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From an Article by Local Historian Derrick Pratt.  First published by the Bangor-on-Dee Local History Society 1992.
Considering how much has been written about it, surprisingly little is known about the early Welsh church in Bangor.  In 1988 a lecture given to Bangor Local History Society broke new ground in that it significantly re-interpreted existing 'evidence, asking listeners to turn from the traditionally Romantic views of a Celtic seminary and church on the banks of the Dee and to consider in its stead a 'monastic city that may have played a pivotal role in the development of the Welsh town.
In each of the previous issues of this magazine, reference has been made to Bangor's monastery.  This is not surprising as, apart from its being the seasonal Mecca for National Hunt race-goers, the great seventh-century religious house is possibly Bangor's only real claim to fame and historical legitimacy.  The ancient association is still recalled by a scatter of place-names, most of doubtful pedigree: Abbey Walk, Abbeygate, Monk's Walk, Monk's Oak etc.
Considering the period when the monastery flourished - sub-Roman in many respects - and the relatively short time-span of its working life, concrete evidence relating to Bangor is minimal.  Local historians have arrived at the point where they can only retread already well-worn paths in their investigations of tired facts of doubtful authenticity.
However, in October 1988, prompted by an article written ten years earlier by Professor L.A. Butler of York University  [1]  perhaps better known in the Wrexham area as the excavator of Valle Crucis Abbey claustral buildings in 1970, I was persuaded to radically re-assess the history of Bangor Isycoed in the Dark Ages.  The interest aroused was such that the lecture was immediately earmarked for inclusion in this journal.  One little thought that within two years Bangor Local History Society itself would fold and that this is the valedictory issue of its magazine.  In the interim the lecture has also been given to Civic Societies and Extra-Mural/W.E.A. classes at Wrexham, Hanmer and Llansilin, making for a further crystallization of thought and consolidation of ideas.
In what is essentially yet another permutation of the few known and established facts, what is the new line of approach?  Basically it is to look at Bangor not so much from the view of a Celtic monastery of some renown but rather as a rare phenomenon for the period - a hitherto unsuspected specimen of a nacent, native quasi-'urban' institution, forerunner of the Welsh medieval town, the 'monastic city' of Professor Butler's hypothesis.
The extent to which records survive in comfortable quantities generally governs the competence of historians in handling such material and, more often than not, dictates the chronological limits of a particular study.  When discussing the development of towns in Wrexham Maelor and adjacent parts of the Welsh March, the local historian prefers to concentrate on (a) castle towns, either with morphology dictated by local topography e.g. Ellesmere, Oswestry, Ruyton-XI-Towns or those rectilinear bastides such as Overton, Halt, Caerwys, and Caergwrle (Hope-iuxta-Castrum), artificially implanted in the wake of the Edwardian conquest of 1282-4.  If the historian is equipped to look further than the generalisation of Gerald of Wales that the Welsh 'do not live in towns, villages or castles, but lead a solitary existence, deep in the woods' [2] he might (b) consider the claims as pre-urban nucleii of the Welsh maerdrefi at Marford and Hoseley, Wrexham, Chirk and Liangollen and the embryo chartered market centres at Llangollen, Overton, Llanrhaeadr.-ym-Mochnant and Llanarmon Dyffryn Ceiriog.
Pursuing Professor Butler's thesis can the local historian now push back the genesis of urbanism' in the north-east March to the seventh century, in fact to a monastic city at Bangor Isycoed?  Before initiating the discussion it may be convenient to cite the relative extracts from the only two works to which credence can be seriously given - the one by Bede, monk of Jarrow, because he was the authority (albeit slightly biased) writing closest to the actual existence of the monastery, and the other, by John Leland, because he gives the researcher important topographical detail of 450 years ago, especially in relation to changes in the course of the River Dee.
Recalling the events of 603A.D. when Celtic 'bishops' for a second time met Augustine in an ill-fated attempt to reconcile religious matters in dispute, Bede writes: '... and seven British bishops and many very learned men are said to have attended, who mainly came from their most famous monastery which the English called Bancornaburg, then ruled by Abbot Dinoot".
