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History of Tywyn

 

Bardsey

Much of Tywyn’s early history is connected with the emergence of Bardsey Island, or Ynys Enlli in Welsh, as a place of pilgrimage in the six century with the arrival of St. Cadfan.  St. Cadfan was a Breton (a region of Brittany, France) nobleman, the son of Eneas Ledewig and Princess Gwen Teirbron, who was drawn to a life in the church and led a large group of missionaries to western Wales before arriving at Tywyn where he established a monastery and became its first Abbot.  In his later years, St. Cadfan moved to the seclusion of Bardsey where he, in conjunction with Einion Frenhin, founded a monastery in 516 which eventually became a place of pilgrimage for holy men and royalty alike.  It is said that 20,000 saints were subsequently buried in the Abbey's graveyard although literary references are rare.

The "Book of Llandaff" (c. 1250) details the Life of Elgar the Hermit where it is stated that Bardsey was known as "the Rome of Britain” for its sanctity and dignity, because “therein the bodies of 20,000 holy confessors and martyrs." This figure would appear to be an exaggeration but from the 6th century there was a tradition that if you die on the Island or on route to the Island your soul would not go to purgatory and Bardsey became known as the Island of the Resurrection. This led to a whole procession of people coming to Bardsey to live out their last days including Saint Deiniol, the Bishop of Bangor. As a result, Bardsey became the centre for a thriving pilgrimage industry where families would send the earthly remains of their loved ones for burial in the hope of salvation. When you couple this with the fact that the Island had played host to a large monastic population for over a thousand years, then 20,000 may not be to far off the mark. The Island was so important that King Edward I spent three days on the Island in 1284 doing pennance.

References to the Island and its recurative powers were included in Giraldus Cambrensis’ "Itinerary through Wales" (c. 1188) which tells us, "beyond Lleyn, there is a small island inhabited by very religious monks called Caelibes or Colidei. This island, either from the healthiness of its climate, or rather from some miracle and the merits of the Saints, has this wonderful peculiarity that the oldest people die first, because diseases are uncommon, and scarcely any die except from extreme old age. Its name is Enlli, in the Welsh, and Berdesey, in the Saxon language, and very many bodies of Saints are said to be buried there, amongst them that of Daniel, Bishop of Bangor".

This other worldly protection of the Islanders is attributed to St. Lleuddad, who succeeded St. Cadfan as Abbot, and of whom it is said that the angel of death granted this concession on his deathbed.  St. Lleuddad requested that monks would only die in succession when they were "like a shock of corn ripe for the sickle" providing they stayed faithful to God.  Thus began the tradition of monks retiring to Bardsey and living-out the remainder of their days in peace and tranquillity.

Bardsey’s other claim is that it is said to be King Arthur’s burial place.  There are many regions that make similar claims and the case for Bardsey has been made by Chris Barber and David Pykitt in their book "A journey to Avalon"  (Blorenge Books, 1993) where they have amassed a great deal of convincing evidence. 

The traditional story relates that Arthur did battle with Mordred, one of the knights of the Round Table who turned rogue, at Camelot sometime between 537 AD and 542 AD, when Cadfan was the Abbot of Bardsey.  King Arthur was grievously wounded in the battle and was taken to the Isle of Avalon where he was laid on a golden bed and tended by Princess Morgan and her nine handmaidens.

There is evidence to suggest that the Battle of Camelot took place near Porth Cadlan and Barber and Pykitt argue that it is reasonable to assume that a badly wounded Arthur would not have been taken far.  This would place Avalon fairly close to the Battle of Camelot.  Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Vita Merlini describes how Merlin and Taliesin took the wounded Arthur by boat to "Ins la pomoru que Fortunata" (The Island of Apples which is called Fortunate), so named because it produces all things without toil.  Geoffrey’s description of the Princess Morgan and her island kingdom parallels a passage in the Gesta Regum Britanniae, written in c. 1235 by Guillaume de Rennes. It describes a mighty princess attended by nine maidens in a miraculously fertile island kingdom called  Ynys Afallach (the Island of Apples).

Bardsey's reputation for sanctity, its position off the coast of the mainland, and hence its association with the setting sun and the departure of the soul to the Otherworld, make it an important burial place for druids and Celtic royalty alike.  Barber and Pykitt believe that Merlin’s Glass House was a sort of early greenhouse, attached to St. Cadfan's monastery, where apples could grow. Bardsey has long been associated with apples and this connection was further cemented recently when in 1998 apples were collected from a tree and sent to the National Fruit Collection at Brogdale in Kent where Dr Joan Morgan declared that the fruit and the tree were unique. 

