Three Saints, Two Wells & a Welsh Parish

by Tristan Gray Hulse

Llandderfel is a large, ancient parish a few miles to the east of Bala, in Meirionydd. The village church is a small

single-aisle structure, rebuilt c. 1500 to an elegant architectural standard far above that of its rural neighbours, and has a fine and well-preserved rood screen and loft. Like te parish itself, the church bears the name of St Derfel Gadarn (cadarn = ‘the valiant’, or ‘strong’). Derfel lived in the first half of the sixth century, but no vita has survived, and only a few fleeting hints remain to tell of his life. A late version of a genealogical tract on the Welsh saints, the Bonedd y Saint, describes him as a son of Hywel, son of Emyr Llydaw; and a fifteenth-century poem on the Twenty Thousand Saints of Ynys Enlli (= Bardsey Island) confirms that, at least in medieval Welsh tradition, he belonged to the important dynasty of Emyr of Llydaw. In the high middle ages, Llydaw/Letavia was equated with Brittany, and thus it was believed that Derfel, along with many others of his dynasty, including St Cadfan, the initiator of the important cult site of Ynys Enlli, were missionary immigrants to Wales. But there is considerable support for the idea that Llydaw was also the name of a region of south-east Wales in the early medieval period (cf. Bartrum 1993, 420: “Llydaw”), and that thus this important group of saints, traces of whom are regularly found in the toponymy of North Wales, were in fact native Welsh. This helps to make sense of some of the vague traditions surviving about St Derfel. His one-time presence in South Wales is demonstrated by a now-extinct chapel in Llanfihangel Llantarnam, in Monmouthshire, which like Llandderfel was a place of pilgrimage in his honour (the chapel claimed to have a relic of the saint – Gray 1996, 21; the 1535 Valor records the year’s offerings at Capella S’ti Dervalli as 26s. 8d.); and a survey of the Manor of Llandimor, in Cower> dated 1597-8, mentions as a boundary-mark Dervell’s Well. (Davies 1877-94, vol.2, 189: it is the source of the River Burry, which flows into the Lougher The well is noted by Francis Jones: 1954, 56, 181.) Cower dedications regularly reveal the influence of St Ilityd, or of his principal nearby foundation at Llantwit Major; and it seems allowable to guess that Derfel may have received his monastic foundation at that great house. (Illtyd’s connection with the whole group of these “Breton” saints is shown by the presence of a church dedicated to him, Llanelltyd, in Meirionydd, completely surrounded by dedications to the “Bretons”.) Late tradition makes him end his days as abbot of Ynys Enlli, in eventual succession to his cousin St Cadfan – hence his inclusion in the cewydd to the 20,000 Saints (for which, cf. Baring-Could & Fisher 1913, 437). But there was a further aspect of the medieval Derfel tradition. This made of him a mighty warrior at the court of King Arthur (hence his epithet, cadarn). Elissa Henken collected no less than 46 passing references to Derfel as warrior in medieval Welsh poetry, of which the following, from a poem by the fifteenth-century bard Tudur Penllyn, who lived at Llanuwchllyn near Bala, may be regarded as typical. Derfel mewn rhyfel, gwnai’i wayw’n rhyfedd, Darrisg dur yw’r wisg, dewr yw’r osgedd. (“Derfel in war> he would work his spear wondrously, steel covering is the garment brave is the appearance”: Henken 1987, 207.) More particularly, he was believed to have been

