History and Mystery on Caldey Island – Part Two, Layers of the Cold Eye
At the eastern end of the main complex of Caldey Abbey a stone stairway leads upwards to one of the most enigmatic parts of the island.
St David’s is the parish church of Caldey Island. This may seem a strange notion, given that the impressive Abbey is next door, but the island has residents and workers who are not part of the Abbey’s interior life, and their spiritual needs need to be met, too.
All the more strange, then, that parish church of St David’s is built on a small hill which has a remarkable and culturally-mixed history.
At first sight, St David’s church looks plain and in no way ancient. But looks can be deceiving. The main parts of the present building are Norman, but the foundations and, possibly, parts of the nave, are Celtic Christian in origin, dating back to the 6th Century A.D., the time of the first Abbot of Celtic Christian Caldey – St. Samson. Samson was a disciple of the renowned Saint Illtud, whose base was Llantwit Major, now a small town, approximately fifty miles east of Tenby on the coast between Swansea and Cardiff.
“Llantwit Major (in Welsh Llanilltud Fawr) is named as the site of the main church of Illtud, one of the founding Saints of the monastic settlements of the 5th century AD in Wales.”
“Illtud came to this sheltered valley of Hodnant in the last decades of the 5th century. On the Ogney Brook, a mile inland from the sea, close to the site of the present church he founded his monastery.
At its height this was a major centre for education and evangelism in the revived western church, its influence reaching through Cornwall and Devon to Brittany and beyond, led by the students and successors of Illtud, Samson of Dol, Gildas the Wise and Paul Aurelian. Of the nearly thirty churches dedicated to Illtud almost half are in Brittany.”
Saint Samson, as, first a monk, and latterly, the abbot, of the first (known) religious settlement on the island is therefore of considerable importance to the story of Caldey. His importance to the founders of the present Cistercian monastery was highlighted in part one of this series of posts.
The Celtic Christian settlement of Caldey continued until the 12th century, when the island was, once more, abandoned – to remain so until the early years of the 20th century. Historians differ as to the likely cause. Some say that the Celtic Christian monks succumbed to the ‘savagery’ of the marauding Vikings. Others say that the later non-Celtic church exaggerated the Viking’s story for its own political ends and that the invaders were quick to settle and integrate within Britain’s ancient landscapes…we may never know.
It is believed that Caldey’s name derives from two Viking words: ‘Keld’ meaning ‘cold’; and ‘Eye’ meaning island.
All this history lies, unnoticed, beneath the upper structure of what is now St David’s (parish) church…and elsewhere on Caldey, as we shall see…
The surrounding graveyard of St David’s church consists of simple wooden crosses – said to perpetuate the traditions of the ancient pre-history of this iconic hill which has been used as a place of sacred burial since time immemorial. This may be linked to the legends that islands were considered by the Celts to be ‘liminal’ places linking heaven and earth… Today, we might interpret liminal as ‘neither one nor the other’, but in the most ancient of Christian traditions, it could equally be interpreted as ‘partaking of the higher and the lower, producing something more, between…’
Entering the church of St David’s, you are struck by the simplicity of the place.
Simple, pilgrims’ wooden crosses line the entranceway, technically, I suppose, the narthex. Entering the nave you are immediately in a very simple place, yet one not diminished by this. Plain wooden chairs vie for space with the venerable font.
Turning to leave the simple space, everything changes when you look up at the western wall, over the entrance, to see the glorious stained glass design, “The Tree of Life”, created by Dom Theodore Bailey in the 1920s – shortly before the Benedictine presence faltered, to be replaced by the more austere, yet ultimately persistent, Cistercians.
The final image to be mentally taken away is a painting depicting the Christ with his Crown of Thorns, created by Cistercian Brother Gildas in 2008. You leave, feeling that much about St David’s – like the rest of Caldey, is unseen, and only to be revealed by much effort…
(to be continued)