Anglesey, the island on the far west of Wales, was one of the last vestiges of Celtic religion in Roman times. But whereas it is assumed that the Romans wiped out the druid religion… did it somehow survive? And is nearby Bardsey Island linked with it?
by Philip Coppens
Almost invisible to any modern traveller, the north-west of Wales remains an island. Several islands, in fact. In bygone days, it was a natural barrier. Furthermore, the mountain chain of the Snowdonia National Park forms a virtual wall that shields the first of these two islands, Anglesey, from the rest of mainland Britain. Reaching altitudes of up to 3000 feet, it provides spectacular scenery, so much so that it is difficult to perceive Anglesey as an island, even though the Menai Strait makes it as such. And contrary to what the landscape of Snowdonia would suggest, Anglesey is very to relatively flat, making it an ideal location for agriculture.
A second island, west off Anglesey, is Holy Island, with Holyhead being its most important town. It is an interesting name, suggesting that at some point the sacred nature of the island was not in doubt. Anglesey is known as the “Mother of Wales”: it is considered to be its centre, though geographically, it is anything but. Anglesey, in Gaelic “Ynys Mon”, is derived from the Roman Mona – hence the name Menai Strait for the stretch of water that separates it from mainland Britain. Its name in Celtic times, before the Roman invasion, is not known.
Some have argued that it possibly might have been Avalon, a name well-known in Grail mythology. Avalon itself is derived from the ancient Welsh name Afallach, which means “rich in apples” – to which needs to be added that in Roman times, Anglesey was indeed known for its apple production. Geoffrey of Monmouth, one of the best-known chroniclers of Britain’s history, called the island Insule Ponorum, “the island of the apples” – suggesting it does qualify for the name Avalon, though this should not automatically lead to any associations with the Grail legend. For the Romans, however, “Mona” was the island of the Celts and their priests, the druids. The druids controlled the trade in gold that passed through Wales on its way from the Wicklow Hills in Ireland to the east and thence over the North Sea to Europe. Being in charge of this key economic trade made them a natural target.
Anglesey, Holyhead Mountain The Roman invasion of Western Europe resulted in the termination of the Celtic culture as the dominant force in the region. First to fall was France, then Great-Britain. The “Celtic tradition” survived in Scotland as that nation only saw brief Roman incursions, whereas Ireland was never invaded. In general, the further away from Rome, the more likely the chance your Celtic roots had of surviving.
Rome might not have been interested in conquering Anglesey, if only it had not been the last bastion of rebellion. The Romans vehemently opposed the Celtic druids, whom they did not see as pious priests, but as ferocious freedom fighters – terrorists. The druids continuously tried to rally the local population to take up the arms against the Romans. The Roman invasion of Britain had set these men on the run, with the centre of the druid cult becoming, or possibly always being Anglesey, which thus, in the first century AD, was the centre of the Celtic religion in Britain.
This situation is confirmed by the Roman historian Tacitus and Emperor Nero, who specifically identified Anglesey as an island that needed to be conquered. Many troops were relocated from other British locations towards Wales in an effort to do so. However, this power vacuum elsewhere resulted in certain insurrections, such as that of Queen Boudica.
Realising the Roman troops could not maintain order and attack Anglesey at the same time, the Empire forsook a final attack on Anglesey – the conquest of Anglesey was insignificant against the loss of London and the rest of Britain. Hence, it is claimed that the Roman general Paulinus tore up Nero’s orders, returned to London via the newly constructed Watling Street, to meet the army that had been scrambled by Queen Boudica, which had left London, in search of a Roman army they could fight. In the end, the battle occurred in Atherstone, Warwickshire, where the Romans attained an easy victory. Enthusiasm lost against well-oiled organisation. The fact that “druid terrorists” lived in Anglesey meant that in 61 AD, Suetonius Paulinus managed to get his army across the Menai Strait and massacred the druids and burnt their sacred groves. The Romans remained aware, however, that the druids might continue to pose a problem and hence they constructed the fortress of Segontium, present Caernarfon, on the edge of the Menai Strait, to make sure that what little remained of an intact Celtic culture remained on Anglesey – and did not try to seed dissent in “Roman Britain”.
Tacitus wrote how the battle occurred on the coastline of the Menai Strait: “On the coastline, a line of warriors of the opposition was stationed, mainly made up of armed men, amongst them women, with their hair blowing in the wind, while they were carrying torches. Druids were amongst them, shouting terrifying spells, their hands raised towards the heavens, which scared our soldiers so much that their limbs became paralysed. As a result, they remained stationary and were injured. At the end of the battle, the Romans were victorious, and the holy oaks of the druids were destroyed.” The victorious Romans provided little if any detail on druidism in their writings and hence, the cult of the druids remains mysterious, and often appealing. It probably developed from prehistoric cultures – and religions, specifically the Megalithic Culture. For a long time, it was believed that the megalithic monuments of Western Europe were actually constructed by the druids, but advances in archaeology destroyed popular tales that linked the likes of Merlin with Stonehenge.
