THE SAINTS OF NORTH WALES
by Noel Walley
Saint Melangell, virgin c641 – feast day in Wales May 27th
Saint Melangell is
an early British abbess and Celtic virgin from the heart of North Wales
whose cult is even now on the increase. At the reformation, her shrine
was dismantled and the stones retained and reused within the
churchyard. During the recusant years, through the assistance of the
Catholic Marquess of Powys, relics of the saint were venerated at the
English Jesuit College at St. Omer in France where Father Lewis Sabran,
the Rector, had a great devotion to St. Melangell. Her Latin name (not
used these days but much used in times past) is Monacella. In recent
years much archaeology and a great deal of historical research has made
possible the restoration of the shrine (mostly with the original
stones) in its original location in the chancel of the ancient parish
church; to the great satisfaction of the local community.
Saint Melangell was an Irish princess who left her native land over
1,400 years ago and came, no doubt with her companions and servants, to
Britain and to the Tanat valley, seeking and finding a place to live
her life in quiet prayer and devotion to God.
Her legend (translated from a 17th Century manuscript by Professor
Oliver Davies of Saint David’s College, Lampeter) tells of the
illustrious Prince Brychwel Ysgithrog of Pengwern Powys who in AD 604
whilst hunting in a place called Pennant started a hare and with his
hounds gave chase. They came to a thicket of brambles and thorns
wherein he found a beautiful maiden, given up to divine contemplation,
with the hare lying boldly under the hem of her garments.
Moved by her piety and her serenity the prince endowed Melangell,
daughter of King Jowchel of Ireland, with land and built for her a
place of sanctuary for the service of God that it may be a ‘perpetual
asylum, refuge and defence’, saying unto her: "O most worthy Melangell,
I perceive that thou art the handmaiden of the true God. Because it
hath pleased Him for thy merits to give protection to this little wild
hare from the attack and pursuit of the ravening hounds, I give and
present to thee with willing mind these my lands for the service of
God, to be a perpetual asylum and refuge. If any men or women flee
hither to seek thy protection, provided they do not pollute thy
sanctuary, let no prince or chieftain be so rash towards God as to
attempt to drag them forth."
Melangell passed the rest of her days in this lonely place, sleeping on
bare rock. Many were the miracles which she wrought for those who
sought refuge in her sanctuary with pure hearts.
To this day, in honour of Saint Melangell, the hares are respected by
the local hunters of Cwm Pennant and are never ever shot!
The following delightful pun on her name was ancient even when it was
recorded (in Welsh) in the registers of her little church in 1723:
Mil engyl a Melangell
Trechant lu fyddin y fall.
Melangell with a thousand angels
Triumphs over all the powers of evil.
Translated from the
Welsh by The Revd Canon A.M.
Allchin, Director of St. Theosevia’s Centre for Spirituality, Oxford,
and Honorary Professor of Celtic Spirituality in The University of
Wales, Bangor (from his inaugral lecture in 1993).
The beautifully restored church of Pennant Melangell (a regular place
of worship for the local farming community from its first foundation,
probably in the 7th century) containing possibly the oldest Romanesque
shrine in Britain stands in Cwm Pennant. This is an arm of the Tanat
valley, and the church is at the end of a two mile lane from Llangynog
It is a haven of tranquillity and peace and once again a centre for
quiet pilgrimage. It is visited by pilgrims of all nations and
denominations. American and Russian, Welsh and English, Scots and
Irish; Methodist and Anglican, Catholic and Lutheran, Baptist and
Orthodox. All have found their way to Pennant Melangell and found
themselves at home.
The Life of Melangell and the story of the restoration of her shrine
and its recently re-established pilgrimage tradition is told in
‘Pennant Melangell Place of Pilgrimage’ by A.M. Allchin and published
1994 by Gwasg Santes Melangell, the shrine church of Pennant Melangell,
Llangynog, Powys, North Wales SY10 0HQ (off the B4391 from Llanfyllin
to Bala). St. Melangell's church is open daily 10am to 4pm in summer.
Today, the ‘Journey to Pennant Melangell – Welcome for Pilgrims’ (also
published by Gwasg Santes Melangell) writes thus of the story of the
“It is a story which speaks to us about the clash between a violent and
aggressive world and a way of life which puts all its trust in God. It
is a way of life which is prayerful and quiet, full of compassionate
care for all living things. It makes vivid something of early Celtic
Christianity which greatly fascinates people today living in a word
which is very different and yet strangely similar.”
From the same source comes the Pilgrim’s Prayer:
We thank you Lord God
for the life and prayer
of your servant Melangell.
May her care and compassion
for all your creatures
inspire us in our day
with the same concern
for all You have made.
May we with her learn
to find Your glory
In the world around us
and in all that
You give us to do.
We ask this through
Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
‘The Book of Saints’
Compiled by the Benedictine
Monks of St. Augustine’s Abbey, Ramsgate (sixth edition 1989/94) ISBN
0304343579 notes that her feast is May 27th and that she died c590.
Others date her death to c607, c641 or even early 8th Century.
David Farmer includes Saint Melangell (for the first time) in the 4th
edition (1997) of his ‘Oxford Dictionary of Saints’ (page 345) ISBN
0192800582 and notes that she and Saint Winifred are the only two Welsh
female saints to claim the distinction of a mediaeval Latin biography.