Britainnia History: Bardsey Island

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The History of Bardsey Island off Gwynedd, Part 2
Edited David Nash Ford


The Welsh Holy Island

Early History of the Monastery

St. Cadfan was the first Abbot of Bardsey; and he was succeeded by St. Lleuddad, whose name is perpetuated by Gerddi Lleuddad (Lleuddad's Garden) in Bardsey, Ogof Lleuddad (lleuddad's Cave) at Aberdaron and Ffynnon Lleuddad (Lleuddad's Well) at Bryncroes.

St. Dyfrig is said to have retired to Bardsey and to have died there about AD 522. In May 1120, however, his relics were transferred to Llandaff, by Bishop Urban, and installed with much ceremony in the Cathedral. Other well-known saints, who are said to have been buried in the island, are Lleuddad, David, Deiniol, Berme and Cawrdaf. We learn that Gruffydd ap Cynan, who died in 1137, bequeathed ten shillings to the Abbey.

In the "Book of Llandaff," compiled about the middle of the 12th century, occurs the Life of Elgar the Hermit. It states that Bardsey was known as "the Rome of Britain," among other reasons "for its sanctity and dignity, because there were buried therein the bodies of 20,000 holy confessors and martyrs." It is said that many of the survivors of the massacre of the Monks of Bangor Iscoed (Bangor-on-Dee) by King Aethelfrith of Bernicia in AD 613 fled to Bardsey. Apart from legends and glimpses such these, authentic references to the Abbey of early date are very rare.

Medieval Abbey

Many of the early Celtic communities lost their primitive ideals with the growth of territorial endowment and the abandonment of the celibate life. Bardsey seems to have been an exception, for Giraldus Cambrensis in his "Itinerary through Wales" of 1188 tells us, "beyond Lleyn, there is a small island inhabited by very religious monks called Caelibes or Colidei. This island, either from the healthiness of its climate, or rather from some miracle and the merits of the Saints, has this wonderful peculiarity that the oldest people die first, because diseases are uncommon, and scarcely any die except from extreme old age. Its name is Enlli, in the Welsh, and Berdesey, in the Saxon language, and very many bodies of Saints are said to be buried there, amongst them that of Daniel, Bishop of Bangor."

The safety of residents from death's grasp while an elder survived is attributed to St. Lleuddad who was granted the concession by an angel on his deathbed. The tradition was just one of many aspects of Bardsey's great reputation for sanctity: a reputation which could not fail to draw pilgrims from Wales and beyond. The Pope himself declared that three pilgrimages to the island were of equal merit with one to Rome. All roads led to Bardsey but that from the North via Clynnog Fawr was especially known as the "Pilgrims' Way" and all along its course are a number of holy wells. At Pistyll, there is a farm at which every pilgrim could demand shelter along with bread and cheese. In Aberdaron, is a farm called Cwrt which did not pay tithe but, in lieu, provided free lodging for any inhabitant of Bardsey waiting for favourable weather to cross the Sound. The dangers of the crossing are referred to in several old Welsh poems, which also express the devout wishes of their authors to be buried in Bardsey. The pilgrims embarked at the little cove of Porth Meudwy, beneath the Abbey Court house.

Gilaldus indicated that, during his time, Bardsey was still a Celtic monastery unconnected with any particular order. Among its Abbots were two of the princely family of Owain Gwynedd: Cadwallon, c.1169, and Robert ap Meredydd. The Abbey was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. The foundations of her Chapel are still to be seen on the mainland and her well is close by. This dedication is probably to be dated after the establishment of the Augustinian or Austin Canons in the island. The date of this is unknown, but it was clearly after the time of Giraldus. Some time between 1200 and 1240 is generally accepted. The Order had appeared in England soon after 1100 and became very popular.

The Record of Caernarfon contains a document, quoted in full in the Archaeologia Cambrensis for 1847, relating to the Abbot and Convent of Bardsey in 1252. It is an agreement between the Abbot on the one hand and the Secular Canons of Aberdaron on the other, settling controversies which had arisen over tithes, fines and the like. Another document, of about a century later, states that the Abbot was summoned to show by what title he claimed certain his privileges. For example, freedom from toll on the sale of cattle and the right to a Wreck by Sea.

One manuscript states that Sir John Salisbury, Knight of Lleweny, founded a religious House of Carmelites in Denbigh and gave it to the Abbey of Bardsey in 1284. From the Taxatio of Pope Nicholas IV, in 1291, we learn that the property of the Abbey amounted to 16 2s. 0d., including property on the mainland, 24 cows, 120 sheep, four mills and 35 shillings per annum from "selling rabbits and rabbit skins." In the Valor Ecclesiasticus, from the time of Henry VIII, the value of the temporalities was 28 3s. 2d and of the spiritualities, 30 3s. 0d. The latter included the tithes of Aberdaron, Bryncroes, Tydweiliog and Llangwnadl. The total net value was 46 1s. 4d.

The last Abbot of Bardsey was John Conway of Bodnithoedd in Meyllteyrn. Even his isolated little monastery did not escape the greedy clutches of King Henry VIII's commissioners. It was worth only 46, but was still dissolved in 1537.

Post Dissolution

There exists an interesting "survaye" of the Island made in 1547, only ten years after Bardsey Abbey's final demise. It is taken from the accounts of the "Court of Augmentations" - a tribunal set up in 1539 to deal with Monastic properties. It would appear that the property of the Abbey was held in 1538 by one Thomas Jones of London, at a rental of 6 3s. 0d per annum.

One miscellaneous document apparently records that Sion Wyn ap Hugh, of Bodvel in Llyn, was Standard-Bearer to John, Earl of Warwick - afterwards Duke of Northurnberland - at the "Battle of Norwich" in 1549. In return for his services, the Duke gave him Bardsey and the Abbot's demesne house of Cwrt near Aberdaron. The island had apparently been granted by Edward VI to his uncle, Sir Thomas Seymour, and afterwards to the Earl of Warwick. It should perhaps be mentioned that the authority for the above statement is somewhat doubtful.

According to the Rev PB Williams, around 1821, a Court of the Lord of the Manor of Bardsey was still held occasionally at Aberdaron, Bryncroes or Tydweiliog, with a Recorder, Bailiff and Constable. The Marquis of Anglesey was then the Lord of the Manor. A hundred years later it was in the hands of Colonel Vaughan Wynn of Boduan who inherited it from his uncle, the Hon. FG Wynn of Glynllivon, son of the 3rd Lord Newborough.

Today Bardsey is a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest. It is owned by the Bardsey Island Trust who maintain it as a nature reserve and seabird sanctuary. Of the old monastery, only a small ruined 13th century tower remains.

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