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Cathedrals and the Cult of Saints in Eleventh and Twelfth-Century Wales

Cathedrals and the Cult of Saints in Eleventh and Twelfth-Century Wales

By John Reuben Davies

Cathedrals, Communities and Conflict in the Anglo-Norman World, edited by Paul Dalton, Charles Insley and Louise J. Wilkinson (Boydell Press, 2011)

Introduction: The cathedral churches of the four bishoprics of the Welsh, the reformed episcopal sees that emerged in the eleventh and twelfth centuries at Bangor, St Davids, Llandaf, and Llanelwy, had at their heart the cult of local founding bishops. All were rebuilt in the first half of the twelfth century; and for three of them – St Davids, Llandaf, and Llanelwy – posterity has handed down demonstrations of major new activity around the cult of the patron saints. The shrines of the holy bishops honoured as founders, their secondary relics, and the formal- ised accounts of their lives – the accessories of the cult – were the focus for the objectives of the reforming bishops of the twelfth century; and each of these aspects of the cult was managed with judicious consideration.

The best continuously documented of the cathedral churches of Wales is at  Mynyw (Latinised as Meneuia), the place associated with St David (Dewi Sant).  Mynyw was subject to a series of devastating attacks during the tenth and eleventh centuries, from vikings as well as Mercians. On the cusp of the millennium, in 999, Danish pirates killed the bishop, Morgeneu: judgement for having been the first bishop since Dewi himself to eat meat. Eight decades later, in 1080, another bishop of Mynyw, named Abraham, was killed by Vikings; this  bishop’s death demanded the calling back from retirement of his predecessor, the renowned and learned Bishop Sulien, who in 1078 had withdrawn to his old home in Ceredigion, the clas-church of Llanbadarn Fawr, after five years as bishop of Mynyw.

In 1081, a year into Sulien’s second stint as bishop, Gruffudd ap Cynan, pretender to the kingdom of Gwynedd, landed at Porth Clais and was met by Sulien along with Rhys ap Tewdwr, the dispossessed king of Deheubarth. Gruffudd and Rhys accompanied Bishop Sulien the short distance to the church of Mynyw to swear an oath on the relics of St David. This solemn action was the  prelude to a successful military push, which fairly quickly gave Gruffudd and Rhys victory at the battle of Mynydd Carn: a decisive triumph over Trahaearn ap Caradog of Gwynedd, Caradog ap Gruffudd of Glamorgan, and Meilir ap Rhiwallon of Powys, all of whom fell on the battlefield. The Almighty, so it would seem, through the eficacious intercession of Dewi Sant, had blessed the alliance of the two warriors made over the sacred remains, and delivered victory into their hands

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