ST. MABYN – THE FORGOTTEN SAINT OF LLANFAPLEY CHURCH?
“Na chais bod yn Fabli cyn bod yn Lleucu … Ceisio bod yn Lleucu cyn bod yn Fabli…” – a Welsh Proverb
In 1136 an unknown cleric writing under the auspices of the Anglo-Norman state recorded the church at (what is now) Llanfapley as “ecclesiam Mable” – thus providing the origin of a spurious “St. Mabel” who is widely recognised as non-existent – but from the Welsh equivalent of which (‘Mabli’) the name of the village was later derived.
Llanfapley church however is exceptionally old, and stands not only within an enclosure retaining indications of an originally circular form characteristic of the early Celtic church, but in an area replete with churches dedicated to those Welsh saints said to have lived during the Dark Ages (eg. St. Telio at neighbouring Llantilio Crossenny and St. Ceinwen at Kentchurch) – and so it is not unreasonable to look amongst the Welsh saints for a viable candidate as the original saint of Llanfapley – ie. a saint whose name was misrepresented in 1136 as “Mable”.
As things stand today – there would initially appear to be only one candidate, a Welsh saint whose name is rendered as ‘Mabon’ in ‘The Life of St. Nectan’ (1300’s) – as ‘Maben’ by William of Worcester (1400’s), Nicholas Rosscarrock (1600’s) and John Leland (1700’s) – and as ‘Mabyn’ in Cornwall.
On this basis we would appear to be dealing with a female – since ‘The Life Of St. Nectan’ (1300’s) installs the saint in a list of the twenty-four daughters of Brychan (Dark Age king of Brycheiniog) – a description later cited by Nicholas Rosscarrock (1600’s) who regarding her presence as the saint of St. Mabyn’s church in Cornwall (near Wadebridge) was also aware of a local hymn celebrating her descent from Brychan, and thus echoing the presence ten miles from St. Mabyn’s (at St. Neot’s) of mediaeval church windows depicting Brychan and his offspring – including St. Mabyn herself.
However – there is another approach which might suggest that prior to 1136 we would have been dealing with a male saint – as follows …
There exists in the Welsh tradition a longstanding and well established male saint called ‘St. Mabon’ – and it is therefore noticeable that the earliest account of the saint we are discussing (‘The Life Of St. Nectan’ written in the 1300’s) actually renders the name of the saint as ‘St. Mabon’, and yet proceeds to install “her” amongst the twenty-four daughters of Brychan – although other accounts of Brychan’s offspring do not include her. It is quite possible therefore that ‘The Life Of St. Nectan’ was actually correct in maintaining the name as ‘St. Mabon’, but nonetheless succumbed to a feminisation of the saint first set in train by the invention of “St. Mable” (Welsh “Mabli”) in 1136. If so – this would suggest that the original dedication at Llanvapley would have been to the male ‘St. Mabon’ and that prior to 1136 – Llanfapley would once have been known (although unrecorded) as “Llanfabon”.
If so – it would also be significant that a potential church of St. Mabon at Llanfapley stands in close proximity to the church of St. Teilo at neighbouring Llantilio Crossenny – since a St. Mabon site adjoins Llandaf in Cardiff where St. Teilo was said to have become bishop, and it is also suggested by P.C. Bartrum (1993) that the source of an association between St. Mabon and St. Teilo cited by the unreliable scribe Iolo Morganwg (1700’s) is the close proximity of Maenorfabon (St. Mabon) and Maenordeilo (St. Teilo) in Llandeilo Fawr on the Tywi – a river which (at Llansawel) was also the legenday stamping ground of a giant called ‘Mabon Gawr’, and just west of which (in the ancient Welsh territory of ‘Cantref Mawr’) were the adjacent commotes of ‘Mabelfyw’ and ‘Mabudrud’.
In any case however – on the basis of the above, it is reasonable to suggest that the spurious “St. Mable ” should now be dismissed and replaced with a more authentic dedication here: – ie. at least in favour of St. Mabyn daughter of Brychan, and possibly in favour of St. Mabon, and in either case I would suggest – with due ceremony.
Alex Gibbon (Historian/Author) September 10th 2016
P.C. Bartrum: – ‘A Welsh Classical Dictionary’ Nat. Library Of Wales. 1993. p.66-7,430,432.
Melville Richards: ‘Welsh Administrative & Territorial Units (Mediaeval & Modern)’
Cardiff University Of Wales Press. 1969. p.147 & Map 25.
