Llandeilo Llwydiarth - The Well and the Skull

by Kemmis Buckley MBE, DL, MA


     Llandeilo Llwydiarth is a little hamlet in Pembrokeshire which lies at the foot of the Prescelly Mountains. It consists of a chapel, a very few houses, and a well and a tiny ruined church both dedicated to St Teilo; and it is one of the few places left where it can truthfully be said that 'peace comes dropping slow'. The object of this essay is to record something about the well and to relate the remarkable history of the skull which became associated with it.

     School children used to be taught that the personal pronoun should never be used in an essay. I have broken this rule if only because it will enable me to record my thanks to those [1] who enabled me to follow the trail of the skull when it seemed to have disappeared without trace. I will, however, confine any intrusions to the beginning and end of the essay.

     I had known of the existence of the skull and of its relationship to the well for many years and, as a child, had lived in the next-door parish to Miss Lon Melchior whose family had for centuries been keepers of the relic. But the immediate impulse to trace its present whereabouts resulted from a talk on St Teilo which the present Dean of St Davids and I gave to the Carmarthenshire Antiquarian Society. Every work I consulted said that it had disappeared or been lost; and Miss Lon Melchior could say only that she remembered it being taken away by a Mr Mathews but she had no idea who he was or where he came from. Eventually, knowing that St Teilo was Bishop of Llandaff and that one of his bodies [2] was said to be buried in the Cathedral, I approached the then Dean; and the remainder of this essay records the story which his introductions have helped me to tell.

The St Teilo Skull Relic   For nearly five hundred and fifty years the skull of St Teilo was held in the keeping of two families, the Mathews and the Melchiors. The Mathews of Llandaff were descended from Gwaethvord Vawn who died about 1057 and in the course of time they became regarded as hereditary keepers of the tomb of St Teilo in Llandaff Cathedral. In 1403 the tomb was pillaged and desecrated by a band of ruffians from Bristol who had mounted an amphibious operation. According to Adam of Usk:

      The men of Bristol under Captain James Clifford and William Rye Esquire invaded the ports of Glamorgan and pillaged the church of Llandaff but being beaten by the country people, through a miracle of Saint Teilaw, they were driven back with no small loss.

     Shortly after this Owen Glyndwr sacked both the Cathedral church and the Bishops' Palace and the necessary work of restoration to the Saint's tomb was undertaken by Sir David Mathew presumably because his family had come to be thought of as its keepers. As a reward for this act of devotion, the Bishop gave Sir David the skull of the saint, set in a costly reliquary, to be an heirloom in his family [3].

     The reliquary remained in the hands of the Mathew family for seven generations until William Mathew died without issue at Llandeilo Llwydiarth in 1658. We do not know why he moved to Pembrokeshire and, indeed, all we know of him is that he was possibly the brother of Edward Mathew of Llandaff who was father of Thomas Mathew, Admiral of the Red who rebuilt the 'three decker' house which is now the Cathedral School. Before he died William handed the skull, by that time taken from its reliquary, to the Melchior [4] family who owned Llandeilo farm; and it remained in their possession until this century [5].

Mrs Melchior holding St Teilo's Skull - 1890s   A few hundred yards from the farm is St Teilo's Well (Ffynnon Deilo). Water falls from a spring into a shallow cistern measuring some 2.5 ft x 2.5 ft and in present times is piped to a tank further down the slope. The cistern is now covered with a large stone slab to prevent insects and impurities entering it. The water, which is bland to the palate, has recently been tested and found to be drinkable. In earlier times the overflow must have fallen into a pond, the outlines of which can still be seen; and it is said that the well was at one time protected by an enclosure [6] but this can be discerned only by the eye of faith.

