May 02 2013

Welsh History Month: St Derfel and the Stag – icon or idol?

The Carving of St Derfel’s Horse

The Carving of St Derfel’s Horse

Pic: Wales Online

Welsh History Month continues on the Wales Online website by asking what is the most important object in Welsh history? Today Dr Madeleine Gray, from the University of South Wales, argues the case for the carving of St Derfel’s horse. In the parish church at Llandderfel in Merionethshire is a huge, battered carving of an animal. Its head has been hacked away until it is no more than a stump. Its feet are tucked neatly underneath the body. The local people call it “St Derfel’s Horse”.

It is now kept safe in the church porch, but at one time it was carted round the parish on Easter Tuesday and the children were given rides on it. Alongside the animal is a decorated pole. This is usually called “St Derfel’s Staff”, but it is far too big to have been a walking-stick.

But this bizarre carving is all that is left of one of the most important cult images in medieval Wales, a carving of the warrior saint Derfel Gadarn, Derfel the Strong. According to legend, Derfel was one of King Arthur’s knights. He fought at the battle of Camlaan, where Arthur’s son and enemy Mordred was killed and Arthur himself was mortally wounded. After the trauma of the battle, Derfel gave up his warrior life and became a wandering hermit. He founded churches in north and south Wales before becoming abbot of Bardsey. There he died, and was buried alongside (according to tradition) 20,000 other saints.

As well as the church with his statue in Merionethshire, the little chapel of Llandderfel on the slopes of Mynydd Maen above Cwmbran in Monmouthshire was named after him. Pilgrims called there on their way to the shrine of the Virgin Mary at Penrhys, and the chapel claimed to have a picture and a relic of the saint. It was a web of devotion crisscrossing Wales – and all that is left of it now are these two mutilated pieces of carved wood.

Saints, soldiers and stags

Derfel was not the only Welsh saint to have had an earlier career – what we would nowadays call a late vocation. Several of his fellow-soldiers at Camlaan subsequently became religious leaders. A spear which was said to be the one St Pedrog wielded in the battle was kept as a relic in his church at Llanbedrog on the Lleyn. Gwynllyw, who gave his name to St Woolos in Newport, was a soldier as a young man. He and his wife Gwladus (the parents of the better-known St Cadoc) were a wild young pair, eloping from her father’s palace in Brecon and running away over the hills. Cadfan and Illtud were both famous as soldiers before they took to the religious life.
Stag

Stag

Pic: Pics Box

The animal with Derfel, though, was in fact not a horse but a stag. Many of the Welsh saints had stags as companions. Brynach’s cart was pulled by two stags. Another two stags helped Cadoc’s monks to rebuild their monastery. Illtud rescued a stag which was being hunted by King Meirchion. The animal became tame and helped to pull a cart. All these stories show the way the saints were expected to be able to control the natural world: the wildest and most terrifying of animals did their bidding.

We do not know what the story about Derfel and the stag was. The neighbouring church at Llangar was said to have been built on a site shown by a white stag, and there may have been a similar story about the stag at Llandderfel. Or perhaps Derfel rode the stag, like St Teilo. (The carving of St Teilo riding his stag in the parish church of Llandeilo Talybont, now in the museum at St Fagans, is a modern copy of a medieval carving from Brittany.)

Prayer and pilgrimage

The carving of Derfel and his stag was of enormous importance to the people of north Wales. It was very vividly carved, and parts of it could be made to move. The eyes, for example, could blink. This wasn’t necessarily to deceive people – any more than a modern computer animation at an old building is meant to deceive. But it made the statue more lifelike, and so gave it more power. We also need to remember that the statue was painted – you can still see traces of the red undercoat on the stag.

According to Ellis Price, who was sent by Thomas Cromwell to take the statue down at the Reformation, as many as six hundred people visited it on the saint’s day in April. Not that this compares with the tens of thousands (many of them Welsh) who went to Rome or Compostela on the great festival days, but it’s still pretty impressive for a little hamlet in the Welsh hills.

The world we have lost

The carving of Derfel’s companion is a very rare survival from our medieval past. At one time Wales was full of these statues. Carvings of our saints would have filled the churches and dotted the countryside. We know about a lot of these statues because the poets wrote about them. But almost all of them were destroyed at the Reformation. Carvings of the Virgin Mary at Penrhys and Cardigan, of Mary Magdalene at Usk, of local saints in almost every church, all were swept away.

We may regret this wholesale obliteration of our cultural heritage, but the reformers believed what they were doing was good and important. After all, bringing cattle, horses and money to give to a statue in the belief that it will rescue you from hell is a rather silly thing to do. If the priests were really encouraging people to do this (and presumably pocketing the proceeds) then reform really was needed.

Icon or idol?

St Catwg window in Caerphilly

St Catwg window in Caerphilly

Pic: Wales Online

So why is the carving of St Derfel’s stag so important? To begin with, it makes us think about the Age of the Saints in Wales. The Welsh saints were an interesting bunch, always awkward, sometimes challenging. They were expected to live in harmony with nature, but also to be able to control it. The stag was Derfel’s companion but it sat submissively at his feet.

 

The Welsh saints were people of holiness but also people of great power, and they could use that power in ways that seem strange to us. Derfel was a soldier: not one of the chivalrous knights of later Arthurian legend but a skilled fighter, someone trained to kill. Cadoc cheated King Arthur over a herd of cattle and blinded King Rhun of Gwynedd. Robbers from Gwynedd who attacked Winefride’s shrine at Holywell all suffered horrible deaths.

The statue also makes us think about the lives and beliefs of ordinary people in medieval Wales. They seem to have valued Derfel for his courage and leadership as much as his piety. In a way, a saint who had been a soldier was more holy because he had had to choose to change his way of life. Saints as well as soldiers were expected to be able to protect their people, in the way that Derfel did.

The battered remains of Derfel’s stag also make us think about the changes of the sixteenth century. They were traumatic for many people – but they gave us the Welsh Bible and the culture of the chapel and the gymanfa ganu, and they helped to make us the people we are today.

The later history of the carving is important, too. The way it was carried around the parish at Easter may actually be a survival of pre-Reformation parish processions, with the statue of the saint bringing blessing to the whole community. Giving children rides on the“horse’ was perhaps a way of diminishing its power, but it also shows affection. The rural dean who ordered the mutilation of the carving in 1730 was clearly aware of its power – and it’s equally clear that the locals were reluctant to damage it too much.

Now Derfel’s stag sits peacefully in the church porch. But the saint is having a new lease of life in industrial south Wales. The Ancient Cwmbran Society (motto“Discovering the Ancient History of a New Town’) has commissioned a new larger-than-life statue of the saint. Part of their exploration of the early history of the Cwmbran area has included archaeological work at the Gwent Llandderfel. The saint has an important part in the Society’s heritage trail round the valley.

The story of Derfel and his stag is not over yet.

Read the full story on Wales Online.

To find out more about Welsh history visit  www.cadw.wales.gov.uk

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