Welsh Christianity - Sarah Woodbury

Welsh Christianity

In one of this season’s earlier videos, we talked about ‘early’ Welsh Christianity and religion. Today we are talking about what was different about Christianity in Wales in later eras.

Christianity in the first centuries AD was in still to some degree competing with paganism, particularly following the fall of Rome. While Rome had officially become Christian in 388, not only was Britain located at the end of the Roman Empire at that time, Rome completely abandoned it by 410. That meant that the Christianity that developed in Wales was organized around small cells of believers, led by inspired leaders who came to be known as saints. That’s why the period was called ‘the age of Saints’, where men and women formed monasteries and convents, but with little to none of the hierarchy and oversight that came later.

By 800 AD, Christianity in Wales was in conformity with Rome (for the most part) and for centuries had been the source of Christianity for all of Britain. Wales and Ireland both sent out missionaries to convert the Saxons, Danes, and northern tribes of Scotland.

By the heart of the Middle Ages, all of Britain was entirely Christian, but also coming under the thumb of Rome more fully, once England was conquered by the Normans. We talked about the consequences of those conquests earlier in this season. Certainly the Church was a weapon of conquest in this regard, over the Saxons first, then the Welsh, the Scots, and finally the Irish.

During the period where most of Wales was still independent of England, particularly in Gwynedd, priests and monks did not subscribe to the edicts laid down by the Archbishop of Canterbury, even as they potentially obeyed the pope in Rome. We talked about the overt independence of the Cistercians, as they refused to ‘put out their candles’ on multiple occasions when the Prince of Wales was excommunicated by the archbishop or even the pope. They clearly saw that the King of England was using the church as a means to control what happened in Wales, and viewed those actions, rightfully, as a breach of sovereignty.

The Welsh Church, in addition to refusing to excommunicate Welsh princes, also refused to abide by certain conventions that had become associated with Christianity, even though they were not Biblical per se. These include the Welsh laws about crime and punishment, encourage mediation and a system of fines rather than capital punishment even for murder; the insistence that women had some rights within marriage, such that they could own property and divorce their husbands. And possibly most contentiously, the Welsh church also supported the right for illegitimate children to inherit as long as their father acknowledged them. To Norman eyes, and politics, such traditions were against divine law.

Nonetheless, the Welsh church maintained its independence up until the death of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd on December 11th, 1282. Next week we’ll be talking about one such native church, St Mary’s church in Trefiw, founded by Prince Llywelyn’s grandfather, Llywelyn Fawr.

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