present at the fatal battle of Camlan. When there were at Camlan men and fighting and a host being slain, Derfel with his arms was dividing steel there in two; Derfel Is Coed on the mail of slaves wore out the steel again (Lewis Clyn Cothi: fi. 1480). North Welsh traditions located Camlan in Snowdonia (the toponym Llys Dorfil, “Derfel’s Court”, at nearby Blaenau Ffestiniog may be noted), and Derfel was said to have been one of seven who survived the battle. Of these, four are noted as saints: St Pedrog was preserved “by the strength of his spear” (the relic of the spear was venerated in his church at Llanbedrog, in Lleyn); and Derfel simply “by his strength”. (For Camlan and its traditions, cf. Bartrum 1993, 97-9: “Camlan, Battle of”.) If there is any foundation at all to the tradition, it may be that they were preserved by virtue of their ecclesiastical status; but the tradition itself is clear on the matter If battle trauma drove Myrddin Wyllt into madness, it drove Derfel into the Church. Derfel, who was a warrior> after the battle, the man is a saint (Wiliam Cynwat of Ysbyty Ifan, d. 1587/8). This military tradition was strong enough to determine the medieval iconography of St Derfel. Instead of depicting an ecclesiastic, the cult image of the abbot of Bardsey in his church at Llandderfel depicted a warrior in full armour At his feet lay a red stag. This was presumably in reference to a now-lost episode in his legend. Such animals occur frequently in the legends of the Celtic saints, generally with specific topological reference. Frequently, the animals determine the termini of the saints’ parishes, by running around the boundaries pursued by the hounds of the local landowner who is subsequently persuaded to donate the land to the saint or indicate the loci of their llan-enclosures; or> perhaps, wild animals offer themselves in substitution for beasts of burden stolen from the saints (cf. Henken 1991, 80-96: œ11, t lilt V Lfandderfel Church “Animals”). Stags pulled carts or hauled loads of timber for David, Cadog (causing, according to his hagiographer> his settlement to be called Nant Caruguan – today, Llancarfan – “the Vale of the Stags”), Teilo, Brynach, and Illtyd; and pulled ploughs for Deiniol (patron of Llanfor, the neighbour of Llanderfel, to the West), Tydecho, and Cadog. The running of a hunted stag belonging to or protected by the saint determined the boundaries of the parishes of Oudoceus, Pedrog, and Eilian (a hunted goat performed the same feat for St Cybi), in each case, according to the legends, resolving a land dispute with the local landowner or king permanently in favour of the saint. In Llandderfel a local place-name perhaps suggests this last motif as the one responsible for the inclusion of the stag in the iconography of St Derfel. This explanation had occurred to Archdeacon Thomas, who noted the presence of a hill called Carw Fynydd, “the Stag’s Mountain”, on the parish boundary. (Thomas 1874, 698, n. 6. If one was to chance a guess at which landowner or dynast initially opposed the settlement of Derfel until converted by the miracle of the stag, the obvious choice would have to be Brochwel, prince of Powys, who features in the same way in a nearly-similar episode – though there the animal is a hare – described in the Vita of St Melangell, as having happened at Pennant Melangell only a few miles away.). This image became the object of a significant

pilgrimage cult at Llandderfel in the later middle ages. Such details as we have are the more significant in that they are preserved in the profoundly antipathetic records


Llandderfel: The Parish Church, wooden fitting


of the Protestant Reformation. On 6 April 1538 Thomas Cromwell’s Commissary for the St Asaph diocese, Elis Price, wrote to his master: there is an image of Darvel gadarn within the saide diosece, in whome the people have so greate confidence, hope, and truste, that they cumme dayly a pilgramage unto hym, somme with kyne, other with oxen or horsis, and the reste withe money: in so muche that there was fyve or syxe hundrethe pilgrames, to a mans estimacion, that offered to the saide Image the fifte daie of this presente monethe of Aprill [5 April is the feastday of St Derfel]. The innocente people hathe ben sore alured and entised to worshipe the saide Image, in so muche that there is a commyn sayinge as yet amongist them, that who so ever will offer anie thinge to the saide Image of Darvellgadarn, he hathe power to fatche hym or them that so offers oute of Hell when they be dampned (Breese 1874, 152-3). As the great Welsh antiquary Thomas Pennant noted, “Pryse. . .was the greatest of our knaves in the period in which he lived”. He grew rich on the proceeds of the Reformation, and his professional antõ-Catholic stance adds considerable weight to his witness as to the strength of Derfel’s cult. At the same time, his professional bias might suggest that he deliberately distorted one aspect of the popular cultus, for Cromwell’s benefit and to justify the destruction to come. But no medieval Catholic is really likely to have believed that any saint, however powerful, could overturn the final judgment of Cod and liberate a soul from damnation; Price’s statement undoubtedly reflects a popular belief that St Derfel could expedite the passage through Purgatory; a concern of the later middle ages reflected elsewhere in the legends of the Carmelite Scapular and the so-called Sabbatine Bull. As suggested by parallels elsewhere in Wales, the offering of domestic animals to St Derfel probably indicates his particular patronage of them. Another sphere of patronage is revealed in a statement of Michael Wodde in his 1554 Dialogue between two Neighbours: “If the Welchman wold have a pursse, he praied to Darvel Catherne”. How successful Derfel’s patronage was experienced to be is revealed by subsequent events. Cromwell ordered that the statue be confiscated, and taken to London, and a further letter from Price, dated 28 April, records not only that this had been done, but that such was the local regard for St Derfel’s image, the person [parson] and the parysheners of the churche wherein the saide Ymage of Dervell stode, profered me fortie powndes that the said Ymage shulde not be convaide to London (Breese 1874, 153) – and warned Cromwell that the parish priest “wythe others” were heading for London to demand the return of their sacred image, and to complain about Price’s conduct. Even if they reached London in time, their complaints were of no avail. The fate of the image was sealed, and with it, that of St John Forest. Forest, a Franciscan friar> had not only denied Henry VIII’s claimed right to assume

