British Christians in the Dark Ages

Chapter 5

British Christians in the Dark Ages

As in Scotland, so in Wales it was a disciple of St. Martin who first built a monastic settlement there. He was St. Peblig; and he founded Llanbeblig in Caernarvonshire towards the end of the fourth century, shortly before St. Ninian founded Candida Casa in Wigtownshire.

Now, unlike Pictish Scotland, Wales and the rest of Britain had by this time been ruled by the Romans for three hundred years. You have seen how this affected the life led by the Britons who had become proud citizens of the Roman Empire. St. Peblig himself was only one of many who were actually half Roman by birth. His family history will give us a good introduction to the Age of Saints in Wales.

St. Peblig’s father, Maximus, was a Roman general sent to Britain from Spain in the middle of the fourth century to defend the country from the Picts. He married Helena, a British princess whose tribes lived in Caernavonshire. Both were ardent orthodox Christians at a time when the weak young Emperor of the West (the Empire by now had two rulers) and most of the Christian citizens of the Empire were Arians who believed that Christ was no more than a very good man. Maximus grew so popular with his British soldiers that, in 383, they acclaimed him Emperor. From all over Britain men came to him, clamouring to follow him across the Channel and help him to conquer his rival in Gaul. Because of Helena, his British wife, and their five Romano-British children, hardly a soldier of Wales would stay at home to guard the country from the Scots. Picts and Saxons. Everyone wanted to share in so important an adventure for the future of Christian Britain.

With the help of his brave British soldiers, Maximus did become Emperor of the West. And it was while he and his family lived in the palace at Treves that they grew to know and to love St. Martin. St. Peblig, as you know, became one of his monks, and the Empress Helena showed her respect for holiness by one day dressing up as a servant and waiting on St. Martin at table.

In Defence of Christian Wales

But Maximus and his British army were over-ambitious and were finally defeated in Italy by the Emperor of the East. The brave Welsh soldiers are still remembered as the Lost Army and Maximus, too, was killed. But the Romans wisely sent Helena and her family back to rule Wales. Their task was to defend it against invasion of Scots from Ireland, Picts from Scotland, and Saxons from the east. Roman rule had already taught Welsh tribes to think nationally. But even with the efficient rule of Helena, her here sons, and her daughter’s British husband, the few soldiers were powerless to prevent more and more Scots from Ireland settling in the west. So, at the end of the fourth century, the Roman governor of Britain ordered Cunedda, a Romano-British general from southern Scotland, to march with his army to the rescue of Christian Wales. He ousted the Scots; and his Christian descendants, with those of Maximus, ruled Wales between them in so Roman a manner that after the Romans had to abandon Britain in 410, the Anglo-Saxons who were settled in the east of Britain still imagined the Romans to be in command beyond the Welsh mountains. They therefore called the west by the name the Germans still call it to-day, that is Welschland, or the Land of the Romans. So now you know what the words, Welsh and Wales, really mean.

By the end of the fifth century, there were no longer British bishops in places lying as far east as London, York and Lincoln. The pagan Anglo-Saxons now owned the land on which the little British churches had stood so bravely for the rule of love. But in Wales, monastic Christianity had taken firm root, protected and encouraged by the descendants of Maximus and Cunedda. The first Christian llans or monastic settlements (which looked almost exactly like pre-Christian llans) were founded by disciples of St. Ninian who sailed to Wales from Northern Ireland and by missionaries who came, like St. Peblig, from Gaul.

