Britainnia History: Bardsey Island

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The History of Bardsey Island off Gwynedd, Part 1
Edited David Nash Ford


The Welsh Holy Island

When we consider the fame and the sanctity of the Isle of Bardsey and its monastery, but two miles off the end of the Lleyn Peninsula in Gwynedd, it is surprising to find how little is known of its history. There is plenty of legend and fable, but facts are disappointingly few.

The Name

The island is known to the Welsh as Ynys Enlli. This is usually interpreted as "Isle of the Currents" or "Tide-Race Island," in reference to the treacherous waters of Bardsey Sound. It may, however, be a slightly corrupted form of Ynys Fenlli, "Benlli's Island". Benlli Gawr (the Giant) is said to have been an Irish warlord who conquered the Kingdom of Powys. He was deposed, from his fortress on Moel Fenlli, by St. Germanus (Garmon) around AD 447.

The island's English name, Bardsey, must be Scandinavian and we may imagine the island to have been the home of a Viking named Bard or Berd. There is a Bardsey in the West Riding of Yorkshire. A more obvious and romantic, though possibly groundless, interpretation would have the place as "Isle of the Bards," a sacred place of the ancient Celtic druids of pre-Roman Wales. Ancient legends tell that Merlin the Magician is buried here and some identify the island as Avalon where King Arthur died.

Foundation of the Monastery

The foundation of the well-known monastery on Bardsey is ascribed to King Einion of Lleyn, great-grandson of Cunedda Wledig, in conjunction with St. Cadfan. Einion, or Engan, is commemorated in the neighbouring Church of Llanengan. He lived in the first half of the sixth century. He also established the College of Penmen on Anglesey, of which his brother, Seiriol, was the principal.

Cadfan, at the head of a large company of Saints, arrived in Britain from Brittany, about AD 546, having been driven from his territories by the Franks. He appears to have been a person of distinction and his companions were men of princely blood. They included SS. Tydecho, Cynllo, Cynan, Dochdwy, Mael, Sulien, Tanwg, Eithras, Llywen, Llyfab, Tegwyn, Padarn, Trunio and Maelrys. Later arrivals were Gwyndaf, Sadwrn and Hywyn. They all gave their names to various Churches across North Wales.

The Early Celtic Church

Before the Norman Conquest, the principal churches in Britain were in the hands of communities of Clergy, with an Abbot at their head and a "Clas" of Canons. The monks lived in separate cells or huts surrounded by a wall. In Wales, this formed the "Llan" which also contained the Church, the Abbot's Cell and the hospice, all built of timber and wattle. The monks at first were supported out of the monastery lands which they tilled themselves, but other endowments came later and then degeneration tended to set in.

In the early period, the monks went about preaching or they might be sent out to found a new community; and, in the days when ascetic fervour was at its height, it was their ambition to discover some desert island in which they might live the life of self-denial. Thus the isles of the Atlantic coast in Ireland and Scotland came to be the "Isles of the Saints," and thus may have arisen the first settlement of the islands of Bardsey, St. Tudwals and Priestholm.

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