Wednesday, 21 April 2010

The first resting place of St Winefride

The cross to the right of PH (the Lion Inn) in Gwytherin is the site of the nineteenth century church originally dedicated to St Winefride but now deconsecrated. Alison, who has recently bought the building and the land, assures me that the saint was buried in the glebe land to the south of the churchyard. She is sending me her evidence for this assertion.

It was to the monastery at Gwytherin that she came in about 640 AD after the events that had taken place at Treffynnon (in English, Holywell), some 25 miles north east and a mile inland from the Dee estuary. Of these events, more later.

Early Welsh monasteries were quite different from the later ones like Tintern or Llanthony. The very word monastery conjures up in one's mind's eye those "bare ruined choirs" of David Knowles' evocative phrase. They were more likely to have been collections of separate dwellings in each of which lived a monk or nun, much like the Desert Fathers had in Egypt and the Sinai. In this form of monasticism, the eremitical form, individuals would live as hermits but would come together on occasion, particularly for common worship.

At least one church has stood on the spot where the present one stands. No trace of an earlier church remains, but as towering evidence of this having long been a holy place three enormous yew trees loom over the existing one. These have apparently been shown to be over two thousand years old. It would seem highly likely that here was the spot to which Gwenffrewi, as she would have been known then, would have come together for worship.

As to where Gwenffrewi actually lived, the tradition in the village is that it was at the back of Brin and Rhiannon Owen's farm at Tai Pella, the spot marked by the arrow on the map, at the quiet and peaceful place where two mountain streams come together. There are no traces of any past habitation. I need to ask my archaeologist god-daughter about what things like post-holes might be looked for underground to give evidence of earlier habitation. I will show photos of it when I have found out how to transfer pictures from my Better Half's camera when she finally manages to get back from South Africa.

There is evidence in place names to support the hypothesis that Gwenffrewi's nunnery, of which she was abbess, was of the eremitical kind rather than the cenobitic, in which monks or nuns live together under some kind of formal Rule. From Peter, who has lived in the village for all his 57 years, I learnt that Tai Pella means Furthest House(s), that Llwyn Saint means Field of the Saints and that Bryn Clochydd means Hill of the Bells.

It is possible to imagine that the Abbess would live in the remotest spot and that her sisters would live in huts mostly between her and the church. When it was time for communal worship, Gwenffrewi would call at each of the nun's huts as she walked the two and a half kilometres to church, then they would all pause at Llwyn Saint before going to Bryn Clochydd to summon anybody not already called upon to come to church.

At this point you will probably look back at the map and ask the question, "But what about the two other houses which are further away than Tai Pella?" At least, that would be your question if you don't speak Welsh, If you do, you wouldn't ask it, because Ty Draw means Further House, indicating it was built later, and Tw Hunt means [hic est magna lacuna: I must contact the amiable landlord of the Lion and ask him to ask Peter what it means].

This knowledge of place names has however raised another question. Gwenffrewi's bones were translated from Gwytherin to Shrewsbury, where she was known as Winefride or Winifred, in 1138. The name of the Benedictine prior of the Abbey of St Peter in that town who organised the translation is normally given as Robert of Shrewsbury or Robertus Salopiensis. In the medieval detective stories by Ellis Peters about the sleuth Brother Cadfael, Robert is named Robert Pennant. This surname combines the two Welsh words for Head and Stream. Is it a coincidence that the area around Tai Pella is named Pennant? Or did Prior Robert get a nickname which celebrated the most significant action of his life and which gradually transmuted into a surname? If he was Welsh or even half Welsh, how did he get such a senior position within an ecclesiastical hierarchy now dominated by Normans? Perhaps my researches for my DNB Project will throw some light upon this fascinating (but not really important) question.

Watch this space!

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