The Victories of King Arthur

During the second half of the fifth century two great names stand out. King Arthur, about whom you have heard many a legend, was a Romano-British general who won for Wales twelve victories against the Picts and Scots. He was related both to Maximus and Cunedda; and by the Romans way in which he trained his soldiers, he brought lasting peace of the country. St. Illtud, the second great name, seems to have a refugee Briton from the Saxon-held east. In peaceful Wales, it was he who founded the monasteries with the best schools. One was on Caldy Island; he is kept in remembrance by monks living there to-day. The largest, Llanilltud in Glamorganshire, is now known as Llantwit Major. Gildas, the historian, was a pupil there, but most of the stories we know about Llanilltud and its abbot are written in an early seventh-century book, the Life of St. Samson. After spending his school days there, St. Samson became the greatest missionary sent by Wales to Brittany. Some of St. Illtud’s boys rebelled against so many lessons, so many prayers and fasts, and such work out of doors. They ran away. But St. Samson and his friends knew that St. Illtud used the strict Egyptian pattern to train them to be monastic leaders of the British Church in a perilously pagan world. Only missionaries as strong in body as soldiers, as strong in faith as saints, could hope to survive in the west during the Dark Ages. But the quality that is best remembered about St. Illtud and so many of the sixth century saints who followed him, is their tenderness and, especially, their affectionate love of birds and beasts. Here is a picture of St. Illtud and his monks that has come down to us who live fourteen hundred years later.

St. Illtud and the Sparrows

One year when the monastery corn was almost ripe, it was attacked by a noisy flock of sparrows. It was the boy Samson’s turn to guard the corn, but when he clapped his hands the sparrows only stopped eating long enough to cock their heads disrespectfully at him. St. Samson, used to obedience, grew angry. He ordered them to go instantly to the monastery and apologize to the abbot for their barbaric invasion. Dismayed, they flew off. St. Illtud received the subdued birds. ‘Bless you, creatures of God,’ he murmured. ‘But don’t harm the corn, the graceful corn which bends to the wind, the generous corn which feeds men.’ And again he raised his arm and blessed them. Then he commanded that the sparrows be fed daily at the monastery and they in turn behaved politely throughout his lands. So great was the love of birds in that early Christian settlement that when one of the monks returned from his farm work to find that a pair of robins had started to build a next in his indoor clothes, he was allowed to wear his outdoor things till the eggs were hatched and the young birds flown.

With the country divided among Christian princes and chiefs, the sixth-century Church in Wales could always find land on which to build and farm. And because the Celtic monastic Church grew out of the Celtic tribal pattern, we find that the largest monasteries belonged to the most important tribes. Abbots such as St. David, St. Cadoc and St. Teilo were closely related to their chiefs and, just as the chief’s son succeeded him, so an abbot was usually succeeded by his nephew. This seemed as natural an arrangement then as it seems old to us now.

The Church Unites the People

The Church in Wales was not only linked by birth to the rulers but herself played an important part in governing and uniting the country. It was fortunate that the abbots showed plenty of common sense when they met to discuss Church discipline, for within their tribes they were immensely powerful. Their churches were used as refuges by men whose chiefs would otherwise had killed them for some misdeed. On the other hand, abbots often used their little churches as law courts in which to try thieves and debtors. And when occasionally they had to excommunicate a Christian, who persisted in defying the law of God and man, not only did he cease to be a member of the Church but he ceased to be a member of his tribe. Anyone had the right to take his house, his cattle or even his life.

I like the ancient Welsh law which says: ‘The people have a right to the Church and the Church to the people. Baptism, Communion . . . . and offerings are due from the Church to every person. . . with the recital of God’s Word to all who listen to it and keep it.’ The people in return gave to their Church land, cattle and their own children. The abbot took the place of pre-Christian Druids as foster-fathers to the brightest boys of their tribe. And so well did they train these young relations of theirs that the best remembered men in sixth-century Wales were not men of war but men of God – that is to say, saints. No less than five hundred built the llans that stud the map of Wales like stars in a frosty sky. Pupils of St. Illtud founded Bangor on Dee which became as famous a training school for the Church in the north as Llanilltud was in the south.

Let the People Sing

Gildas, writing during the first half of the sixth century, tells us that there was still many married priests and bishops in the British Church. But he complains they could do little to prevent their people slipping back to the worship of stones, springs and trees, in such troubled times. ‘Harmless good’ men, as he calls them, they had lost the missionary spirit. But the British monks were practical and energetic. They baptized pagan stones and either carved crosses out of them or on them. They blessed pagan springs and turned them into holy wells of healing. And they used the Welsh love of song to set the people singing of the glory of God

St. David is the best known of the Welsh saints, thanks to the eleventh-century scholar who wrote his life after studying the ancient writings (some of St. David’s own hand) that he found crumbling away in the saint’s monastery library. This little book can teach us much about British Christians in the Dark Ages.