As to the nature of the cult, it is widely assumed that it was a nature religion: that they worshipped the sun, the moon and nature. They held lakes to be especially sacred and many offerings have been retrieved from lake beds, specifically in Anglesey. As they worshipped nature deities, most sacred sites were natural, such as sacred groves, caves, lakes, etc. It is known that they had some temples constructed, but little to nothing remains of those.
Over time, their religion became integrated in a hierarchical society, the druids being placed in charge of the religious life of the community. But they were not merely priests, but also teachers, doctors, poets and possibly even judges. The Romans wrote little about the druids. The druids wrote nothing at all about their own religion: they had an oral tradition. Possibly, their stories resembled those that found their way in the Mabinogi, a series of Welsh stories, which was only written down in the 14th century, even though some of its content is accepted as dating back to the Iron Age. Many of this story’s characters were originally Celtic gods, whose accounts occurred in the realm of life and death, providing us with a glimpse of Annwfn, the Celtic Otherworld.
It is known that druids were widely respected within the community, no doubt due to the fact that there was a preparatory period of twenty years before one was a genuine druid. And it seems that Anglesey was an important – if not the most important – site where this preparation occurred: the location of a druidic college. Llyn Cerrig Bach Though Anglesey is quite rich in megalithic remains, they may, on first impression, not show the density or appeal one would expect to find. But, as mentioned, the druids were far removed from the megalithic civilisation and their sacred precincts were nature itself: sacred oak groves and other natural features make it very hard for archaeology to uncover their sacred areas.
Still, in 1942, the dried lake of Llyn Cerrig Bach, at the mouth of the Alaw river (now under the runway at RAF Valley), revealed more than 150 artefacts that had been thrown in the holy water as a tribute to the gods. The recovered artefacts were not trinkets; each was a valuable item, making it the most important find of its kind in the British Isles. Archaeologists concluded that the offerings occurred over a period of 250 years, until the end of the 1st century AD – the timeframe in which Anglesey was considered to be the site of the druid college(s).
The find is of interest as it is known that the druids made sacrifices, normally in the form of animals, though Roman authors (perhaps as part of a vilification campaign) stated that humans were offered also. Still, there is some evidence to suggest the druids did perform human sacrifice. The famous “Lindow Man” is believed to have been a Celtic prince from Ireland who crossed the sea to offer himself as a sacrifice when the Romans were threatening Anglesey. He arrived too late, but was smuggled to Lindow, an important point on the gold route, also under threat from the Romans, where he was sacrificed to protect the druids’ interests.
But it is thought that human sacrifice is rare and that more often wooden depictions were used as sacrifices for the gods – a theme well explored in the film “The Wicker Man”. Whereas the sacrifice in that movie is a police officer, the Roman author Diodorus stated that those who were sacrificed were normally people that had broken the law. As the druids were the people in charge of these sacrifices, their role as judges might have played a role in the selection process. Less – and perhaps too little – attention has been paid to that part of Anglesey that is actually not part of the island, but is a separate island: Holy Island. The name is very intriguing, as it suggests that the island was sacred – and in fact its sacredness seems to have been its main characteristic, as the name has survived throughout the ages. Still, it is not known why it was deemed to be holy. The name has nothing to do with Christianity, suggesting that its sacredness has all to do with the Celtic religion – bringing us back to the druids.
But Holy Island is not the only sacred island in this area. On a fine day, you can see Bardsey Island in the distance, an island whose very name is linked with the “bards” – the druids. And it is an island that is equally held to be sacred, and even identified as the real Avalon. Legends state that Bardsey Island, also known as Ynys Enlli, is identified as the last resting place of Merlin the Magician, the archetypal druid. The legends state that he slept in a magical glass castle, surrounded by the Thirteen Treasures of Britain, and constantly attended to by nine bardic companions.
Ynys Enlli is usually interpreted as “Isle of the Currents” or “Tide-Race Island”, in reference to the treacherous waters of Bardsey Sound that can make for a perilous and sometimes impossible crossing. It may, however, also be a corrupted form of Ynys Fenlli, “Benlli’s Island”, a reference to the giant Benlli Gawr, who was an Irish warlord that conquered the Kingdom of Powys. Like Holy Island, Ynys Enlli’s religious associations predate the Christian era, as it were the raiding Vikings that labelled it the “Bards’ Island”. But though its sacred nature predates Christianity, its sacred nature is now commonly seen within a Christian context, some labelling it the Iona of Wales, which seems to be indeed the case.
