Sunday, 4 August 2013

Christianity in Devon, before A.D. 909 - Part 1

Sundays are going to see a change for the moment in a rather different direction on this blog. I shall be posting sections from "Christianity in Devon, before A.D. 909" by John Frederick Chanter. This was originally published in 1910, and forms source footnotes on many publications on that subject. It is probably one of the best collations of source material out there, but it is difficult to track down.
Why Devon? The reason is simple. We have, in Jersey, one Saint from that part of the world, St Brelade, or Branwallader, as he was also known. If Chanter's thesis is right, this pretty much overturns some of the scraps of information we thought we knew about Brelade's origins, that (for instance) he was the son of a Cornish King. It also explains extremely well why the bones of a Celtic Bishop should end up at the foundation of an Anglo-Saxon Abbey.
I decided, rather than just putting the edited highlights regarding Brelade, it would be better to supply the full article in which he appears, as this makes a stronger case for Chanter's arguments; rather than just answers in a mathematics problem, this is showing the workings out in detail.
Christianity in Devon, before A.D. 909.
Rev. J. F. Chanter
Since the last meeting of this Association, the millenary or one-thousandth anniversary of the foundation of the See of Crediton has been celebrated, and with that foundation the written Ecclesiastical History of Devon may be said to commence. But that very celebration brings before us the fact that there were bishops in Devon before AD 909.
I do not allude to the claims of Bishop's Tawton, which rest on no historical basis, but that there was a Christian Church in Devon hundreds of years before the foundation of the see of Crediton - a Church with its bishops and a history that goes back certainly 350, possibly 500, years before AD 909. It is a history which as yet is unwritten, and the materials for which are so scanty as to be almost non--existent; indeed, no other country whose population spoke the Celtic language is so devoid of material, for the hand of ruin has been unsparingly laid upon her ancient literature. The Danes destroyed everything down to the tenth century, Henry VIII and his myrmidons burnt nearly everything that came after, and the vanishing of the Celtic language in the west of England has buried all oral tradition.
Still, of these materials there are yet some fragments remaining; research and industry may bring to light others whose existence is unsuspected; and it is surely worth while to gather these fragments and seek to piece them together so as to get something of a history of this pre-historic period - a history which will not be chronological, and never can become so; but still it will supply a void and help to cast some light on a dark page of our county history^
This is surely a subject for archaeological research and a fitting one for our county society, for though the subject of the origin, progress, and condition of the early Church both before and after the coming of Augustine has been one that has had a fascination for many minds, and is a subject on which much has been written, yet nearly every writer on it has almost entirely concerned himself with early Christianity in Wales, Ireland, or Scotland. If early Christianity in the west of England is ever touched on, it has been with reference to Cornwall; Devon, which after all was the main part of Damnonia or West Wales, is scarcely ever alluded to; indeed, with the exception of Mr. Kerslake's paper on the Celt and Teuton in Exeter, the land of Devon is, for any inquirer on the subject, almost virgin soil. And it is surely our province to scratch that soil and see what traces or fragments we can recover. It is confessedly a subject of much uncertainty and leads us back in a region of conjecture, more or less probable conjecture, rather than clear history ; but before we arrive at conjecture there are many fragments of clear history scattered here and there which I propose to gather together and lay before you, and draw conclusions from them.
But before entering on this task it will be necessary first to consider who were the early inhabitants of Devon. What was their civilization? On this point we have very conflicting views. Mr. R. N. Worth (President's Address, Devonshire Association Meeting 1891, p. 26) considered that the Devonians, prior to the Roman advent, were a people whose speech was Brythonic, the earlier Goidel element having been absorbed, and that they were one of the most highly civilized races of Britain. On the other hand, Elton (Origins, pp. 137, 138) says there was small racial difference between the Silures (who were undoubtedly a mixed race of Ivernians and Goidels) and the Damnonii. In this he is followed by Professor Sir J. Rhys, Brynmor Jones, and nearly every- other authority. They lay down that the inhabitants of Devon in early days, as far as they were Celts at all, were Goidels and not Brythons, though at a later period they changed their language from Goidelic to Brythonic. Mr. Worth's contention is that Sir J. Rhys' hypothesis is based on the Ogham inscriptions, and that there are distinct traces of Irish influence in the west about the date of these inscriptions, and Irish influence would supply all the Goidelic features required.