St. David was born at the end of the fifth century, when poets were singing to the children of the glorious victories of King Arthur. His mother was descended from Maximus and his father from Cunedda. Cunedda had originally come to guard, so St. David’s tribe lived in western Wales. It was great fun to be a chief’s son. St. David’s house, in the middle of the enclosure, was the biggest and best. Unlike a peasant boy, who showed his rank by wearing one colour only, the little David wandered about his father’s village dressed as gaily as a rainbow. He listened to the girls and women singing as they worked at their spinning, dyeing and weaving. He watched the men hammering away in the smithy and in the carpenter’s shop. When he was tired, his nurse would tell him fairy stories known to Welsh children for a thousand years. And at Church and from his mother, he learnt the yet more amazing story of Jesus and His disciples.

David is Sent to School

Living close to the sea, David and his small friends kept a look out for boats crossing the Irish Channel to Cardigan. From Ireland they came, and from Cornwall and Scotland too, for it is important to keep remembering that it was far easier to travel by sea than by land. You may be sure that David learnt to swim, to fish and to handle the coracles that lay upside down on the beach – small, buoyant boats still used in the west of Ireland and made by stretching skins across a light rounded wooden frame.

It must have been a great shock to David when his parents put an end to this careless life. He was only about seven when they sent him to his monastery school. Hating to part with him, they chose one close at hand; and there, while he lived in great discomfort, homesick for the colour and warmth of his father’s fortess, the monks introduced him to some of the grandest poetry in the world.

The psalms in Latin seem always to have been used as a reader in Celtic monasteries; and many a young scholar left his school knowing them all by heart. Take a look at the psalter yourself, and you will see prayers and poems to fit every mood. ‘The Lord is my shepherd,’ ‘I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills,’ ‘The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,’ – these are just a few of the happy ones David learnt to read. His book was made of tattered skins, for books were so precious that only the oldest might be touched by a fidgety small boy. But the script was beautiful, and very son David himself as practising the rounded letters that he might show his mother his favourite psalm written out by himself. The ink, quill pens and parchment used by the best scholars among the small boys were all made and prepared for them by their masters. David was among the best scholars in the school. For he made so great an impression on the staff that even the bishop became his friend.

David a Great Scholar

David’s father next sent him to Paul the Aged, a pupil of St. Ninian’s whose White House (now called Whitland Abbey) was in Carmarthenshire. Here he studied them writings of the early Fathers of the Church, the Lives of St. Athony and St. Martin, and all the great pagan authors brought to Britain by the Romans. Through these studies, and through the daily routine of prayer, church worship and manual labour, either outside or in the workshops, he grew ever closer to God. There is a story that, by his touch, David healed the aching eyes of his dear old master. Now the power to heal sick bodies was so common among followers of Christ in the Age of Saints that this story, though strange to us, may well be true.

It was Paul the Aged who advised David’s father to let him complete his studies at Candida Casa, still the most famous of all the monastic schools. He must have travelled north from Cardiganshire to Wigtownshire, about 520, in one of his father’s ships – a handsome young chief who had already decided to be a monk. Instead of scarlet and gold he now wore a rough, undyed cassock with a pointed hood attached for use in wet weather. His bare feet were shod with stout sandals. No longer a boy, he became a man eager to repay God what He had given him through His Church. Kneeling in St. Ninian’s little church of St. Martin, where monks had worshipped daily for over a hundred years, he determined to fit himself for the adventurous life of a missionary.

David Becomes a Monk and a Priest

When at last the day came for David to make his final promises to spend his whole life in the service of Christ’s Church, the abbot of Candida Casa (affectionately called ‘the little monk) tonsured him not with the Roman tonsure meant to represent the crown of thorns, but as eastern slaves were tonsured. He shaved the whole front of his head from ear to ear as a sign of his submission to his Master. David then resembled the thousands of Irish, Pictish and British monks who followed a custom brought from a visit to eastern monasteries by St. Martin’s master, St. Hilary.

