Consult the index of any map of the British Isles and the longest entry is sure to be for Welsh towns beginning with “llan”, scores of places named after Welsh holy men and women, and more often than not unique to a particular location. It is a pattern that differs markedly from England (or indeed Continental countries) where towns are much more likely to be named after geographical features, and churches dedicated to a much thinner palette of Biblical saints and church martyrs.
How did this come about, and why are so many Welsh “llans” established in areas that seem to have been remote not just now but in earlier times, too? The Rev. J. Fisher, vicar of Cefn in the diocese of St. Asaph gave what must still be the most thorough exegesis on this subject in the 1906-07 Transactions, illuminating for readers the legacy in Wales of the 5th century Age of Saints and restoring to modern comprehension the names of individuals long since buried in later corrupted versions of their names in both Welsh and English town, village and hamlet names.
The designation “saints” is a misnomer, he explains, as most of the individuals whose names appear after Llan were hermits or anchorites, inspired by the monastic establishments of the time to set up (usually wooden) cells, and settling in locations that had access to water and some local foodstuffs sufficient for survival. The cell was named after them as their “owner” and not dedicated as such to them as saints. Over time a community might grow around these cells and a more substantial building and community emerge. Sometimes not, however.
How then can one explain the duplication of names, particularly the many Llanddewi and Llandeilo churches notably in south Wales, and the less frequent duplication of other names? These, the Rev Fisher explains were founded not by Dewi and Teilo themselves but by individuals sent out from the dioceses of Llandaff and St. David’s. They were thus the proprietors of these cells just as the hermits and anchorites “owned” their establishments. Some of the more prominent holy men moved distances away to found further cells, and indeed in this era several would go to the modern West of England and Cornwall, or across to Brittany. Irish men, too, were among the founders of churches in Wales and Brittany. Hence, the appearance of similarly named churches in several locations.
Centuries later Latin Church practices were adopted, and dedications begin to appear in Wales to Mary, Michael the Archangel (a particular Welsh favourite), Peter, the Apostles, and others, though the older practice also continued until the Middle Ages. This process accelerated with the arrival of the Cistercians in the first half of the 12th century, and, with the rebuilding of churches after the Norman conquest, many Welsh names were swept away or given subsidiary status. Llandaff Cathedral is an example, being dedicated to Saints Peter, Paul, Teilo, Dyfrig and Oudoceus (Euddogwy) in that order.
Traces of Welsh holy men and women across the exist border in those parts of England where Welsh was spoken. Inhabitants of Herefordshire’s Much Dewchurch might be surprised to learn this is a Dewi church which founded three other Dewi chapels in the area, though this might be a different Dewi, the name not being uncommon. Cein is found not only in Llangeinwen but in Kentchurch (originally Lanncein) in Herefordshire, and even Keynsham near Bristol. The Church of St. Dubricius in Porlock on the Somerset coast commemorates Dyfrig.
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The Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion reach a venerable 150 years in 2023 and throughout the year we will be publishing articles on the website that have appeared during the decades. Many deal with issues that have since ceased to be important, but others still have a strong contemporary resonance.
Look out on the website for regular new uploads of this fascinating material. Or you can read all the articles by visiting the National Library website where you will find the material at https://journals.library.wales/browse/1386666