the headship of the Church, but had actually been the confessor of Queen Catherine of Aragon, so that his martyrdom was probably a foregone conclusion. Fr Forest was taken to Smithfield on 22 May 1538, to be burned alive. But before that he had to suffer a sermon from the odious Bishop Latimer> who, among much else, said the following: Oh, what errors has [the pop~ introduced into the Church! And in order that thou mayest the better understand this, thou shalt presently see one of his idolatrous images, by which the people in Wales have long since been deceived. Before St John was thrown on his pyre, a large wooden image was carried onto the market-place. “It was carried by eight men, and three executioners held it tight with ropes, in the manner of a criminal condemned to death” (Thaddeus 1888, 57-8). The outcome is briefly told in the contemporary Grey Friars ‘Chronicle. Also this same yere, the xxi day of May, was burnyd in Smythfelde freer John Forest of Crenewyche, and a rode [image] that came owte of Wallys, called Delvergaddar Hall’s Chronicle, written some time later> supplies the deeply cynical motive for this joint conflagration of saints. This Image was called Darvell Catheren, and the Welshmen had a prophecy that this Image should set a whole Forest a fire; which prophecy now took effect for he set this friar Forest on fire, and consumed him to nothing…Upon the gallows that he died on was set up, in great letters, these verses following: David Darvell Catheren, As saith the Welshmen, Fetched outlaws out of Hell. Now is he come with spere and shilde In harness to burn in Smithfeilde, For in Wales he may not dwell. (Breese 1874, 154. For St John Forest and the part played by Derfel’s image in his death, cf. Thaddeus 1888, 52-68. This whole incident was very widely known at the time, and quickly entered the repertoire of available folk- tales; for example, as early as 1544 it was being claimed that the cult image of St Derfel from his little shrine in Llanfihangel Llantarnam “had also been taken to London and put on the same fire”: Cray 1966, 21.) This is the only known description of the medieval cult image, showing St Derfel as a fully-armed warrior. However> Elis Price had not conveyed quite all the sacred image to Smithfield. In the porch of Llandderfel church there still survives the mutilated figure of an animal lying down, with its legs tucked neatly beneath its body. It still exhibits faint traces of red paint. With the animal is a substantial portion of a decorated wooded pole. For ages these have been known as the cefifri and ifon of St Derfel, his horse and staff or walking-stick. However> a letter to the bishop written 8 November 1626, when the image was more complete, records the presence of “a wooden image of a Redd Stagg as a relique of the image of Dervell Cadarn” on the north side of the sanctuary, which is probably where the cult image stood before the Reformation. Damage began when in 1730 the Rural Dean ordered that the image be decapitated! At the same period, the image was carried in procession to Bryn Sant the “saint’s hill”, also called Bryn Derfel, annually on Easter Tuesday, where it was made to function as a sort of fairground ride; resulting in yet further damage. It may be suggested that this procession was the continuation of a pre-Reformation practice. The stag is lifesize, which suggests that its accompanying figure of St Derfel was similarly lifesize. In all probability the ifon, which is far too large to have been part of the image, was part of its shrine. (The most comprehensive accounts of St Derfel

