1,500 years ago, the Welsh town of Llanilltud Fawr was regarded as the cradle of Celtic Christianity. The story of its monastery has now been told in a new book published last month.
Philip Morris, the former Archdeacon of Margam, has written the first in-depth history of the monastery of St Illtud’s, which dates back to around the year 500 AD. It has been called the ‘Christian axis of the Celtic-speaking people’ and the ‘University of the Atlantic of the Celtic period’ by church historians.
Today, St Illtud’s Church is in the archdeaconry of Margam where Philip lived and served as archdeacon for 13 years before his retirement. During that time he helped oversee the restoration of its Galilee Chapel which now exhibits one of the most important collections of Celtic Christian stones in the United Kingdom.
Philip, who holds an MPhil in early Medieval spirituality, says, “I wrote the book as Llanilltud is unique in the fact that there is no other modern study of this particular monastic school and community. This is a semi-academic study, which offers far more detail than is available in local guidebooks and which counters some of the misinformation about St Illtud that is derived from later sources. I hope it will fill a gap in our understanding of the development of Christianity in South Wales and indeed in the wider ‘Celtic’ countries. I feel that it is timely, especially with the rebuilding of the Galilee Chapel at Llanilltud and the housing of the Celtic Christian stones there.”
The Llanilltud collection of Celtic Christian stones, housed in the Galilee Chapel, includes the Houelt Cross, the Samson or Illtud Cross and the Samson Pillar, all dating from the 9th to 11th century. The Houelt Cross will be very familiar to anyone who has travelled via Cardiff airport, as the intricate Celtic design inscribed on the cross is used in the airport logo.
The new book is endorsed by the former Archbishop of Wales, Dr Barry Morgan. He says, “It is difficult to imagine that Llanilltud Fawr was in the late fifth and early sixth centuries probably host to one of Britain’s earliest centres of learning. It is also difficult to believe that a scholarly and critical in-depth study of such an important site has not been attempted before. This book has now plugged that gap splendidly.”
The book is a scholarly, analytical but also engaging and highly readable study whose primary focus is the development of the early monastic community in the context of the Celtic Christian tradition. It also looks at developments on the site over the next 1,000 years until the Reformation, as well as at how the Celtic tradition and memory of Llanilltud have been kept alive since then. The book covers the history of this community from Neolithic and Iron Age times, the Christian community before and during Illtud’s period, an account of the effects of Viking attacks, the arrival of the Normans, the Reformation and Puritanism under Oliver Cromwell, and brings the story right up to the present day with the restoration of the Galilee Chapel in St Illtud’s Church and the housing of the early medieval monuments in the chapel.
“The restored Galilee Chapel, the sensitive display of the early medieval stones, and the interpretative panels ensure that the memory of Llanilltud will be kept alive for future generations,” says Philip. “The vision of Llanilltud becoming another Iona or Lindisfarne may be ambitious, but it is as significant in the history of Christianity in Wales as they are in the history of Scotland or the north of England.”
“Philip Morris takes us on a pilgrimage through the ages and generations of Llanilltud, using sound scholarship, careful research and a deep understanding of Celtic tradition,” adds Canon Edwin Counsell, the current Rector of Llantwit Major. “Crucially, by applying this pragmatically to popular traditions of Illtud’s legacy, he reveals a deeper and more authentic inheritance, which informs the pilgrim journey of today.”
Top Image: Three Celtic Crosses in the re-furbished Galilee Chapel at the west end of St Illtyd’s Church, Llantwit Major. Photo by Robin Leicester / Wikimedia Commons