H.W. Owen & R. Morgan: ‘Dictionary Of The Place-Names Of Wales’ . 2007. Gomer Press.
S. Baring-Gould & J. Fisher: ‘Lives Of The British Saints’ London. 1907-13. Vol. III.390 n.3.
Having spent some time engaged (as above) in the matter of de-bunking “St. Mable” and examining the credentials of the only two viably-named alternatives (St. Mabyn & St. Mabon) I recently attended the ‘CADW’ Open Day at Llanfapley Church: – a most enjoyable occasion from which has emerged a very plausible (if bothersome) new theory, which may involve ‘de-bunking’ myself (!) – as follows …
Just as I was leaving the house en-route to the event, I received a telephone call from my friend the leading Welsh academic Dr. Robin Gwyndaf – who observed that the Welsh name “Mabli” (the equivalent of the English “Mabel”) derives from the Old-French “amable” and the Latin “amabalis” – meaning ‘to love’ (cog. Old-French “amiable”/ Latin “amicabilis”). During the event at the church – I mentioned this to a parishioner who then looked at the second line of my article (qv above) and said “Ah – Ecclesiamabilis! …” and then went off to look at the exhibits. This is essentially however an excellent point for which they should be congratulated – because the spurious “St. Mable” is indeed in poll-position to be the product of a scribal-error – as follows …
As mentioned above, the earliest surviving record of the church at what is now Llanfapley records it in 1136 as “… ecclesiam Mable”. Now – “ecclesiam” appears regularly in old place-names regarding churches (along with the variants “ecclesia”, “ecclesiae”, “ecclesie”, and “ecclia”) therefore, an account (eg. by a Norman cleric) describing this site near Abergavenny as a lovely church – ie. as an “… ecclesia amable” – would need only to be mis-read, marked, creased or torn, to be subsequently re-copied as “… ecclesia mable” – whereafter it would be duly recorded by the scribe of 1136 as “… ecclesiam Mable” (another possibility being “… eglise amable” mis-heard as “ecclesia Mable”).
This is a possibility which would return the original saint of Llanfapley to the ‘Limbo’ (recently abolished by the Pope) of speculation: – although the same idea could also be applied to the church of “St. Mabyn’s” in Cornwall which was first recorded as “Ecclesia [de Sancto] Malbano” in 1234 . This by a similar error would then offer an original “Ecclesiam Albano” (ie. viably ‘White-Church’ or St. Alban) – thus further divorcing it from its 1266 appearance as “Sancte Mabene” which aligned it with Mabyn (Mabon or Maben).
So – should we now abandon all hope of dedicating Llanfapley church to a saint more appropriate than the spurious St. Mabel, whose non-existence also deprives Llanvapley of a feast-day? – after all we don’t know that such a scribal-error occurred, or that the name of the saint has not been mistaken. It is also well-known that a great deal of deliberate mis-information regarding Welsh churches and other matters was being propagated by the scribes of Llandaf (particularly in the 1130’s) both in their own interests and those of the Anglo-Norman state – and that there was a general policy of suppressing certain Celtic-saints (those with ancient agendas) and of replacing them – typically with St. Michael, St. Peter, St. Mary, or ‘All-Saints’.
The possible connection of St. Mabon and St. Teilo (of Llantilio Crossenny) is interesting and could be pursued further – for the ancient route upon which Llanfapley lies is notoriously east-west, to the infuriation of west-bound evening motorists near equinox. The equinoctial sun was of time-honoured importance to the Celts, and the name ‘Mabon’ is strongly associated with the eternal solar-youth, a resurrecting precursor to Christ whose tradition persisted (heretically) in Wales into the Middle Ages: – are the St. Mabon sites at Llandeilo and Llandaf aligned east-west relative to the St. Teilo sites there? – I don’t know, but it’s worth checking … Is it significant that a Welsh proverb (qv top of article) advises “Do not be Mabli until you have been Lleuceu”? – that both are saints, and that the name of St. Lleuceu (identified with St. Lucia of Syracuse) has the same solar connotations as the figure of Mabon, who is closely related to a solar character called Lleu (‘bright’), and is said to be buried in north Wales at Nantlle (the stream of Lleu)? – or does the proverb simply mean “do not love before learning to shine”?
Other avenues remain to be explored, but until then the parishioners of “Llanfapley” may be innocent victims – living in a mediaeval misprint.
Alex Gibbon (Historian/Author) September 12th 2016