But since Mr. Worth's paper Goidelic inscriptions have been found much farther east than Devonshire - even as far east as Silchester - and evidence can be given that these inscriptions are not Irish or the result of Irish influence; and in spite of Mr. Worth's advocacy of the early inhabitants of Devon as a very civilized and Brythonic race, later writers have multiplied evidences that they were far behind other parts of Britain. Rhys, in the later editions of Celtic Britain, says the Damnonii had no coinage of their own. Nor do they appear to have made much use of money, and whatever civilization they possessed was confined to the tin districts. As regards the name Damnonia, he says the positions of the two peoples of Damnonii in the north and west suggest that it was a collective name of the Goidels in Britain when the Brythons arrived. The stem "Dumnon" or "Damnon" yields a nominative "Domnui"" and a genitive "Domnann." The Welsh made " mn " into " vn," so Domnan =Devn ; as the Anglo-Saxon, Defenascire =Devonshire.
And as regards the change of language, he shows how the northern Damnonii, who were Goidels, also adopted a Brythonic speech {The Welsh People, Rhys and Jones, 1906).
We are familiar, too, with changes of language in other races. And on the same subject Skene observes: "There is a fallacy that lurks in many arguments regarding the ethnological character of the old Celtic nations based upon the modem languages. In arguing from the modem languages it is always assumed that the language of each branch of the old Celtic races must be represented by one or the other of modern Celtic dialects." Professor Boyd Dawkins, however, considers that much of Damnonia was Brythonic, as the Damnonii who carried the name to Brittany were.
The truth appears to me to be that the people of the kingdom of Damnonia comprised both a Brythonic and a Goidelic element, and that after the departure of the legions all the population around and east of Exeter were Brythonic, while those to the north and west of it were Goidelic, with a large infusion of Ivernian blood. It was these eastern Damnonians who, during the wars with the English, formed some of the migratory bands that helped to people Armorica and carried the name Damnonia with them ; while it was the northern and western Damnonians who have left their Goidelic inscriptions.
The history of the Damnonian kingdom appears to be this. After the death of Aurelius Ambrosias, or Emrys as he is called in Welsh, part of his dominions fell to a younger son named Constantine, whose nephew, Dyvnal Moelmyd, revolted and founded the Damnonian kingdom, which comprised Somerset west of the Mendips, Dorset, Devon, and Cornwall. This kingdom reached its highest prosperity under Gwrgan Vartrwch, about the year 600. He opposed a resolute front to the west Saxons and for a time deflected their tide of conquest from the west to the north; he granted land to Glastonbury, and his bishop was Mauron, or Mawom as he is called by William of Malmesbury ; one of his successors was Geraint of Longoborth, who had a son, Cyngar. We find this Cyngar with both Brythonic and Goidelic subjects, for in addition to his Brythonic name of Cyngar, he also has a Goidel name, Cunocaros or Docgwmnus. The Iolo MSS. tell us that Bangor Cyngar, supposed to be Congresbury, was destroyed by the pagan Saxons, and that most of Cyngar's descendants fled to Llancarvan.
The Brythonic element were the Christian and more civilized element of the kingdom of Damnonia, and as they were pressed back among their Goidelic fellow-countrymen carried their language with them, which gradually supplanted the older Goidelic speech in Western Damnonia in the same way as English gradually supplanted it in Devon and Cornwall.
Among the eastern Damnonians of Brythonic stock there was, no doubt, a certain amount of Christianity and Roman civilization ; but among the western Damnonians, which would include the larger part of Devon proper, the backwardness in culture which had characterized them in Roman times would have been unaltered, and such a people were most unlikely to have had Christianity at all widespread, even if there was any trace of it.
For Christianity, both before and after the departure of the legions, was almost entirely confined to the towns. Fastidius, the only British bishop whose writings have come down to us, speaks of the Christian settlements as being in the midst of a heathen population. The only bishops we know of for certain up to the year 500 were at London, York, and Lincoln. The visits of Germanus and Lupus were to Verularaium and the east of the island, never west.