and his cult are those of Baring-Could and Fisher 1908, 333-6: “S. Derfel Gadarn, Confessor”; Henken 1987, 206-9: œ 25, “Derfel”; and Bartrum 1993, 192-3: “Derfel Cadarn, St”. For the church and cefflil, both with accounts of the cult see Thomas 1874, 77, 697-700; R.C.I. Merioneth 1921, 68-70. This last has photographs of the ceffi}l and fron: figs 38, 39, facing p. 70.) Of course St Derfel had his holy well at Llanderfel. It was first mentioned by Edward Lhuyd c. 1698: Fynnon Dhervel ar Garth y Lhan yn agos i’r Lhan (“Ffynnon Dderfel on Garth y Llan near the Church”: Parochialia 1910, 60). Garth y Llan (“the church garden” – like Bryn Sant, it was anciently church property, and probably represents part of the original foundation of the saint) is a hill some 500 yards north-west of the church. Visiting the well in 1913, the Royal Commission inspector described it as follows: There is no well at the present time at the spot where the water gushes forth in which adult bathing could have taken place or to which vaticinatory offerings could have been made; there is merely a stone slab about 2 feet long, which, with some rude masonry, protects the spring and forms a small reservoir> about 4 feet wide. The water escapes at one side of the stone, and runs along the east side of the field. If bathing or cleansing formed part of the cult of the saint it is difficult to believe that this is Derfel’s original well; it may be, as has frequently happened, that the original watercourse has changed its direction (R.C.I. Merioneth 1921, 70). Francis Jones includes the well in his gazetteer (Jones 1954, 190), but adds nothing to the above. That reconstruction rather than directional change was responsible for the well’s appearance in 1913 is suggested by John Fisher’s note that the water “seems to have been at one time conveyed to the church” (Baring-Gould and Fisher 1908, 336). R. Jennings was more specific. It is said by tradition that there was a kind of old chapel or priory at Tycerrig, which is situated about fifty yards north-west by west of the church.. In ploughing the field between St Dervel’s well and Tycerrig a few years ago, several earthen pipes were discovered, by means of which the water of the well was conducted into a large reservoir in the parlour of the priory, which was discovered when the house was pulled down (Jennings 1861, 76). That Tycerrig was ever a “priory” is unlikely in the extreme. Though Lhuyd, in his notes on Llandderfel (Parochialia 1910, 59-61), mentions an old chapel at Bwlch Garnedog, “as they say”, Wade-Evans believed the parish church to have been the only religious structure of the parish (Wade-Evans 1910, 108). Lhuyd’s “as they say gives the clue; the Bwlch Carnedog and Tycerrig chapels are examples of a piece of folklore which is extremely common in Wales, whereby the ruins of any unusual or impressive building, in a land littered with ruined chapels abandoned at the Reformation, came to be popularly regarded as ecclesiastical in origin. The strength of St Derfel’s cult may possibly have led the parish to lead the waters of his well nearer to the church, for greater convenience, and thus the Tycerrig “reservoir” may in fact have been the original bathing pool. However> rather more likely is the suggestion that after the Reformation, with the cessation of Derfel’s cult, the well’s sacred and healing functions (that is, if it ever was used for bathing for cures – there is absolutely no evidence to demonstrate such a use) declined, so that its waters could be channelled to a nearby farm for domestic use without impropriety Any original structure around the spring is likely to have been disturbed or destroyed during such an operation. Today, even the little well of 1913 has been closed, the water channelled to the roadside to the east of

