Perhaps the most important lesson history can teach us is that today was not inevitable. Today was once one of countless possible futures. If anything matters, what we do, and how we choose to live our lives, matters.
So Happy St Dogmael’s Day! The 6th Century Saint about whom very little is known has two recorded dates suggested to be his feast day. The other is Halloween, so for convenience’s sake, this will do nicely. I also had a crackpot theory that our local church, dedicated to him, faces the direction of the sunrise on his feast day (certainly it does not face due East). But today was overcast, so I did not get to find out first-hand. My calculations actually suggest sunrise on the 15th of April is closer to the exact angle; so perhaps the (13th century) church of St Dogmael, Mynachlogddu, faces the way it faces due to topographical reasons alone.
As for the dedication… the church is believed by local historians to have originally been built as a private chapel by the Abbott of St Dogmael’s Abbey in the village of the same name in North Pembrokeshire (possibly, as is often the case, on the site of an earlier chapel, a monk’s cell, or a pagan site of worship). The land that later became Mynachlogddu parish was gifted to the Abbey by the Norman Marcher Lord of Cemais (North Pembrokeshire). The village name itself (Mynachlog-Ddu; Black Monastery) signifies a monastic grange; and the village’s 20th century historian, E T Lewis, concluded that the name most likely referred to the ownership of the land by the Tironensian abbey from the 1100s, rather than to an earlier monastic settlement in the immediate area; which latter theory has often been proffered as an explanation, but never with any satisfactory evidence.
Dogmael was the cousin of the much better-known Dewi (David), now the patron saint of Wales. Both are believed to have been alive in the 6th century, and to have been grandchildren of King Ceredig (of Ceredigion) himself the son of Cunedda Wledig, one of the most important figures of early Welsh history. Ceredig apparently arrived in what is now modern Wales from Gododdin (Yr Hen Ogledd, which would later become the Anglo-Scottish borderlands) with his father’s family when they were invited to the West to help ward off Irish invaders. If, as tradition suggests, his grandson Dogmael founded an abbey on the west bank of the Teifi, he did not have to travel far from Ceredigion to do so.
One of the oldest farms in our village is called Pant Ithel, and was in the 16th century called “Pentre Ithel” (Ithel’s Estate or Ithel’s Manor). It is possible that Dogmael’s father founded it in the 5th century; but much likelier that it was named after him (or even after another Ithel) hundreds of years later.
The conquest of what is now Pembrokeshire by the family of Cunedda was almost certainly seen as a re-conquest on behalf of the Britons, and on behalf of Christianity. Bearing in mind the Romans (just about) conquered Wales, but never made it to Ireland. The Christianization of the Irish tends to be dated to the 5th century, but since the Irish Déisi are said to have begun settling in West Wales and Southwest England as early as the 4th, they came as Pagans into an at-least-partly Christianized Post-Roman Britain, whose at-least-partly Romanized British leaders were at that time beset by Pagan invasions from Germanics in the East, Picts in the North, and Irish in the West. The Christian future of Britain was by no means inevitable, and for reasons we can only guess at, many high-born men like Dogmael chose to make the survival and propagation of Christianity their life’s work.
For a broader human context, Britain at this time was one relatively soggy, relatively irrelevant corner of an increasingly connected network of closely related and rapidly advancing human societies, spread out across the Old World. It was about 100 years since the would-be King of Britain, Vortigern, had (according to Gildas) invited the Germanic Pagan warlords Hengist and Horsa to the Isle of Thanet to help him subdue and unite the British. He failed; but succeeded in bringing about the cultural dominance of Germanics in Britain for the next thousand years and more.
In Central America the Maya civilization was in the midst of its Classic period; blissfully oblivious to the existence of an Old World, at least in any scientific sense. Muhammad was to be born in Mecca in 570; but until he was, the religions of the day that vied for power in the cultural crossroads of Central and Western Asia were Zoroastrianism, Judaism and Christianity, and, perhaps to a lesser extent, Buddhism and Hinduism. Manicheism had spread east from The Sasanian Empire through the Tarim Basin into China, and had even made it to Britain, at least, nominally, via Greece, Italy and Gaul. But due to heavy persecution by the (by-now) reasonably well-established Christian hegemony in the still and formerly Roman lands, the religion of Mani had almost disappeared from western Europe by the fifth century.
Iceland was yet to be discovered by Irish monks, let alone Vikings. Indeed, the Viking age had not yet begun; and Irish monks, and Welsh monks, and Breton monks, and Cornish monks, were busy spreading Christ’s teachings in every corner of Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Cornwall, and Brittany.
They call this period in Welsh (or British) history the Post-Roman Age, or the Age of Saints. But it was also an age of almost constant conflict between competing petty kingdoms. Our corner of the island was Dyfed: a kingdom on the site of the older Demetae. Vortiporius was its king, supposedly. And Gildas would later refer to him as a “spotted leopard” and a “tyrant”, but would not quite explain why he held him in such low esteem.
