Ffynnon Ddeier: legend


WELLS IN DEPTH –  Tristan Gray Hulse


Ffynnon Ddeier: legend   Bodfari is a tiny village in Flintshire, in North Wales, on the slopes of Moel y Gaer immediately to the north of the main Mold to Denbigh road, the A541. On the east side of the lane leading up into the village is a small derelict brick structure with a non-functioning tap, hardly visible unless one deliberately searches for it. Higher up the lane, and immediately below the churchyard, is the Dinorben Arms, an imposingly large pub for such a small place. In one of its bars is a deep, circular, brick-built well, which the pub’s publicity boldly identifies as the sacred well of the village, Ffynnon Ddeier (ffynnon, ‘a well’), named for the local saint [1]. A glance at the surviving documentation (for example, as summarised in Jones 1954, p.105, where mention is made of the ‘corners’ of the well), as well as an appreciation of the basic fact that Welsh holy wells are invariably surface springs, and never draw wells, should have prevented this absurd identification. In fact, the little ruined brick structure by the roadside is now all that remains of Ffynnon Ddeier. Formerly the well was located at a spot in a field a hundred or so yards north of the present structure. It was closed during the nineteenth century, at some time before 1890, and its water channelled to the purpose-built roadside tap. An unpublished note by the noted North Welsh folklorist, the Revd. Elias Owen, written circa 1896, refers to the well thus:

‘St Deifar’s Well has been drained, and no longer exists… It was surrounded by masonry, with steps to go down into it. The walls were high & a platform ran completely round the well so as to enable people to walk around it. Its water was bright and clear and being several yards square it was broad and deep enough to bathe in’ [2].     Unusually for a Welsh holy well, Ffynnon Ddeier has a long documented history, with details of a cult of a fairly uncommon kind.    According to Professor Bartrum, the saint’s correct nameform would be Diheufyr. He writes (Bartrum 1993, p.198):

‘Diheufyr ap Hawystl Gloff (born circa 505)The saint of Bodfari in Tegeingl according to Bonedd y Saint (§43 in Bartrum 1966, p.61 [the Bonedd is a 12th-cent. antiquarian compilation of saints’ genealogies, based on earlier material]) where he is made the son of Hawystl Gloff by Tywanwedd ferch [daughter of] Amlawdd Wledig. The name is shortened to Dier in some manuscripts of Bonedd y Saint. This form is preferred in ‘Parochiale Wallicanum’ (Wade-Evans 1910, p.101) and is found in the name of his holy well, Ffynnon Ddier, which used to exist (Lhuyd 1909, p.70; Baring-Gould and Fisher 1908, p.342).

He is called Deifer in the Life of St Winifred (Gwenfrewy) by Robert of Shrewsbury. Winifred is said to have left Holywell and visited him at Bodfari, where he lived as a recluse. His commemoration day is given in a few calendars as March 8 (Baring-Gould and Fisher 1907, p.71; Ibid. 1908, p.342)’.

His pedigree would appear to make Diheufyr the great-grandson of Cunedda Wledig (Bartrum 1993, pp.232, 360). If his maternal grandfather ever actually existed, which seems doubtful, this would make Diheufyr first cousin both to St Illtud and to Culhwch, whose tale is told in the Mabinogion (Ibid. p.13). According to the Bonedd, Diheufyr was the brother of SS Tyfrydog, Tyrnog, of Llandyrnog, Tudur, and Marchell, of Denbigh (Ibid. p.360). Both Llandyrnog and Denbigh adjoin the parish of Bodfari, which might possibly substantiate this suggested familial relationship. Late versions of the Bonedd make Hawystl Gloff a son of Owain Danwyn (Ibid. pp.520-1), which would make Diheufyr the nephew of St Seiriol, of Penmon, and of St Einion Frenin; but the Vale of Clwyd is well away from the usual land-holdings of this dynasty in Gwynedd.   Apart from Bonedd y Saint, which thus preserves his lineage as this was recorded in Medieval tradition, our only information about St Diheufyr – again, traditionary, rather than strictly historical – is found in the Vita Sanctae Wenefredae by Robert of Shrewsbury (the so-called Vita secunda – there is an earlier, anonymous, Vita of circa 1130 which does not mention Diheufyr). Robert, prior of the Benedictine abbey of Shrewsbury, oversaw the translation of the relics of St Winifred from Gwytherin, in Denbighshire, to Shrewsbury, in 1138. His Life of St Winifred was written very shortly afterwards. According to this text, after leaving Holywell, and before reaching Gwytherin, where she was to become abbess and end her life, Winifred visited St Diheufyr at Bodfari, seeking spiritual guidance about her future. Introducing Deiferus as saint and wonder-worker, Robert writes of his holy well at Bodfari:

‘De quo refertur quod cum virtutum gratia copiosius exuberaret, fontem de terra erumpere fecerit, eoque extensa manu benedicto Deum exorasse quaternus quicumque aeger in illo se merserit, sanitate potitus ad sua revertatur: quod ita factum esse plerique ibidem sanitatem adepti contestati sunt'(Smedt 1887, p.719).

