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Welsh Church

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In giving separate consideration to the Church of Wales, we follow a practice common among English historical writers and more particularly adopted in the collection of "Councils and Ecclesiastical Documents" of Haddan and Stubbs. There seems, however, no sufficient reason for emphasizing the distinction made by these last authorities between "the British Church during the Roman period" (A.D. 200-450), "the British Church during the period of Saxon Conquest" (A.D. 450-681), and "the Church of Wales" (A.D. 681-1295). The term Welsh Church sufficiently covers these separate headings, though it will be convenient to treat the subject according to the same chronological divisions.

Roman period (200-450)

Both Tertullian (c. 208) and Origen (c. 240) use language that implies that the Gospel had been preached in Britain. The former speaks (Adv. Jud., vii) of "the regions of Britain inaccessible to the Romans but subdued to Christ"; the latter of "the power of our Lord and Saviour which is with those who are separated from our world in Britain" (Hom. vi in Luc., 1, 24). These passages may be somewhat rhetorical, but if we do not press the question of date there is confirmatory evidence for at least some acceptance of Christianity in Roman Britain. To begin with, both Constantius (A.D. 480), in the uninterpolated portions of his Life of St. Germanus of Auxerre, and the British Christian writer Gildas (A.D. 547) speak of the martyrdom of St. Alban during the Roman period. Again in 314 three British bishops from York, London, and probably Lincoln seem to attended the Council of Arles, and British bishops were present, if not at Nicaea (325) and at Sardica (343), yet certainly at Ariminum (359), where the line they adopted drew attention to their nationality. Archaeology also tells us something, if not much, of the presence of Christians in these islands before the close of the Roman period. The Chi-Rho symbol has been found in mosaics and building stones as well as upon miscellaneous objects; the formulae "Vivas in Deo" and "Spes in Deo" with the "Alpha-Omega" occur stamped on rings or pigs of lead, and in particular the excavations at Silchester have brought to light a small building in which antiquaries are agreed in recognizing a Christian basilica. Further, there is the still existing Church of St. Martin's at Canterbury, which according to the testimony of Bede (Hist. Eccl., I, xxvi), and in the opinion of some experts, is of Roman work. (For all which see Haverfield in "English Historical Review", XI, 417-430.) It should be added that certain authorities, e.g. Professor Hugh Williams, maintain that such Christianity as existed in Britain at this early date attached only to the Roman settlements, and that there is no evidence of anything which could be called a native or Cymric Christian Church. The evidence for either view is necessarily inconclusive, but the importance and numerical strength of the Welsh Church in the next period seem to point to the foundations having been laid before the Roman legions were withdrawn. Moreover, towards the close of the Roman period, indeed from early in the fourth century, the literary evidence for an active Christian organization in Britain becomes very strong. The allusion which we find in St. Hilary of Poitiers, St. Athanasius, Sulpicius Severus, etc. (see Haddan and Stubbs, I, 8-16), though slight in themselves, cannot be entirely set aside.

