Llandeilo Past and Present

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The Rise and Fall
of a Saint's Community - Part 3

William A. Strange

The End of the Household of Teilo

Llandeilo Fawr's status declined between the height of its power in the ninth century and the period at which historical records really begin for the area, in the thirteenth century. In the case of Llandeilo Fawr, there is some evidence to suggest that the church suffered some concerted attack on its position.

The loss of the book is one part of this evidence, and is a major problem in Llandeilo Fawr's early history. We have only a general idea of when it left Llandeilo Fawr, but it had certainly arrived at Lichfield by the time of Bishop Leofgar (d. 1026). Since Bishop Wynsige of Lichfield (964-975) is mentioned in the marginal notes in the gospel book, it may have been at Lichfield by his time, but this is far from certain. As to why the book left, we are left only with conjecture. It may have gone as tribute to a Mercian king. Perhaps a border raid carried it off. Possibly a raid, or some other disaster, seriously undermined the status of the household of Teilo by showing that the protection (nawdd) of the saint was ineffective. This last is a strong possibility, and might also help account for the general eclipse of Llandeilo Fawr's significance. However, by itself, it does not explain this eclipse. St Davids, after all, was able to recover its position and status after repeated raids and frequent pillaging. The cult of Teilo was as resilient as that of David: Llandaff made good use of the cult to establish its own status in the twelfth century, and as late as the eighteenth century, Erasmus Saunders noted continuing invocation of 'Teilaw Mawr' in popular folk devotion. The cult centre of Llandeilo Fawr, rather than the standing of the saint himself, seems to have been eclipsed between the late ninth century and the thirteenth century.

The fact that the crosses were buried, and that one of the crosses was unearthed beneath the north aisle of the church, is another potentially significant fact. Many ancient crosses were preserved in Welsh churchyards, but in Llandeilo Fawr two crosses (at least) were lost in the ground. Nash-Williams 155 seems to have been forgotten before 1400, since it was built over when the church received its north aisle. Perhaps the crosses were toppled and allowed gradually to disappear, or perhaps these emblems of Llandeilo Fawr's status were deliberately buried. Whatever process led to their disappearance, it seems to have happened well before 1400. The loss of the crosses is parallel to the loss of the Gospel book, and points to an eclipse of the church of Llandeilo Fawr in the early Middle Ages, and suggests a conscious and forceful removal from sight of its emblematic artefacts.

Further evidence for the degradation of Llandeilo Fawr may be preserved in the 'Life of St Oudoceus' which follows the 'Life of St Teilo' in the Book of Llandaff. In this 'Life', Oudoceus (supposedly Teilo's nephew) made a journey from Llandaff into west Wales. He took relics from St Davids, and 'from his own place of Llandeilo Fawr (Lan Teiliaumaur) he took with him something from the relics of the disciples of his uncle St Teilo and at the same time he placed this in a shrine (arca) suitable for it'. The saint and his entourage were attacked by robbers at Penallt near Kidwelly who act at one moment in the story almost as principled opponents of Oudoceus (they were 'ill-disposed to the works of the holy man'), and at another moment are depicted as simple thieves drawn to easy prey. In the story, Oudoceus is protected by a miracle and the robbers are brought to repentance.

'Oudoceus' here is a fictional figure, and the story contains some hints of its composite nature. The saint's journey, for instance, has two goals, with Llandeilo Fawr appearing as an afterthought as if inserted into a story originally dealing with St Davids: Kidwelly would lie on a route from St Davids to Llandaff but less probably from Llandeilo Fawr to Llandaff. The robbers have two motives, and the attackers suffer two punishments. Such inconsistencies are the tell-tale marks of a narrative conflated out of two earlier stories.

However, the story may preserve a recognition that the community of Llandeilo Fawr ('the disciples of his uncle St Teliau') was indeed despoiled at some point before the tale was written down in the early twelfth century. This narrative could preserve a memory of the removal of Llandeilo Fawr's emblematic artefacts and potent relics at some point far enough remote in time for it to have been woven into legend when the 'Life' was written.

The political context of the Household's eclipse

Our evidence, then, points to a crisis at some point in the two centuries either side of 1000. The most likely principal figure in these events appears to have been Joseph, bishop of Llandaff 1027-1045. Joseph was possibly the first bishop in Llandaff. and having established a bishopric there he proceeded to legitimate it by attaching to Llandaff the traditions of other episcopal centres which had formerly existed in south east Wales. He seems to have spread his ambitions wider still, and also to have intended to attach the Teilo traditions to his centre of Llandaff: certainly on his death he was styled 'Bishop of Teilo', the very title which Nobis of Llandeilo Fawr had carried two centuries previously.

