Llandeilo Past and Present

Skip to navigation

The Rise and Fall
of a Saint's Community - Part 2

William A. Strange

The Life of the Household of Teilo

The status of the household of Teilo would have been obvious to anyone visiting Llandeilo Fawr in the ninth century. It was home, in the first place, to a community of clergy.

We read in the Lichfield Gospels of a 'Bishop of Teilo', called Nobis. This Bishop Nobis may well be the same man as the Nobis, who 'reigned' at St David's from c.840 to 873, and who was the kinsman of Asser, a prominent Welshman at the court of the English King Alfred. The fact that Llandeilo Fawr was the seat of a bishop is important in itself. The 'Bishop of Teilo' probably did not have authority over a territorially-defined diocese, but exercised his authority over the scattered Teilo churches and over a large kinship group.

A man named Sadyrnwydd is named three times (Memoranda 3, 4 and 5), on two occasions as the priest (sacerdos) of Teilo. Sadyrnwydd evidently had a position of seniority, denoted by his title (distinguishing him as more than a member of the clergy, who are designated clericus), but while he heads the clerical witnesses in Memoranda 3 and 4, in No. 5 he is subordinated to Bishop Nobis.

As well as the Bishop of Teilo and the sacerdos, some of the clergy are named: Gwrgi and Cutulf (Memoranda 3 and 4) and in Memoranda 5 and 8 Sadyrnfyw cam ibiau. Memorandum 5 names Sullen 'the teacher (scholasticus), who faithfully wrote this'. Learning, and particularly the ability to write Latin, was evidently preserved at Llandeilo Fawr. Indeed, it may never have been lost from the period of Roman occupation. A memorial stone found by Lhuyd and dated by Nash-Williams to c.500, once stood near Llandeilo Fawr churchyard. This stone marked the burial of a man named Curcagnus and bore an inscription in Latin. It may be that Latinity was preserved in an unbroken tradition between the time of the sub-Roman carver of the Curcagnus stone and that of Sulien, the ninth-century scholasticus. Quite certainly the ability to write in the vernacular was one of the skills of the Llandeilo Fawr community, and the ninth-century memoranda in the Lichfield Gospels have the distinction of including the earliest surviving manuscript examples of written Welsh.

In addition to those expressly named as priests, Memorandum 5 mentions Dyfrin and Cuhelin, 'sons of the Bishop'. Their appearance is a reminder of the importance of kinship in the community of the time and their presence suggests that Llandeilo may have been a hereditary church, passed down from father to son, as were a number of major churches in early medieval Wales.

The church around which these men lived was more than a place of worship. It was supremely the resting-place of the saint whose name it bore, and who was understood still to be present with his church. The church was guarded by the unseen power of the saint's nawdd (protection). Spiritually, this protection could be invoked, as in Memorandum 5 of the Lichfield Gospels, in the form of 'the curse of St Teilo'. Physically, the limits of the nawdd were expressed by the llan , or enclosure, which surrounded the church. The present-day churchyard of Llandeilo Fawr is divided in two by the road, but the original three-acre llan was an impressive single enclosure and included a well, situated a few yards north-east of what was presumably the saint's resting-place, at the east end of the church building. This well, covered in the nineteenth century, was in the early modern period the major source of the town's public supply of water. It no doubt had ritual as well as practical significance in the early medieval period.

The church, by virtue of the saint's nawdd , was a place of refuge and sanctuary: the gift of King Maredudd c.790 was made as an act of penance because 'with great fury and with cruelty he had killed Gufrir, a man of St Teilo, in the refuge of God, and while Gufrir was before his altar'. The church was a centre of such learning as the community possessed, passed on by men like the 'teacher' Sulien. It was a place in which written records were kept, not only relating to the church's own possessions, but also to matters of importance to its major patrons.

Economically, the well-endowed community of the ninth century acted as a centre to which was brought the surplus production of a large part of the neighbouring countryside. The surplus would have arrived at Llandeilo Fawr in the form of food renders of the sort specified in Memoranda 3 and 4 of the Lichfield Gospels.

