In the third of our series on Celtic Saints the Archivist of Newport cathedral, Canon Andrew Willie speaks of the Saint to whom it is dedicated: Gwynlllyw or Woolos to give him his anglicised name.
I have been asked this evening to preach on the subject of the Saint to whom the Cathedral of this Diocese is dedicated, known in English as Woolos, in Welsh as Gwynllyw, in Latin as Gundleus. Questions inevitably, as with most Celtic saints, centre on the sources for his life and their reliability. With Jesus, we have the four Gospels to tell the main story, but the Church in the twentieth century found itself under attack for failure to acknowledge what became known as non-canonical Gospels and of their stories to fill in the blanks of Our Lord’s life. These fillings consisted of tales of a relationship with Mary Magdalene, possibly as his wife, much exploited in modern fiction: and of a childhood in Nazareth in which he created a bird of clay or of wood, breathed life into it and made it fly [the Spaniard Murillo actually painted the scene]; and also of the tale in which the infant Jesus turned children who would not play with him into goats and then back into human kids again, much to the delight of their mothers. Such stories are indeed complete nonsense. However, history abhors a vacuum and legend conspires to fill it. The aim of the Church has been to downgrade the authority of such gospels not so much in terms of the total censorship of which it unjustly stands accused, as ignoring them in the interests of historical and doctrinal purity. In a similar way, we have several stories of Woolos, legendary ones which are in-fillings and a pure one with all that can be safely learnt from history; though even this will contain some personal interpretation.
Let’s start with the legendary stories, concocted, firstly from Lives of the Saints, [of Gwnllyw, generous to the king; and of Cadog, his son, depicting him until conversion, as a thorough-going rogue]; secondly, from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Annals of the Kings of Britain; thirdly, from ambiguity in Latin; and fourthly from the Red Book of Llandaff, the liber Llandavensis.
In the legendary story, Gwynllyw [Woolos], king of Gwynllywg [Wentloog] and tribal leader was very much the bandit. Anxious to find a wife, he kidnapped Gwladys the daughter of Brychan, king of Brycheiniog, from whom the name Brecon is derived, but whose court was actually at Talgarth. Gwynllyw survived the ensuing battle with assistance from Arthur, king of Ercing and he brought his wife back to his territory. The ambiguity comes from the fact that the basic Latin word could describe a consensual elopement or one of criminal violence. He and Gwladys had their firstborn son Cattwg [Cadog]. However, at the same time, Gwynllyw stole possibly as tribute, a cow belonging to St Tathan, who had established his Church at Caerwent. Breathing out hell fire, Tathan came to Gwynllyw’s stockade demanding retribution. The cow was returned and Cadoc was given up for a godly life under the tutelage of Tathan, as Hannah gave up her son, the prophet, Samuel, to Eli.
Both eldest son and wife combined to save Gwynllyw’s soul and a Church was built, we are informed, in a place where Gwynllyw was told by an angel that he would find a black ox with a white spot high above its forehead. A similar story surrounds the building of Durham Cathedral on a site to which monks carrying St Cuthbert’s body were led by two milkmaids searching for a lost dun [brown] cow. The dun cow is celebrated in a panel on the north side of Durham Cathedral: the black ox in a magnificent statue in Newport city centre. However, the fact is that ease of defence would seem a good reason for building on the Newport and Durham sites. It was just common sense!
Legend credits both Gwynllyw and Gwladys with daily bathing in the Usk as proof of piety. Having lived in Newport for twenty years and watched that river’s daily fluctuations, I doubt this happened: the river has exceptional mud at low tide and poses great danger from tidal currents when fuller.
According to Liber Llandavensis, at Cattwg’s instigation, Gwynllyw received last rites from Dubritius, Bishop of Llandaff. Circa 1100, just as now, Llandaff was trying a make out a case, that its Bishop should be primate for a Welsh province, totally independent of Canterbury: so Dubritius is cited as its Bishop, when in fact his small unique see [Celtic Bishops were normally sacramental missionaries rather than ecclesiastical rulers] embraced a region near Hay on Wye, called Ercing in Welsh, Arconium in Latin, Arkenfield in English, quite a long way from Cardiff and long before a bishopric was established at Llandaff. I had Dyfrig’s cushion in St Woolos Cathedral chapter and the pleasure for me as a bibliophile of visiting the patrimony of Hay. And as for Arkenfield itself, don’t blink as you drive through: if you do, you will miss it altogether.
Wales is dependent for her early Christian history on what was normally an oral tradition. Though Latin was in use, Welsh only became a written language 200 years after St Augustine of Canterbury persuaded Ethelbert of Kent to codify his laws in written English. Wales also lacked a Bede, who in Dark Ages England saw that a historian’s primary tasks were to seek information and be true to his sources without redaction. His written account has remained essential reading since the early eighth century and the usual source, reproduced from Gildas, for the martyrdom of Julius and Aaron in the city of the legions, in Welsh Caerleon.
A reason why Welsh tradition is very much questioned lies in an obsession with linking personal and place-names in ways which though meant to be history, some-times are pure fiction. Geoffrey of Monmouth, author of Annals of The Kings of Britain [c.1135] was a master of this process known as onomancy and the most famous example was his linking of Old King Cole, a merry old soul, with Colchester. It may even be behind the linking of Arthur with Arconium. Sadly, some scholars, despite his European fame, doubt Arthur ever existed.
And what of Gwynllyw? What can be safely said of him? The Cathedral Church at the top of Stow Hill, and particularly its entrance chapel, is proof of his existence; so too are the dedications to his wife Gwladys, their son Cadog and other children, Cyfw, Maches and Tanglws found in Monmouthshire and Gwent. His was a Celtic Church of the grave, rather like that of Tewdric, King of Morgannwg, mortally wounded according to tradition by an axe-blow to the head in battle with the Saxons, some say at Bath, others at Tintern, a hundred years after Gwynllyw. Tewdric’s coffin nestles against the north wall of the chancel of Mathern Church and it has been opened twice, once by Bishop Godwin of Llandaff in the 17th century and once in the 19th. What really stood out was the blow to the skull. It affirmed Tewdric’s distinction of being rated a Martyr as well as a King. Would that we could find Gwynllyw’s coffin!
March 29th is Gwynllyw’s day. He is called a King and Confessor. As king, he would have expected his people to follow him in adopting Christianity. His example, especially through his son Cadoc, led to the foundation of many churches. Part of his confession was his conversion from Man of Battle to one of Peace, like many Medieval Barons, who forsook the sword for piety. This may not have been because of feelings of guilt so much as a feeling that only in Jesus could his life find purpose. I think of that great war-time pilot, Group Captain Leonard Cheshire, VC, who witnessed the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki and went on to found homes for the disabled and to write of the genuineness of the Turn Shroud. Asked about his conversion, he said he had investigated many religions but found without Christ his life was so empty.
Unlike Norman town Churches, normally dedicated to Mary, Celtic foundations tend to be dedicated to their founder. St Woolos’s has stood at the top of Newport’s Stow Hill for 1500 years. Cadog’s influence spread into the Vale of Glamorgan where he founded the community of Llancarfan, which in time was to provide Llandaff with its Chapter. Christians are called upon lay foundations as Woolos did, whilst acknowledging Jesus as the Chief Cornerstone.
The remaining talks in the Series will be given by the Bishop of St Asaph on Kentigern & Asaph next Sunday and by the Priory of Caldey on St Samson on March 22nd.