One piece of evidence, however, formerly appealed to by many Catholic controversialists, must now be abandoned. Bede tells us (Hist. Eccl., I, 4) that in the years 156, in the time of Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, "while Eleatherus, a holy man, presided over the Roman church, Lucius, King of Britain, sent a letter to him entreating that by his command he might be made a Christian. He soon obtained the fulfillment of his pious request and the Britons preserved the faith which they received, uncorrupted and entire, in peace and tranquility until the time of the emperor Diocletian". These dates, to which Bede himself did not consistently adhere (cf. De sex aetat., s.m., 180), are impossible, for St. Eleutherus, at earliest, became pope in 171. But, apart from this difficulty, it is now generally admitted, e.g. by Duchesne and Kirsch, that the evidence is inadequate to support so startling a conclusion. Bede's statement is at best derived from the recension of the "Liber Pontificalis" known as the "Catalogus Felicianus", compiled about the year 530, in which we are told that Pope Eleutherus received a letter "a Lucio Britannio rege" asking for Christian instruction. In the earlier recension of the "Liber Pontificalis" the Lucius episode is wanting. Harnack conjectures that this entry arose from a confusion with Lucius Abgar IX of Edessa, who seems about this period to have become a Christian and who in some early document was possibly described as reigning "in Britio Edessenorum", i.e. in the Britium or Birtha (the citadel) of Edessa. At any rate we are told that the Apostle St. Thaddeus, whose connection with Edessa is well known, was buried "in Britio Edessenorum", while it is quite conceivable that the word Britio, if it occurred, may have been mistakenly emended into Britannio and thus have given us a Lucius, King of Britain (see Harnack in the "Sitzungsberichte" of the Berlin Academy, XXVI and XXVII, 1904). This conjecture is by no means certain, but the difficulties against accepting the story of the letter of the supposed Lucius are considerable. Gildas and Aldhelm, who might be expected to refer to the tradition, are both silent, and, although they are equally silent about the mission of St. Germanus, the first introduction of Christianity is a matter of more fundamental interest. The Lucius story is found in Nennius, and Zimmer on that account believes it to have arisen in Britain, but Nennius is a writer of the ninth century and he calls the pope "Eucharistus". Again the name Lucius is not Celtic, a difficulty which Nennius seems to have felt, and he has accordingly celticized the name into "Llever maur, id est, Magni Splendoris", the great light. The impression thus given, that we must be assisting at the evolution of a myth, is much increased by the later developments. William of Malmesbury makes Eleutherus's missionaries, named Phaganus and Deruvianus, found a Church at Glastonbury. Rudborne makes Lucius endow the bishops and monks of Winchester with various lands, while the Triads connect the story directly with Llandaff, where "Lleirwg made the church which was the first in the isle of Britain". Further, somewhere in the eleventh century, as Liebermann has shown, a forger who had distinguished himself in other fields fabricated a letter which is supposed to have been sent by Pope Eleutherus to the British king.

On the other hand, in contrast to this legendary matter, we have the generally accepted fact of the visit twice paid to Britain by St. Germanus of Auxerre, in 429 and 447, with the purpose of confuting the Pelagians, an object which seems to take for granted a Christianity already widely spread. The Life of St. Germanus by Constantius has been interpolated (cf. Lewison in "Neues Archiv", XIX), but much of this account belongs to the primitive redaction and is confirmed by Prosper of Aquitaine. Even the story of the "Alleluia Victory" and of the observance of Lent may be true in substance, and the whole evidence sets before us a state of things in which Christianity was the prevailing and accepted religion. With this agrees all that we know of the heretic Pelagius and of his teaching. He was undoubtedly a monk and it is difficult to believe that he could have adopted the monastic profession anywhere but in the land of his birth. Zimmer has maintained that Pelagius was an Irishman and that his heresy found acceptance in Ireland rather than in Britain. But Zimmer's views have been severely criticized (cf. Williams in "Celtische Zeitschrift", IV, 1903, 527 sq.), and are not commonly admitted. Professor Williams, indeed, as against Conybeare (Cymmrodorion Transactions, 1897-98, 84-117), casts doubt upon the generally heretical character sometimes attributed to British Christianity, and certainly the tone of the writings of Fastidius, described as a "Bishop of the Britons" (c. 420), is such as seems reconcilable with orthodox interpretation.

The period of the Saxon conquest (A.D. 450-681)