     Once St Teilo's skull and St Teilo's well had become associated it was inevitable that a cultus should grow up around them. The water was said to be particularly effective in the treatment of chest complaints and it was doubly so if it was drunk out of the skull. The height of efficacy came when the skull, filled with well water, was handed to the sufferer by the hands of the hereditary keeper himself [7]. After he had acquired the skull many years later Gregory Mathews wrote an article entitled 'Romance of St Teilo's Skull' [8] in which he quotes from a work entitled Wales and the Welsh by Asaph Dar:

     The faith of some of those who used to visit the well was so great in its efficacy that they were wont to leave it wonderfully improved. An old inhabitant of the district, Stephen Evans (Hifyn Ifan) used to relate a story to the effect that a carriage drawn by four horses came over to Llandeilo. It was full of invalids from the cockle village of Penclawdd, in the Gower Peninsula, who had determined to try the waters in the well. They returned, however, no better than they came; for though they had drunk of the well they had neglected to do so out of the skull. This was afterwards pointed out to them by somebody and they resolved to make the long journey to the well again. This time, we are told, they did the right thing and departed in excellent health. Such is the great persistence of primitive beliefs that while the walls of the church have long fallen into decay [9] the faith in the well continues in a measure intact.

     It would be interesting to know for how long this faith in the efficacy of the well persisted. Francis Jones quotes [10] an old man, alive in 1906, who remembered people coming to the well who 'were cured by faith', and said that as a boy he and two other lads were cured of an illness after drinking the water out of St Teilo's skull early in the morning. It would, however, be surprising if votaries did not visit the well for years after this. The nearby Ffynnon Beswch [11], which, as its name implies (peswch, 'cough'), was also alleged to cure chest complaints, was certainly patronised until after World War II. It was the custom of supplicants to inscribe their initials on slate slabs together with the year of their visit; and one such slab bears the date 1947. It should also be mentioned that there is said to be evidence, in the form of a bottle [12], which indicates that the Melchior family bottled and possibly marketed the water from St Teilo's Well, but the date of this is uncertain.

St Teilo from 15th century Glass at Plogonnec, Finistere   But to return to the skull: at the time when it was handed over to the Melchiors an 'aged woman' went on record as saying:

     Misfortune will fall on the house of Mathew for over 200 years and then the skull of St Teilo will be restored to the last male of the line, and their luck will turn again, and those that kept the skull will get a double blessing. He who restores the skull to the Mathews will see St Teilo, the Bishop, riding on a pure white stag and St Teilo will bless their apple trees so that their next bearing will be very vast [13].

   The restoration, when it eventually took place, was made to a branch of the family who had by that time added an 's' to their name and were living in New South Wales. This branch was descended from Sir David Mathew's brother Robert of Castell y Mynych and had migrated to Co. Antrim in 1599. Eight generations later they moved to Australia and it would appear that they first discovered the whereabouts of the skull in 1897 [14]. But it was not until 1927 that their correspondence with the Melchiors resulted in the purchase of the skull by Gregory Macalister Mathews from Miss Dinah Melchior for £50. At the time of the transaction she signed an affidavit in these terms:

     I know and am well acquainted with the stories and legend connected with the skull of St Teilo, which for several centuries has been used to take water from St Teilo's well at Llandeilo for the use of sufferers from whooping cough, it being an old belief that those who drink water from this well out of the skull of St Teilo are cured of the complaint.

     The said skull of St Teilo is, I am informed, reputed to have been taken from St Teilo's Tomb in the fifteenth century by Bishop Marshall and to have been given by him to Sir David Mathew and to have remained in the Mathew family until the year 1658. It is reputed to have been kept in Llandeilo by one, William Mathew, a descendant and on his death that year to have been given into possession of the family of Melehior, to which family I belong.

     It has certainly been in the possession of the Melchior family for a very considerable period, and has been for eight years past in my possession and during the whole of my recolection (sic) at Llandeilo.

     It have (sic) been agreed to sell the said skull to Gregory Macalister Mathews desendant of the above named Sir David Mathew for the sum of £50 [15].

