All The Lovers: The Feast of Saint Dwynwen

All The Lovers: The Feast of Saint Dwynwen


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Remains of St Dwynwen's church.

Remains of St Dwynwen’s church.

Tomorrow, January 25, is the Feast of Saint Dwynwen, the Welsh saint of lovers.

It also happens to be an evening of some significance in other parts of the kingdom, but if you don’t like whisky and haggis (more for me) then you may want to read on.

Her story belongs with those other British ‘folk saints’ who seem to emerge out of the mythic like something half-spied from the corner of your mind’s eye.

Dwynwen’s story is set on the holy isle of Anglesey, Ynys Môn; the ‘mother of Wales’. Tacitus tells us it is here that acolytes from France journeyed to learn the lore of the woods, the wind and the sea.

And, of course, Anglesey is toward the base of that ‘Gaelic triangle’ which blended early Christianity with indigenous tribal beliefs that, 1500 years later, makes it feel like the place was probably more astral than physical. (It’s also currently famous for being home to a rare breeding pair of lizards.)

From Wales: Churches, Houses, Castles by Simon Jenkins, chairman of the National Trust and probably my favourite Guardian columnist:

The ghosts of these Celtic churches flit across Wales’s lonely beaches, mountains and deserted valleys, evoking the Dark Ages more forcefully than anywhere else I know in Europe. Their worship remained independent of Canterbury and Rome and was still under the guidance of the clasau into the 12th century.

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Anglesey after the recent snow

It’s probably worth providing some context before getting into Dwynwen’s story… especially as there really isn’t all that much context to begin with. More from Simon Jenkins:

Scholars believe that the 5th-century clas or teaching monastery at Llantwit Major in Glamorgan may have been founded at least within living memory of a Roman presence. There is a Roman villa here and the founder of Llantwit, Illtud, made it a centre of Christian study, sending missions to Ireland, Cornwall and Brittany…

The departure of the Romans led to an abrupt halt in the archaeological record of building activity. As the Welsh historian John Davies points out, ‘the ethos which had sprung from the Greeks and which had been spread by the Romans vanished… With the long sunset came an age of myth and fantasy almost devoid of historical certainties.’

If I were to ever bother reconstructing an historic religious tradition, it would be here and then: the misty period when stories of elves and sunken cities, pagan pantheism and otherworlds mixed with the pre-hellfire civilising mission of early Christianity like milk into coffee… when Jesus’s mission was still radical and civilising on an individual level, when it slipped into an indigenous cosmology of magic, reincarnation and wandering rune masters.

Anglesey

Anglesey

There were as yet no towns to replace those abandoned by the Romans and we are bereft of evidence of how the Welsh lived in the Dark Ages. It is assumed that they continued to inhabit such enclosures as Tre’r Ceiri (Gwynedd), the ‘Welsh Machu Picchu’ on the mountains of the Llyn, or the stone huts at Din Llugwy (Anglesey)… The structure of the government in the three centuries after the Roman departure is equally obscure… A north Briton from present day Cumbria, Cunedda, invaded Anglesey some time after the Roman departure, some claim in order to drive out the migrant Irish at the behest of the remaining Romans.

Here it was Cunedda’s sons who founded the royal house of Gwynedd and were to claim sovereignty over it for some seven centuries. Cunedda represented a link between north Wales and Brythonic-speaking Northumbria, where his people were being pushed northwards by the Anglo-Saxons. His court, moving between Northumbria and north Wales, produced the earliest Welsh poets, including Aneirin and Taliesin

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Anglesey in the snow

Aneirin’s ‘northern’ Welsh was widely spoken in the Scots border country and lives on in such place names as Penrith, Lanercost and Cumbria, similar to the Welsh word for Wales, Cymru. If 9th-century copyists were accurate, Aneirin’s tongue was remarkably pure and explains Gerald of Wales’s remark in the 12th century that north Welsh was a richer language than that in the south, because its speakers were ‘less intermixed with foreigners’ (presumably Irish and Normans).

In his new introduction to the great Welsh epic, the Mabinogion, Will Parker points out that the north Welsh culture of the Dark Ages was in large part that of refugees, dreaming of their lost lands in northern Britain and forging a vigorous identity that was to colour and fracture Welsh politics for almost a millennium. 

This is your context then. A princess of a holy island, living in a time of flux, when the shape and the meaning of the very cosmos was up for grabs.

Angelesey shoreline.

