Saints and Martyrs of South Wales Pilgrimage 8th-12th July 2019

The month of July saw 22 of us, with our Chaplain, Fr. Michael Donaghy, and including nine members of the Friends of the Venerable English College in Rome, set out for Cardiff on the trail of the Saints and Martyrs of South Wales. The first stop was the city’s castle, an imposing first century Roman fort where we were faced with a large red metal dragon, the symbol of Wales.

Having passed through the hands of many noble families over the years, in 1766 it passed by marriage into the Bute family.  John, the 2nd Marquess of Bute was responsible for turning Cardiff into the world’s greatest coal exporting port.  The Castle and Bute fortune passed to his son John, the 3rd Marquess of Bute, who by the 1860’s was reputed to be the richest man in Britain.  He converted to Catholicism in 1868.  From 1866 John employed the genius architect William Burgess to transform the castle lodgings.  Within gothic towers he created lavish and opulent interiors, rich with murals, stained glass, marble, gilding and elaborate wood carvings, each room having its own special theme, such as the Indian, Arabic and Chaucer rooms.  The Marquess had four children who wanted for nothing, and the walls of their Nursery were beautifully decorated by figures from English folklore and nursery rhymes e.g. Robin Hood, Little Jack Horner etc.  We enjoyed a wonderful tour of all the rooms including the Chapel situated behind the Library.

It was his son, the 4th Marquess who commissioned St. Andrew’s Chapel in Westminster Cathedral and it was his son, the 5th Marquess of Bute, who in 1947 moved out of the Castle and handed it over to the City and people of Cardiff in perpetuity.  Of particular interest to us was the fact that two of the Welsh Martyrs, Frs. John Lloyd and Philip Evans were imprisoned in the Black Tower of the Castle prior to their execution in 1679.

We then walked to St. David’s Cathedral where we were warmly welcomed by Archbishop George Stack (formerly the Administrator of Westminster Cathedral 1993-2001).  Before taking us into the Cathedral he showed us around Cornerstone which had been a dilapidated Grade II listed building situated directly opposite the Cathedral, originally opened in 1855 as Ebenezer Presbyterian Chapel.  Vacated in 2010 by its Welsh-speaking congregation as it required prohibitively expensive restoration, the chapel was purchased in 2012 by the Archdiocese of Cardiff with the help of a £1,500,000.00 Lottery Grant.  With the vision of Archbishop Stack and his team it was converted into a unique venue providing a flexible community hub for conferences, seminars, meetings, corporate hospitality, private parties or simply popping into the Café.  Around the building is a sensory garden for the blind and disabled.  The whole project is very impressive, having been officially opened by Prince Charles in December 2016.  In 2017 it was awarded the Royal Institute for Chartered Surveyors Awards, Wales Building Conservation Award.  Mass was then concelebrated in the Cathedral and we were privileged to be shown some of its Treasures by Canon Peter, the Dean.

Setting off the next day by coach to Tenby, 10 minutes’ drive outside Cardiff centre to Roath brought us to the Pwllhalog crossroads where Frs. Philip Evans and John Lloyd were executed together in July 1679 in the middle of a field – today, of course, it is a busy town thoroughfare.  Plaques in Welsh and English are situated high on a wall and there Fr. Michael led us in prayer.  Travelling via Carmarthen we found St. Peter’s Church (built in 1107 and one in the Diocese of St. David’s), where the Churchwarden, Nigel Evans, welcomed us and guided us through various points of interest in both the pre-and post-Reformation history of the building.  Mrs Evans kindly provided us with liquid refreshment and Welsh cakes. 

Continuing towards Tenby, we stopped at St. David’s & St. Patrick’s Church in Haverfordwest.  Built in 1871, it accommodated approximately 60 people, but an extension. actually bigger than the original church has been built at the side.  The parish priest, Fr. Liam Bradley, is a former Seminarian at the English College in Rome, and has been at St. David’s for five years.  Fr. Liam’s parents, Louise and Hugh, and his Uncle and Aunt were part of our group and they have every reason to be proud of him.  After a warm welcome he gave us a very informative 20-minute account of St. David and his place in Wales before a concelebrated Mass. That evening we arrived in Tenby, a resort whose beach has just been declared the best in the United Kingdom for 2019 by the Sunday Times.

