Who Was St Dwynwen?

If there was a woman unlucky in love it was a princess from the 5th century AD, Dwynwen, the prettiest of King Brychan Brycheiniog’s twenty-four or 36 daughters, the number varies depending upon the version of her tale you choose. She fell in love with Prince Maelon Dyfodril, but her romantic plans were thwarted as her father had promised her hand to someone else. To add to her woes, Dwynwen received a visit from an angel who brought her a sweet potion designed to erase all thoughts of Maelon and to turn the unfortunate beau into a block of ice.

In distress, Dwynwen fled into the woods and pleaded with God to help her forget all about Maelon. He granted her three wishes. Her first was that Maelon be thawed, her second that the hopes and dreams of all lovers were to be fulfilled and, finally, that she would never marry. Her wishes were met and in an expression of gratitude, Dwynwen dedicated the rest of her life to the service of God.

The area around Newborough on the south-western corner of the Isle of Anglesey has something for everyone, including a forest, home to red squirrels and ravens, who appropriately mate for life, and a Warren which contains one of the largest areas of sand dunes in the UK. The headland offers spectacular panoramic views of the Llyn peninsula and the towering peaks of Snowdonia across the Menai Straits and the mountains of Wicklow over the Irish Sea, rain and mist permitting.

The jewel in the area’s crown, though, is the three and a half mile long sandy beach, awarded Blue Flag status in recognition of the cleanliness of the sea and its soft, fine sand, which leads to a tidal island. Perhaps more accurately, it should be described as a peninsula as only the highest of tides cuts it off from Anglesey. Accessible only on foot, Llanddwyn, meaning Church of St Dwynwen, was where Dwynwen chose to settle and found a nunnery, where, on her death in around 465 AD, she was buried.

Dwynwen’s story touched the hearts of many in Wales, and she becaame their patron saint of lovers. Her shrine on the island was a place of pilgrimage, visitors anxious to divine the faithfulness of their lover by visiting Dwynwen’s holy well, in which several eels lived. After sprinkling breadcrumbs into the well, an anxious woman would place a handkerchief on the surface. If the eels rose to the top of the well and disturbed the handkerchief, she could take it as a sign that her lover would be faithful.

So popular was it that Dwynwen’s shrine became the richest in the area, leading, in the 16th century, to the building of a substantial chapel on the site of her original chapel. The ruins of the structure can still be seen today. Nearby there is a Celtic cross, which was erected in Dwynwen’s memory in 1903, replacing an earlier simple cross from 1879.

The island nowadays is dominated by the tapered tower of Twr Mawr, a lighthouse which saw service between 1845 and 1975, one of two abandoned structures which bear testament to the treacherous nature of the waters nearby. There was a lifeboat stationed there from 1840 which within seven days in December 1852 rescued thirty-six sailors from three separate wrecks, and the cottages which remain were once used by pilots who guided ships through the Menai Straits.

January 25th, St Dwynwen’s feast day, is celebrated with the exchange of cards and other tokens of affection, offering the Welsh an early opportunity to say “Rwy’n dy garu di”, I love you. As their patron saint of love reputedly said, “nothing wins hearts like cheerfulness”,

I for one hope that this uniquely Welsh tradition continues to flourish and that Raphael makes a comeback. Why should St Valentine hog all the limelight?

Dydd Santes Dwynwen Hapus[1] to you all.   

[1] Happy St Dwynwen’s Day

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