The accumulation of surplus produce at Llandeilo Fawr made it possible for the community to exist. It is quite possible that the inflow of agricultural produce and the occurrence of at least occasional surpluses beyond the requirements of sustenance, hospitality and almsgiving, could also have stimulated trade. Our first evidence for a fair at Llandeilo Fawr conies in the royal grant to hold a fair issued in 1291 but this could merely have been a recognition of something already long-established. In the early modern period the churchyard was the traditional site for the fair, and this location may have continued the memory of the role played by the Household of Teilo in the fair's origins.

The accumulation of landed wealth by the Household of Teilo may have had wider social consequences. It has been suggested that the alienation of land to the church by leading families throughout Wales in the early medieval period brought about a political crisis in the ninth and tenth centuries. In the post-Roman period, and down to the ninth century, a network of landed families ensured the cohesion and stability of Welsh society. But the generous donations which progressively enriched communities such as Llandeilo Fawr led to the impoverishment of these families. As these families were then unable to ensure stability, a period of social chaos engulfed Wales.

In the case of Llandeilo Fawr it would certainly seem that the local notables who added to the community's wealth until the ninth century were unable or unwilling to do so thereafter. The Household of Teilo favoured certain local patrons whose important legal transactions were recorded in the sacred pages of the Gospel book. As will be seen, possibly in the tenth and quite certainly in the eleventh century, the protection supplied by these patrons was no longer effective. Whether or not the community's wealth directly led to the impoverishment of its patrons and protectors, it seems clear that when their power was swept aside, the community suffered.

Three artefacts which adorned the church of the household of Teilo have survived.

One is the gospel book (or at least one half of it). This book had arrived by c.820, when the record of its donation was written into its margin. Its whereabouts before this point are unknown. The memorandum of donation states that:

It is shown here that Gelli son of Arthudd bought this gospel from Cingal and gave him a very good horse for it, and for his soul he gave that Gospel to God on the altar of St. Teilo. Gelli son of Arthudd and Cyngen son of Gruffudd. (Translation of Jenkins and Owen).

It is not clear who Cingal was, nor how he had come into possession of the gospel book. A horse, even 'a very good horse' does not sound much of a price to accept for a book which was to become the treasure of a major church. If Cingal had paid nothing for it, the transaction would make sense, and we must suspect that the book had been stolen from somewhere else before it came to 'the altar of St Teilo'.

The acquisition of the book was one way of making obvious the growing wealth and status of the household of Teilo in the early ninth century. The book does not seem to have been written principally to be read, since it lacks any of the annotations which scribes usually placed in the text to aid liturgical reading. Use was made of it while at Llandeilo Fawr for recording the memoranda at which we have already looked. No doubt it was also used for oath-taking, and quite likely for other rituals, such as ceremonial procession, and these ritual functions may have been its main purpose.

The other two artefacts to have survived from the era of Llandeilo Fawr's prosperity are the fine cross-heads now to be seen in the church. They were unearthed during the nineteenth century and have been dated to the ninth century. One (Nash-Williams no.155) has on both sides a unique rectangular shape joining the arms of the cross, where normally such crosses have a circle. The cross, on its front, its back and its sides, is decorated with knotwork. The second (Nash-Williams no.156) has a pattern similar to Nash-Williams 155's on one face, and on the other a different cross pattern, with circular bosses between the arms. The pattern on Nash-Williams 155 may have been influenced by manuscript decoration, while Nash-Williams 156 has affinities with crosses found in northern England.

Nash-Williams 155 was found when the church was being rebuilt in 1848-50. It was unearthed 'in the church, a little aside of the entrance to the Dynevor Chapel in the north aisle of the church, where the lower, and greater, portion of it was allowed to remain'. This cross was exhibited to the Cambrian Archaeological Association in l855 and was illustrated in Archaeologia Cambrensis for 1859, with a report that it was one of two 'slabs', found in the same place, of which the second had subsequently been lost. This 'slab' is perhaps to be identified as the 'lower portion' of Nash-Williams 155.

Nash-Williams 156 was discovered some time between 1878 and 1893 - when both crosses were displayed to the Cambrian Archaeological Association. This second cross was found by workmen digging a drain near the south entrance to the churchyard.