The Journal Of Antiquities

Ancient Sites In Great Britain & Southern Ireland

Caldey Island, Pembrokeshire, Wales

OS grid reference: SS 1417 9664. The holy island of Caldey (Ynys Pyr) lies about 2 miles south of Giltar Point, Tenby, across the strait known as Caldey Sound. The island has been called ‘A Cradle of Celtic Christianity’ since it’s foundation in c540 AD. Caldey is thought to be named after a Viking chieftain called Caldeye. The island is one and a half miles long and one mile wide. A celtic monastery was in existance here from the early 6th century, then in 1113 Cistercian monks founded a priory here but they were dependant on the abbey of St Dogmaels and this foundation, in it’s inhospitable position along with funding problems, meant that it was always in a poor state of repair and existance. But it did survive, in one way or another, until the dissolution in 1536. More recently, in 1923 Cistercian (Trappist) monks from Chimay in Belgium settled on the island and today they remain a major part of a thriving monastic community. There are three churches on the island, one of which, the old priory church (St Illtud’s) houses a 6th century stone ‘The Caldey Stone’ which has an Ogham inscription along with a Latin inscription and crosses.

The first abbot of Caldey was St Pyr (Piro), but was he the founder? According to legend, Pyr got drunk one night and fell into the monastery well through drinking to much homemade wine, or beer! He was succeeded as abbot by St Samson (c550) who had travelled here from Llanilltud Fawr, south Glamorgan, the monastic college of St Illtud. However, it seems Samson did not stay long on Caldey because he failed to improve the bad habits of the monks. St Samson travelled to Ireland. The thinking is that it was St Illtud who then succeeded St Samson as abbot, but there is uncertainty because St Dubricius may have been here at about the same time. There are three churches on Caldey Island: St David’s, the old priory church (St Illtud’s) and the Abbey Church. St Illtud’s is a 13th century foundation that is famous for it’s leaning tower and 50 foot high spire and, inside, it’s floor and walls are made of black pebbles from the shoreline, and a stained-glass window shows St Illtud as a knight of King Arthur’s court.

The Caldey Stone, Pembrokeshire. (After Macalister)

In the sanctuary of the old priory church, also called St Illtud’s, there is a 1.7 metre high 6th century Ogham inscribed stone known as The Caldey Stone. At the top right and left edges are incomplete notched inscriptions in memory of MAGLIA DUBRACUNAS – the servant of Dubricius or Dubracunas, the son of. The Latin inscription, carved in the 9th century, is on the front face and is taken to be ET SINGNOCR CRUSIN ILLAM FINGSI ROGO OMNIBU AMMULANTIBUS IBI EXORENT PRO ANIMAE CATUOCONI – ‘And by the sign of the cross which I have provided upon that stone, I ask all who walk there that they pray for the soul of Catuocunus’. Cutuocunus is probably to be identified with Cadwgan. Also, the stone has four Latin-style crosses on all four sides. St David’s is a small church close to the lily pond and seashore. The walls are 3 foot thick, a fact which could mean the building is of Celtic origins, but more likely it is a medieval foundation. There are wood carvings depicting the Oberammergau passion plays in Bavaria. Finally, the Abbey Church was built in the Romanesque style with local, Caldey limestone. There are some nice statues in here of St Bernard of Clairvaux, Our Lady, St Illtyd and St Aelred, abbot of Rievaulx in Yorkshire. The choir-stalls date from the 15th century and are made of oak. Clearly, this church is still in use as a monastery church with a cloister-like surround and refectory and kitchen to the west, while on the opposite sides, dormitories and abbey office buildings.

On the cliffs to the south of the abbey is a 12th century watchtower that is now used as a chapel by the monks. At the north-eastern side of the island near Den Point are Nanna’s Cave, Potters Cave, Ogof-yr-Ychen and Ogof-yr-Benlog caves where prehistoric artefacts have been excavated. Human and animal bones have been found from as far back as the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic ages right up to more recent, post Roman times.