Like Iona and Holy Island, Bardsey Island is an island off the west coast of the mainland, and hence associated with the setting sun and the departure of the soul to the Otherworld. Like Iona, it became a most important burial place for royalty and holy men; some 20,000 saints are said to lie beneath its soil, though it remains to be seen whether this claim is supported by any archaeological evidence. Where precisely these thousands of remains would be buried, is a good question – with no apparent answer. But despite such possible exaggeration, its sacred nature is not in doubt; the Church even proclaimed that three pilgrimages to Ynys Enlli were equal to one to Rome; thus attaining the nickname of being “the Rome of Britain”. The question needs to be asked whether Bardsey Island was the site where druids and “Celtic royalty” (whatever that may mean) were buried, or whether it was here that druids perhaps also retired to, in preparation for their eventual death. Legend had it that anybody buried on Bardsey was guaranteed eternal salvation. Furthermore, the place has always been considered something of a health spot. Giraldus Cambrensis in his “Itinerary through Wales” of 1188 wrote: “beyond Lleyn, there is a small island inhabited by very religious monks called Caelibes or Colidei. 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. Its name is Enlli, in the Welsh, and Berdesey, in the Saxon language.”
It were such descriptions that contributed to the island’s identification with Avalon, and the site where King Arthur was taken to be healed after the Battle of Camlann. Barber and Pykitt even believed that Merlin’s Glass House was a sort of early greenhouse, attached to St. Cadfan’s monastery, where apples could grow. Though this theory may perhaps seem to be farfetched, recently, Bardsey has again become associated with apples, and has indeed been proven to be a health spot, if not for men, then at least for apple trees. In 1998, some windfall apples from under a gnarled old tree were collected by someone who noticed that the fruit and the tree were free of disease, which is a very unusual occurrence. He, nor anyone else, was able to recognise the type of apple and hence, a specimen was sent to the National Fruit Collection at Brogdale (Kent, UK), where Dr Joan Morgan declared that the fruit and the tree were unique. The media jumped on the discovery and called it “the rarest tree in the world” and some newspapers underlined the connection between Bardsey Island and Avalon, the “island of apples”, to write their headlines.
Despite making headline news, few facts are known about the apple. How the apple tree came to be there, is unknown, though the variety is believed to date back to the 13th century, grown by monks. Whether the tree is self fertile or requires pollen from another apple tree, is unknown. The tree’s age is also unknown and the last person to be born on the island, when in his seventies, said the three had always been there. The house next to the tree had been built by Lord Newborough in the 1870s – drawing a rather interesting comparison to the original edition of The Wicker Man, which focuses heavily on the apple theme and Lord Summerisle. Equally interesting was that the hillside above the house has a cave, known as the Hermit’s Cave, where Merlin is reputedly buried. The druids are notorious for having left little information behind – and the Romans seem to have gone to great pains to make sure their fierce opponents were largely removed from the page of history. As such, archaeology and folklore are the only means to tell us something about the connection between Anglesey, Holy Island and Bardsey Island beyond some very basic observations. Like Holy Island, Bardsey Island has one hill dominating the island. In fact, the hill on Bardsey Island is quite similar in appearance to Holyhead Mountain. But is it merely a geographical coincidence, or part of the reason why these islands were deemed to be sacred? Together with two other geographical features – being an island, and positioned west off the mainland – they were linked with the setting sun, the dead and the dying, as illustrated in medieval legends of the island – though no such information seems to exist for Holy Island.
So, if the Romans wanted to wipe out the druid religion, they were successful. Today, Anglesey and Holy Island have lost most if not all of their sacred nature. But some things do survive. A trip to Bardsey Island remains a perilous adventure, as the local ferrymen will tell you. A visitor trying to connect with the sacredness of the island will not find any large monuments, no large cemeteries. In fact, there is nothing. And that may be the point. In the 21st century, there is only a dirt track on the island, which is hence void of cars, illustrating how the island may be seen as backwards by some, but timeless by others. One might argue that few locations in the western hemisphere have been able to retain a primeval character, but Bardsey Island has indeed been able to resist modernisation, and thus may have been able to retain its sacred nature. It is ironic that an island of the dead seems to have been the sole location which could survive. This article originally appeared in Frontier Magazine 8.1 (January-February 2002) and has been greatly revised.