The writings of Gildas, usually assigned to the year 547, throw a fitful and somewhat lurid light upon British Christianity during the earlier part of this period. No doubt something of the gloom of this jeremiad may be due to the idiosyncrasies of the writer. He seems to have belonged entirely by sympathy to the class, which after the departure of the legions, still preserved something of Roman culture. Also it is likely enough that the instability of all institutions, the stress and sufferings of a people continually harried and overmatched by invaders who were relatively barbarian, did produce an age of great moral degeneracy. Thus the vituperation with which Gildas lashes the vices of the Welsh princes and denounces the clergy has very probably serious foundation. But just as the tide of Saxon conquest was more than once checked, as for example by the British victory at the Mons Badonicus in 520, so there is reason to believe that there was a brighter side to the picture of evil and disaster which Gildas paints with a zest which was more a matter of temperament than conviction. The succession of bishops was evidently kept up, as we learn subsequently from the history of St. Augustine. Monastic life at the same epoch would seem to have flourished exceedingly. From the fact that Pelagius, as already noticed, was a monk and that St. Germanus is said to have founded a monastery, it seems probable that some kind of cenobitical life had begun in Britain before the end of the fifth century. Possibly this departure was due to a disciple of St. Martin of Tours who settled in Britain, but more probably the British pilgrims, who, as we learn from St. Jerome, made their way to the East to visit the Holy Land, brought back glowing accounts of what they had witnessed around Jerusalem or in the Egyptian deserts. The strongly Oriental characteristics of the Celtic Rite as a whole are in all probability due to a similar cause. In any case, both such direct testimony as we possess and the parallel case of Ireland point to the practice of asceticism on a vast scale, and it is possible that the very calamities and evils of the times led the more religiously minded of the Britons to take refuge in the monasteries. It is alleged that St. Germanus himself bestowed the priesthood on St. Illtyd, who became the spiritual father of many monks, and who founded the monastery of Llantwit, where saints like St. Samson of Dol and St. Pol de Leon (who both ultimately settled in Brittany) as well as many other teachers of note were afterwards trained. But the whole province of Welsh hagiography is overgrown with legend and with wildly inconsistent conjectures and identifications to an incredible extent. Beyond the name of a few leaders and founders, like Dubritius, believed to have been the first Bishop of Llandaff, David, Bishop of Menevia and patron of Wales, Kentigern, whose chief work was accomplished on the banks of the Clyde, Asaph, who replaced him as bishop of the see which now bears his name, Winefride the martyr and her uncle Beuno, etc., we know nothing practically certain of the age of saints. We are not even sure of the date at which they lived. The object aimed at by the supposed Synods of Llandewi-Brefi (519-) and of Lucus Victoriae (569-), both said to have been convened to suppress Pelagianism, is equally a matter of conjecture. Regarding the spread of monasticism, such a statement as that of the Iolo manuscripts, that at Llantwit "Illtyd founded seven churches, appointed seven companies for each church, and seven halls or colleges for each company and seven "saints" in each hall or college", does not inspire confidence. Yet we learn from the much safer authority of Bede (Hist. Eccl., II, ii) that at Bangor-is-Coed in A.D. 613 the monastery was divided into seven parts with a superior over each, none of which divisions contained fewer than 300 men. Bede further tells us that when the Northumbrian King Ethelfrith advanced to attack the Britons near Chester these monks of Bangor came out to pray for the success of the arms of their countrymen. When the Welshmen were defeated, the monks, twelve hundred in number, were put to the sword. Bede looked upon the incident as a visitation of Providence to punish the Britons for rejecting the overtures of St. Augustine, but by the Irish chronicler Tigernach the incident was remembered as "the battle in which the saints were massacred". Undoubtedly the most certain facts in Welsh history at this period are those just referred to, connecting St. Augustine with the Welsh bishops. Pope Gregory the Great twice committed the British Church to the care and authority of St. Augustine and the latter accordingly invited them to a conference upon the matters in which they departed from the approved Roman custom. They asked for a postponement, but at a second conference the seven British bishops present altogether refused to accept Augustine as their archbishop or to conform in the matter of the disputed practices. The points mentioned by Bede prove that the divergences could not have been at all fundamental. No matter of dogma seems to have been involved, but the Britons were accused of using an erroneous cycle for determining Easter, of defective baptism (which may mean, it has been suggested, the omission of confirmation after baptism), and thirdly of refusing to join with Augustine in any common action for the conversion of the Angles. There were also other peculiarities, as, for example, the form of the tonsure and the sue of only one consecrator in consecrating bishops, as well as the employment of the Celtic Rite in the liturgy; but all these were matters of discipline only. None the less the failure of all attempts of conciliation was complete and Bede attests that this attitude of hostility on the part of the British bishops lasted down to his own day. It may have been partly as a result of this uncompromising hatred of the Saxons and the Church identified with them, that we read during all this period of a more or less continual emigration of the Britons to Armorica, the modern Brittany. We hear about the year 470 of twelve thousand Britons who came by sea to settle in the country north of the Loire (Jonandes, "Getica", c. 45) and it is only in the sixth century apparently that the northwestern regions of Gaul came to be called Britannia. The Gallo-Roman inhabitants of these districts welcomed the fugitives with much charity on account of their common Christianity (Remodus, "Carmina III"), but the Britons requited them but ill, and seem to have behaved with the same ruthless tyranny of might over right which marked the conquests of the Anglo-Saxons in the land from which they had been driven. No doubt, as time went on, the British saints like SS. Samson, Pol de Leon, Malo, Brioc, etc., who emigrated with them, exercised a restraining effect upon the settlers, and the Church in Britanny seems to have been in a flourishing state from the sixth century onwards.