the original site. In the Parochialia, Lhuyd notes: Bfljn«y-Pader, arverynt gyn t ddywedyd i Pader pan dhvent gynta i olwg yr egiwys – “The Hill of the Lord’s Prayer, where formerly they used to say the Lord’s Prayer when they came in sight of the church”. Jennings is more circumstantial: Bryn Pader> or tile Lord’s Prayer Hill, partly in this [i.e. Llanderfel] and partly in Llanvawr parish, is so called from a custom the old people had of assembling there, some every morning and evening, to say the Lord’s Prayer (bowing towards the church of Llanfawr), and to drink out of some holy well not remote from the place (Jennings 1861, 77). This is extremely interesting. There is considerable evidence that Celtic Christians were accustomed to make frequent multiple recitations of the Lord’s Prayer (the Welsh Pader is named from the Latin Pater noster, and so common were these recitations that the verb “to recite prayers” in Welsh is padera), and the custom was particularly associated with specially sacred places, as part of their associated cult practices. In illustration of this, and incidentally revealing that the custom long survived the Reformation, a 1693 letter of Edward Lhuyd concerning Corffwysfa Pens (“the Resting-Place of St Pens” – a cairn on the top of the Llanberis Pass) may be quoted. I have seen a fellow march nine times about Corphwysfa Pens a Carnedh under Snowdon hill; repeating ye Lds Prayer> and casting in a stone at every turn: whence I am apt to imagine yt St Pens or some one else lies buried there; tho’ their tradition be onely that he was used constantly to rest there after he came up ye steep hill below it (Baring-Gould & Fisher 1913, 93-4). It is likely that the gorffwysfa represented Pens’ favoured place of meditation, if the evidence of the many parallel sites be accepted; and it may just be that the Bryn- y-Pader ritual descended from a similar cultic honouring of a site once associated in tradition with the local saint. That this was the situation here, and not simply a case of a wayside prayer-station such as we know existed all over North Wales until comparatively recently, and which were used in ritually similar ways (cf. e.g. Owen 1897), is suggested by its intimate association with “some holy well”. This was presumably Ffynnon Dderfe{ which is relatively close to the parish boundary (the holy well of Llanfor, Ffynnon Ddeiniol, is just outside the churchyard; and no other ancient holy wells are now known in either parish). In this way, we can dimly see how Derfel’s well might once have been accomodated within a ritual use of sacred space, as part of an itinerary linking various places associated in tradition with the saint in the “landscape” which he established, his parish. Such ritual circumambulation of sacred sites, often specifically said to repeat a journey made annually or even daily by the local saint, are known to this day in Ireland and Brittany, and are known to have been a feature of the popular religious life of Wales in the past. If the well referred to by Jennings was Ffynnon Dderfel, and if Jennings was not simply imaginatively embroidering upon Lhuyd’s much simpler statement, then we have an important witness to one way in which sacred wells were once used in Wales. If not, then we know next to nothing about St Derfel’s Well. And in this it would simply be in company with the majority of Welsh holy wells, about which we know little ;!,eyond their names. Some time early in the last century, Llandderfel was visited by the Ruthin artist Edward Pugh (c.1761-1813) preparatory to writing his illustrated “Tour” of North Wales. He visited the church, where he saw the ceffiji (“a wooden figure, I believe of a lion, but the several parts of