     When he had received the skull Gregory Mathews had it examined by Sir Arthur Keith, Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, 'who pronouced it of undoubted antiquity, of Welsh origin and of a small man between fifty and sixty years of age' [16]. Having done this he had the relic set in a reliquary and caused to be engraved on the mounting the words, 'Presented by Bishop Marshall of Llandaff to Sir David Mathew in 1450'. In fact, he subsequently changed his mind as to the name of the donor and attrtbuted the gift to Bishop Nicholas Assheby [17]. If the presentation was in truth made in 1450, his second thoughts would be correct because the succession of bishops ran as follows:

Nicholas Assheby 1440-1458;

John Hunden 1458-1476;

John Smith 1476-1478;

John Marshall 1478-1496.

     It is a curious fact that whereas the whereabouts of the skull were widely known from 1450 to the time Gregory Mathews acquired it in 1927, it became progressively more difficult to trace thereafter. This may well have been because Gregory Mathews and his son Alister both lived in England and their ties with Wales were loosened. But a Miss Constance Allen mounted a determined search both before and after World War II. She seems to have been a lady of wide interests as the first indication we have of her quest for the skull is a letter from her to the Bishop of Rochester in which she raised two matters which interested her: Dick Whittington and St Teilo's skull. She eventually borrowed a collection of papers, the contents of which have been invaluable in the writing of this essay, from Alister Mathews who had by that time succeeded his father as Hereditary Keeper. He insisted that she should give them back, which she appears not to have done, and asked her not to communicate their contents to the press. She seems, too, to have been somewhat strident in her approach as in a further exchange of letters he ended by saying that the skull 'is not here but in the vaults of a bank, so I could not show it to you'. The bank was possibly in Bournemouth where he lived.

     When I began the search in 1991, the trail had gone completely cold and I began to think I would have to make inquiries in Australia as the relic might well have gone to the descendants of Gregory Mathews' brother who was mentioned in his will. In fact the skull had gone to Australia: Alister Mathews had died in 1985 but before this he had sent the relic to his cousins in New South Wales.

     This remarkable story ends when the present Dean of Llandaff, the Very Revd. John Rogers, rang me up in early February this year to say that Captain Robert Mathews, the Hereditary Keeper, would be coming from Hong Kong to present the skull to the Cathedral at Sung Eucharist on St Teilo's Day, 9 February 1994. It was a very moving experience to be present at this service which was attended by members of the Mathews family from Australia, the Far East and the United Kingdom. After years of wandering from Llandeilo Llwydiarth,to a bank in Bournemouth and to Australia, the skull had come home for the first time since 1450.

     And to some of us present the most exciting moment came when the Chancellor in his address told us that it would eventually be placed in a reliquary in St Teilo's Chapel.

 


Notes

1. My primary thanks must go to the Very Revd. A.T. Davies, at the time Dean of Llandaff. Unaware of the history of the skull at the time when I wrote to him, he quickly assembled all the data available in the Cathedral archives and introduced me both to the honorary Archivist Mr Nevil James, and to Mr Hugh Mathew, an expert on the Mathew family tree, whose assistances have been invaluable.
2. Saint Teilo died in the monastery at Llandeilo Fawr; but there was disagreement as to where he should be buried. The contenders were Llandeilo Fawr, his foundation at Llandaff, and Penally his home village and the place where his parents were buried. It is said that delegations from each place arrived and after spending time in prayer outside the death chamber eventually went in to find that St Teilo had divided himself into three identical corpses: one of which was taken away by each delegation.

Modern thought inclines to the view that he was buried at Penally if only because the number of dedications to him are greater in that area than they are around either Llandeilo Fawr or Llandaff.

[There are two surviving medieval Latin Lives of St Teilo, both dating to the early 12th century. The shorter Life is by Geoffrey, brother of Bishop Urban of Llandaff, and is printed and translated in:

     A.W.Wade-Evans, Vitae Sanctorum Britanniae et Genealogiae, Cardiff, 1944.

The other seems to be a very slightly later expanded version of Geoffrey's text and is found in the famous Liber Landavensis. The latin text is printed in:

     J. Gwenogvryn Evans, The Text of the Book of Llan Dāv, Oxford, 1893 (reprinted Aberystwyth 1979), pp. 97-117.

A translation was given in:

     William Jenkins Rees, (ed.), The Liber Landavensis, Llandovery, 1840, pp.332-54.

