We do not know exactly when Christianity came to Britain, but since there were British bishops at the Council of Arles in 314 and the Council of Rimini in 359, there must have been Christians here during the Roman occupation, which ended sometime around 410. The language of Britain at this time was Brythonic, an early form of Welsh, which was spoken throughout the whole island up to the lowlands of Scotland.
Grammatically, Brythonic was not unlike Latin : its nouns were declined. The Brythonic word for ‘water’, for instance, was dubros (which gave the English place-name Dover, and Modern Welsh ‘dŵr’). The word for a ‘journey’ was senton (Modern Welsh ‘hynt’). If we put these two words together, we get dubros-senton, ‘the journey of the waters’, and this gives the Welsh word for ‘valley’, which is ‘dyffryn’.It is obvious that the old Brythonic words had lost their original endings, and become dubr and hent, before the new Welsh word was formed. This great change in the Brythonic language happened soon after the Romans had departed, and this was the birth of Welsh.
The earliest Welsh-language poetry which has been preserved dates from the sixth century, and comes not from Wales but from the north of England and the south of Scotland, the area around Catraeth (Catterick) and Dineidin (Edinburgh), and some of it reflects a Christian background. The poet Aneirin, for example, who wrote sometime around the year 600, speaks of ‘going to churches to do penance’.
It was at this time that Christianity was firmly established in Wales. The fifth and sixth centuries were the age of the Welsh saints, the founders of the llannau. The word llanoriginally meant ‘a plot of land’, and then ‘a plot of land on which a church had been built’, and then the ‘church’ itself. A great number of place-names in Wales include the element llan, followed by the name of the saint who founded it. One of the most famous of these llannau is Llanilltud Fawr (Llantwit Major) in Glamorgan.
It was there, before the year 490, that Illtud founded a school that was to become famous in several countries, and where many influential men were educated, including Maelgwn, who later became king of Gwynedd, and who gave, before his death in 547, a plot of land to Deiniol on which to build a llan which grew to be Bangor cathedral (pictured below).
To the same period belong Dyfrig, the first bishop of Llandaff, and the first bishop in the whole of Wales. Padarn, who founded Llanbadarn in Ceredigion, and Teilo, who founded Llandeilo in Carmarthenshire, and David (Dewi), the patron saint of Wales, who founded his famous monastery in St. David’s (Tyddewi), Pembrokeshire, belong to a slightly later period.
Rhygyfarch, who wrote the Life of Saint David in the eleventh century, speaks of a Synod which was held in Llanddewi Brefi, Ceredigion, sometime around the year 569. This was twenty-eight years before Saint Augustine landed in Kent in 589, on the orders of the Pope, to Christianise Britain. Augustine’s task was to evangelise the pagan Anglo-Saxons, who had flocked into south-east England following the departure of the Romans. The Welsh Christian tradition was already old by his time, and the Latin language had left its mark on it (cf. the Welsh words eglwys, mynach, pechod from the Latin ecclesia, monachus, peccatum).
The Welsh word Garawys comes from Latin Quadragesima (forty days), and Pasg from LatinPascha (from the Hebrew Pesach). The English words are Lent and Easter – Lent from Old English lencten (‘lengthen’ – a reference to the days lengthening in spring), and Easter from the name of the pagan goddess, Eostr. The Welsh language and British Christianity share the same cradle. The newcomers to this island were Christianised much later.
Further research and discussion
- How many place names beginning with the element llan are there in your area? What do you know about their founders?