True, the cathedral of St. Germans and Germansweek seem to point to some connection with St. German, and a fragment of a Cornish missal still existing claims St. German's relics and preaching for Cornwall ; but dedications to him only indicate foundations later than AD 720, when the custom of dedicating churches to saints instead of founders was first introduced into the Celtic Church. The claim of the missal is only, as Haddan and Stubbs say, an unhistorical legend. Whatever Christianity existed around Exeter and east of it, there does not appear to be the slightest trace of it in the rest of Devon before AD 450.
The next date we have is AD 646, the approximate date of Gildas ; but even his references to Christianity in Damnonia only point to the eastern part. It is true that in Western Damnonia, and especially in Cornwall, we have a traditional account of various Irish missions, some of which are put back as early as the fifth century, and St. Hergyth of Chittlehampton has been identified with one of these; but the sole authority for this does not go back beyond John of Tynemouth, Capgrave's Nova Legenda, and the Martyrology of Grandisson. The word used in earlier days to describe these missionaries is Gwyddyl or Goidel, and, as Skene says, this term while latterly used by the Welsh as synonymous with Irish, was formerly applied to the whole Goidel race as distinct from the Brythonic. The old name for the Irish was Gwerddoniaid, which is equivalent to a green islander. It was only later, when all the Goidel races in Siluria and South Wales had become Brythonized, that the word Gwyddyl, which is equivalent to a woodman, was applied to the Irish.
Haddan and Stubbs unhesitatingly reject a visit of an Irish St. Piran or Kieran to the west of England. They say, resting as it does upon Capgrave and ignored as it is by earlier Irish legendary lives, it is as apocryphal as the visits of St. Patrick. The Cornish Piran of Capgrave is St. Ciaran of Saighir in a British dress, and the dates given are totally inconsistent with his real life. It is noticeable also that St. Brannock, the chief saint on the north coast of Devon, is continually called Gwyddyl, or the Irishman, and we know in his case that he was not Irish, but a Cambrian, probably of Goidel extraction. The Goidelic language would undoubtedly have survived later in the extreme west than other parts, and so we should naturally expect to find Goidelic names for saints thicker in this part than others, and in later times to find them called Irish, though they had no connection with Ireland.
I should therefore reject the theory that the first missionaries of Western Damnonia were Irish, and it is only because of an assumed identity between such saints as the Piran or Kerian of Cornwall and Devon and the Piran of Ireland that such an early date as the fifth century has been fixed. The Piran or Kerrian of Damnonia may be a St. Kieran who came from beyond the east of Damnonia and who is said to have been consecrated a bishop in A.D. 638, or, as Skene thinks, a St. Ciaran of the sixth century. There is also a York tradition given by Matthew of Westminster of a Piran, afterwards a bishop, in AD 622.
Leaving aside, then, these Irish missionaries, we have, according to all other traditions, the conversion of Devon and Cornwall mainly ascribed to Welsh missionaries. And when we turn to Welsh Christianity we find that the coming of Cunedda and his sons is the real beginning of historic Welsh Christianity - there may have been a certain amount of Goidelic Christianity before that, but if so it was so tainted with pagan survivals as to be scarcely Christianity, but paganism with a slight leaven of Christianity. It was Cunedda's descendants who were the founders of all the Christianity of Wales, which will give us a date of approximately AD 500 as that at which Christianity in Wales began to really spread ; and the sixth century was the period when all the great Welsh monasteries were founded and missionary activity was at its height - the latter part of this century, AD. 584-601, witnessed the foundation of the sees of Llanbadarn, Llandaff, Llanafanfawr, Bangor, and St. Asaph. The last Celtic bishop of London, Theon, is said to have taken with him the relics of the saints and such of the ordained clergy as survived and retired to Wales in AD 622. This will bring down the earliest date for the conversion of Devon to between 500 and 550, and as near as possible to the later date as the most probable. Wales was severed from Damnonia in AD 577.

No comments: