Sacred Places of Wales

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Llanelian and St. Asaph

At Llanelian yn Rhos (Thlan Ellyan un Hrose: the Church of St. Elian), there is a spot that is sacred in a very special way. It was here that pilgrims came not to be cured or to pray for those who were sick, but to curse those they considered enemies. Even though the spring is said to have issued from the ground when the sixth century St. Elian prayed for water to drink, the well here was known not as a holy one, but as a malignant one.

In the 19th century, Ffynnon Llanelian became known throughout Wales as a cursing well. Visitors would write the name of their intended victim on paper through which a crooked pin was then pushed. The keeper of the well would then write the victim's name on a pebble or a lead slate which was dropped into the water.

It was a lucrative business for the custodians, for a steady supply of visitors kept the job busy right up to the early years of the present century. One well keeper, Sarah Hughes, is said to have earned about three hundred pounds a year. She received a nice income from those who came to curse and an even nicer one from those who came to have the curses lifted.

The imprisonment of John Evans, in 1854 for "taking money by means of deception," eventually put a stop to the practice, and the well was drained and then hidden by a local clergyman in order to dissuade the members of his congregation from casting spells on one another.

As a place of pilgrimage, however, especially to patriotic Welshmen, the Church of St. Elian deserves to be better known as the burial place of Ednyfed Fechan (Ed nuv ed Veckan), chief minister of Llewelyn the Great (Llywelyn Fawr). Llewelyn's mastery of dealing with the English crown had brought a large measure of self-autonomy to his Welsh kingdoms and great prestige in the courts of Europe, but his death in 1240 ended all hopes that Wales would remain independent from England. Ednyfed's descendants, nevertheless, would become great landowners in Wales and the ancestral family of the Tudors of Penmynydd.

We now leave Llanelian to swing further inland into the still very Welsh Vale of Clwyd (Dyffryn Clwyd: Duffrin Clue-id), at the head of which is the tiny town of St. Asaph (Llanelwy: Thlan Elwy) pleasantly situated alongside the River Elwy. On your short journey, you pass by the little village of St. George (Llan Sain Ior: Thaln Sign Yore), where the local tradition has it that this is where St. George slew the dragon.

St. Asaph's Cathedral
One surprise, upon reaching St. Asaph, is to find the cathedral situated on a hill, instead of being hidden down in a hollow as we found at St. David's, Llandaff and Bangor. Perhaps the shrine needed to be placed in a prominent spot, for it is the smallest medieval cathedral in the British Isles. It is sacred, nevertheless, and holds a special place in the hearts of the Welsh people.

St. Asaph may have been founded as Llanelwy in the sixth century as a monastic settlement by St. Kentigern (San Cyndyrn : San Kund earn) also known as St. Mungo). Kentigern's successor as Bishop in 570 was Asaph, who gave his name to the city and the Diocese. In 1151 Geoffrey of Monmouth was appointed Bishop though he never visited his diocese, preferring to spend most of his time at Oxford.

In 1188, Gildas described the church as "very poor indeed," and less than 100 years later, it was completely destroyed by the army of Edward I on his conquest of North Wales. In a major and unprecedented victory for the Welsh Church, the cathedral was rebuilt on its original site through the efforts of Bishop Anian II despite Edward's preference for Rhuddlan.

Further damage took place in 1402 during the rebellion of Owain Glyndwr, when a fire destroyed the woodwork, and again in 1715 when the tower was completely demolished in a fierce storm. Our old friend Sir Gilbert Scott was responsible for the major restoration during the latter half of the 19th and the early 20th centuries. As at Bangor, it is mainly his church that you see today.

Bishop MorganIn addition to Geoffrey of Monmouth, prominent churchmen to have held the Bishopric at St. Asaph over the centuries include Bishop William Morgan. He was the main translator of the Bible into Welsh in the latter half of the 16th century, which perhaps "saved" the language from degenerating into a mere peasant patois, and who is buried in the cathedral he served so well.

Others include Bishop William Lloyd, who resisted Anglicization in his diocese by ensuring the appointment of Welshmen, but remembered mostly as one of those in the reign of James II, who refused to have the Declaration of Indulgence read; and Bishop Samuel Horsley, who opposed Priestly in the Trinitarian controversy. In 1920 a momentous event occurred when then current Bishop A.G. Edwards was enthroned as the first archbishop of the newly constituted Church of Wales.

Inside the Cathedral, tiny by English standards, (which, as most Welshmen and women know simply do not apply in North Wales in matters of architecture or language), there is much of interest. The refurbished roof painting celebrates the investiture of Charles in 1969, though that event is fading into distant memory and becoming less glamorous and memorable each passing year. The 13th century nave of Anian II has 14th century arcades; the saint is remembered by an effigy in the South Aisle which also contains the curious Greyhound Stone with its unexplained heraldic decorations.

Here in the South Aisle you'll also found a tablet to the memory of explorer H.M. Stanley (of Dr. Livingstone fame) whose youth as an orphan was spent at the St. Asaph workhouse nearby, now part of the Glan Glwyd Hospital (Ysbyty Glan Clwyd: uss butty glan clooie). An exquisitely carved ivory Madonna may have come from a galleon of the ill-fated Spanish Armada.

In the Chapter Treasury is a fine collection of early bibles and prayer books including the first Welsh New Testament (1587), Bishop Morgan's magnificent Welsh Bible of 1558 and many other Welsh religious books. Another item of interest is the Triglot Dictionary of the eccentric Richard Robert Jones (Dic Aberdaron), who traveled about Wales in the early 19th century with his faithful cat and who, though unschooled, is reputed to have mastered dozens of foreign languages, ancient and modern.

It is the association with Dr. Morgan, however, and not with Dic Aberdaron, that makes St. Asaph's Cathedral especially sacred to all, who hold the Welsh language and religious traditions dear. On the cathedral's grounds is a memorial to the small group who translated the Bible into Welsh with Bishop Morgan's name in the center.

In 1563, the London Parliament passed a bill ordering that the Bible be translated into Welsh, an act that was not undertaken with any love or respect for the language, but one that, according to Professor Johnston, formed "an essential part of the programme of the Protestant Reformation in Britain." Elizabeth and her parliament were appalled at the slow progress of the Welsh people in learning the English language. They thought that by having Welsh translations placed next to the English texts in Church, not only would the congregations learn Protestantism, they would also learn English.

The reverse took place, of course, and the Welsh language was given an unintended status and a place of honor by being used as a medium for the Holy Scriptures. Why would a congregation bother with English, when there was a perfectly acceptable Welsh Bible in which to worship God? (And a book from which one could learn to read and write.) It was William Morgan, parish priest of Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant (Thlan Hrye adder um Mock Nant) and later Bishop of Llandaff (Thlan Dav) and St. Asaph who gave the Welsh people what they so urgently desired.

William Morgan's birthplace, the remote Ty Mawr (Tee Mour) a much secluded Welsh stone cottage, is located near Penmachno, near Llanrwst. To get there, a national Welsh shrine, one should take the road from Bangor to Betws y Coed, and then to Penmachno (Pen Mack No) on the way to Llangollen (Thlan Gothlen).

It is but a short journey by road from the city of St. Asaph. Drive through the gap in the Clwydian (Klue Iddy un) Hills just before they reach the Irish Sea, to a town that has no cathedral and yet is one of the most important and well-known stopping places on your pilgrimage.

Next Stop: Winifred's Well
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