Christianity has played an important role in shaping the history of Wales. The 6th century is known
as the “Age of the Saints” One of those saints, was Ciwg. A letter written in the late 17th century by Thomas
Morgan in 1697 gives the location of his cell “in a rock annex to the churchyard over which rock there is at this day
a little house built for the parish clerk called Y Maendy.” St. Ciwg lived there between 542 AD and 568 AD preaching
and ministering to the community. . He was of a noble family and most likely to have been educated. This site is where the
Christian faith first came to the Swansea Valley. Ciwg would have been a contemporary of the Patron Saint of Wales St. David,
and would have attended the Synod at Llanddewi Brefi when St. David addressed the Welsh clergy in 545 A.D.
The presence of a well in the churchyard – described by CADW (the historic environment service of the Welsh Assembly
Government) – as “holy” and the elevated position on The Barley of this redundant church suggests the presence
of a community stretching back in time long before the coming of Christianity to the area. It suggests the existence of a
pre-Christian original Celtic settlement to whom Ciwg came as a missionary.
The Maendy (“Stone House”)
Next to the churchyard are the remains of the Maendy Arms, built certainly before the 17th century. At one time the home
of the curate, and later, it became the Cilybebyll Arms, an indication of the church’s association with the Herberts
of Cilybebyll and part of the family of the Earl of Pembroke. Later the name was changed to the Maendy Arms but in the late
19th century it was abandoned and allowed to become derelict.
The local area
The ring cairn on Mynydd Carn
Llechart (grid ref.SN 696063) and the remnants of many Neolithic burial sites demonstrates that humans inhabited this area
4,000 years ago and were the ancestral stock of the community that Ciwg came to convert to Christianity.
is recorded in The Chronicle of Wales (Brut y Tywysogion) as the place chosen by Llewlyn ap Iorwerth, Prince of Gwynedd, to
camp after crossing the Black Mountains with his army in 1217 on his way from Brecon to attack the Norman castle at Swansea.
Pilgrimages in mediaeval Wales were very popular and two pilgrimages to St David's equalled one
to Rome. When the building has the necessary amenities it will be possible to join a network called Small Pilgrim Places.
To find out more go to: www.smallpilgrimplaces.org
St Illtyd’s Way
If the church is attributed to
the 6th century, it is likely to be associated with St Illtyd’s Way and the ridgeway pathway. This is the most important
feature of the church’s location, which gives an indication of the date of the site. The path which runs north to south
and leads towards the village of Rhyd-y-fro is certainly the earliest route in that direction and continues towards the known
route of Illtyd’s Way. Southward, it leads towards a ford on the River Tawe through the area known as Ynysmeudwy. Another
path leads towards the site of Carn Llechart, which is a late Bronze Age or Early Iron Age and an important local site.
St Illtyd lived in the late fifth and early sixth centuries, and was held in high veneration in Wales, where many churches
were dedicated to him in Glamorgan. St. Illtyd’s Way also forms part of the modern, St. Illtyd’s Walk - extending
64 miles from Margam (in Glamorgan) to Pembrey (in Carmarthenshire). A section links the Neath Valley with the Swansea Valley.
A public right of way skirts the edge of Rhydyfro School and, from St Illtyd's Way at the back of the school, a path leads
A new look at Brychan and the early Saints - John Williams ©2015
Brychan was the first ruler of the land now called Breconshire. In fact,the town of Brecon is named after Brychan.In
Welsh we have a different word for the town - Aberhonddu but we still use Brychan's name for the county, Brycheiniog.
According to tradition, Brychan was born in 419 AD, shortly after the last Romans left Britain in 410 AD. Brychan supposedly
had a great number of children by several wives, 24 daughters and
anything between 6 and 24 sons. With up
to 48 children it's amazing that Brychan found time to do any ruling in Breconshire. Those of us whose ancestors come
from Breconshire or the Swansea Valley are almost certainly descended from Brychan one way or another.
what do we know about Brychan and his family?
The earliest stories about Brychan are found in a
Latin document called Cognatio de Brychan,written in either the 11th or 12th century.Since Brychan lived in the 5th century
there is a gap of six or seven hundred years between Brychan and the written account. A lot of things can change when a story
is handed down by word of mouth for six hundred years.The story starts with Brychan's mother, Marchell,who lived where
the town of Brecon is now situated.In the fifth century the area was called Garth Madrun.Garth Madrun reached as far
as Talgarth-in fact Talgarth means "the end of the Garth". Marchell wanted a husband,so she travelled to Ireland
to look for someone suitable. She married a man called Anlach,the son of one of the kings of Ireland.
They returned to
Garth Madrun and they had a son which they named Brychan. This is a strange tale.Normally we see the man looking for a suitable
wife,and fetching her back to his home,not the woman looking for a husband and the husband following his wife to her home.