Joseph apparently had his eyes on the territorial enrichment of his bishopric at the expense of the Household of Teilo. The Book of Llandaff contains a charter, purporting to have been granted in the early years of Joseph's episcopate, by which King Rhydderch of Morgannwg gave to Llandaff a grant including 'Llandeilo Fawr with its two territories', together with two vills near Pumsaint (one probably Brechfa), and Llandeilo Brwnws. The document is almost certainly not genuine in all its details, but W. Davies believed that it was based on a contemporary record.

A generation later (c.1060) Bishop Herewald of Llandaff gained a grant from Gruffudd, king of Morgannwg, which specified 'Lann Teilaumaur' and 'Pen Alun' as among Llandaff's possessions beyond the Tywi . This charter is probably authentic, and gives evidence for Llandaff's persistent attempts to enlist powerful political patrons so that it could profit from Llandeilo Fawr's weakness.

The struggle for lands and churches continued for over a century, from the time of Bishop Joseph until the death of Bishop Urban (1134), and there may have been points during that period when the power of Morgannwg enabled Llandaff to make good its claim to the patrimony of Teilo beyond the Tywi. However, Llandaff's effort was only temporarily and partly successful, and whatever success it may have had in enforcing its claims to Llandeilo Fawr in the eleventh century, it failed permanently either to take possession of the lands of the Household of Teilo or to extend its diocese beyond the Tywi. Its most lasting success lay in its obliteration of the memory of Llandeilo Fawr as the chief centre of the Teilo cult.

After the Crisis

Llandeilo Fawr did not entirely lose its reputation as a shrine. As late as 1295, Edward I thought it wise to visit the church in the course of his return to England and made an oblation of a cloth to 'the tumulus of Saint Thilawi at Thianthilogh Vaur'. The king prudently chose the day before the town's annual fair, for which he had granted a charter four years previously, to make this very public gesture of support. Clearly, the church could still show a tomb (tumulus) of its saint even at this late stage, and kept some vestige of its former spiritual status.

What of the landed possessions of the household of Teilo, so assiduously built up in the preceding centuries? When Urban of Llandaff mounted his campaign to incorporate Llandeilo Fawr into his episcopal possessions in the early years of the twelfth century, he may have thought, or hoped, that the many churches and lands which feature in the papal bulls inserted in his book were still a recognised part of Teilo's patrimony. We cannot know whether he was correct to suppose that the rights which the church once had to these lands were still actively recognised by the early twelfth century - it is quite possible that the possessions of Llandeilo Fawr had already slipped out of ecclesiastical control before Urban began to play his part in the drama.

We can be a little clearer about the position a century later, when a settlement was reached between Bishop Iorwerth (Gervase) and Rhys ap Rhys, concerning lands in Ystrad Tywi (1222). This text helps us trace what had happened to the patrimony of Teilo, but it concerns several different lands, and it is important not to confuse what the text says about each. First, some episcopal lands at Abergwili were being unjustly held by certain nobles: for these Rhys pledged his aid to the bishop in regaining them. The great issue, though, was the bishop's claim to a second block of lands: 'the whole commote of Lanteilawmawr' with its appurtenancies, and also lands 'between amnem Dineleis Luiwlith (the River Dulais) and the brook Hylig. The description could encompass the same lands west and east of the Dulais as the Llandaff boundary list: in other words, the ancient estate of Llandeilo Fawr. This area was evidently held, not by 'certain nobles', but by Rhys himself.

At first sight the agreement of 1222 seems to confirm this whole area as an episcopal possession: 'Rhys the Younger and his son and heir Maredudd recognised the right of the church of St Davids and its Bishop in the above-mentioned lands'. But the concession is immediately qualified. First, Rhys and Maredudd declare that they have 'returned' to the bishop all the lands 'below the Dulais'. The implication must be that the family of Rhys had at some point taken these lands from the bishop. The lands 'below the Dulais' are most naturally understood as that portion of the estate lying west of the Dulais, and including Llandeilo Fawr itself, or as the text puts it 'below the Dulais ... as far as the boundary of the commote of Catheiniog'. Then, within this area, certain lands were withheld from the bishop, including the lands of the canons of Talley, 'which Rhys himself or his family had given to the church of Llandeilo Fawr or to the Abbey of Talley'. Finally, even in respect of the residue of land not alienated, the close of the 1222 agreement makes clear that in practice Rhys still held the greater part of them, and that he offered the bishop merely symbolic recognition of overlordship.

We might understand the agreement if we suppose that the ancient estate of Llandeilo Fawr had been lost to the church in the political chaos which periodically engulfed Ystrad Tywi in the eleventh century. Llandaff's attempt to incorporate the estate within its own possessions was ultimately ineffective and the bishops of St Davids emerged as Teilo's successors west of the Tywi. But these bishops had difficulty in establishing control over their possessions in the Tywi valley before the agreement of 1222, and whereas the interests of the local magnates four centuries previously had built up the estates of Llandeilo Fawr, now their effective successors put that process into reverse.

