Visit and the surrounding villages and stay in bed & breakfast accommodation:
Llantwit Major, Glamorgan. A little South of Cowbridge, and close to the sea, is Llantwit, which must be called Major because there are two other villages of the same name, near Caerphilly in the same county. This is the Great Church of St Illtud, as the name was spelt by Christopher Saxton when, inquiring about the place, he wrote in 1610 that it stood on the foundations of some much older and greater town, for the signs of what were formerly streets and houses lay all around it. Roman coins had been discovered both here and not far away at St Donat's Castle, a fair habitation, then, of the ancient and notable family of the Stradlings, first conquerors of Glamorgan. He was much concerned to know whether this area might contain the site of the Roman city of Bovium, which the Antonine Itinerary set 15 miles away from Nidum, or Neath. He was inclined to think that Cowbridge might be the lost site. And, since he argued from the similarity of meaning between the Cow and the Bovium of the Latin, he reminded himself that the village of Boverton, set 1 mile from Llantwit, might afford an even better clue.
Llantwit is undoubtedly a very ancient place. On the coast, another 1 mile from Llantwit, is a camp on the cliff, perhaps from the Iron Age, and ditches of earthworks suggesting that at some early time the small river mouth was fortified by those who used the sea. This is possibly evidence of Roman work, for in 1888, at Caermead, just outside Llantwit, was found a very large example of the Roman villa settlement, which in later days would be called a manor, farming the countryside and organizing its labour and life in the way that so profoundly influenced the economy of the Middle Ages. Its mosaic floors had survived, and they showed it to be a considerable structure, built in the 2nd century A.D. and lasting into the 4th, the time of the first breakdown of Roman order under the attacks of what they called the Conspiracy of the Barbarians. It seems to have outlived this period of disaster, and to have continued its life, but in lessened form.
To this point upon the shore came Illtud, a man of Brittany, to found at the end of the 5th century what was to be a major centre of learning for the Church that built itself within the society left by Rome to be governed by its own native cities. He was, it is said, great-nephew to St Germanus of Auxerre; and the school he founded belonged to that interpretation of the faith which was accepted, before the 7th century, by both Britain and Gaul. Dewi, who became the St David of Wales, Samson of Dol, and the Pot of Leon otherwise called Paulus Aurelianus, were thought to have received instruction here. Even the Gildas who, from Brittany in the mid-6th century, wrote of sub-Roman Britain the one contemporary account that has survived for us. and made unsparing attack on the doctrines of Christianity received there, was one of Llantwit's scholars. He frowned on the Celtic Church in Britain for its study of the Classical sciences as expounded by Neo-Platonic philosophers who studied the heavens in relation to the mathematics of space and time. The ancient poems of Wales, preserved in the Book of Taliesin, can claim connection with Llantwit at the same period: for Taliesin, no less than Gildas, is traditionally entered on its roll.
From the time of Gildas darkness falls over the history of Britain. The ships of Cerdic attack the southern coasts, are beaten off, and come again. The villas of southern England defend themselves; the men with Roman names and the men with British ones stand together under Gildas's fierce summons to give way. One of them, Gerontius, defends Devon and Cornwall and the Bristol Channel, perhaps from what had been the Roman naval base in the Severn Sea. Bedford, Bristol, Chester fall in succession. Llantwit, like the rest of Wales, has as defence only the line of Powys, the double line of dykes from Dee to Severn that would not give way. Not until the Normans came does the School of St Illtud return into the record of history. The FitzHamon who took Glamorgan from the two rival Welsh rulers contesting it converted Llantwit into a monastic cell of Tewkesbury Abbey, and not only the kind of Christianity it taught, but also the stock of its inhabitants, seems to have been changed. A thorough colonization of the Cow-bridge area took place, and the people are now English in feeling.
From the original foundation, no structure remains that you can see. What does stand, here or there invaded by picturesque but destructive ivy, is a double building, part belonging to the monastic, part to the parochial uses. The tower joins what are called the western and the eastern church, the old and the new. Parts of the old, originally Norman, are as they were first put up, the South doorway in particular; but as a whole it was reconstructed in the 15th century. The new is built in the style of the 13th century and stands much as it did. About the same time, on a site for long called the Palace, a medieval build-ing was set up. Excavation proved it to be a very large building, scattered about with pottery and other domestic relics dating between 1200 and l400; it may well have been what tradition said it was, the palace of a great Church dignitary.
But it is the old church that houses the uniquely interesting crosses and memorial stones dating from the dark days when the Celtic Church was besieged by the Saxon who had taken the Cross from St Augustine. In the new church the Middle Ages placed its own memorials of charming simplicity: the font, the carved rood-screen, and the Jesse niche in which is set the sculptured tree of the descent of Christ from the family of kings. But the old building protests the Celtic cross, now without its head, on which the name of Illtud is carved, if not dating from the 5th or 6th centuries in which he lived, it is certainly a memorial made for him at least as early as the 8th. Beside it is another, smaller cross, still headed with the quartered circle that gave the Christian faith the symbol of the four points of time and space that, for the Celtic Church, proved the mathematics of Creation. It is not the memorial of a saint, but of a king who is named in the chronicles of the Book of Llandaff: Hywel son of Rhys — or, as lettered here, Houelt whose father was Res. The delicate tracery of the design is one fit for a ruler and protector of his people. He lived about 890, Llantwit Major, or Llanilltud Fawr, seems to have been a burying-place for the great in those days. There is a 13th century coffin nearby, on which, among knotted loops that show the undying influence of the Celtic sense of ornament, the face of a young woman looks up at those who pass by with a plea that she be not trodden on. Illtud is not alone in his memorial, for the Samson of Dol whom Gerald de Barn singles out as a distinguished Bishop of St David's has close at hand his own cross of A.D. 800. Some 700 years later, one Matthew Voss was buried in the church, having died at the age of 129, and so deserving some relative form of sanctity.
The town itself is a monument to its distinguished history. The Town Hall of the 15th century, sometimes called the Church Loft, has two storeys and a pre-Reformation bell-turret, inscribed with the plea that Illtud might always pray for the place. A large tithe barn remains, and on the West side of the church a round dovecote and the old monastery gateway. The Tudor house, whitewashed and gabled, is a pleasant example of its period, and is called in recollection of its distinction the Ty Mawr (Great House).
From the Llantwit shore, abandoned and barriered with rocks, the shores defended by Gerontius with his legendary fleet stand clear from Devon and Cornwall. Around them were the seas that Samson and Illtud crossed, seas that joined Britain and Brittany in one faith, and of which in the 5th century Riothamus — the man with the best claim to be the historical origin of Arthur — tried to make a military bridge, so that his sturdily undisciplined troops might yet save the Empire of the West. Illtud and Riothamus laid the foundations on which the most powerful influence in medieval times worked for the ideas of chivalry and justice, with real effect upon the growth of civilized values. Gildas in his own way sought the same things. Without disrespect to St David's. Llantwit may be reckoned as the most important point from which the West revived its learning and its beliefs.
Nearby cities: Cardiff
Nearby towns: Barry, Bridgend, Cowbridge, Porthcawl
Nearby villages: Aberthaw, Bonvilston, Boverton, Coychurch, East Aberthaw, Ewenny, Flemingston, Gileston, Llancarfan, Llandow, Llangan, Llanharry, Llysworney, Marcross, Monknash, Moulton, Pancross, Penllyn, Penmark, Peterston-super-Ely, Porthkerry, Rhoose, Saint Athan, St Brides Major, Saint Donats, Southerndown, West Aberthaw, Wick, Ystradowen
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