Brychan's father Anlach is said to be buried in front of the entrance to Llanspyddid church, near Brecon.
North of Garth Madrun was the kingdom of Powys,and the king of Powys wanted to make sure that Garth Madrun did
not cause him any trouble.Brychan's parents were in some way the rulers of that area, so the king of Powys demanded that
Brychan was sent to his court as a "hostage".While Brychan was in Powys his parents would have to keep the peace
and not cause any problems. However, the king of Powys
had a daughter, and she and Brychan became very close,
too close, because the girl became pregnant and produced a son. The King of Powys was naturally furious and sent Brychan and
the baby back to Garth Madrun in disgrace. The boy was given the name Cynog. The document then gives the names of Brychan's
daughters, all 24 of them, together with six sons. This story about Brychan having 24 daughters was widespread in Wales. Gerald
of Wales, who travelled around Wales in 1188 recruiting men to go on a Crusade to Jerusalem, also mentions Brychan and his
daughters. He wrote that Brychan was the king of Breconshire and had 24 daughters, "all of whom ended their lives in
sanctity". This is an amazing story, 24 daughters, all of them saints. If half of them had been saints it would be remarkable,
but all 24 of them saints is too good to be true.
So the tradition doesn't actually say a great
deal about Brychan.He was half Irish,his mother lived in what is now called Brecon and was in some way the ruler of that area,he
was raised at the court of the king of Powys and had an illegitimate son called Cynog,he had several wives and fathered 24
daughters-all of them saints.The traditions are rather confused when discussing Brychan's daughters. Some traditions claim
they were all holy and virtuous,devoting themselves to God,acting as missionaries and founding new churches across South Wales.
Other traditions say they were married and had children one of Brychan's daughters was the grandmother of Ciwg, who founded
Llangiwg, where we are tonight.
How can we interpret these stories about Brychan and his family?The
traditions were handed down by word of mouth for six hundred years before they were written down,and a lot of things can change
over six hundred years.Sometimes new stories are added to the original tradition, sometimes a lot of stories are forgotten.
We have to be careful when dealing with traditions which were not written down for such a long time. We cannot say for certain
how things happened, we can only suggest what we think may have happened. Different people may interpret the stories in different
ways. A new explanation of the stories about Brychan was offered by the late Thornley Jones, a vicar in Cwmdauddwr near Rhaeadr,
and I find his arguments very convincing.
Let's start with Brychan's mother Marchell,
who lived near Brecon. The story about her going to look for a husband is remarkable, because it was the opposite of what
normally happened. The husband normally took his new wife back to his home,not the other way around. This story indicates
that Brychan's mother was clearly more important than her husband. The king of Powys took Brychan as a boy to his court
to ensure that his parents, the rulers of Garth Madrun did not stir up any trouble.
father was a foreigner, it was obviously Brychan's mother that ruled Garth Madrun. Was it normal for a woman to be a
ruler at that time, or was there something different about the people living in Garth Madrun?
what about Brychan's daughters, all of them apparently saints? Why are they called saints? The traditions claim that
Brychan's daughters travelled around South Wales as some sort of missionaries,converting people to the new religion of
Christianity and building churches. Most of his daughters still have churches dedicated to them today. Some have villages
or towns named after them,- Merthyr Tydfil is named after Tudful, Llandybie is named after Tybie,both of them daughters
of Brychan. So Brychan's daughters originally had a llan or church named after them,sometimes more than one,and that
is why they are called Saints
Today the word llan is used to describe a church-Llangiwg for instance
but it was not always so. In the time of Brychan the word llan meant something quite different. The word llan was not used
before Brychan's time, it was a new development that started after the Romans left Britain. Llan originally meant a
"settlement", a village, if you like. Wales was a wild country covered with huge forests, so a number of people
would clear a site by felling the trees and then building a new settlement. They would build a number of houses with
a wall around the perimeter to protect themselves from attack.From various sources it has been estimated that a typical
llan consisted of approximately 300 men. Assuming that most of these men had a wife and children,we are probably talking
of a thousand or more people to each llan.They needed that number in order to be self-sufficient- clearing the forest,cutting
trees,building houses,growing crops, raising animals and so forth. When the number of people living in a llan increased
too much,some would leave and build a new llan.So the word llan originally had no religious significance-it was a village
or a settlement, not a church. Once the llan had become established,the inhabitants would want somewhere to worship,
hether pagan or Christian,and a site would be selected for that purpose.Later,a building would be erected on that site
as a place of worship. Over a long period of time the word llan was eventually used to describe the actual religious building
instead of the village.
