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The Age of Saints

Photographs copyright by Jeffrey L. Thomas

Cadw 1990

he period between the Roman empire and Norman conquest is one of quite exceptional obscurity, with few surviving monuments to provide tangible links. The 5th and 6th centuries are often referred to as the "Age of Saints" and much has been written on the spread of Christianity under the influence of the so-called "Celtic Saints" - tireless missionaries journeying along all the western seaways between Brittany, Cornwall, Wales and Ireland to spread this message. Though there undoubtedly remains as element of reality in this picture, studies by modern historians have begun to sound a note of caution. Some, for example, argue that the diffusion and influence of Christianity in late Roman Britain were far more deeply rooted than had once been thought. As such, the foundations for a Welsh church had already been laid. We must be careful, too, about assuming that the element llan in Welsh place-names indicates the site of an early church. Llan probably began by signifying a burial enclosure, then a cemetery with a church, then the church itself, and now by any superimposed village or even a town - like Llandudno. In the end, all that is certain is that it implies a continuous Christian locality, probably going back many centuries.

The situation is no less obscure when we turn to famous monastic sites such as St Davids or St Illtud's important foundation at Llantwit Major. Archaeologists are hard pressed to provide even the slightest information on the nature of the buildings there. Those seeking a clearer indication of Christian activity are on firmer ground when considering the various inscribed tombstones and crosses collectively known as early Christian monuments. Over 400 are recorded from all parts of Wales, with dates ranging from the 5th to 11th centuries. Many have been moved from their original locations, but occasionally they stand in isolated, even in open ground. More often they can be seen in churchyards, or even built into the fabric of the church itself. Important local collections have been gathered at Margam and the parish church at Llantwit Major. The earliest examples are quite plain, and generally served as tombstones or grave-markers. Later monuments include the "Samson Cross" at Llantwit, and the fine pillar crosses at Carew and Nevern which are far more elaborate.

 

Below: the Carew Cross (left) and the Nevern Cross (right)

     

 

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