The major study of the life of St Teilo is still that of Canon Doble:

     G.H. Doble, (ed.) D. Simon Evans, Lives of the Welsh saints, Cardiff, 1971, pp.162-206.

For a discussion of the Teilo dedications, see:

     E.G. Bowen, The Settlements of the Celtic Saints in Wales, Cardiff, 1956, pp.50-65: Chap. 3, 'The South-Western Cult.'

The legends and Folklore of St Teilo are examined in:

     Elissa R. Henken, Traditions of the Welsh Saints, Cambridge, 1987, pp. 128-34: Chap. 10, 'Teilo'.

There is almost no hard evidence relating to the cult of relics in Wales in the pre-Norman period: but it might tentatively be suggested that the legend of the triplication of St Teilo's body represents repeated translations of the relics, first from Penally to Llandeilo Fawr, and then from Llandeilo to Llandaff, each translation occurring as the centre of influence of the Teilo group of churches shifted. This would leave empty but still sacred graves at Penally and Llandeilo Fawr. There is evidence for the veneration of empty saints' graves in Wales; and if - as seems inherently likely - the Penally and Llandeilo tombs continued to be called, say, Bedd Teilo (Teilo's Grave), it is easy to see how they could in time come to be accepted as still holding the saint's body. - Eds.]

3. All the information about the Mathew(s) family is contained in a series of letters from Mr Hugh P. Mathew to the author. Mr Mathew is an architect known for his knowledge of medieval colouring and he has restored the armorial bearings of the Mathew tombs in Llandaff Cathedral as a memorial to his father.

[Apparently, by the end of the middle ages the relics of St Teilo were enshrined in the Lady Chapel of the cathedral, in a 'shryne of silver p'cell gilte'. And, as was the common practice of the period, certain of his bones had been separately enshrined, for there is mention of 'St Elios hedde of sylver gylte [and] an arme of the same Seynte gylte' in the records of materials confiscated by the king's commissioners at the Reformation (S Baring-Gould & John Fisher, The Lives of the British Saints, vol.4, London, 1913, p. 241).

It may be observed that in the Celtic Church of Ireland and of Scotland hereditary custodians of Saints' pastoral staffs bells, articles of clothing or other relics were quite common... At the break up of that church the relics passed to the coarb or heir of the Saint (Ib., p. 240).

The brain-pan could have been separated from the rest of the skull in its 'shryne of silver' (there are plenty of parallels for this) for presentation to the Mathew family in the 15th century. Alternatively, the brain-pan might have been the only fragment of the skull to have survived to the late middle ages - it would still have been enclosed in a head-shaped reliquary - with the Mathews as its honoary 'keepers'. In the latter case, we may suppose that the Mathews were able to rescue the relic at the Reformation, even though the reliquary was confiscated. - Eds]

4. The Melchior family were descended from Melchior ap Ieuan ap Howell ob. 3 April 1591, of Newport Pembs., and came into the property of Llandeilo Llwydiarth by marriage in the latter part of the 17th century: Francis Jones, The Holy Wells of Wales, Cardiff, 1954, p. 116.
5. The Journal of the Cambrian Archaeological Association, Archaeologia Cambrensis, in 1864 shows that the relic was lent for a short while to the temporary museum at Haverfordwest But it was certainly back at Llandeilo Llwydiarth in the 1890s as there is an admirable photograph of Mrs Melchior and the skull in 1898. This also includes a not very informative interview with Mr Melchior reprinted from The Welshman of 1 October 1897.

[In both instances, Arch. Camb. was reporting on meetings of the Association held in Pembrokeshire. The museum at Haverfordwest was set up only for the duration of the Meeting, and consisted of objects of local historic interest lent for the occasion: Archaeologia Cambrensis 1864, pp. 359-60. The 1897 Meeting included a visit to Llandeilo Llwydiarth on 19 August. This was reported the following year (Arch. Camb. 1898, pp. 276-9), most of the report being taken up by the Welshman article referred to by Major Buckley. The photograph of Mrs Melchior is found facing p. 276. It is reproduced here by kind permission of the Editor of Archaeologia Cambrensis. - Eds]

6. Francis Jones, op. cit., p. 206.
7. Ib. p. 116.
8. This is one of a series of papers in the archives of Llandaff Cathedral. They were probably aquired by Miss Constance Allen from Alister Mathews and not returned by her to him.
9. At some stage the Melchior family who had been worshippers at the tiny church became dissenters and the church fell into disrepair.

