Bardsey, or Ynys Enlli in Welsh, is a small island near the Llŷn Peninsula—2.5km long and about 1km wide. Over the course of its existence, the island became a crucial location for the Celtic Christian Church, attracting many monks and pilgrims. It was the place where Saint Cadfan founded his famous monastery. The Celtic churches before the Norman conquest had a distinct monastic character, being relatively decentralised compared to the Roman church, and organised around monasteries and abbots rather than bishops residing in urban centres. By the early 6th century Wales had several tens of established monastic communities. The monastery was a focal point of evangelisation and education from which priests could reach out to the laity of the neighbouring daughter churches. Such centres of monastic devotion and pastoral care presented a special model known as clas, an autonomous community with the abbot as its leader. Later in the 11th century Celtic monasteries of the clas type complied with the Roman system and became Benedectine and Augustinian orders.
Cadfan came over to Wales from Armorica (part of contemporary France) towards the end of the 5th century, as part of a large group of saints and learned men, with the desire to renew the faith of the local people. On arrival, Cadfan founded a church on the Welsh mainland, whilst later he went on to found a monastery on the nearby Bardsey Island. Having come to Wales as part of a large group (numbering several hundred), it is perhaps understandable that Cafdan, alongside a selection of companions, chose to move toward the relative isolation of Bardsey. Here the pressing political and military conflicts sometimes stirred up on the mainland would have become a more distant reality, the relatively treacherous sea crossing serving to create a place of solitude and retreat. It is impossible, however, to consider Cadfan’s story simply as an entirely solo undertaking, and it remains tempting to consider the later popularity of Bardsey in relation to the size of the group that came across with him, the influx of people able to make an impact beyond that of a single man on his own. Whilst we know relatively little of Cadfan’s life a later ode in praise of Cadfan by Llewellyn Fardd largely focuses on his legacy, the church he established standing as a monument dedicated to God, a place of worship that stands as a pillar of the Gospel, a place of devotion, belief and communion. Cadfan’s shaping of this area of Welsh landscape as a place of God comes down to us where much about the man himself has been lost to obscurity.
Church of fair Cadfan, brilliant to behold
Bright whitewashed church proudly whitened,
As though it had been fashioned by God himself
He fashioned for the Godhead a choice residence
When he came from Brittany to the community of Christendom
The blessed youth nurtured no sin:
May God bless the devout servant. [...]
Blessed the voyage of his company
When he came to the realm night by night, day by day,
When there came to the issue of Emyr the desire to gaze upon
Aber Menwenfer in the evening and in the morning [...]
The noble country of Cadfan where there coexist always
the noble gospel, humble guide, [...]
May the valiant wise God guard Cadfan's domain
(Song to Cadfan - Llewlyn Fardd I)
Bardsey has a particular reputation as a place of pilgrimage; firstly for the saying that three pilgrimages to Bardsey were equivalent to one journey to Rome, and secondly for its reputation as the burial-place of 20,000 saints. It is easy to be suspicious of mathematical calculation of the merits of pilgrimage, and in such wariness we find ourselves in good company. The fathers of the church, in their discussions of pilgrimage, are always keen to guard against its mis-use, and to outline what it does and doesn’t mean within a Christian worldview. A focus on the ability to approach God from any place is often combined with an emphasis on the Christian’s spiritual pilgrimage towards heavenly things, as a stranger no longer attached to or at home in the world. Nevertheless, within such an understanding it is clear that from an early stage pilgrimage became a crucial part of Christian practice. In one sense, pilgrimage represents precisely such dislocation from the world, abandoning the comforts of house and home in order to set out on a devotional journey of repentance and transformation mapped out by the things of God. For Saint Jerome it seems to represent the gathering together side by side of precisely those who are members of the scattered and non-localised kingdom of God in a beautiful and priceless vision of the church. Similarly, in their veneration of relics—a phenomenon often associated with pilgrimage—the early Christians are careful to steer clear of potential misunderstandings of this practice as something akin to the worship of idols, and to make it clear, instead that whilst the saints are honoured through acts of devotion it is ultimately the God whom they served who is being worshipped through such acts. Such veneration, and the potential for the granting of miracles through relics and saintly remains demonstrates the ongoing life of such holy men and women as part of the communion of saints—those who had united themselves to God in this life continue to unite themselves to him beyond the grave and continue to share fellowship with those remaining on earth.
Leaving thy native Brittany for the love of Christ, O Father Cadfan,
thou dost teach us not to love places or things more than Him.
Wherefore, O holy one, intercede for us that we may be faithful to our calling and found worthy of great mercy
Cadfan and Bardsey:
Janet Burton and Karen Stöber (editors 2013) Monastic Wales: New Approaches. Cardiff: University of Wales Press.
Mark Redknap (1991) The Christian Celts: Treasures of Late Celtic Wales. Cardiff: National Museum of Wales.
G Hartwell Jones (1912) Celtic Britain and the Pilgrim Movement. London: The Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion.
Pippa Marland (2014) ‘Island of the dead’: composting twenty-thousand saints on Bardsey Island, Green Letters: Studies in Ecocriticism, 18:1, 78-90
WJ Rees (translator 1740) The Liber Landavensis. London: The Welsh MSS Society.
Sabine Baring-Gould and John Fisher (1908) The lives of the British saints (Vol II). London: The Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion.
Meryl Gover (2015) Cadfan’s Church: A History with Digressions. Leicester: Matador