Saint Ffraid, Saint Mary’s Prayers, and Bardsey Island

by Noel Walley

The Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary is a popular Catholic devotion based on Holy Scripture and particularly the Incarnation, the Passion and the Resurrection of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. The Rosary is traditionally divided into fifteen chaplets or prayers (but in AD 2002 the number was increased to 20). The writer was pleased to receive, in AD 2002, the following most interesting references.


In Wales over twenty churches and chapels are dedicated to Saint Ffraid (Bride, Bridget, Brigid). In North Wales, her name is found at Glan Conwy where the full parish name is Llansantffraid Glan Conwy. It also occurs near to the Welsh border south-west of Oswestry at Llansantffraid ym Mechain, and at Llansantffraid Glyn Ceiriog. It is most unlikely that Brigid visited Wales but her fame was certainly brought by many of her followers.

The Welsh poet, Iorwerth Fynglwyd (Edward Greybeard, 1480-1527) described the life of Saint Bridget originally in verse, in the course of which he also recalled some of the many miracles that have been attributed to her:

“She was a beautiful nun, the daughter of Dubtach, an Irish nobleman. She procured honey from stone for the poor and gave her distaff to a ploughman to do duty for his broken mould-board. She converted butter that had been turned into ashes into butter again and gave to a certain district all the cheese in the steward's store, but not so much as one was ever missed by him. She knew the fifteen prayers. Whenever it rained heavily she would throw her white winnowing sheet on the sunbeams. On one occasion when her father desired her to marry someone she did not like, one of her eyes fell out of its socket, which she afterwards put back and it was as well as ever. She floated from Ireland to Wales on a turf and landed in the Dovey. She made of rushes (brwyn) the beautiful fish - without a single bone - called brwyniaid (smelts or sparlina), which she scattered among the watercress. She visited St. Peter's in Rome and a festival on Candlemas Eve (February 1st) was established in her honour.”

Of course, Iorwerth's biography draws more on the contemporary medieval view of the Saint than on any solid, historical evidence. However, it is said that at one time the ‘brwyniaid’ were called in Wales ‘pysgod Sant Ffraid’ (St. Bride's fish). The legend used by Iorwerth Fynglwyd is said to be an amalgamation of earlier legends of several different Saint Bridgets including Brigid of Kildare, Brigid of Cill-Muine, Bridget of Sweden and several distinctive Welsh traditions.

‘She knew the fifteen prayers’ - this phrase stands out from all the rest. First thoughts suggested the Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary as preached by Saint Dominic’s friars throughout Europe from the 13th century onwards. Further reading showed that the ‘fifteen prayers’ were almost certainly those attributed to Saint Bridget of Sweden (1302-1373) the founder of a new Order of Double-Monasteries of monks and nuns (on similar lines to those of Gilbert of Sempringham) except that in every case they were governed by an Abbess rather than by an Abbot. The ‘fifteen prayers’ are said to have been taught by Our Lord to Bridget in a dream or vision. Said originally to have been in the Swedish vernacular, they were translated into Latin and extensively propagated by English members the Brigittine Order in the 15th Century.  St. Bridget also prescribed the ‘Hail Mary’ and the ‘Our Father’ but each said only once with each of the fifteen complex (collect type) prayers. It was considered meritorious to recite each of the fifteen prayers daily for a whole year.

But Iorwerth was writing about Saint Brigid of Ireland – not Bridget of Sweden. We cannot know that he intended the fifteen rosary prayers, or indeed St. Bridget of Sweden’s fifteen prayers.  It is unlikely that Saint Brigid (patron of Ireland) in her lifetime had ever seen a set of prayer beads but she most certainly knew her Psalter, her prayers, and the great mysteries of the Christian faith. Certainly by Iorwerth Greybeard's time, St. Dominic’s prayer of the Rosary was an integral part of life in the church of late medieval Wales as elsewhere in Britain.


The delightful little church of Saint Mary at Bryncroes on the Lleyn Peninsula was almost completely rebuilt in 1906 on the original foundations.

My good friend Elwyn Jones, knowing my personal interest in Bryncroes, sent me his own translation from the Welsh of  ‘The Church and Parish of Bryncroes on the Lleyn’ by the Rev J. Lodwick Davies, Vicar – being a chapter in ‘Hanes Eglwysi a Phlwyfi Lleyn’ ‘The History of the Churches and Parishes of Lleyn.’ Editor: The Rev D.T. Davies, sometime Vicar of Tydweiliog. Published c1910.

…… “Christians in the past chose to build a church near a sacred well. The church at Bryncroes is one such. The church stands near St. Mary's well and there is no doubt that converts were baptised in St. Mary's well, and it is from this well that the water is obtained to this day for use in the sacrament of baptism in St. Mary's Church Bryncroes.