So these daughters of Brychan who built llannau across Breconshire did
not actually build churches. They built new settlements or villages in the forests,and these settlements were named after
them. When an early church or place of worship was built in the llan,possibly many years later,the church was named
after the settlement which was named after the original founder. So,for example,when Brychan's daughter Tybie built a
new llan it was named Llandybie after her.When a church was later built on the site it was dedicated to Tybie,even though
Tybie had probably died many years earlier.If the person who built the llan died and was buried there the place was sometimes
called "merthyr".Brychan's daughter Tudful was buried in Merthyr Tydfil,and Brychan's son Cynog-who built
several llannau including St Cynogs in Ystradgynlais and Defynnog-died and was buried in Merthyr Cynog. The word merthyr
does not mean martyr,it means a burial place.So Brychan's daughters were not saints at all,they were actually settlers
who built new settlements across Breconshire.When the traditions were finally written down on manuscripts about 600 years
later, the word llan had changed its meaning.It now meant a church,not a village, so the writers of the manuscripts thought-wrongly-that
Brychan's daughters must have been saints building churches instead of pioneers building new settlements.
So,if Brychan's daughters were not saints, who were they? Why were they building all these new llannau
across Breconshire? Why were the settlements named after women rather than after their husbands? And, if each new llan contained
around 1000 people,where did all these new people come from? There must have been a great migration of new people moving
into Breconshire and South Wales after the Romans left. We
know that many Irish families moved into Wales at this
time,and possibly many Welsh people fleeing from the Anglo-Saxon invaders moved here for safety. The other settlements in
Wales were named after men, but the Breconshire settlements were named after women,which suggests that these settlers were
different. One possible explanation is that these incomers were Picts from Scotland.The Picts were Celts,just like the Welsh
and Irish,and they spoke a similar language,so they would have been able to communicate easily with other Celtic tribes.
The Romans built Hadrian's Wall to try to keep them up in Scotland, but they were constantly crossing the Wall and raiding
southwards. The unusual thing about Picts was that they were a matrilineal society. That means that women were the heads
of the families,and the land was owned by women and handed down from mother to daughter.Celts generally had a high regard
for women and both sexes were treated equally.But the Picts went further than the other Celtic nations and placed women
at the very top of society.
If this suggestion is correct,it would explain why the so-called daughters of Brychan
became so well known.Families or tribes of Picts moved from the Highlands of Scotland after the Romans left, down to South
Wales and settled in the Brecon Beacons. After all, they were highland people,raised in the mountains of Scotland,not lowland
people. They spread out over the Brecon Beacons, clearing areas of the forests and
building new villages or llannau.
They were not physically daughters of Brychan.Each of these women was the head of a family or a clan. Brychan's mother
Marchell was probably the head of a Pictish family which settled near Brecon ,which explains why she was more important than
her husband.After these Pictish settlers had colonised the Brecon Beacons they wanted to protect themselves from attack by
other tribes, so the various families got together and elected Brychan as their king. His job was to safeguard and defend
the new kingdom of Breconshire. Although he was recognised as the ruler of Breconshire, the families within Breconshire carried
on in the old tradition,with women being the heads of each of the families or settlements.Only the Picts had women as heads
of families,other settlers had men at the top,which explains
why so many llannau in Breconshire and the Beacons
were named after women whereas llannau built by other settlers elsewhere were named after men.
Brychan's daughters were not saints at all.Neither were any of the other people who had llannau named after them in the
fifth and sixth centuries.Centuries later,when the word llan had changed its meaning from settlement to church,it was thought
that those people-both male and female-who had given their name to a llan, had built a church rather than a village,and these
people were then considered to be saints.
When the traditions about Brychan and the women of Breconshire
were finally written down about six hundred years later,women had by then lost their position in society.Norman culture
was all about men - the King, barons, knights, serfs and so on,and women were by then the possession of men and did
not not have a voice of their own.
To a Norman it would be unthinkable that women once were
heads of families and landowners,and that land had been handed down from mother to daughter.So the tales became confused
and the female heads of families became church builders and saints.
They must have been daughters of the king rather
than independent landowners.
Another factor would have been the arrival of Christianity. With the Celts women were
equal and there are tales of women being druidesses. Some Celtic women such as Boadicea, led armies into battle. But
Christianity thought that women were a distraction. They should cover their hair and sit at the back of the church. It is
only very recently that the Anglican Church has allowed women into the priesthood,and Roman Catholicism still does not allow
women to become priests. Roman Catholic priests are expected to stay celibate because women would distract them from their
duties. Christianity followed St Paul and considered women secondary to men. any other religions such as Islam and Hinduism
also consider women inferior to men.As Christianity spread through Wales, women were pushed downwards.Under Christianity it
has taken fifteen hundred years for women to reach equality again with men.
John Williams (Copyright