Another important clue to the identification of Avalon is contained in a book "Irish Druids and old Irish Religions" written by James Bonwick in 1894.  In this manuscript he claims that: "The Welsh Avalon, or the Island of Apples, the everlasting source of the Elixir of Life, the home of Arthur and other mythological heroes, lay beyond Cardigan Bay, the Annwn of the old sun, in the direction of Ireland."  James’ claim is further evidenced by Archdruid Owen Morgan who states that the Celtic Elysium was between Borth on Cardigan Bay and Arklow in Ireland. A quick look at a map of the British Isles suggests that there is only one possible location for such an island, and that is Bardsey.

 

Tywyn

The emergence of Bardsey as a place of pilgrimage cemented Tywyn’s position as a well-trodden staging post for holy men on their way to the Island in the north although there is evidence of a settlement that pre-dates St. Cadfan’s arrival. However, it is believed that the town was regularly sacked by both Irish and Scandanavian raiders during this time. By the 12th century it is clear that the settlement was propering and Abbot Morfran had established a college of secular canons. There is evidence of fortifications at Bryn Castell (Castle Hill), two miles to the east of Tywyn, and at Tomen Ddreiniog, two miles to the north, designed to protect the emerging community. In the early 13th century Castell y Bere was built by LLywelyn the Great.

At this time the town's livelihood was provided by shipbuilding, farming, fishing, lead mining and the trade of skins, fleeces and timber much of which was exported through the port of Aberdyfi. This income was supplemented by the hordes of pilgrims that visited to take the waters from the holy wells, one of which remains within the grounds of St. Cadfan's Church.

 

The Church of St. Cadfan

The Church of St. Cadfan is the oldest building in Tywyn and is a reminder that this little town has a history and importance that go well beyond seaside holidays.  In Norman times, the Augustinian Canons came to Tywyn and established a priory where the old Celtic monastery had been.  The church is now a reminder of those Norman times with the nave dating back to the twelfth century although other structures are more recent.  However, there are records of a church on the site which date back to the ninth century.  These structures, being wooden, were burnt down when the area was sacked by Viking raiders in 963.

Today the church houses the Cadfan Stone which carries the earliest known inscription (dated to 810) in the Welsh language.  The stone originally stood approximately 2.3 metres high, though it is now only 2.18 metres.  The stone is carved on all four sides and its inscriptions have been translated by Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales as:

 

CINGEN HELEN the body of Cingen
TRICET / NITANAM lies beneath
MOLT / PE/TUAR the tomb ... for
ENGRUIN MALTE(C) GU/ADGAN  Egryn, Mallteg, Gwaddian
M(C)/ARTR
ANTERUNC DUBUT MARCIAU together with Dyfod and Marciau

 

The stone is believed to have formed part of St. Cadfan’s tomb. 

The church also houses two fourteenth-century effigies in the chancel. One of the monuments is of an unknown priest in full Eucharistic vestments. The other figure is believed to be Gruffudd ab Adda of Dôl-goch who died around 1331.  This identification is uncertain it being based solely on a nearby inscription on the wall which is much later than the effigy and in a different script.  The other effigy is known as the "Crying Knight" as it appears to weep when rain is on the way.  However, this impression is due to a flaw in the stone at his right eye which becomes damp during wet weather.  In the grounds you will also find a well the waters of which are celebrated as a cure for “rheumatic, scrofulous, and cutaneous disorders”.

After the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536 the land passed into the hands of the landed gentry who used intensive methods to farm the arable land.  Since the 19th century, the land has been used extensively for cattle and sheep, however, with the arrival of the railways in the mid 1860s tourism has played a significant role in Tywyn’s development.

Trem Enlli

Trem Enlli is part of a Victorian terrace built around 1875 to provide accommodation to holiday makers from the surrounding areas including Llanidloes, Newtown & Montgomery “it being remarkably convenient for sea-bathing".  The name Trem Enlli is Welsh for Bardsey view and the Island can be seen from your bedroom window - just track the coastline north along the Llyn Peninsula.  The Island is still populated and welcomes holiday makers.  The remains of the Abbey can be visited and Bardsey is a popular location for bird spotters.  A bird observatory was established in 1953 due to the Island's position on important migration routes and is a cited nesting place for Manx shearwaters - there is a breeding colony of between ten and sixteen thousand - and Choughs. The Island also attracts guillemots and Hillmars.  It is also one of the best places in Gwynedd to see grey seals and the waters around the Island attract dolphins, porpoises and Atlantic grey seals. To book a day trip visit Bardsey's site or call  07971 769895.  

The terrace’s use as holiday accommodation was briefly interrupted by the Second World War when the building was commandeered by the army in preparation for the Normandy landings.  Tywyn was selected for its war-time role as the beaches were ideal for practicing every type of landing – from the mud of the Dyfi Estuary to shale and sand.  Tywyn was also far enough away from the south coast that it could not be easily bombed.  There were eight large army camps nearby playing host to marines, soldiers, tank crews and amphibious vehicles crews.  Abandoned pillboxes may still be seen on the coast to the south of the town.  There is little evidence today of the terrace’s war-time role, however, the building has gifted some unusual artifacts when floorboards have been replaced or walls prepared for papering.