Now David had decided that God wished him to be not only a monk but a priest also. This meant very hard study as no monk could be ordained till he had completed a further course of classics, divinity, philosophy, literature and science known impressively as the Seven Degrees of Wisdom. There were no written examinations, but David and his friends could not be ordained till their teachers had satisfied the abbot (who was also their bishop) that they had mastered each subject. It must have made a welcome change when David accompanied one of the parties of monks sent from Candida Casa to keep in touch with the settlements of the far north. He had his first taste of missionary life while exploring Pictish Scotland.

When David was ordained deacon, he took the first step towards becoming a full priest of the Church. He still took his turn at such jobs as sowing the corn, cutting it with a sickle, or grinding it for the next day’s bread; but there were no more classes. Instead, he helped in the services and, as choral and instrumental music played so important a part in them, he probably took extra lessons in the music room where monks learned to accompany church singing on the harp and on small portable organs such as the Welsh missionary saints took to Brittany during the second half of the century. At all the services (and at Candida Casa there seem to have been eight every day) deacons such as St. David were leaders of the congregation. But at the Communion Service, the deacons played a most important part. He read the Gospel chosen for the day, and gave the cup to the people. Perhaps St. David’s famous voice was developed through leading the people in their responses. He also led the singing of psalms and hymns for the huge Sunday congregations. There were no seats at all in St. Ninian’s little church; but even so, on Sundays a large proportion of the monks and their neighbours had to stand outside.

We are told that the young priest, St. David, boldly carried the Gospel to the east of Wales among the enemies of his people. The Anglo-Saxons settling in Hereford and Somerset might well have killed him. But perhaps they had already learnt to respect the Celtic monks of Glastonbury. For they allowed St. David to disappear safely over the mountains about 530. On he went till he reached the extreme western tip of Wales where he founded Menevia, now called St. David’s, in Pembrokeshire. It was close to the sea and as far as possible from the enemy.

David Founds a Monastery

It soon came to be known as the strictest monastery in Wales but this fact only increased the length of the queues of young men eager to enter. Gildas might write that the boys were overworked and the monks were even made to pull their own ploughs. Welsh monks at work in Brittany might laugh when they heard how sparse and simple was the food and drink and nickname St. David ‘the Waterman’. But his own people loved him. They were sure he spoke daily with angels and they responded to the work he and his monks did among the poor and sick sending their children to his schools. There were no less than nineteen llans founded by St. David in south-west Wales and therefore called Llandewi.

Menevia was excellently placed to receive Celtic visitors arriving by sea. St. Finnian came from his huge monastery at Clonard in Ireland, to learn how Candida Casa had taught the British monks to sing the Communion service. St. Kentigern came from Scotland, and it may well have been St. David’s stories of his Pictish travels that later made Glasgow into so brave a mission base for the Picts of the far north. You will soon see that the lives of the Celtic saints are as delightfully interlaced one with another as the lines in the designs they loved to draw.

After being consecrated bishop in 540, St. David was in even greater demand than before as a Soul Friend – that is, as a priest to whom other monks confessed their faults, their failures, their weaknesses and their troubles, receiving in return the advice, penance and forgiveness ordained by the Church. It seems that all the great Celtic saints had their Soul Friends to keep them humble. They nearly always chose a personal friend to do them this service.

Fighting the Plague

In 547, one out of every three people died of the Yellow Plague in Europe. So terrible was this epidemic in Wales that whole tribes fled south, complete with their chiefs and abbots. Some went no farther than Cornwall. But St. David was one of many who reached Brittany. This Celtic country had been left desolate by repeated Teutonic raids. Here was a task for the Church; and many Welsh monks remained as pioneer missionaries. St. David, however, returned to help to reorganize his own stricken country.

We can imagine how hard the Church worked to help Wales to recover, when we learn that in560 no less than one hundred and eighteen Welsh abbot-bishops met at Brevi in Cardiganshire to discuss the management and discipline of their Church. It had by now been out of touch with Gaul and Rome for one hundred and fifty years. St. David was chosen to take charge of this important gathering, both because of his splendid voice and because he was ‘a lovable man’ who had ‘an angel for a comrade’.