[The present state of the church ruin is described in:

     Paul R. Davis & Susan Lloyd-Fern, Lost Churches of Wales & the Marches, Stroud, 1990, pp. 774. This includes a brief discussion of the well and skull cultus.

The Llandeilo Llwydiarth churchyard is widely known to scholars as the original location of two 6th century memorial stones (now in Maenchlochog church, nearby), inscribed in Latin and Ogham. In fact, the small size of the present ruined church, in its tiny remote community, offerrs little clue to the one-time importance of this ecclesiastical site. It is mentioned in the Book of Llandaff (J. Gwenogvryn Evans, op. cit. p. 124) in a list of Pembrokeshire locations supposedly given to Teilo and his community by King Iddon. (Wendy Davies, The Llandaff Charters, Aberystwyth, 1979, p. 95, shows that this cannot have been a genuinely ancient charter - 'it has no witness list and nothing to suggest any genuine original' - but its presence in the Liber, under the form Lann Teliau Litgarth, does link it to Llandaff, by then the centre of Teilo's cult, in the early 12th century.) Further, Doble (op. cit., p. 200) notes that it occurs as:

the fifth in the list of the 'seven bishop-houses in Dyfed' in the laws of Howel the Good, and one of the more important ones - 'the abbot of Teilaw should be an ordained scholar'.

-Eds]

10. Francis Jones, op. cit., p. 206.
11. This little spring lies in the hills to the N-E of Llandeilo Llwydiarth. Sadly it has now been encased in cement and supplies water to the neighbouring farm. The slabs too have disappeared: perhaps some reader of this article would be able to make local enquiries as to their whereabouts?
12. Information given to the author by Mrs Elven, the present owner of St Teilo's Well.
13. The Weekly Mail & Cardiff Times, Sat 6 Aug 1938. This is the record of an interview with a Mr John Absalom J.P., of Rhydiauback. The copy in the Cathedaal Archives is marked by Miss Constance Allen, 'Precious do not destroy', and is probably part of the collection of papers which she failed to return to Alister Mathews.

[This remarkable prophecy appears not to have been noticed elsewhere. If genuine, it indicates just how fully the cult of St Teilo had survived into the 17th century. The Life in the Book of Landaff describes Teilo's flight to Brittany in AD 547, to escape the Yellow Pestilence. While there...

He and...S. Samson planted a great grove of fruit-bearing trees, three miles long, reaching from Dol to Cai, and it is still called after them 'The orchard of Teliavus and Samson'.

(Doble, op. cit., p. 181).

Thus, the idea of his patronage of the apple-harvest could be a memory of his traditional life as known in Wales In the middle ages. But the concept of Teilo riding a white stag has left no other trace in the Welsh tradition. However, it is known in Brittany, where Teilo is still widely culted.

Popular tradition explains the great size of the parish [of Landeleau] by a story that the seigneur of Landeleau proposed to S. Teilo that the boundaries should embrace all the land he could go round between sunset and cockcrow [in itself, a common hagiographic motif]. The saint chose a stag as the swiftest mount on which to travel, and so covered a considerable distance...Hence statues of the saint and the picture of him in ancient stained glass at Plogonnec, represent him in cope and mitre, carrying his staff and riding on a stag.

(Doble, op. cit., p. 203).

