WELLS IN DEPTH - Tristan Gray Hulse
|Ffynnon Ddeier: legend
Bodfari is a tiny village in Flintshire, in North Wales, on the slopes of Moel y Gaer immediately to the north of the main Mold to Denbigh road, the A541. On the east side of the lane leading up into the village is a small derelict brick structure with a non-functioning tap, hardly visible unless one deliberately searches for it. Higher up the lane, and immediately below the churchyard, is the Dinorben Arms, an imposingly large pub for such a small place. In one of its bars is a deep, circular, brick-built well, which the pub's publicity boldly identifies as the sacred well of the village, Ffynnon Ddeier (ffynnon, a well), named for the local saint [see note 1]. A glance at the surviving documentation (for example, as summarised in Jones 1954, p.105, where mention is made of the corners of the well), as well as an appreciation of the basic fact that Welsh holy wells are invariably surface springs, and never draw wells, should have prevented this absurd identification. In fact, the little ruined brick structure by the roadside is now all that remains of Ffynnon Ddeier. Formerly the well was located at a spot in a field a hundred or so yards north of the present structure. It was closed during the nineteenth century, at some time before 1890, and its water channelled to the purpose-built roadside tap.
An unpublished note by the noted North Welsh folklorist, the Reverend Elias Owen, written circa 1896, refers to the well thus:
Unusually for a Welsh holy well, Ffynnon Ddeier has a long documented history, with details of a cult of a fairly uncommon kind.
According to Professor Bartrum, the saint's correct nameform would be Diheufyr. He writes (Bartrum 1993, p.198):
His pedigree would appear to make Diheufyr the great-grandson of Cunedda Wledig (Bartrum 1993, p.232, p.360). If his maternal grandfather ever actually existed, which seems doubtful, this would make Diheufyr first cousin both to St Illtud and to Culhwch, whose tale is told in the Mabinogion (Bartrum 1993, p.13). According to the Bonedd, Diheufyr was the brother of saints Tyfrydog, Tyrnog of Llandyrnog, Tudur, and Marchell of Denbigh (Bartrum 1993, p.360). Both Llandyrnog and Denbigh adjoin the parish of Bodfari, which might possibly substantiate this suggested familial relationship. Late versions of the Bonedd make Hawystl Gloff a son of Owain Danwyn (Bartrum 1993, pp.520-1), which would make Diheufyr the nephew of St Seiriol, of Penmon, and of St Einion Frenin; but the Vale of Clwyd is well away from the usual land-holdings of this dynasty in Gwynedd.
Apart from Bonedd y Saint, which thus preserves his lineage as this was recorded in Medieval tradition, our only information about St Diheufyr, again, traditionary, rather than strictly historical, is found in the Vita Sanctae Wenefredae by Robert of Shrewsbury (the so-called Vita secunda, there is an earlier, anonymous, Vita of circa 1130 which does not mention Diheufyr). Robert, prior of the Benedictine abbey of Shrewsbury, oversaw the translation of the relics of St Winifred from Gwytherin, in Denbighshire, to Shrewsbury, in 1138. His Life of St Winifred was written very shortly afterwards. According to this text, after leaving Holywell, and before reaching Gwytherin, where she was to become abbess and end her life, Winifred visited St Diheufyr at Bodfari, seeking spiritual guidance about her future. Introducing Deiferus as saint and wonder-worker, Robert writes of his holy well at Bodfari:
It is worthy of note that Robert, despite an obviously close acquaintance with the legend and cult of St Diheufyr and his holy well at Bodfari, mentions neither the well's reputed efficacy in the cure of children, nor the offerings of fowl, reported by Edward Lhuyd 500 years later.
John of Tynemouth, a fellow Benedictine who presumably consulted the Vita secunda Wenefredae at Robert's own monastery at Shrewsbury, during his extensive fact-finding tours in search of hagiological material, circa 1340, composed an epitome of Robert's Life. In this, he summarised the above passage as follows:
Tynemouth's important collection of the Lives of British saints (though for centuries it passed as the work of John Capgrave, who merely rearranged it) was very widely known in the later middle ages; which of course meant that in consequence Ffynnon Ddeier was one of the most widely-known of Welsh holy wells, at least by reputation - there is no further surviving medieval documentation which permits us to do more than speculate on its cultus at that period.
