Wednesday, 7 September 2011

The island of Twenty Thousand Saints.


Off the coast of North Wales in the UK, lies a tiny island with an extraordinary story to tell. A story of pilgrimage throughout the ages on an enormous scale, of a believable claim to be the true location of Avalon, the last burial place of Arthur,  and the current location of a solitary windswept tree, the bearer of probably the rarest fruit in the world.

Ynys Enlli, or Bardsey Island, as it is now called, can boast a history dating back before the Romans and was a place where Iron age Celts went to worship their gods. As time progressed it was visited by the Vikings, who gave it it’s current name, bard-sey, the island of bards, and eventually claimed by early Christians as a place of worship and pilgrimage. St Cadfan formed the first monastery on the island in the sixth century and it became such an important destination in the Christian faith that the pope himself declared that three visits to Bardsey was the equivalent to one visit to Rome.

Okay, I hear you ask, so what? Nothing special there, but now it gets interesting. So many holy men went there, that it is said that the remains of twenty thousand saints lie in the abbey’s graveyard. Twenty thousand on a tiny island no more than two kilometres square.

So why is it so special?
First of all, by some extraordinary gift of nature, the environment is fantastically beneficial to good health and old age and it was recognised that on this island, the old died first. In an 1188 document called ‘Itinery through Wales,’ Giraldus Cambrensis states

This island, either from the healthiness of its climate, or rather from some miracle and the merits of the Saints, has this wonderful peculiarity that the oldest people die first, because diseases are uncommon, and scarcely any die except from extreme old age.

This is quite a claim, considering the harsh environment, and disease ridden culture of the last two thousand years.

Throughout Celtic mythology, there are references to a fabled glass house where devotees grew apples for the gods. It is now believed that the early monastery boasted exactly that, a glass house attached to the building providing a haven against the harsh Atlantic weather.

So where is this leading?
In Celtic Mythology, Avalon meant the ‘place of apples’ or was sometimes referred to as ‘the glass fortress,’  In a 14th century manuscript, Arthur requested that when he died, he should be taken west to be buried on the isle of Avalon. It is also recorded that he was mortally wounded by Mordred in the battle of Camlann, commonly thought to have taken place in North Wales. Bearing in mind the popularity of the island as not only a holy place to be buried but also for its healing and health properties, it would be a very likely place indeed to take a mortally wounded king..

To add to the intrigue, I want to bring you right up to date. In 1998, a man visited Bardsey Island to study the birdlife. While there, he noticed a solitary apple tree tucked into a protected corner of an ‘L’ shaped farmhouse. This tree was bearing fruit and the gentleman noticed it was disease free and tasted lovely. He was intrigued as no other apple trees exist on the island due to the harsh Atlantic weather, so he sent the apple off to a friend for analysis and it was formally declared to be unique. That is, that no other specimen was known on the entire planet.

Cuttings have subsequently been taken in an effort to propagate this unique tree and they are currently being grown around the world.

So, to summarise:

  • A wounded Arthur was supposed to have been taken from the battlefield to a local holy place with a glass building.

 Bardsey was one of the most holy places of the time and apparently had a conservatory of sorts.

  • He is said to be buried with a holy army, waiting to be resurrected.

Twenty thousand saints seem to fit the bill nicely.

  • Avalon was known as the place of apples.
In welsh, Apple is called Afal,  and Apples, Afalau

Finally, there is one more quirk to consider. In many versions of the legend the body ends up in a cave on a mountain. On Bardsey there is a solitary hill, and on this hill there is a tiny entrance to a cave, as yet, (I believe) not excavated. It may not be the last resting place of the legendary king, but bearing in mind the extraordinary history of this island, you can’t help but wonder what other secrets of the past it may hold?

Food for thought?


1 comment:

  1. Fascinating stuff! Could this actually be an apple tree of knowledge, I'm wondering!

    ReplyDelete