What with exploding computers, forays to the north and everything else that has been going on around here, the account of our return from the Silent Eye’s weekend event in Wales got a little sidetracked while there were still a couple of places left to share. There was the little cathedral in St Asaph’s, a mysterious place that waylaid us on our way through Cheshire and an adventure or two on our return. It is amazing how accommodating and malleable time can be over the space of a few days.
Thanks to the helpful gentleman in the little parish church who sent us off looking for yet another doorway, we finally found our way into Cathedral Church of Saints Asaph and Cyndeym. It is a good size for a church, but at just 182 feet long by 68 feet wide, it is very small for a cathedral and lays claim to be the smallest Anglican cathedral in the country.
It would be dwarfed by, for instance, Selby’s parish church, which we had visited some time ago and which took several days to revisit in words and pictures. Next to the great Gothic cathedrals such as Lincoln and Chester, it looks a mere baby. On the other hand, it is small enough to feel its history on a far more personal level… and to feel the reverence in which it is held by its congregation.
The history of the church goes back around fourteen hundred years to its founding as a monastery in 560AD by St Kentigern, who is also known as St Mungo in Scotland. When Kentigern left to return to the north, Asaph became bishop and later gave his name to the cathedral, along with that of St Cyndeym, the Welsh name for Kentigern. This thrice-named saint has cropped up in our adventures across all three countries and he played an important role in spreading Celtic Christianity throughout Britain.
Many misfortunes have damaged the cathedral. The original early monastery was replaced by a Norman church in the twelfth century, which was burned to the ground by the Earl of Warwick’s troops in 1282, during King Edward I’s campaign to subdue the Welsh. The church was rebuilt in the thirteenth century by Bishop Anian and parts of this church remain in the lower tiers and nave.
Around the end of the fourteenth century, Roger Fagan a mason from Chester, was employed to build the tower over the Crossing…but almost immediately, the church suffered again during rebellion of Owain Glyndŵr in 1402.
For seventy years parts of the cathedral were in ruins and used to stable animals before gradually being rebuilt. Fate and history had not finished with the church though and in 1714 the tower was badly damaged by a storm and had to be rebuilt.
George Gilbert Scott undertook major restoration work during the Victorian era and it was his grandson, Charles Oldrid Scott, who was called in to restore the tower once again in the 1930s when subsidence, caused by an underground stream, again threatened its integrity.
You have to wonder about that…and what the elements of fire and water are saying about the place the cathedral was built, especially with the legend of St Kentigern and St Asaph… the one praying in the cold stream and calling for warmth which the other provided by miraculously carrying burning coals.
Kentigern already had miracles to his name and a legend attached to his birth that ties him to the stories of King Arthur. His mother was a Scottish princess, Teneu daughter of King Lleuddun, who is generally identified with Lot of Lothian. She was raped and left pregnant by Owain mab Urien… the son of Urien of Rheged in the Arthurian tales. Her father was furious and ordered her thrown from the heights of Traprain Law… a hillfort whose earlier name was Dunpeldyr, the ‘fort of the spear shafts’. Teneu survived and was cast adrift on the sea in a coracle, finally coming to land at Culross in Fife where her son was born.
The child grew and was taught by St Serf, and it was he who began to call Kentigern by the affectionate name ‘Mungo’. The young Kentigern was credited with miracles from an early age. He restored a robin to life when it was slain by his classmates, caused fire to flower from a hazel branch, brought a bell from Rome and, most famously, found proof of innocence in a fish.
Here is the bird that never flew
Here is the tree that never grew
Here is the bell that never rang
Here is the fish that never swam
When King Riderch of Strathclyde believed that his wife was being unfaithful, he accused her of giving her wedding ring to her lover…even though he himself had taken the ring and thrown it in the river in order to shame her. Queen Languoreth, who could not produce the ring, was sentenced to death and appealed to Kentigern. The saint ordered a fish to be caught from the river and, presenting it to the king, asked that it be cut open…and the ring was found inside. clearing the queen of wrongdoing. Oddly enough, a very similar tale is also told of Asaph… so both fire and water have always been closely associated with these saints.
These tales, many of them re-told in varied guises of legendary heroes and other saints of the early church, may date back far beyond even Celtic Christianity and, like most of the old stories, hold deeper meaning and significance if the keys can be found to decode them. Their details, like those of the strange carvings in the churches, are often symbolic and belong to a figurative language we have lost and no longer fully understand. Some meanings we can glean through those almost universal symbols that need little explanation, others need expert knowledge to translate them…or perhaps just the thought to ask the question in contemplation and see what answer arises.
A story that is not fully understood may still be entertaining. It may be beautiful and it may still teach… but its true import and shades of meaning are lost. William Morgan, Bishop of St Asaph’s from 1601 to 1604, believed that to be true of religious texts too and published the first complete translation of the Bible into Welsh, allowing his people to read the sacred text in their first language. His work is still kept at the cathedral where he is buried.
Between the size and relative simplicity of the cathedral, the familiarity of the tales of its saints and the stories of the violence and resilience of its people, there is something accessible and very human about St Asaph’s… as if, somehow, they have managed to reconcile opposing currents of history and possibility in a similar way to that in which their cathedral survived fire and water. It is a tiny city of around three and a half thousand souls, not all that much bigger than my village… yet it seems to have a much bigger heart than is seen on the surface.