During the Saxon and Norman periods (681-1295)

The last British titular King of Britain is said to have been "Cadwalader the blessed" who, according to the "Brut-y-Tywysogion", "died at Rome in 681 on the twelfth day of May; as Myrrdin had previously prophesied to Vortigern of repulsive lips; and henceforth the Britons lost the crown of the kingdom and the Saxons gained it". This pilgrimage to Rome is, however, generally held to be apocryphal. Possibly there has been some confusion between Cadwalader of Wales and Caedwalla, King of Wessex, who undoubtedly did die in Rome in 689. At a later date, however, journeys of the Welsh princes to Rome became common, that of Cyngen, King of Powys, in 854 being one of the earliest examples. During this whole period the political antagonism between Anglo-Saxons and Welsh seems always to have caused the ecclesiastical relations between the two countries to be strained, though the Welsh accepted the Roman Easter before the end of the eighth century, and though in 871 we hear of a Saxon bishop of St. Davids. No doubt also attempts were made to establish friendly relations. Asser, the famous biographer of King Alfred, was a Welshman who came to the English court in 880, seeking protection from the tyranny of his native sovereigns, sons of Rhodri Mawr. This incident must be typical of many similar cases, and there were times, for example under Eadgar the Peaceable, when some sort of English suzerainty over the principality seems to have been acquiesced to. When Edgar was rowed on the Dee by eight under-kings in 973, five of the eight were Welsh, and this fact is even admitted by a Welsh annalist, the compiler of the "Brut-y-Tywysogion", who, however, transfers the scene of the episode to Caerleon-upon-Usk. To detail the incidents of the six hundred years which preceded the final absorption of Wales politically and ecclesiastically into the English system, which took place in the reign of Edward I, would not be possible here. It must be sufficient to note that even before the close of the Saxon period, various Welsh prelates are alleged to have been consecrated or confirmed by English archbishops, while under the Norman kings a direct claim to jurisdiction over the Welsh Church was made by various archbishops of Canterbury beginning apparently with St. Anselm. The most important matter to notice is that the attempt to claim for the Welsh medieval Church any position independent of Rome is as futile as in the case of England or ireland. Speaking primarily of the days of St. Augustine, the most recent and authoritative historian of Wales remarks: "No theological differences parted the Roman from the Celtic Church, for the notion that the latter was the home of a kind of primitive Protestantism, of apostolic purity and simplicity, is without any historical basis. Gildas shows clearly enough that the Church to which he belonged held the ideas current at Rome in his day as to the sacrifice of the Eucharist and the privileged position of the priest" (J.E. Lloyd, "Hist. of Wales", I, 173). And this remained true during the centuries which followed, as anyone who acquaints himself with such original sources as the chronicles, the Lives of the Welsh saints and especially the Welsh laws formulated in the Code of Howel the Good (A.D. 928), will readily perceive. In the preface of this same code we read that when the laws were drafted, Howel the Good and his bishops "went to Rome to obtain the authority of the Pope of Rome. And there were read the laws of Howel in the presence of the Pope and the Pope was satisfied with them and gave them his authority" (Haddan and Stubbs, I, 219). In this code religious observations such as the veneration of relics, the keeping of feasts and fasts, confession, Mass, and the sacraments are all taken for granted. The respect shown in the preface for the authority of the Holy See is of special importance. So far as this respect was at any time less prominent, this is due, as J.E. Lloyd points out, to Celtic isolation, and not to any anti-Roman feeling. The Irish missionary Columbanus, "sturdy champion though he was of Celtic independence in matters ecclesiastical", nevertheless says of the popes: "By reason of Christ's twin Apostles [Peter and Paul] you hold an all but celestial position and Rome is the head of the world's Churches, if exception be made of the singular privilege enjoyed by the place of Our Lord's Resurrection" (Hist. of Wales. I, 173). The rest of St. Columbanus's letter to Pope Boniface IV (613) gives proof of an even more absolute dependence upon the guidance of the Bishops of Rome whom he calls "our masters, the steersmen, the mystic pilots of the ship spiritual". It should perhaps be mentioned that the repudiation of papal supremacy attributed to Dinoth, Abbot of Bangor-is-Coed, is now universally admitted to be a post-Reformation forgery (Haddan and Stubbs, I, 122), and cf. Gougaud, "Les chretientes celtiques", 211). Again the imputation, founded on a passage in the Gwentian text of the "Brut-y-Tywysogion" and suggesting that the obligation of celibacy was rejected on principle by the priests of the Welsh Church, runs counter to all the sounder evidence. Undoubtedly the gravest abuses prevailed in Wales regarding this matter, but in principle clerical celibacy was accepted. The Gwentian text referred to is of no value as evidence; on the other hand the laws of Howel clearly assume that a married priest was subject to penalty; his oath was invalidated (Laws and Institutes of Wales, 595) and his children born subsequent to his priesthood were held illegitimate. "When a clerk takes a wife by gift of kindred, and has a son by her, and afterwards the clerk takes priest's orders, and subsequently, when a priest, has a son by the same woman, the son previously begotten is not to share land with such a son, as he was begotten contrary to the decree" (ib., 217 and 371).


