Dwynwen – The Patron Saint of Welsh Lovers
Euphoric after much publicity for my new book, The A-Z of Curious Sussex and some great book signing lined up, I decided to venture out and take a trip to the shops, the first for a long while. It is less than a half a mile from my house with an array of 80 shops to indulge in a spot of retail therapy. However a journey that would take a ‘able-bodied’ person 6 minutes, took me nearly an hour to get there, but I did it and was surprised to see the shops ablaze with colour and full of St Valentine cards and gifts. Where is this year marching too?
Being a Welsh romantic I like to consider we are ahead of time by celebrating our own special day for lovers – Dwyn or Dwynwen, the Welsh patroness of true lovers on 25th January. She devoted her life to the happiness of lovers, although her true story has now been lost in time. We do know that Dwynwen was the daughter to Brychan Brycheiniog (son of an Irish king), and some say he had thirty-six children, and all his daughters were suppose to be extremely beautiful. They lived in Brycheiniog, in Brecon and it appears that when Maelon Dyfodrull came down from the north he fell in love with Dwynwen, and she loved him too, but her father wouldn’t let them get married. Dwynwen ran away in despair, and Maelon followed her but lost his temper when she wouldn’t marry him, because she didn’t want to disobey her father. So she prayed to God to free her and turned Maelon into a block of ice. However another version informs us that her lover threatened to rape her so she prayed to God to freeze his passion. Like all good stories an angel granted her three wishes. The first she wished that Maelon be freed from the ice, and return home. Her second wish was that she would never marry, and the final wish was that she could help lovers by helping anyone who was in pain through love.
With her sister Cain and brother Dyfnan, they travelled around Wales, preaching and establishing many churches before sailing in a boat to a little island off Anglesey where Dwynwen established a little cell. And the cult of Dwynwen has existed for centuries with people making pilgrimages to Llanddwyn, and a service is held every year. In the 1970s someone drew attention to her story and Santes Dwynwen Day, instead of St Valentine’s Day was established.
Dafydd ab Gwilym, a contemporary of that great English writer Chaucer, wrote a cywydd to Dwynwen, in which he beseeches her to be his llatai – his love messenger. The poem is an amusing satire upon the invocation of Saints in general, but particularly of Dwynwen. The first verse is as follows:
‘Tear-bedewed Dwynwen, essence of beauty,
Thou Saint of the Brightly-lit Choir,
Thy golden image cures of ailments
The tortured and miserable ones all.
He who keeps watch, with guileless intent,
At thine alter, thou refulgent one,
Never therefrom shall he depart
Afflicted with sickness and anguish.’
In the final verse Dafydd ab Gwilym begs her to grant him his request, ‘ For the soul of Brychan Yrth, with the mighty arms.’
There is another poem written in honour of Dwynwen, ‘The holy maid of Brycheinog.’ ‘Mother of all goodness,’ by Sir Dafydd Trefor, in the 15th century, and a copy is now preserved in Peniarth MS115 and another in Cardiff MS7. In this poem Sir Dafydd describes the church of Llanddwyn, her statue and her sanctuary. He also mentions the miracles that were performed around her holy well, and states that young men and maidens, and sick folk in general, would flock in great numbers to her shrine, all bearing candles and large offerings to be cured of their various afflictions. It is also claimed that she could cure sick animals or find lost cattle, with the result that her shrine was visited regularly by ailing livestock and herdsmen anxious to be reunited with their cattle. These practices survived the Reformation, and it is thought that its remote position enabled the superstition to continue.
During the Middle Ages Llanddwyn became an abbey of the Benedictine Order, and became one of the richest prebends in Wales, its vast wealth accumulated from the offerings of the numerous votaries who came to the shrine, and to consult their future destiny at the Holy Well. At the shrine candles were kept burning, and it is said that, ‘ A thousand bleeding hearts her power evoked.’
St Dwynwen Day is, as mentioned, observed on 25th January, and naturally after her death, in 465 AD, her chapel became a popular place of pilgrimage. Between the well and the chapel the visitor can see a small but prominent rock with a cleft that looks as though the rock has been split by an axe. It is claimed that when St Dwynwen was dying she asked to be carried outside so that she could see the glorious sunset, which incidentally is something not to be missed. She was placed in a shelter, in the rock, which immediately split apart so that she could have a clearer view of the setting sun. Today very little remains of St Dywnwen’s church. The walls, the chancel, and the arches to the east are still visible, and it is possible to trace the rest of the building in the form of a small cross from the markings on the ground. Human remains have been discovered both inside the church and in a small field beyond, which could have been a cemetery. To commemorate those buried here there is a modern Celtic cross, erected by the Hon F G Wynn in 1903, bearing the inscription:
‘They lie around did living tread
This sacred ground, now silent dead.’
Another cross, to commemorate St Dwynwen, bearing the date 25th January 465 was erected in 1897 and stands on the headland, looking out to sea.
So as you look through the cards on display for St Valentine’s Day, spare a though for the Welsh, who, to me are the forbearers of the patron saint of lovers.