it that might have distinguished its species, are all in ruins”), and incidentally provided the clue to solving the mystery of the overlargeifon. Here was also, formerly, a long pole with an inscription upon it, said to have been St Dorfel’s walking- stick, which, some years ago, was removed to Crogen, before the time of its present resident; and has long since been lost: probably, its fate was decided in a sacrifice to an oven, or by some similar means of destruction (Pugh 1816, 290). This suggests that the church had managed to preserve a genuine relic of St Derfet his bagl or staff (records of considerable numbers of such relics of Celtic saints have survived, and in Ireland and Scotland actual examples can still be seen), until it was purloined, and then lost, by some local land-owning would-be antiquary. But its memory was so strong locally that a replacement if on was eventually provided, from a piece of medieval lumber lying in the church. (From the way Pugh writes, it seems that this substitution had not been effected at the time of his visit. Even later examples of such pious substitutions are known; for instance, at the end of the century at Gwytherin an old chest became the “coffin” of St Winifred, after an enterprising parish clerk had chopped the original to pieces, to sell to tourists as souvenirs!) Leaving the church, Pugh came across another of the village’s curiosities. In the church-yard is an inscription on the grave-stone of one Gayner Hughes, who died in 1786, aged thirty-five. It is so obliterated, that I could not well transcribe it without the assistance of the clerk. It related something singular of this young woman, though in ambiguous terms. I was therefore under the necessity of making some inquiries; and have consequently found, that she lived eight years without any sustenance than a spoonful of water per day; having not the least desire for food of any kind, and not feeling the smallest pain. She kept her bed during this time. The people say she was the greatest beauty of Meirion, and the toast of the surrounding country (ib., 292). Which brings us to one of Wales’ most fascinating holy wells. According to the church registers, Caunor Hughes, of Bod Ellis (now invariably known as Bodelith), was baptised 23 May 1745, and buried 14 March 1780, at the age of 35. By 1910, her tombstone was even more “obliterated” than had been noted by Pugh, and apart from the opening words (in Welsh) Memorial of Gaunor Hughes of Bodelith Buried March Aged 35 its two commemorative englynion could only be reconstructed from the collective memory of the villagers, most of whom knew it more or less by heart. Translated, it reads: Here lieth the body of a lady in a deep grave; Her soul having departed from her enslaved state. For seventy months she lay in her bed eating no food But was provided for by the grace of Christ. These verses were attributed to the Llangollen bard Jonathan Hughes (1721-1805), who had already published a poem about Gaunor during her lifetime, in his Bardd y Byrddau (Shrewsbury, 1778). Gaunor seems to have attracted a great deal of attention during the last few years of her life. Probably always sickly, after some form of accident, she took to her bed, never to walk again during the last three, or five, or seven years – accounts differ – of her life. Here she developed her latent spirituality into a powerful mysticism, which led her into

a life of constant ecstasy and visionary experience; which, though more familiar from the records of Catholic Christianity, are certainly not unparalleled in the lives of contemporary Welsh Protestant mystics. Caunor became more famous still because of what might be seen as a kind of side-effect of her mystical life. She was an inediac; that is, for a considerable period of time she existed with no, or next to no, sort of nourishment. However caused, such effects have been well-observed, and are relatively common among mystics; though rarely do such fasts Llandderfef: The Parish Church, St Derfel’s horse. seem to last so absolutely till death, as with Gaunor (Cf. Thurston 1952, 341-62: ~15, “The Mystic as Hunger- Striker”; 363-84: œ16, “Living without Eating”. ). Gaunor was not the only famous inediac living in Wales at that time. Mary Thomas, also of Meirionydd (ib. 378-81), was visited by Pennant and visited and sketched by Pugh, among others. She was pious enough, but her media was not conjoined with the spectactular mystical accomplishments of the Llandderfel woman. These, her years’-long fast, and her personal attractiveness, all contributed towards an almost instant and imperceptible transformation of her biographical data; and lacking an hagiographer, her life-story became the province of religious folklore. The major gathering of information concerning Gaunor of Bodelith (Anon. 1910, from which all the following quotations are translated) reflects this, despite being culled principally from the reminiscences of members of her own, the Llandderfel, community. At the time of the Sarah Jacobs’ – “the Welsh fasting girl” – controversy, Y Faner had published the following reminiscences of Robert Edwards, “Derfel Meirion”, on 27 October 1869. According to the second engjtn on the stone, Gaunor lived for five years and ten months – that is, seventy months – without eating; but she was said to have drunk a little water from a nearby well in a field close to the house, which is now called Caunor Hughes’ Well [Ffynnon Gaunor Hughes]. She is said to have taken a little wine with the water> but in her last years nothing but the water. Another strand of the Llandderfel oral tradition reduced her fast to a mere three years, during which she was confined to bed by an unspecified illness (the medical problems of mystics frequently resist satisfactory analysis). About this final period of her life, D.S. Jones, also of Llandderfel, wrote: In the three years she was in bed she ate nothing at all, but drank a little water from a well that is called Gaunor’s Well to this day. The family used at first to put a little wine in the water> but this became too strong for her Evan Roberts, of Llanderfel, told me that he had heard Michael Jones, of Bala, say that it was not wine but red sugar that was added to the water she drank. During this period she used to pray twice a day, and three times on Sundays. After praying, she experienced visions, at which time she would sink back in bed, below the pillows, and seemed to stop breathing; and she would be in this state for half an hour or more at a time. Having come out of her trances, she was able to remember everything she had seen. When asked by her visitors about her visions, she would say little beyond expressing surprise at seeing people she had thought good in such bad places, and people she had thought bad in such good places; but that only God searched hearts thoroughly. She had been used to think her landlord would go to the good place, but had been surprised to see him with flies crawling along his gums – and him such a tender person! [This visionary experience of the post-mortem state of