Despite the considerable numbers of Lives of St Winifred which have appeared since the middle ages, almost all of which were directly or ultimately based on the work of John of Tynemouth, there has only been one complete translation of the Vita by Robert of Shrewsbury. This was the work of the Jesuit John Falconer, published in 1635, (the Jesuits had charge of the Holywell well and pilgrimage from the latter years of the sixteenth century until 1930; though the anti-Catholic legislation of the period meant that Fr Falconer's book had to be published on the continent). Falconer translated Robert thus:
Nearly one hundred years later, and despite the continuing severity of the Penal Laws, the Holywell pilgrimage was still flourishing, and the need was felt for a new Life of St Winifred. This was met by the work of the Jesuit Philip Metcalf, published anonymously in 1712. By and large, Father Metcalf's book was simply a re-write of that of Falconer; but he omits any mention of Ffynnon Ddeier.
Fr Metcalf's Life and Miracles publicly demonstrated to all and sundry the continuing vitality of the Holywell cult, and in the following year the Protestant bishop of St Asaph, William Fleetwood, in whose diocese Holywell was situated, undertook to demonstrate in print the folly of pilgrimage in general, and the non-historicity of St Winifred in particular, and to expose the lying monkish motives of her biographer Robert of Shrewsbury. To achieve this he reprinted Fr Metcalf's book in its entirety (not Fr Falconer's, as stated in Baring-Gould and Fisher 1908, p.341), adding copious footnotes in a style which the bishop obviously thought to be bitingly satirical (but which today reminds one of nothing so much as Saki's description of a cow buzzing round a gad-fly, imagining she was teasing it!).
Incidentally rehearsing the journey of Winifred from Holywell to Gwytherin, as described by Robert, in the pertinent footnote he provides his own translation of the relevant passage in Vita secunda, and comments upon the above quotation from Metcalf, as follows:
Fleetwood's work is still useful, in a roundabout way. He was the first scholar to draw attention to (and translate) the Welsh Life of St Beuno; and his is still the only printed edition of a medieval English vernacular verse Life of St Winifred which contains a number of interesting variants on the usually-received biography. But in view of his own stated aims, Fleetwood's pamphlet was a complete failure. Anglican divine and friend of Queen Anne though he was, his work served only to bring Fr Metcalf's Life (and incidentally the miraculous reputation of a holy well which Metcalf himself had omitted to mention) to a wider audience, and the pilgrimages to Holywell continued unabated [see note 3].
Subsequent biographers followed Metcalf (rather than Falconer, or Fleetwood!), and if they mentioned Diheufyr/Deifer at all, they omitted all mention of his holy well. Then, in 1877, the Bollandist Charles de Smedt, S.J., wrote his account of St Winifred for the Acta Sanctorum (to date, still the only major scholarly study of the saint's life and cultus), in which he published a critical edition of the Vita secunda, quoted above [see note 4]. In the following year, the then parish priest of Holywell, the Jesuit Thomas Swift, published a resumÚ of PŔre de Smedt's study. This included an almost complete translation of Robert of Shrewsbury. Swift himself describes it as being given in full - (see p.vi) but in fact a few passages are actually epitomes. Fr Swift's translation of the relevant passage runs:
In view of Bishop Fleetwood's strictures, it is worthwhile noticing that Winifred, Diheufyr, and the rest may safely by accepted as historical; though as Professor Bartrum's detailed researches into the early Welsh genealogies have revealed, Winifred and Diheufyr could never have met; he was apparently born at the beginning of the sixth century, while St Winifreds floruit was some one hundred years afterwards. It appears that the traditionary route taken by Winifred from Holywell to Gwytherin, as this is preserved for us in the Vita secunda, included a visit to Bodfari, leading eventually to a conflation of the fragmentary local traditions of Diheufyr with the much more detailed Winifred tradition, (a conflation which is unlikely to have been made by the English, non-Welsh-speaking, Robert, and so telling us that the conjoining of the traditions, and, thus, the detailed outline of Winifred's journey, are older than the twelfth century). This mistake is a fortunate one, for it is certain that otherwise the legends of St Diheufyr recorded by Robert would not have survived. Outside Robert's Vita no tradition relating to him is so much as hinted at in the surviving evidence, beyond the details of his genealogy, and the facts of his patronage of the church and well at Bodfari.
Ffynnon Ddeier: legend
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