GOUGAUD, Les chretientes celtiques (Paris, 1911); J.E. LLOYD, History of Wales (2 vols., London, 1911); SIR JOHN RHYS, Celtic Britain (London, 1884); NEWELL, History of the Welsh Church (London, 1895); WALTER, Das alte Wales (Munich, 1856); ZIMMER, The Celtic Church of Great Britain and Ireland, Eng. tr. (London, 1902); IDEM, Pelagius in Ireland (Berlin, 1901); H. WILLIAMS in Celtische Zeitschrift, IV (1902), lengthy review of ZIMMER; IDEM, Some aspects of the Christian Church in Wales in Transactions of the Society of Cymrodorion (1893-94); WADE EVANS, Welsh Medieval Law (Oxford, 1909); J. ROMILLY ALLEN, Monumental History of the British Church (London, 1889); BUND, The Celtic Church of Wales (London, 1907), a work written with a strong anti-Roman bias; FONSSAGRIVES, S. Gildas de Ruis et la Societe bretonne au V siecle (Paris, 1908). Though mainly concerned with a different branch of Celtic Christianity, the Catholic reader may also be urged to make acquaintance with the small but valuable work of J. SALMON, The ancient Irish Church as a witness to Catholic Doctrine (Dublin, 1898). Nearly all the most important texts bearing on the matter discussed in this article will be found collected in HADDAN and STUBBS, Councils and Ecclesiastical Documents, I (Oxford, 1869). See also the publication of the British Government, OWEN, The ancient Laws and Institutes of Wales (London, 1841).

About this page

APA citation. Thurston, H. (1912). Welsh Church. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Thurston, Herbert. "Welsh Church." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 15. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Michael T. Barrett. Dedicated to Fr. Liam Cary.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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