It is worthy of note that Robert, despite an obviously close acquaintance with the legend and cult of St Diheufyr and his holy well at Bodfari, mentions neither the well’s reputed efficacy in the cure of children, nor the offerings of fowl, reported by Edward Lhuyd 500 years later.   John of Tynemouth, a fellow-Benedictine who presumably consulted the Vita secunda Wenefredae at Robert’s own monastery at Shrewsbury, during his extensive fact-finding tours in search of hagiological material, circa 1340, composed an epitome of Robert’s Life. In this, he summarised the above passage as follows:

‘Erat quippe vir ille magnus coram Domino, de quo refertur quod fontem de terra erumpere fecerit, multis infirmis sanitatem conferentem’. (Horstman 1901, vol. 2, pp.415-21: ‘De sancta Wenefreda virgine et martire’, at p.420; cf. also Smedt, op. et loc. cit.).   Tynemouth’s important collection of the Lives of British saints (though for centuries it passed as the work of John Capgrave, who merely rearranged it) was very widely known in the later middle ages; which of course meant that in consequence Ffynnon Ddeier was one of the most widely-known of Welsh holy wells, at least by reputation – there is no further surviving medieval documentation which permits us to do more than speculate on its cultus at that period.   Despite the considerable numbers of Lives of St Winifred which have appeared since the middle ages, almost all of which were directly or ultimately based on the work of John of Tynemouth, there has only been one complete translation of the Vita by Robert of Shrewsbury. This was the work of the Jesuit John Falconer, published in 1635, (the Jesuits had charge of the Holywell well and pilgrimage from the latter years of the sixteenth century until 1930; though the anti-Catholic legislation of the period meant that Fr Falconer’s book had to be published on the continent). Falconer translated Robert thus:

S. Wenefride hauing in earnest prayer recommended her iourney to God, was inspired to goe with her companion, to one Deifer a holy Man, liuing at Botauar, who should further direct her. This man was indeed, for his Sanctity in those dayes, & miraculous testimonies therof, famously renowned; for by his prayers he had raised out of the ground a goodly spring in a place that was dry before, & obteyned likewise of God, that the water thereof should haue a supernaturall force to cure all soares & diseases of such as did drinke therof, or wash their soares therewith'(I.F. 1635, pp.101-3).

Nearly 100 years later, and despite the continuing severity of the Penal Laws, the Holywell pilgrimage was still flourishing, and the need was felt for a new Life of St Winifred. This was met by the work of the Jesuit Philip Metcalf, published anonymously in 1712. By and large, Fr Metcalf’s book was simply a re-write of that of Falconer; but he omits any mention of Ffynnon Ddeier. ‘This Recluse was much in God‘s favour; and Robert, Prior of Shrewsbury, recounts of him several evident Miracles, which for brevity are here omitted, because my sole Intention is to set forth the Merits of our Glorious Patroness of Wales‘(Anon. 1712; most easily accessible in Thurston 1917, p.39).