How this tradition and/or iconography could have reached Wales is not apparent. However, that the cult of St Teilo was still strong in Pembrokeshire, nearly 200 years after the Reformation, is demonstrated by the complaints of Erasmus Saunders (A View of the State of Religion in the Diocese of St. David's, London 1721, reprinted Cardiff 1949, pp. 35-6):

But with those innocent good old Customs, they have also learn'd some of the Roman Superstitions practic'd in the later Ages, such as many times in their Ejaculations to invocate, not only the Deity, but the Holy Virgin, and other Saints, for Mair-Wen, Jago, Teilaw-Mawr, Celr, Celynog, and others are often thus remember'd, as if they had hardly yet forgotten the use of Praying to them. And their being not only Churches and Chappels, but Springs and Fountains dedicated to those Saints, they do at certain times go and Bath themselves in them, and sometimes leave some small Oblations behind them, either to the Keepers of the Place, or in a Charity Box prepar'd for that Purpose, by way of Acknowledgement, for the Benefit they have, or hope to have thereby.

The name Teilaw Mawr, Teilo the Great, strongly suggests the saint's preeminence in the region; just as the reference to the strongly surviving cults of saints at their wells may possibly suggest that William Mathew would have known that the relic would be in safe hands if left with the guardians of one such well, the Melchiors at Llandeilo Llwydiarth. - Eds.]

14. The Weekly Mail & Cardiff Times, Sat. 6 Aug. 1938.
15. One may perhaps discern the hand of Gregory Mathews in the drafting of this document. Miss Dinah's knowledge of the history of the relic contrasts remarkably with Mr Melchior's ignorance: see Note 5.

[However, it might perhaps be remembered that a datailed account of the cult of the skull and well of St Teilo had appeared in print 5 years before the Arch. Camb. article: John Rhys, 'Sacred Wells In Wales', Trans. Soc. Cymmrodorion 1892-3 pp. 24-5. Rhys' account was drawn from purely local informants (as also was that of John Caredig Davies, Folk-Lore of West and Mid-Wales, Aberystwyth 1911, pp. 299-300: 'St Teilo's Well') which sugests that the Melchiors in 1897 could not but have known the traditions. Why, then, did they not admit this to the members of the Cambrian Archaeological Association? Two possible explanations suggest themselves: either their conversion to Nonconformity led them to play down the surviving elements of 'Popish superstition' as much as possible (against which maybe argued the fact that the Melchiors made no effort to suppress the cult); or, as the 'hereditary keepers' of the relic they may have been reluctant to expose the relic, and incidentally themselves, to the possible ridicule of 'enlightened' outsiders - numbers of similar ancient popular cults in Ireland came to a sudden end as a result of enlightened 19th-century interference.- Eds.]

16. Taken from an excerpt from a press cutting in the Cathedral Archives. It is undated and unmarked but would appear to have been taken from a local Pembrokeshire paper. Mr Absalom (cf. Note 13) stated that the skull was examined by the authorities at the Wellcome Historical Museum in Wigmore Street, London, but gave no account of the findings of that body. The Office of Works volume on ancient and historical buildings in Pembrokeshire, at an earlier date, comments of Penglog Teilo (Teilo's Skull) that:

the cranium is very old, and is polished from constant handling. A part of one superciliary ridge remains, and this is of such slight elevation as to make it almost certain that this skull is that of a female, while the open sutures point to the same conclusion.

[An Inventory of the Ancient Monuments of Wales and Monmouthshire. 7: County of Pembroke, London 1925, p. 157. The originator of the view that the skull was that of a woman was Edward Laws, whose discussion is paraphrased in the Inventory. It was hardly a unaminous verdict. The Welshman article quoted in Arch. Camb. 1898, p. 279, recorded:

Mr. Edward Laws...from an examination of the 'sutures', etc., has made up his mind that 'St Teilo's skull' is in reality the skull of a young female. Our own knowledge of sutures and such like is not extensive, but we cannot help thinking that any young women whose crania Mr. Laws has heretofore examined must have been of a particularly robust type. Even for a man's skull, the one at Llandeilo seems to us rather thick and substantial.

- Eds.]

17. 'The Romance of St Teilo's Skull': cf. Note 8.

 

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Text © Kemmis Buckley (1994) | Illustration of skull relic © David Taylor (1994)

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