Hilbre Island, Dee Estuary, Wirral Peninsula

SJ1855 8781. About 1 mile off the very north-western tip of the Wirral Peninsula, in the Dee estuary, and 2 miles from West Kirby is the small island of Hilbre – it is one of three islands here but the other two, Eye Islands, are even tinier than Hilbre. The island is just under 12 acres long. In medieval times it was called St Hildeburgh’s Island after a female saint who may have founded a monastic church on the island in the 7th century AD. She is perhaps one and the same as St Edburga of Mercia, daughter of the pagan king, Penda? Hilbre became a place of pilgrimage in the 13th and 14th centuries. A church is still dedicated to St Hildeburgh at Hoylake, Wirral Peninsula.

Hilbre Cross 1000 AD [Image copyright S.Craggs]

In about 1080 AD a cell and church for Benedictine monks was established on the island as a dependancy of Chester; this probably acted as a chapel of ease to Chircheb (West Kirby). At the dissolution of the monasteries two monks were allowed to remain on the island, the last monk leaving in 1550. Apparently the monks kept a beacon lit during the nightime to aide sea-going vessels in the Dee estuary from colliding with dangerous rocks.

In 1926 archaeological excavations on the island discovered artefacts from the Neolithic Age, the Bronze-Age and the Roman period. Roman artefacts found included pottery and beads. The Romans may have had a signal station here to protect their fort at Deva (Chester). Earlier, in the 19th century a sandstone cross-head from 1000 AD, a gravestone and a cross-slab in the wall of a stable were found – the gravestone cover may have come from the monks graveyard. A rock-cut grave was also found. At the western-side of the island is the famous or, perhaps, infamous ‘Lady’s Cave’, but there are other caves in the cliffs.

Bardsey Island, Gwynedd, North Wales

NGR: SH 1209 2236. Bardsey Island (Ynys Enlli) or ‘the island of the currants’ lies 2 miles off the southern tip of the Lleyn Peninsula across Bardsey Sound, locally called ‘The Race of Bardsey’. Since the early 6th century AD the island has been a “Cradle of Celtic Christianity”. It apparently takes its name from Bardda, a Welsh prince, but in 516 St Cadfan came here from Brittany at the invitation of Einion, King of Lleyn, to establish a Celtic (clas) monastic college. Since that time the place has been called the holy island of Bardsey and, when 20,000

Bardsey Island Taken from Braich y Pwll - at t...

Bardsey Island Taken from Braich y Pwll – at the end of the Lleyn Peninsula (Photo credit: Martin Connolly).

saints were “supposedly” buried there, its place on the list of holy, sacred sites had been sealed and the island became a place of pilgrimage. Since medieval times three pilgrimages to Bardsey Island were equal to one pilgrimage to Rome, and many still visit the holy island even today. St Cadfan died and was buried on the island in 540 AD as were St Cybi and St Dubricius. Legend says that Merlin the Magician lies sleeping in an unidentified cave on Bardsey Island.

Unfortunately, there is no trace of the Celtic monastery, the scant ruins there now are, in fact, those of the Augustinian abbey of St Mary that was founded in 1240 and, the main part of that still surviving is a ruined tower (abbots lodging) and some foundations of the abbey church. The abbey did not survive the dissolution of the monasteries in 1537. In the ancient cemetery there are two modern Celtic crosses; the taller cross stands in memory of the third Baron Newborough and the other for the 20,000 saints who lie in unmarked graves on the island – 900 of these were monks who fled from the monastery of Bangor-is-Coed near Wrexham when it was besieged and burnt to the ground by King Ethelfrid of Northumbria in 607 AD.

To the east of St Mary’s Abbey at Ty Capel is the holy well. This now supplies the island with its drinking water. Just east of Plas Bach is the hermit’s cave and near here stands the famous 1,000-year-old ‘Afal Enlli’ the Bardsey apple tree. At the northern side of the island at Penryn Gogar there are traces of round hut dwellings that belong to the Neolithic age some 5,000 years ago. At Ty Newydd farm some graves from the 10th-11th century were discovered during an archaeological excavation in 1995 along with some skeletons, one of which had a silver coin in its mouth.

Photo (above) is of Bardsey Island taken from Braich-y-Pwll – at the end of the Lleyn Peninsula, by Martin Connolly (Geograph/Creative Commons).

Copyright © Ray Spencer, The Journal of Antiquities, 2012 (updated 2023).