The latter is, of course, St. Dunawd, present day patron saint of Bangor parish church.  However, the dedication to St. Dunawd may be comparatively recent, the older invocation possibly being that of St. Deiniol. Edward Lhwyd, writing in 1699 says: "Their feast is on Daniels [Deiniol's] Tyde"  [3]  That Dunawd actually founded Bangor monastery is unlikely.  That is more often attributed to his son Deiniol (d.572 or 584), Celtic bishop in Gwynedd  [Fig. 1]  and founder of Bangor (Caers.) with Bangor Isycoed as a daughter house. Dunawd could not have been abbot at Bangor for long - much of his life had been spent in arms earning himself the distinction of one of 'the three Battle Pillars of Prydyn' up in Scotland before retiring to end his days in his son's monastery in the profession of religion. He was dead by 607A.D.
In referring to the Battle of Chester (about 616A.D.) when Aethelfrith of Northumbria took on and defeated the men of Powys and Mercia, reinforced by a contingent of superannuated monks from Bangor, Bede's narrative runs: "Most of these priests came from the monastery at Bangor where there are said to have been so many monks that although it was divided into seven sections, each under its own abbot, none of these sections contained less than three hundred monks, all of whom supported themselves by manual work.  About twelve hundred monks perished in this battle and only fifty escaped by flight"  [4].
Bede completed his History in 731, a century after the demise of Bangor monastery almost 1400 years nearer actual events than present-day commentators and some 411 years earlier than that other 'chronicler' of Bangor, William de Malmesbury, whose descriptions of the extent and magnificence of Bangor's ruined monastic buildings are couched in terms of twelfth century monasticism and are gross inventions.  Dark Age religious communities were just not like the rigidly ordered and standardized Benedictine houses of Europe in the central medieval period.
Bede's demographic statements, however, must be treated with some scepticism - a concentration of 2,100 monks in any one Celtic mother church would be unique in Wales.  But the Triads go one better and specify 2,400 monks at Bangor  [5] Neither figure is credible and are so divergent from the pattern of Celtic missionary work elsewhere e.g. under 1 kinsmen and contemporaries - Saints Cadfan, Seiriol and Cybi - in Gwynedd as to be a complete anachronism.  Such numbers of people and densities are not to be encountered in Wrexham Maelor until the latter half of the eighteenth century when the Industrial Revolution was well under way.  Not even present-day Bangor Isycoed, in its role as a rapidly expanding dormitory village to Wrexham, can match these alleged Dark Age population statistics.  Unfortunately the only other indications as to size of Dark Age monastic communities come from later Saints' Lives or Vitae for Gwynllyw, Cwenfrwi (Winefred) and Paul of Leon) and the numbers are very small - 7, 11, 12 [6]  Figures for Bangor probably and most sensibly have to be trimmed to something approaching these proportions.
Such a move would have to be reconciled with Bede's implied picture of a considerable settlement spread over the flood plain of the Dee.  In that it was 'self-supporting by manual labour' one may justifiably consider the settlement as being a focus for crafts and to some extent local trade.  In the absence of towns, other than Romano-British Chester, Bangor monastery may be seen as beginning to display some basic 'urban' characteristics.
If it difficult to conceive of a monastery 'divided into seven sections each under its own abbot' within a single restricted area, it may be that Bede's words actually hide a looser monastic federation i.e. outlying lands, churches, communities dependent on the mother house.  A 'sphere of influence' may be discerned in the shape of adjacent dedications and associations.  Marchwiel and Worthenbury churches, both dedicated to St. Deiniol, must be regarded as ancillary to Bangor, or even as properties of that house - this in preference to the more nebulous, incidental relationships that might be construed from the emergence of a later medieval cult.  'Ffynnon Daniel [Deiniol] in the provostry of Pickhill and Sesswick, 'Ffynnon y Saint' or 'Saint's Well' in Ruyton township give further definition to former monastery property.  Again, as seen below, the '6 Crosses' noted by Edward Lhwyd may serve to pin-point the varying 'zones of sanctity' about Bangor monastery.
'Tyddyn Daniel' in Bedwell township (now Marchwiel parish) noted in 1562 may also be connected with Bangor; but equally well 'Daniel may be just the name of a medieval smallholder rather than 'Deiniol.  It is mere coincidence that in 1626 Tyddyn Daniel was purchased and, according to the 1749 'Terrier' its rental applied "to the repair and use of the Church [Marchwiel]"  [7]
Working on a principal that a federated community would be confined to areas within easy reach of the mother church - 50 or 60 miles, two or three days journey - one could conceivably stretch Bangor's influence to Hawarden (St. Deiniol's Church, Daniel's Ash) if not to Llanuwchllyn (?Llanddeiniol uwch y Llyn) and LLanfor (?Llanddeiniol is y Llyn).