souls has been a constant of “Celtic” spirituality, from the early and high medieval “Visions” of Fursa, Adomndn, and Tundal, to the 1703 Welsh Protestant classic of Ellis Wynne, Grueledigaethen y Bardd Cwsc, “Visions of the Sleeping Bard”; and in Gaunor’s own parish, it is impossible not to remember the former universal confidence in the intercession of St Derfel to affect the status of departed souls.] Gaunor used to advise her visitors on how to face the

In everlasting world. People from far and near came to visit her> even people from as far away as London arriving in their horse-drawn carriages, or on horse-back. It is said she could name these people long before they reached her Llandderfel mothers used to take their children to see her in the hope that they would receive her spiritual blessing. She had been considered a good singer when she used to sing in the parish church, and [although she became a Nonconformist] she used to invite the Anglican church members to visit and sing for her; but once when the people of Llanfor came to visit her, they drank beer at Llandderfel on their way home, and were never asked again. The March 1910 half of the Cynirri article on Gaunor Bodelith consists of an article by local writer David R. Daniel (1859-1931), which adds the following details. Gaunor Hughes was the eldest daughter of Hugh and Catherine Davies, of Bodelith; her sister was Gwen Hughes, and she had a brother> David Hughes… Visitors would go to her bedside by twos, as the room was very small; and all her visitors were fed before they left. Apparently she could not stand smells of any kind, nor could she tolerate steam entering her room. When they were boiling the broth every door and small opening had to be sealed to stop any steam entering. Once her sister Gwen brought a white loaf through the bedroom under her apron, and she went into a trance because the smell affected her [Such hypersensitivity is regularly encountered in the biographies of mystics.]…John Ellis, of Cwmorwr in the parish of Llangwm, who was himself said to have had many visions, was a great friend of hers. It was at the funeral of William Jones of Lyn y Ffridd that she had last walked, alongside Betsy Meyrick and her brother David Hughes. ..Frail by nature and always very pale, she had been considered to have been in poor health before contracting her final illness… [Of her visions, she would say] “Man judges by appearances, but God is the heart-searcher”. ..When praying Caunor Hughes could sit up in bed by herself by resting on her elbows, but at other times could only do so with help from her family Apparently nothing withered in her presence, and everything about her bed kept clean and sweet without anyone having to do anything about this… It was said that she foreknew the date of her death…her body, she said, would become white and hard and crystalline. [The inexplicable incorruption of the corpses of certain mystics is well-known, in a variety of religious traditions – cf. e.g. Thurston 1952, 233-70: œ10, “Incorruption”. The accuracy of Gaunor’s prophecy or intuition as to her own preservation from decay has never been tested, but c. 1838 the body of another Welsh Protestant saint, Anne Parry, was accidentally disinterred 43 years after her burial at Llanrhaiadr> near Denbigh, when her body was found to be perfectly preserved, “her countenance bearing the hues of living health”: Baring- Could 1903, 173.] Her funeral was the largest ever seen in the district, people coming from far and away expecting her to be resurrected…