Angelesey shoreline

Like all useful legends, Saint Dwynwen’s story is refracted as through a diamond. Recall that Tolkien said “myths are things that never happened but Always Are.” Here is the inciting incident(s):

St. Dwynwen was the daughter of 5th century Welsh saint and king, Brychan Brycheiniog.  She was in love with Prince Maelon Dafodrill, but her father refused this match and promised her to another.  Some say that Dwynwen fled to the woods in grief, others say that Maelon chased her and tried to seduce or rape her.

Dwynwen, in anguish, begged God to help her forget Maelon.  In a dream or vision, an angel came to her and gave her a potion which eased her heartache.  It also had the surprising effect of turning Maelon into a statue of ice.

Dwynwen was also given three wishes. First, she wished that Maelon be thawed.  She also wished that she never fall in love again or marry, and that God would answer all her prayers on behalf of lovers.  Lovers who invoked her either found true love or were cured of their lovesickness.

Firstly, let me just say… that ‘angel’ behaves in a suspiciously neighbourly fashion. Methinks the princess got a bit trolled.

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Little Welsh humour for you, there.

Secondly, the pursuit through the forest, forced sexual congress and subsequent retribution all smack of tumbled down faery lore. This is what I love about early British saints… look at Dwynwen one way and she is a devoted mystic, turn your head just slightly and she is a fairy sorceress fucking with the shit of anyone who dares mess with her. Her Christian disguise is as flimsy as Sàngó’s.

Finally, let me say I find the story extremely beautiful… it has a level of heartbreak you want in a patron of lovers. There is an emotional maturity to Dwynwen’s power… she promises either love or the freedom from its deleterious effects. (Meanwhile what has that Valentine guy done for you lately? Exactly.)

After this incident, it appears Dwynwen went into default British folk saint mode and founded a church in a difficult and improbably isolated location. This little island off Anglesey still bears her name. It looks like this:

Somewhere in between 5th century Wales and 18th century Britain, Saint Dwynwen also became a healer and protector of animals, which suggests to me that she further hybridised with other folk saints/old gods. But it’s her love aspect that comes through the strongest for me.

You can see that reflected in her official prayer. (‘Official’ isn’t strictly accurate in cases such as these.)

O Blessed St. Dwynwen, you who knew pain and peace, division and reconciliation, you have promised to aid lovers and you watch over those whose hearts have been broken.

As you received three boons from an Angel, intercede for me to receive three blessings; to obtain my heart’s desire {here you may name it} or, if that is not God’s Will, a speedy healing from my pain; your guidance and assistance, that I may find love with the right person, at the right time, and in the right way; and an unshakeable faith in the boundless kindness and wisdom of God.

And this I ask in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Amend as you see fit. But if you suddenly get turned to ice then that’s on you. Here is the woman of the hour:

saintedwynwen

How to mark Saint Dwynwen’s Day?

Some obvious answers present themselves: do something nice for your lover(s). Save the crassness for February 14th and instead do something thoughtful. Cook for them. Better it be something Welsh. My suggestions:

  • Leek tartiflette. Tartiflette, in its original form, is my secret winter shame. It’s my fat guy comfort food for cold nights. We’ve cooked this a couple of times now and it’s a lighter option than the classic version. (‘Light’ is relative here.) I figure that anything using leeks -probably introduced to Wales by the Romans- is suitably Welsh. Throw in the French inspiration because those frogs know their romance and it seems like a dish tailor-made for Saint Dwynwen’s Day.
  • Welsh rarebit. But, of course! Consider this your vegetarian option. (Mind the sauce.) Follow this recipe precisely. We do.

If you’re doing Burn’s Night -and we are- then after you have toasted the haggis, maybe think about raising a glass to Saint Dwynwen and all the lovers of the world.

Should you be instead hoping to invoke her heart mending powers, then go for the rarebit (and definitely have a Burn’s Night whisky!), grab a blanket and watch the below episode Coast. Speaking of secret shame, I am sadly addicted to this series that I am pretty sure only exists to bore school children during rainy lunchtimes. Anyway, they end up on Anglesey.

Of course, there are three hundred and sixty four other days in the year. Saint Dwynwen is no Leap Day William. Wales’s very own fairy nun princess has been available to lovers for one and a half thousand years. Just sitting by the metaphoric phone… waiting for you to call.

Does this girl know about love or what?

2 Comments

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  1. 1
    Cristina

    I’ll read the post tomorrow, I need all my brains to follow your writing, but I have to comment on how beautiful those photos are. Note to self: must go to Anglesey (sooner rather than later)

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