To Bede the local historian owes the earliest forms of the place-name 'Bangor As a simplex form 'Bangor' means "a monastery, religious settlement, academy, college (within a wattled fence)" in the sense of a seminary of Christian teaching and learning, derived ultimately from its basic meaning of a strong upper plaited rod in a wattled hedge or fence for strengthening and binding the same".
But interpreting 'Bangor' as applied to Bangor Isycoed is more complicated than appears at first sight as its earliest forms are complex, the final element 'bury' (OE burh = 'fortification, fortified place') being lost only in the fourteenth century:
Bancor 731 Bede Ecc. Hist. 100-102
Bankerbur' 1270 Cal. Charter Rolls II, 266
Bonkerbury 1278 Cal. Anc. Pet. 151
Baunkesbur' 1282 Cal. Welsh Rolls 226
Bankerbir' 1283 ibid. 271
Bankerbur' 1283 ibid. 272
Blanckebir' 1283 ibid. 262
Bankerburw 1291 Tax. Ecc
Bangor 1292 Flints. Lay Subsidy
Bangor 1309 Cal. Anc. Pet. 341
In the light of the thirteenth century forms it is tempting to see Bankebury as "a fortified place on a bank" but the ODan, OE banke does not fit in date-wise with Bede's forms of 731.  In Bancornaburg now shortened to Bangor we probably have something like "the stronghold of the men of Bangor".  Needless to say one cannot envisage specially built 'fortifications' in the late medieval sense as imagined by William of Malmesbury.
Assuming that the Bancor of 731 is not an abbreviated form, it may be that the place-name forms listed above actually have two separate concurrent strands, the simplex Welsh Bangor used by Welsh speakers, and the complex tautological form given and used by English/Mercian colonists unfamiliar with the 'enclosure' significance of Bangor and yet who, by appending burh or bury as a suffix acknowledged in their own vocabulary and current terminology the 'enclosure' element noted in site and physical aspect of the monastery spread-eagled between high banks on the flood plain of the Dee.  One will recall that Bede wrote "the monastery called in the lingua Anglorum Bancornaburg", implying this was the form used by the English and that there was an alternative form used by Welshmen.
It is interesting to note that in the Old English Version oF Bede's Ecclesiastical History (Early English text Society, (1890-8), III, 28) the element burh glosses the Latin oppidum = 'town' (classical), 'castle' (medieval) and 'a fortified wood in Britain' (Caesar). thus another piece is added to the emerging picture of seventh century Bangor as being a 'town' or substantial settlement of some ecclesiastical importance.
About 1539 John Leland (1506-52), Library Keeper to Henry VIII and later 'King's Antiquary' visited Bangor.  He had read the standard 'historiographies' and monastic chronicles which account for an 'hearsay' element in his narrative, but the latter also has pertinent things to say about the local topography, in particular providing evidence to the shifting within his lifetime of the course of the middle Dee:
"This is Bangor where the great abbey was.  A part of this parish, that is as much as lies beyond Dee' on the north side, is in Welsh Maelor, and that is as half the parish of Bangor.  But the abbey stood in English Maelor on the hither and south side of Dee.  And it is ploughed ground now where the abbey was by the space of a good Welsh mile, and yet they plough up bones of the monks and in remembrance [i.e. in living memory] were dug up pieces of their clothes in sepulchres.  The abbey stood in a Fair valley and Dee ran by it.  The compass of it was as a walled town, and yet remains the name of the gate called Porthwgan by north and the name of another called Port Clays [Porth Klais] by south.  Dee since changing the bottom runs now through the middle between the two gates, one being a mile and a half from the other, and in this ground be ploughed up foundations of squared stones, and Roman money is found there"  [8]
When Leland was writing the River Dee had clearly changed course, if not recently, certainly within human memory.  Earlier, in his description of Overton parish, he refers to the violent capriciousness of the river which even then had washed away half of the motte of Overton's twelfth century castle at Asney and was actively eroding the remaining stump.
There is abundant cartographic evidence above and below Bangor for the historic shifting of the Dee's course and that of its' tributary, Worthenbury Brook with its deferred confluence - abandoned and shifting meanders that no longer coincide with parish/township/county/national boundaries fixed post 1143 by reference to the Dee.  This gave rise to boundary anomalies that were only eradicated with local government re-organisation in 1974.