It is said that Evan James, of Tyn y Ffridd, Llanfachreth, wrote a poem entitled “The Way Gaunor Hughes of Bodelith was kept alive by the Grace of Cod without eating for 3 years save for a small amount of water from the well”. Already by 1910 the exact location of Caunor’s grave had been lost, and there is now no memorial to her in Llanderfel churchyard; but she is still not completely forgotten. Bodelith lies at the north end of the parish, some 1~ /2 miles from the village, and she is remembered there. The family of Man and Ieuan Jones know her story, in a version which suggests that her oral traditions are still alive and transforming; for they not only know of Gaunor’s extreme intolerance of cooking smells, but point out the room above the cow-byre to which she was moved from the house, to avoid them (in this version, her aversion is only to cooking smells, animal smells do not bother her at all). Ffynnon Caunor still exists, plainly visible in the field to one’s left, as one approaches the farm along the drive. Until recently, the water rose at the far (north) boundary of the field, but for convenience this, the old well familiar to Caunor and from which her daily draughts were drawn, has been closed and the water conveyed by underground pipe to its present position by the drive, where it rises in a new, and hideously utilitarian, well composed of a large-bore concrete pipe. But the water still pours forth, clear> clean, abundant and never-failing. Gaunor’s legend – for that is what it is, effectively, – is history filtered through the folk memory; and provides a key example of that rare thing, the cultus of a Protestant saint. Everything about Gaunor’s legend can be paralled in hundreds of Catholic examples, and one can see the beginnings of normal cult formations (such as the naming for her of the well used regularly by her> and thus intimately associated with the miracle of her media: it seems very likely that the majority of the holy wells in the Celtic culture regions bearing the names of indigenous saints came into being simply in this manner); but the medieval saint-making structures were long-gone in Wales, her own Church would anyway have rigorously opposed any such attempt and Caunor’s cultus was doomed to be stillborn. The water has never lost its association with Gaunor Bodelith, and the well still bears her name; but Caunor’s time and place have dictated that she has been the only beneficiary of its potential for miracles. As D.R. Daniel concluded his article: Of one thing we can be quite sure: if Llandderfel had been in France, or Italy, or Spain, it would have become a place of pilgrimage long ago. But it was the fate of the girl from Meirionydd to have been born among Protestants. Bodelith today is a quiet, unknown place, and the story of the saint who gave her name to “the little well in the hedge near the house” ($1nnon fee/ian yn y gwrycli gerllaw’r ty) is now almost forgotten.

[As noted, the major source for Gaunor Bodelith is the two-part article published in Cymru in 1910. I am indebted to my late friend Owen Hughes who translated it into English for me, and respectfully dedicate this piece to his memory.]


Anon., “Gaunor Bodelith”, Cymru 28 (February 1910, March 1910).

  1. Baring-Could, A Book of North Wales, London, 1903.

S. Baring-Could and John Fisher> The Lives of the British Saints, 4 vols, London: The Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, 1907, 1908, 1911, 1913.

Peter C. Bartrum, A Welsh Classical Dictionary: People in History and Legend up to about A.D. 1000, Aberystwyth: The National Library of Wales, 1993.

II E. Breese, “Dervel Gardarn”, Archaeologia Cambrensis set 4, vol.5 (1874) 152-6.

J.D. Davies, A History of West Cower, 4 vols, Swansea, 1877-94.

Madeleine Cray, “Penrhys: the Archaeology of a Pilgrimage”, Morgannwg: The Journal of Glamorgan History 40 (1996) 10-32.

Elissa R. Henken, Traditions of The Welsh Saints, Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1987.

Elissa R. Henken, The Welsh Saints: A Study in Patterned Lives, Cambridge: D.S. Brewer> 1991.

  1. Jennings, “Llandderfel, Merionethshire: Parochialia”, Archacologia Cambrensis set 3, vol.7 (1861) 76-9.

Elias Owen, “Meini Cred (Creed Stones)”, Archaeologia Cambrensis set 5, vol.14 (1897)172-4.

Parochialia: being a summary of answers to Parochial Queries issued by Edward Lhwyd, supplements to Archaeologia Cambrensis, 1909, 1910, 1911.

Edward Pugh, Canibria Depicta: A Tour Through North Wales. By a Native Artist London 1816.

Royal Commission Inventory of the Ancient Monuments of Merioneth, London: H.M. Stationary Office, 1921.

Fr Thaddeus, O.S.E, Life of Blessed Father John Forest, O.S.F, London: Burns & Oates, Limited, 1888.

D.R. Thomas, A History of the Diocese of St Asa ph, London: James Parker & Co., 1874.

Herbert Thurston, S.J., The Physical Phenomena of Mysticism, London: Burns Oates, 1952.

A .W. Wade-Evans, “Parochiale Wallicanum”, Y Cymnirodor 22 (1910) 22-124.

Text  © Tristan Gray Hulse (1998)

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