“There was a close association in the Middle Ages between Bryncroes and the famous monastery on Bardsey. Such names as 'Mynachlog' and 'Ty Mair' on local farms would appear to bear this out. Old documents also show that the Bryncroes tithe was paid to the Monastery on Bardsey. The Church was on the pilgrim's way to Bardsey and there is no doubt that the monks came over to the mainland frequently to visit the churches under their care. It is said that some of them spent the winter in the parish and there are to this day two farms bearing the name 'Bodgaeaf' 'Winter Stay' close to the church.

…… “The inside of the church was also renovated some seventy years ago. The door was on the north wall at that time but this was blocked up and a new one opened on the western wall. Some people remember going to school at the church and it seems likely that the church was used by the Rev Griffith Jones, Llanddowror and Madam Bevan as a peripatetic school.

…… “It is said that there was a large piece of timber reaching from one side of the church to the other which was called
'pren pumtheg' the 'fifteen wood'. Why it was so called no one knows. Carved on the wood were a lamb, a cross and a serpent with its head extending from it. The ‘fifteen wood’ (or beam) vanished during the course of the restoration and no one knows to this day what became of it.”

There it is again, that reference to fifteen – ‘The Fifteen Wood’ with its symbols. Perhaps here also first thoughts of the fifteen mysteries of the Rosary of Blessed Mary must give way to the fifteen prayers of St. Bridget of Sweden. These fifteen meditations on the passion of our Lord are most suitable for meditation below the Holy Rood in the church on the hill of the Cross. But, on the other hand, they seem more suitable for the monastic cloister than the popular pilgrimage. Here at Bryncoes, with Saint Mary’s Well and Saint Mary’s Church, one instinctively feels that the Holy Rosary would have been prayed.

Again by Tudor times the Rosary was well established as the popular medium of contemplative prayer. Indeed King Henry VIII was noted for the extremely large rosary links that he, himself, used often and notably as a pilgrim walking barefooted to Walsingham (where a candle burned constantly for his intentions and at his own expense) until greed got the better of him.

‘The Fifteen Wood’ – what a remarkable folk-memory this is, a memory surviving through four centuries, just a detail, the mere wooden location of something that happened daily in that little church, total strangers, tired but happy travellers, with a common cause, kneeling in prayer, a fifteen-fold prayer, and then leaving as quickly as they came. It was greed that brought about the demise of pilgrimage, the destruction of the monasteries, the despoliation of sacred shrines and the specific order to destroy the Holy Roods of the Cross of Christ in the parish churches of England and Wales. Happily, in Saint Mary’s Church at Bryncroes, the beam remained – at least until the mid 19th century.


The church at Bryncroes is on the ancient pilgrim route to the Bardsey (Ynys Enlli) the island burial place of the Welsh Saints where Saint Dubricius (Dyfrig), retired to die after he had consecrated Abbot David (Dewi) as Bishop of Wales. Here the life of prayer was started under Einion Frenhin in AD 429 and continued under Saint Cadfan, who built his monastery there in AD 516.

By 1140, Bardsey was being called by Meilyr Brydydd (court poet to Gruffudd ap Cynan, Prince of Gwynedd)
‘Fair Mary’s isle, pure island of the pure’. The Austin Canons built the last and the most extensive abbey and church on Bardsey in the 13th century under the patronage of Saint Mary. At that time, three pilgrimages to Bardsey were accounted the equal of one to Rome.

Those pilgrims to Bardsey followed established routes from all parts of Wales and beyond. One came down to Aberdaron from the north via Bangor Fawr and Clynnog Fawr. Another from South Wales, after visiting the Church of the Holy Rood at Y Mwnt on the coast between Cardigan and Aberporth and then crossing the Dovey estuary at Pennal – with its Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vincula. Then onwards via Sarn Helen, the old Roman Road, would after many days make its final station at Bryncroes. There the pilgrims, kneeling in Saint Mary’s Church, before the Holy Rood (the fifteen wood), would recite the fifteen prayers of the Rosary, thankful to be starting the final stages of their journey to Fair Mary’s Isle. The last stage was through the little port of Aberdaron where they might need to stay for days waiting for favourable tides for the short crossing of the treacherous sound.

Click Re: Saint Dyfrig   Click Re: The Rosary Today   Click Re: Bardsey History

Click Re: Saint Brigid of Ireland   Click Re: Fifteen Prayers of Saint Bridget of Sweden

Click Re: The Church of Saint Hywyn at Aberdaron

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Compiled by Noel Walley
.  Updated December 2008

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