There is also ample evidence for both lateral and vertical movement of the Dee in the shape of some remarkable river terrace development - and not just peri- glacial features either.  [Fig. 2]  The edges of these terraces are noticed in the landscape by distinct breaks of slope e.g. Bryn Hovah bank, Cock Bank, Eyton Bank, and by eroded and weathered bluff lines Ruyton - Gerwyn Fechan - Plâs-fron - Porthwgan.  The lowest and youngest terrace is given approximate definition by the 50ft. contour, its edges well marked below Plâs-fron and, on the other side of the river, by the abrupt change of slope that separates the track and fences of Bangor Racecourse from the enclosures and car-parks and affords punters such a natural uninterrupted overview of the running below.
At Plâs-fron bluff line and former course of the Dee are emphasised and demarcated by the twisting upper course of "The Foss", the stream that enters the Dee below Upper Sesswick Bridge ('Pont Garreg'). Unfortunately classical Latin fossa = "ditch, trench, channel" and medieval Latin fossus "ditch, dyke, moat, embankment".  On the surface the name 'being so decidedly Roman' (perhaps a back reference to the Foss Way and Foss Dyke of Lincolnshire) early antiquaries promptly sited at Bangor a Roman 'camp' and even the controversial BOVIUM of Itinera II of the British section of the Antonine Itinerary the third century Roman road list.  Such attributions ignore the fact that 'The Foss' is the Welsh ffos "ditch", no more, no less, in this case a misfit water course devoid of any historical associations  [9]
It is possibly on the lowest terrace (III) that the monastery at Bangor was situated.  The present Dee has incised itself several feet into this terrace, carving out a fresh flood-plain and the wide meander belt carrying such names as Ddol, Groes, Ddol Eyton etc.  The meanders are still actively prograding, or would be were it not for modern extensive flood prevention works.  To those who seek, and have sought, in vain for traces of the monastery one can only say: "It was here, but on an erosion surface five or six foot above the present valley bottom".
The monastery would not be the only 'monument' lost to the erosive powers of the Dee. In 1979 aerial photography by Chris Musson revealed the remains of two Iron Age/Romano-British farmsteads at Ruyton Farm  [Fig. 3].  Flattened banks and filled-in ditches show up as crop marks, except on the east side where farm-stead boundaries have been lost to river terrace development, the denuded break of slope being marked by linear tree cover  [10]  This may point to fresh terrace development taking place in Bangor post-5th century A.D.
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St. Deiniol, presumed founder of Bangor monastery, as portrayed in the east window, north nave, of St. Teyrnog's Church, Vale of Clwyd.
St. Deiniol, presumed founder of Bangor monastery, as portrayed in the east window, north nave, of St. Teyrnog's Church, Vale of Clwyd.
Lateral and vertical movement of the Dee in the shape of some remarkable river terrace development Click to view full size image
Fig 3 Iron Age farmsteads at Ruyton Click to view full size image
[1]  L.A. Butler, 'The Monastic City in Wales : Myth or Reality", Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies (1979) XXVIII, 458-467.
[2]  Gerald of Wales, The Journey through Wales and the Description of Wales (trans./ed. Lewis Thorpe, Penguin Books 1988), 251.
[3]  E. Lhwyd, Parochialia &c. Part I. North Wales (Camb. Arch. Assoc. 1909), 134.
[4]  Bede, A History of the English Church and People (trans./ed. L.Sherlev-Price, Penguin Books 1956), 100-102.
[5]  R. Bromwich, Trioedd Ynys Prydein No. 91.
[6]  S. Baring Gould & J. Fisher, Lives of the British Saints Ill, 185-196, 234-241; IV, 75-86.
[7]  Marchwiel Terriers in C.R.0. Ruthin date 1791-1856; it would appear that the 1749 Terrier (see n.9 below for source) is no longer extant.
[8]  Spelling is modernised. L.T. Smith (ed. Itinerary of John Leland &c (Centaur Press reprint 1965), III, 67-68.
[9]  A.N. Palmer, "Notes on the Early History of Bangor Isycoed", Y Cymmrodor (1890) X. 12-28. Reprinted 1991 by Bridge Books, Wrexham and bound along with Palmer's histories of Holt, Isycoed, and Marchwiel.
[10]  Archaeology in Clwyd 8 6. Fig. 3 is based on aerial photograph CPAT 79-19-30.
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