The greater part of the Teilo patrimony appears to have come into the hands of the Lord Rhys in the closing decades of the twelfth century. From these lands he created endowments for Talley Abbey. Certainly Llandeilo Fawr's former estates in the upper Cothi valley and Llandeilo Brwnws feature among the lands which the Abbey had received from the family of the Lord Rhys by the early fourteenth century. Much of what was left of the patrimony of Teilo slipped further from the control of the bishop of St Davids during the episcopate of Geoffrey (1204-14).

Bishop Iorwerth, as a former Abbot of Talley, would have been well aware of the political situation in Ystrad Tywi, and would have been aware of ancient ecclesiastical rights over the estate of the Household of Teilo around Llandeilo Fawr. Iorwerth's ambition was to undo the ill effects of Geoffrey's negligence by recovering what had been lost under his predecessor's rule. But he would not have been anxious to strengthen his new see at the expense of his old house, so he left alone the lands already alienated to Talley Abbey, and set out to assert the ancient ecclesiastical rights over the 'commote of Llandeilo Fawr', wresting back (he hoped) the ancient patrimony of the church from lay control.

The bishop successfully asserted his right to the lands of the 'commote of Llandeilo Fawr' in 1222, but failed to gain effective possession. Royal control of the commote became increasingly prominent from this point, until in the English period we hear nothing more of ecclesiastical claims to what had become the commote of Maenordeilo, beyond the lingering recognition in its name that these lands had once acknowledged a connection with the Household of Teilo. Bishop Iorwerth was only able to establish effective possession of a relatively small estate immediately around Llandeilo Fawr itself.

In the early fourteenth century we find from royal administrative records that most of Maenordeilo was in the hands of the crown. From the Black Book of St Davids we find that the bishop held Llandeilo Fawr as an episcopal manor, but a far smaller estate than the lands once held by the Household of Teilo: the episcopal manor consisted of Llandeilo Villa (the town) and Llandeilo Patria (the adjacent township later known as Tiresgob, or 'Bishop's Land').


In the rise and fall of the household of Teilo we can discern three phases. The first is the period from c. 600-c. 800, before the Lichfield Gospel book begins to give us contemporary evidence. This was the period of the major donations of land: chief among them Llandeilo Fawr itself, the Cothi valley estate around Pumsaint, and Llandeilo Brwnws. The second period, from c. 800-c. l000 was the era of Llandeilo Fawr's prosperity, into which the Gospel book gives us a small glimpse. Land acquisition continued, but on a smaller scale. The relics of Llandeilo Fawr's greatness, the book and the crosses, have come to us from this period. The third period, after 1000, is that of decline, or (if we are right to conclude that there was a concerted attack on the community) the period of collapse. The loss of its prestigious artefacts and relics reduced the community's spiritual stature. The stripping of the community's landed assets, and its inability to recover them in a period of political turmoil, brought about the end of the Household of Teilo. When some measure of stability returned to Ystrad Tywi with the consolidation of the Lord Rhys's Deheubarth, his new political unit favoured a new religious community, and the canons of Talley were given some, but not all, of what had once belonged to Llandeilo Fawr. Ecclesiastically, the church of St David incorporated St Teilo's church into its diocese. Economically, the bishop of St Davids acquired what remained of the Teilo community's assets. Spiritually, the church of Llandaff appropriated the saint's name and prestige.

By way of conclusion, we may make two observations about the fate of Llandeilo Fawr.

The first is that its eclipse may not be attributable to the imposition of alien religious and political structures in Wales. If the interpretation of the evidence given here is correct, then changes in native Welsh society, not the intrusion of Norman institutions, explain both the rise and the fall of the Household of Teilo.

The second observation is that a crucial aspect of the community prosperity or destruction was the loyalty and the power of patrons. Llandeilo Fawr's era of wealth and prestige coincided with the prominence of its local patrons, the kinsfolk of the 'good men' with whom it seems to have had a mutual relationship of support. The eclipse of Llandeilo Fawr coincides with the collapse of the world of these local patrons, overwhelmed in the instability and change of the late tenth and eleventh centuries.

From: The Journal of Welsh Religious History, Volume 2, 2002. Published by the Centre for the Advanced Study of Religion in Wales, pages 1-18

William A. Strange is Director of the Centre for Ministry Studies in the University of Wales, Bangor. His publications include The Authority of the Bible (2000), Children in the Early Church (1996) and The Problem of the Text of Acts (1992).