The heyday of the early Celtic saints was the sixth century, but a few were also active in the early seventh century. There are several sources of information on their lives, all of them problematic from the point of view of the historian. Never the less, glimpses of this aspect of Welsh history offer an important corrective to Bede’s prejudices against British Christianity.
The Bonhed y Seint, or Genealogies of the Welsh Saints, consists of a list of the names of saints usually followed by the names of their fathers and grandfathers. Several copies of this survive, with variations, but I understand that none are earlier than the thirteenth century. Who ever compiled these lists seems to have been at pains to link most of the saints to a handful of ruling families.
The Trioedd Ynys Prydein, or Triads of the Island of Britain, also exist in several versions from around the same date. This is a much richer source of information than the Bonhed y Saint and consists of 97 (I think) groupings of three things or people.
Rachel Bromwich did a marvellous job editing them in their various versions. I am the proud owner of the third edition of her work and it is one of my favourite books – Rachel Bromwich, Trioedd Ynys Prydein, (University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 2006).
To give you a flavour of the Triads, here is number 9:
Three chieftains of Arthur’s Court: Gobrwy son of Echel Mighty-Thigh; Cadreith (‘Fine-Speech’) son of Porthawr Gadw; and Ffleudur Fflam (‘Flame’). [p17 Bromwich].
The great thing about the Triads is that they offer a window on a poetic world that is all interlinked. Whether fact or fiction or fantasy, they relate to each other and, at many points, to information recorded elsewhere. This is a whole universe of connected stories and, fortunately for us, Rachel Bromwich has traced these connections. Her appendices take up most of the book and her notes to personal names in particular draw together the linkages, including about some of the saints.
A third source of information on the saints are the various saints’ lives. These suffer from the same problems as all ancient saints’ lives, but they do follow their own peculiarly Celtic/Welsh patterns. Oliver Davies has written the book on this: Celtic Christianity in Early Medieval Wales, (University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 1996).
I am writing a trilogy set in the early seventh century and so the saints that interest me most are Beuno, Gwenfrewy (Winifred) and Tysilio, all of whom were around in the 630s (the setting for my novels). The two men feature in the Bonhed y Seint and in addition, Beuno has his own ‘Life’. This is also our main source of information for Gwenfrewy. She was his niece and he was there to put her back together, so to speak, when her head was chopped off.
In addition to the information about individuals, there is also considerable information about religious institutions in this era, particularly monasteries. Several were apparently quite large, especially St Asaph’s/Llanelwy, associated with Saint Cyndeyrn/Kentigern, as well as Saint Asaph, and Bangor is y Coed, associated with Saint Deniol.
Excavations of the cemetery at Llandough have thrown light on the wealth and diversity of early medieval monastic life. (Neil Holbrook and Alan Thomas, ‘An Early-medieval Monastic Cemetery at Llandough, Glamorgan: Excavations in 1994.’ (published online 2013: https://doi.org/10.1179/007660905×54044
Other well known monasteries of the period include Llantwit Major (Llanilltud Fawr) associated with St Illtud, Llancarfan, associated with Saint Cadoc, Tywyn, associated with Saint Cadfan, Llanbadarn Fawr, associated with Saint Padarn, Beuno’s community at Clynnog Fawr, Bardsey Island and, of course, Mynyw, associated with Dewi Sant (Saint David).
Many of these monasteries had a reputation as centres of learning as well as of worship. There were books and readers and writers. Gildas was surely not alone?
Faced with this list of people and places, almost all pre-dating the arrival of Roman Christianity in Kent, I have to admit that I am inclined to scratch my head about Bede’s prejudices. But there you go. This is not the only era of Welsh history to be neglected by the English.
See also: Owain Edwards, ‘Welsh Saints’ Lives as Legendary Propaganda,’ Oral Tradition 23/1 2008; Ian Richards, ‘The Welsh female saint: Patterns within a social framework,’ The Student Researcher, University of Wales,Vol 2, No 1, September 2012;