Llandeilo Past and Present

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Llandeilo Archaeology & History

Early Medieval

The early medieval period has long been known as the Dark Ages, in view of the loss of Roman influence during the 5 th century AD. In Wales the term the "Age of the Saints" is also sometimes used, reflecting the growth of the Christian church - which is undoubtedly a more appropriate term to be applied when discussing the history of Llandeilo Fawr.

The very name Llandeilo Fawr indicates the importance of the church and its early monastic settlement, known as a clas community (PRN912), traditionally held to have been founded by St. Teilo as early as the 6 th century AD. The clasau had a church or chapel as their focus, within a llan enclosure and many of these early ecclesiastical sites have remained in use until the present day as the sites of parish churches and chapelries. By the 8 th century Llandeilo Fawr was the centre of a bishopric and probably the mother church of a large area in what is now northeastern Carmarthenshire. The church would have been an important landowner and this tradition certainly continued into later medieval times.

Teilo was certainly one of the great figures of the early church in Wales and ranks along with saints such as Dewi and Padarn and his cult spread across much of southwest Wales. This is the reason why so many churches dedicated to Teilo can be found even today. Although the traditions are strong and exceptionally important in terms of explaining the historical development of the district, there is of course little physical evidence of the early church or the saint who is believed to have founded it.

Probably the most obvious feature that survives is the form of the churchyard itself (PRN912), which is still oval in shape, and typical of the llan enclosures of early medieval ecclesiastical sites in West Wales (despite having been split in two by a new road in the mid-19 th century). Two early medieval inscribed stones (a cross-head tone PRN890 and part of a cross-slab stone PRN891) are now kept in the parish church, but thought to have originally stood within the churchyard. These may provide a direct physical link with the community that worshipped at Llandeilo Fawr in the 9 th century AD. A third early Christian stone (PRN889), recorded by Edward Llwyd in 1697, bore a Latin inscription and was thought to have been 6 th century in date. Unfortunately this stone has long been lost, but Llwyd recorded that it bore the inscription IACET CVRCAGNVS -VRIVI FILIVS, or "Here lies Curcagnus, son of -urivus". It is thought that Curcagnus is an Irish Gaelic name, and the stone is therefore a strong reminder that in the centuries after the end of the Roman withdrawal from Wales, Irish kingdoms sprang up across southwest Wales and even as far east as Breconshire. The importance of Llandeilo Fawr as an ecclesiastical centre by the 7 th- 8 th century AD is clear and it is to that period that one of its great cultural treasures relates.

Although the Llandeilo Gospel Book (now known as the Lichfield Gospel Book) is no longer kept at Llandeilo, it was a possession of the ecclesiastical community of Llandeilo Fawr during the 8 th- 10 th centuries. This remarkably well preserved, decorative gospel book was however lost to Llandeilo, possibly removed during an English raid, about 1000 years ago, and has been kept at Lichfield Cathedral, Staffordshire ever since. A fascinating aspect of the Gospel Book is that it includes a number of entries in the page margins. These marginal entries, or marginalia , include entries relating to land deeds in the area, written at the end of the 8th century. They include references to lands as far apart as modern day Llanycrwys and Llandybie, as well as a copy of an earlier deed, possibly of 6 th century date, which records a land dispute, one of the witnesses to which is named as Teliau (Teilo). We can but speculate as to whether this Teilo was the saint himself, but this entry is of great importance as it is the earliest written piece of Welsh that survives.

It is possible that a secular settlement also existed near Llandeilo Fawr during the early medieval period. There has been speculation that Dinefwr Castle (PRN 882) stands on the site of an earlier, high status defensive site. In late mediaeval times Welsh tradition, echoed by authors such as Giraldus Cambrensis, identified Dinefwr, the capital of Deheubarth, as one of the three great royal centres of Wales, alongside Aberffraw in Gwynedd and Pengwern in Powys, with origins stretching far back into the pre-Norman era. Modern opinion is however that this medieval tradition was derived from bardic fervour rather than historical fact. No archaeological evidence exists to confirm that pre-Norman occupation occurred in the area of Dinefwr castle.

The question as to whether Llandeilo Fawr had sites of both ecclesiastical and secular importance cannot therefore be fully resolved in relation to the early medieval period.

When the centuries that immediately preceded, and then followed the Norman Conquest are considered, however, the division between church and secular authority will be seen to be of great importance.