Friday, 18 November 2016

Patron of Hares, Saint Melangell

I love discovering something hidden and special that I never knew about. So when friends asked me to go with them to the shrine of St Melangell, I jumped at the chance. I’d never heard of this saint, even though she is the patron hares, which are my totem animal

Her shrine is still kept in beautiful condition, in the small northwest Wales village of Pennant Melengells, It's one of the most remote shrines in the UK, located in the Berwyn Mountains. It’s only a short drive from St Mylin’s well, a far better-known shrine to a well-loved saint, who was probably Bishop of Wales at around the time Saint Melegell was born.

Melengell lived in the 7th Century CE, in what then would have been an independent Wales, still more Iron Age than Medieval. The Romans had long gone, and the old, local tribes called refi had taken over the rule of the land once more, led by a warrior aristocracy. The people would have spoken Old Welsh and held that powerful blend of belief; Celtic Christian, fused with a remaining underbelly of pagan belief, still clinging around the edges of this new religion. They'd only recently been converted to the powerful message of this still-new faith by saints like David and Mylin.

The tarn of Llyn Cau
We arrived at the youth hostel, for our one night stay in Dolgellau, which is sheltered under the most southern tip of the Snowdonia mountain range. 

 Rising above us was Cader Idris. Myth and legend have echoed around this high peak  for many a century and began with the fabled Welsh book of folklore, The Mabinogion. It’s said than anyone who falls asleep for the night at the foot of the Cadir Idris wakes, the following morning, either dead, mad, or a poet. We were about to lay our heads down is just that place, and I was hoping to wake with the latter quality!

The following morning (seemingly neither dead nor mad), we motored northeast to the village of Pennant Melangell. The far west of Wales possibly still looks, in places, very much like it did when the saints and the war-lords ruled the head and heart of early Wales.  As we travelled, my friends told me what they knew about St Melangell. 

She was the daughter of an Irish monarch, who had determined to marry her to a nobleman of his court. The princess fled from her father, across the Irish Sea, and took refuge in the isolated Tanat valley. She lived as an anchorite, walled into her shrine for most of fifteen years, without seeing the face of a man. 

The legend has it that one day Brochwel, prince of Powys, was hunting a hare with his dogs. In its desperation, the hare found this beautiful young lady wandering through the countryside, and took refuge under her cloak. The pack of hounds refused to go anywhere near the saintly Melangell, some howling and turning tail, some whimpering and lying down before her feet.

The prince was amazed to find a virgin of surpassing beauty, engaged in deep devotion, with the hare he had been pursuing under her robe, boldly facing the dogs. The Prince gifted her the valley of Pennant Melangell and she lived there, offering sanctuary and retreat to all who came.  She founded an abbey on the spot, and died abbess at a good old age.  Her tomb was in a little chapel, or oratory, adjoining to the church. 
I loved the carvings inside the church, especially the 15th Century oak screen with carvings that tell the story of Melangell and Prince Brochwel, and a fabulous series of stone carvings of the hare by the sculptor Meical Watts. 

But what we’d come to see, and be tranquil within, was the 12th Century shrine of Saint Melangell. Its stones are carved with Romanesque and Celtic motifs, and it contains what is said to originally have been the saint’s cell bed. Bones said to be those of the saint were deposited within the shrine. This was all were reassembled in the last century but it took a lot of fund-raising to eventually get the entire thing to be re-erected in the chancel at the back of the church. 

The church is now a Grade-I listed building. But more interesting to me, is that it sits in what is believed to be a Bronze Age site. In fact, Neolithic bones have been found on the site, which shows, as often is the case, that this sacred place had been used throughout time. I was overwhelmed by the ring of yew trees, planted before Christ was born, by people of the Iron Age...local druids, perhaps… These surround the churchyard. I spent a lot of meditative time in both saint's shrine, and under the trees, too.

Southey, when he visited the church in the 19th century wrote; 

And now I shall tell you why
It was proper that I 
Should go thither to spy
The place with mine own eye.
Tis a church in a vale,
Whereby hangs a tale,
How a hare being pressed,
By the dogs and much distressed,
The hunters coming nigh
And the dogs in full cry,
Looked about for someone to defend her,
And saw just in time
As it now come pat in rhyme,
A saint of the feminine gender.

To be honest, I don't think he'd had enough opium, that time…maybe he failed to sleep at the foot of Cader Idris!

For information about St Melegell's church and shrine, Click here for website


  1. Thank you for transporting me to another time and place on a miserable Monday morning, when the rain was lashing against the window. Fabulous. Liz T

  2. You are welcome. I bet there is a secret wonder like this one a drive away from everyone living in the UK