The Welsh Martyrs, part of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales, were canonised by Pope Pius VI on the 25th October 1970, almost fifty years ago.  Their names are included among those on the mosaic vault of the Chapel of St. George and the English Martyrs in Westminster.  Although there were only six Welsh Martyrs out of the 40,  this is quite a high proportion, considering that the population of Wales up to the 1800’s was never more than half a million souls.   St. Richard Gwyn, c.1537-1584. Layman, Born: Llanidloes, Montgomeryshire, Executed: Beast Market, Wrexham: St. John Jones, c1530-1598.  Franciscan, Born: Clynog Fawr, Caernarvon, Executed: Old Kent Road, London: St. John Roberts, 1577-1610.  Benedictine, Born: Rhiw Coch, Trawsfynydd, Executed: Tyburn, London: St. Philip Evans, 1645-1679. Jesuit, Born: Monmouth, Executed: Pwllhalog, Cardiff: St. John Lloyd, ?-1679. Jesuit, Born: Brecon, Executed: Pwwlhalog, Cardiff: St. David Lewis, 1616-1679. Secular Priest, Born: Abergavenny, Executed: Usk, Monmouthshire.

Following dinner on the Tuesday evening, we all went for a long walk through the Town of Tenby, down to the Harbour, past the old Lifeboat Station and round the point – very good for the digestion.  We did not realise so many famous people had visited or stayed there, for example, Horatio Nelson and Lady Hamilton, George Elliot, Prince Albert, as evidenced by Blue Plaques on the houses.

The following morning saw us travelling by coach to St David’s, Britain’s smallest city, to visit the Cathedral after a stop at St. David’s & St. Patrick’s Church in Haverfordwest for a concelebrated Mass. Fr. Liam Bradley, who accompanied us to St. David’s is also parish priest at the market town of Narbeth, a few miles from Haverfordwest, which was also featured as a Great British Break by the Sunday Times in its August Travel section.

The Cathedral, with approximately 300,000 visitors a year, lies sunk in a hollow, quite invisible from the nearby sea, and so the first sight of it is in looking down rather than it being seen from afar. It was built in the Norman style in the 12th century giving pilgrims the opportunity to visit St. David’s shrine.  Constructed of the local fine-grained purple Cambrian sandstone, it has survived both the collapse of its central tower and an earthquake in the 13th century.   The floor slopes noticeably, the levels at the east and west ends of the building differing in height by about 14 feet.   St. David was an ascetic, misogynist and charismatic leader who established a monastery here in the 6th century and spread the Gospel right across South Wales.  The shrine was restored and rededicated in 2012, and large colourful icons of Ss David, Patrick and Andrew now adorn the niches.  At Westminster, of course, we have the splendid mosaic of St. David written by Ivor David and installed in the Cathedral in 2010 prior to its being blessed by Pope Benedict XVI during his visit to Britain.  

We then walked to St. Non’s Retreat, run by the Sisters of Mercy, who warmly welcomed us with refreshments.  The Retreat has both a ruined and a modern chapel, and a holy well considered to have healing and miraculous powers.  St. Non was the mother of St. David and the site of the ruined chapel is traditionally his birthplace.  Although the ruin cannot be accurately dated, it is considered to be one of the oldest in Wales.  It was wonderful to be there, so peaceful, so spiritual, with stunning views across the rocks facing out to the Atlantic.

Our prayers for good weather were answered, as we travelled by boat for a full day visit to Caldey Island on the Thursday.  One and half miles wide and two miles long, just off the coast near Tenby, the island has been home since the 1920’s to a small community of Cistercian monks and a number of villagers, some employed by the Abbey Estate, and each summer it receives around 55,000 tourists. However, it is known that Celtic monks settled on the island in the 6th century, with a monastery standing there for the next thousand years. We were met at the landing slip by Fr. Gildas, the monastery cook, who was great fun; over 6 feet tall, well- built and suitably bearded, he had been in the community for 36 years.  As he guided us around the island, he also talked us through the history of early Christianity in South Wales.

Although we were not allowed access into the monastery, the island offers an enjoyable experience, with its own Post Office and museum, a perfumery and a chocolate factory.  There are nature trails with many varieties of flowers and plants, including rare orchids and the monks have introduced red squirrels to the island, which flourish alongside black swans and loads of ducks on ponds.  There are also two ancient chapels – St. David’s and St. Illtud’s. The former, dating from Norman times, has foundations thought to be those of a Celtic chapel built in the 6th century. Its baptismal font was made by the artist and sculptor Eric Gill, creator of the Stations of the Cross in Westminster Cathedral.  At the invitation of the Abbot, we were privileged to join the community for Sext at 12.15 p.m. in the Abbey church.  A few of us also walked right across the island to the lighthouse with its fantastic views, whilst in the evening we attended an excellent Concert given by the Tenby Male Voice Choir enriched with much audience participation.

Friday, our final day, was the feast of St. John Jones, which we kept at a concelebrated Mass with Fr. Mansel Usher who warmly welcomed us to St. Teilo’s church. On the train back to London everyone agreed that we had spent a great week in a wonderfully different country.  We are now looking forward to another Pilgrimage organised by the Guild of St. John Southworth in 2020.                                                                                                                  

Louise Sage

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