that of St. Teilo, Llandaff. St. Daniel, the founder who had been ordained by St. Dubricius, died about the year 545, and was buried in the Isle of Bardsey in the Atlantic near the extreme point of Carnarvonshire. The soil of this island is hallowed by the remains of 20,000 saints (monks) buried there. (See Alban Butler, XI, 246.)

The monastery of Lianelwy (St. Asaph) in the vale of Clwyd was founded by St. Kentigern, Bishop of Glasgow, who having been forced to quit his see during the usurpation of Prince Rydderch's throne by one of the latter's rebellious nobles, took refuge in Wales, where, after visiting St. David at Menevia, he received from a Welsh prince a grant of land for the erection of a monastery. In the course of time his community numbered about 995. These he divided into three companies; two, who were unlearned, were employed in agriculture and domestic offices; the third, which was made up of the learned, devoted their time to study and apostolic labors, and numbered upwards of three hundred. These again were divided into two choirs, one of which always entered the church as the others left, so that the praises of "God to all hours resounded in their mouths" (Britannia Sancta, I, 273). On the restoration of Rydderch in 544, St. Kentigern was recalled to his see and left the government of his monastery and school to St. Asaph, his favorite scholar, whose name was afterwards conferred upon the church and diocese.

St. Dubricius's monastic schools were at Hentlan and Mochrhes on the River Wye. This saint had been consecrated first Archbishop of Llandaff by St. Germanus about the year 444, and was afterwards appointed Archbishop of Caerleon, which dignity he resigned to St. David in 522 (Alban Butler, XI, 245). He erected two great monastic schools, where St. Samson, St. Thelian (Teilo), and many other eminent saints and prelates were trained in virtue and sacred learning. It is said that he had 1000 scholars with him for years at a time.

St. David, his successor at Caerleon, founded twelve monasteries, one at Glastonbury, having, according to an ancient MS., a thousand monks. In all these foundations he contrived to combine the hard work of the scholar and the equally hard labors of the monk. Ploughing and grammar succeeded each other by turns.

The course of studies at Llaniltyd (and this also applies to the other monasteries) included Latin, Greek, rhetoric, philosophy, theology, and mathematics. These were taught at Llaniltyd with so much success that it was looked upon as the first college in Britain (Cambria Sacra, pp. 436, 437).

The Cambro-British monks led a hard and austere life. "Knowing", says Capgrave (1514), "that secure rest is the nourisher of all vices [the abbot] subjected the shoulders of his monks to hard wearisomeness.... They detested riches and they had no cattle to till their ground, but each one was instead of an ox to himself and his brethren. When they had done their field work, returning to the cloisters of their monastery, they spent the rest of the day till evening in reading and writing. And in the evening at the sound of the bell, presently laying aside their work, and leaving even a letter unfinished, they went to the church and remained there till the stars appeared, and then all went together to table to eat, but not to fullness. Their food was bread with roots or herbs, seasoned with salt, and they quenched their thirst with milk mingled with water. Supper being ended they persevered about three hours in watching, prayer and genuflexions. After this they went to rest and at cock crowing rose again, and abode in prayer till the dawn of day. Their only clothing was the skin of beasts."

At Llan-Tewenec, the monastic habit was a goat's skin worn over a hair shirt; the fare, a little barley bread, with water and a decoction of boiled herbs. Sundays and feast days were distinguished by cheese and shellfish, while a brief repose was taken on the bare earth, or the bark of trees for a bed with a stone for pillow. In this wise were trained saints and eminent scholars to carry as apostles the light of the Faith to Brittany, the Orkneys, and other distant lands.


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