Fr Metcalf’s Life and Miracles publicly demonstrated to all and sundry the continuing vitality of the Holywell cult, and in the following year the Protestant bishop of St Asaph, William Fleetwood, in whose diocese Holywell was situated, undertook to demonstrate in print the folly of pilgrimage in general, and the non-historicity of St Winifred in particular, and to expose the ‘lying’ monkish motives of her biographer Robert of Shrewsbury. To achieve this he reprinted Fr Metcalf’s book in its entirety (not Fr Falconer’s, as stated in Baring-Gould and Fisher 1908, p.341), adding copious footnotes in a style which the bishop obviously thought to be bitingly satirical (but which today reminds one of nothing so much as Saki’s description of a cow buzzing round a gad-fly, imagining she was teasing it!). Incidentally rehearsing the journey of Winifred from Holywell to Gwytherin, as described by Robert, in the pertinent footnote he provides his own translation of the relevant passage in Vita secunda, and comments upon the above quotation from Metcalf, as follows: ‘The editor of this Life [i.e.Metcalf] grows somewhat scrupulous in this part of the work, dares not express himself so freely as he should, nor do that justice to the saint of Bodvarry, that Robert and the Jesuit J.F. have done. He talks of Providence directing Wenefrede; whereas the original work says, that having passed the whole night in prayer and watching, she heard a voice from heaven, that said distinctly to her, “Take thee only one maid for thy companion, and go to blessed Deïfer, who lives at a place that is called Bodvarry, and he shall tell thee what thou art to do, and whither thou must go: for the man was great in the sight of God, and walked in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless; and of him it is said, that he was mighty in working miracles, and that, among the rest, he caused a well to rise out of the earth, and stretching out his hands over it, he prayed to God, that whatever sick person should wash therein, he might return home safe and sound; which many people have experienced to their great comfort, and had their healths restored by it.” I confess, that when I read monkish relations, I am evermore suspicious of the Deïfers and the Deïcolas; but in this relation I take him for as true a saint as Wenefrede herself, and know not why his story should be smothered or his well neglected. I will not however trouble the reader with the miracles said by Robert to be done by him [in fact, apart from the cures at his well, only a single miracle is recounted of St Diheufyr by Robert, concerning in part the miraculous lighting of candles in the saint’s church at Bodfari – cf. I.F. 1635, pp.103-6], but observe, that though Wenefrede was inspired by God to go to Deïfer, yet when she came thither he knew nothing of the matter, but told her that he would that night consult with God, by prayer, who might perchance reveal that matter to him; and so it came to pass; for towards the morning, a voice from heaven directed him to tell the blessed virgin, that she must needs repair to Henllan, where one Saturnus should inform her what she was to do, and to what further place she was to go. Saturnus was, it seems, better provided for her reception, and having been instructed of God beforehand, told her (but not before they had passed the whole night in prayer and holy conferences) that she must next resort to one Elerius, who was a holy man, and lived at a place called Gwitheryn, where she should be instructed fully in the will of God. What excellent work is here for inspiration and divine impulses! warned of God to go from Holywell to Bodvarry! warned of God to go from thence to Henllan! warned of God to go from Henllan to Guitherine! a course, as I guess, of about 16 miles in compass. Wenefrede inspired to go to Deïfer; Deïfer, at length, inspired to send her to Saturnus; and good Saturnus inspired to send her forwards to Elerius; and Elerius, at last, inspired to tell her she must be first a nun, and then, in God’s good time, an abbess at Guitherine! I do not so much dispute whether Deïfer, Saturnus, and Elerius be right old British names or not [under the forms Diheufyr, Sadwrn, and Eleri, they are of course genuine Welsh names of the early Medieval period], but stand amazed that pilgrims should be taught to think that the blessed Spirit is thus employed.'(Fleetwood 1854, pp.275-6).

Fleetwood’s work is still useful, in a roundabout way. He was the first scholar to draw attention to (and translate) the Welsh Life of St Beuno; and his is still the only printed edition of a medieval English vernacular verse Life of St Winifred which contains a number of interesting variants on the usually-received biography. But in view of his own stated aims, Fleetwood’s pamphlet was a complete failure. Anglican divine and friend of Queen Anne though he was, his work served only to bring Fr Metcalf’s Life (and incidentally the miraculous reputation of a holy well which Metcalf himself had omitted to mention) to a wider audience, and the pilgrimages to Holywell continued unabated [3].   Subsequent biographers followed Metcalf (rather than Falconer – or Fleetwood!), and if they mentioned Diheufyr/Deifer at all, they omitted all mention of his holy well. Then, in 1877, the Bollandist Charles de Smedt, S.J., wrote his account of St Winifred for the Acta Sanctorum (to date, still the only major scholarly study of the saint’s life and cultus), in which he published a critical edition of the Vita secunda, quoted above [4].   In the following year, the then parish priest of Holywell, the Jesuit Thomas Swift, published a resumé of Père de Smedt’s study. This included an almost complete translation of Robert of Shrewsbury (Swift himself describes it as being ‘given in full’ – p. vi – but in fact a few passages are actually epitomes). Fr Swift’s translation of the relevant passage runs:

‘It is related of him that, filled with the grace of supernatural power and virtue, he made a fountain of water spring up out of the ground, and, extending his hand over it in blessing, prayed God that any sick man who bathed in that stream might return home cured and in health, and the efficacy of his prayer was proved by great numbers of people who in this way obtained restoration to health.'(Swift 1888, p.39).

In view of Bishop Fleetwood’s strictures, it is worthwhile noticing that Winifred, Diheufyr, and the rest may safely by accepted as historical; though as Professor Bartrum’s detailed researches into the early Welsh genealogies have revealed, Winifred and Diheufyr could never have met – he was apparently born at the beginning of the sixth century, while St Winifred’s floruit was some 100 years afterwards. It appears that the traditionary route taken by Winifred from Holywell to Gwytherin, as this is preserved for us in the Vita secunda, included a visit to Bodfari, leading eventually to a conflation of the fragmentary local traditions of Diheufyr with the much more detailed Winifred tradition – a conflation which is unlikely to have been made by the English, non-Welsh-speaking, Robert, and so telling us that the conjoining of the traditions, and, thus, the detailed outline of Winifred’s journey, are older than the twelfth century. This mistake is a fortunate one, for it is certain that otherwise the legends of St Diheufyr recorded by Robert would not have survived – outside Robert’s Vita no tradition relating to him is so much as hinted at in the surviving evidence, beyond the details of his genealogy, and the facts of his patronage of the church and well at Bodfari.


Ffynnon Ddeier: legend

Ffynnon Ddeier: cultus



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