You will see that in Wales the Roman government had been largely replaced by the abbots of the Celtic monastic Church. You may well ask what use such men of peace could be when the Saxons broke through Welsh defences as they sometimes did. They appear, however, to have been surprisingly useful. Not only did they hearten the British soldiers they accompanied into battle, but we read of St. Cadoc actually cursing one army of Saxon invaders to a stand-still.

St. Augustine is Rejected

The Welsh hatred of the Saxons who threatened them was too bitter to allow them to attempt to convert them. And thus it was that when St. Augustine arrived from Saxon Canterbury, their bishops would have nothing to do with him. They clung to their own ways, having suffered too much to be able to forgive for many years. The Anglo-Saxons had only themselves to blame for this tragic state of affairs. One of the best remembered of their atrocities was the slaughter on one day and in one place of twelve hundred defenceless Welsh monks. That is why the Celtic Church in Wales was the last to change the tonsure and the date of Easter, to conform with the rest of the country. As a further protest they persisted until the eleventh century in writing direct to the Pope in Rome rather than to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Welsh Missionaries in Cornwall

Nearly all Cornish parishes bear the names (often the pet names) of Welsh missionary saints who worked there from the sixth century onwards. Until the Reformation, each parish church contained the body of its beloved founder – who had lived in the place when it was his monastic settlement. It also contained his staff, bell and gospel book; and a copy of his Life, which was read to the people every year on the date of his death.

The map will tell you why Cornwall was able to remain independent of the Saxons till the tenth century; and if you have visited its lonely moors, you will understand why its sixth-century monasteries were so much smaller than in Wales. Many Cornish monks became smaller than in Wales. Many Cornish monks became hermits living alone in caves or little beehive cells. They were useful as guides for lost travellers, and as advisers and comforters to those in trouble. They mended roads and bridges and, living on so narrow a peninsula, they seem to have been the first Britons to think of helping the sailors by building and manning lighthouses.

St. Petroc Goes to Cornwall

St. Petroc (of whom we have already heard) was St. Cadoc’s uncle and the only Welsh abbot at work in Cornwall known as have been a bishop. He landed at Padstow where, after fasting forty days, he consecrated the ground on which to build his first monastery. This was a common Celtic custom, as was St. Petroc’s habit of saying his prayers up to his knees in a cold, swift-flowing stream. So strict with himself, he showed great tenderness to others.

There is a lovely story of how a hunted stag fled to him for refuge. Not only did he save the animal, but he changed the rich chief who pursued it from one who was a terror to man and beast alike to a ‘kind gentle Christian’. The chief gave St. Petroc his ivory hunting-horn. And had you lived before the reformation, you could have seen it hanging above the saint’s tomb at Bodmin beside his staff.

St. Ives is called after St. Hya, one of the earliest of many women to teach and nurse in Cornwall. St. Teath was another of these abbesses, and her stone cross is the only work of art among Cornish crosses. Most of them are simply great rough standing-stones sacred to the pagan Celts, and therefore baptized by the early Cornish missionaries by the scraping of a crude cross on them. The sacred springs were likewise turned into Christian places of healing. Even now you will find many of them protected by solid stone roofs.

The ninth century found British and Saxon Christians equally aghast at the way Norse invaders deliberately killed monks, burnt down churches and stole crops and cattle. Their fear drew them together. And so it came about that the last well-known saint to follow the true Celtic tradition was not a Celt at all, but a Saxon. He was St. Neot, half-brother to Alfred the Great. After studying under Irish monks at Glastonbury, he was ordained priest and went to Cornwall determined to be a hermit. Instead he journeyed all over north Cornwall, planting stone crosses wherever he preached. St. Neot was so little a man that at Glastonbury the Celtic monks used to show their visitors the iron stool on which the good King Alfred’s brother said Mass.

After 936, the Saxons ruled Cornwall. There is no word of these Roman Christians mocking the people’s devotion to their Celtic saints, as they are said to have done in Wales. On the contrary, we find the Saxon king, Edgar, gilding St. Petroc’s shrine with silver and gold that by the merits of a British saint he might ‘obtain length of days in this life and in that which is to come’.