Vortiporius’ ancestry was supposedly both Brythonic “Welsh” and Déisi “Irish”; whether or not there’s any use in regarding him as a real historic figure, he seems adequately emblematic of the time, when West Wales was becoming more Welsh than Irish again, and more Christian than it had been recently, or perhaps at any point. Indeed, Christianity was still evolving. This from Wikipedia describes a disagreement between two renowned 5th century Christian thinkers, which was perhaps partly a result of their geographical origins:
“Modern scholars have suggested that Manichaeanism influenced the development of some of Augustine of Hippo’s ideas, such as the nature of good and evil, the idea of hell, the separation of groups into elect, hearers, and sinners, and the hostility to the flesh and sexual activity, and his dualistic theology. These influences may well have been part of the conflict between Augustine and Pelagius, a British monk whose theology, being less influenced by the Latin Church, was non-dualistic, and one that saw the created order, and mankind in particular, as having a Divine core, rather than a ‘darkness’ at its core.”
Both were active until the early 5th century; Augustine came from North Africa, and Pelagius from Britain (or Ireland). Pelagius’ name has traditionally been understood as a Graecized form (from pélagos, “sea”) of the Welsh name Morgan (“sea-born”) or an equivalent Irish name. As fate would have it, Pelagius is now most famous for the notion of “Pelagian heresy“, which probably wasn’t quite what he aspired to.
A century or two later, perhaps in the lifetime of Dogmael, but probably a few generations beyond, another man named Augustine was to have a similarly conflicting relationship with Welsh/British Christianity. Augustine of Canterbury, the first Archbishop of Canterbury, is thought to have been born in Italy. The episode of his visit to Wales is described below (again, taken from Wikipedia):
“Augustine failed to extend his authority to the Christians in Wales and Dumnonia [Devon and Cornwall] to the west. [Pope] Gregory [The Great] had decreed that these Christians should submit to Augustine and that their bishops should obey him, apparently believing that more of the Roman governmental and ecclesiastical organisation survived in Britain than was actually the case. According to the narrative of Bede, the Britons in these regions viewed Augustine with uncertainty, and their suspicion was compounded by a diplomatic misjudgement on Augustine’s part. In 603, Augustine and Æthelberht summoned the British bishops to a meeting south of the Severn. These guests retired early to confer with their people, who, according to Bede, advised them to judge Augustine based upon the respect he displayed at their next meeting. When Augustine failed to rise from his seat on the entrance of the British bishops, they refused to recognise him as their archbishop. There were, however, deep differences between Augustine and the British church that perhaps played a more significant role in preventing an agreement. At issue were the tonsure, the observance of Easter, and practical and deep-rooted differences in approach to asceticism, missionary endeavours, and how the church itself was organised. Some historians believe that Augustine had no real understanding of the history and traditions of the British church, damaging his relations with their bishops. Also, there were political dimensions involved, as Augustine’s efforts were sponsored by the Kentish king, and at this period the Wessex and Mercian kingdoms were expanding to the west, into areas held by the Britons.”
So, all that aside, what do we know about Dogmael?
Alas! Almost nothing.
Emily Pritchard says (in The History of St Dogmael’s Abbey) that he lived around 500AD (100 years before the first Archbishop of Canterbury), that he founded a hermitage on the banks of the Teifi (which became a “religious house” after many flocked to join him). That he travelled to Brittany at some point. His abbey apparently endured till 800AD when it was attacked by Saxons, and 900AD when it was destroyed by Vikings. If he came to Mynachlogddu, or to whatever the land on the southern slopes of the Preselis was called then, there is no evidence for it. I have a romantic notion that he got tired of the monastery by the Teifi in his old age, and headed for the hills to be alone with God once more.
This is from the dictionary of Welsh Biography:
“To judge from the churches bearing his name, his activities in Wales were confined almost entirely to Pembrokeshire; for Llandudoch or S. Dogmaels (on the Teifi, opposite Cardigan) together with Capel Degwel in the same parish, S. Dogwell’s (near Fish-guard), Mynachlog-ddu, and Meline are all in that county. The only exception is the church of Llanddogwel in Anglesey, formerly a parish in itself, but later attached to Llanfechell. In the 12th century a Benedictine priory was established on the site of Dogmael’s chief foundation at Llandudoch. Traces of a S. Dogmael are to be found also in Brittany.”
I have also read that Dogmael insisted his followers bathed daily in the Teifi river, no matter what time of year it was. I had thought this a fitting tribute, and a way to mark his feast day (perhaps in our own river: Afon Wern) but it’s unseasonably cold, and I am still ill, and I am no ascetic at the best of times. So I wrote this blog-post last night instead.
When the second Landskerian Republic is finally declared (date TBC) I will propose to parliament that St Dogmael, patron saint of children learning to walk, is adopted as our state’s patron.