The Rood screen at the Basilica of San Marco in Venice Perhaps the 'The Blessed Christ of Rhuddlan' would have been just as impressive
Thornham Parva - Retable - frontal and dossal cover
The Castle, St Mary's Church, Town bridge and part of Harbour at Rhuddlan 18th C.
The story of the Dominican Priory of the Blessed Virgin at Rothelen
'The Prior and Brethren of Friar Preachers of Rothelen'
" A thousand years is like a day and a day is like a thousand years"
2 Peter 3:8
The Priory of the Blessed Virgin appears to have been founded around 1258 under the Welsh Prior Enion. A previous foundation at Rhuddlan was established in 1197 by Ranulph de Blundeville, Earl of Chester as a ‘Ysbyti’ or ‘Hospitalium’. This was located a ¼ mile to the NE of the site and that would later become the Dominican Priory. Ranulph was a member of the Knights Hospitaller and a devout Catholic who provided plots of land for the founding of hospitals, priories, and chapels in mid – Cheshire, Staffordshire and the adjacent Welsh/English border territories.
The presence of the fortress and royal residence at Rhuddlan played a big part in the founding and development of both these religious establishments. The Princes of Wales - Llywelyn ap Iorwerth and ap Llywelyn ap Gruffudd were patrons of the Dominicans as well as Edward 1st and his consort Queen Eleanor of Castille. Inventories exist of some of the generous donations to the Friars at Rhuddlan – and of course not forgetting their patronage of the Ysbyti Hospitallers of St John.
The Priory of the Blessed Virgin was led by the Prior who would have been a Welsh speaker. It was St Dominic who insisted that all priors should speak in the vernacular of the area to which they had been assigned. He would have had a university education. It appears that the rest of the community would have been drawn from within Wales. The novices were under the tutelage of a university educated novice Master who would be steeped in the Dominican tradition and lifestyle. Most importantly he would have been a Doctor of theology.
A Dominican Friar Order of Preachers
Video: The Prior and Friar Preachers of Rothelen CLICK IMAGE
Active in the life of the community were friars in the priory school, preachers- in- ordinary [usually 25 years old] and preacher-generals who would be active within the province. These two types of friar went out to preach in public spaces and other religious settings. When the Archbishop of Canterbury visited Rhuddlan in 1284 he was not only impressed with the life of the Priory, but he commented on the quality of the preaching. The History of the Welsh Church records ‘he ordered that Friars Preachers and Minors, “among whom almost solely in those parts the doctrine of truth resides’, should be received and cared for when they went round preaching the Word of God.’
St Dominic could have taken the character of Elihu in Job for the model preacher? Job 32:6, 17 – 22. Elihu was young in age - rather like the Dominican and Franciscan Orders. In relation to their well established counterparts the OP style was challenging to them and to the rest of the Universal Church. From a scriptural perspective the quotation expresses the spiritual zest and enthusiasm of the OP?The ethos of the Friars was ‘to praise, to bless, to preach’. Their mission statement was one word ‘Veritas’. The individual attitude of the friar – inspired by St Dominic was ‘self-presentation’ based on how you appear to your peers. [Psalm 15:2] The novice needed to learn how to assimilate himself not only to the convent but to the different settings in which he would have to preach. At Rhuddlan the novice was schooled in theology and philosophy – in Aristotelian Ethics. They were trained to be ‘in the world but not of it’. A rudimentary form of the ‘common good’ was adopted and work was seen as good and necessary for all people – rich and poor alike, to sustain and enhance their welfare and providing a level of affluence which would enable charitable giving and good works.
At the Priory there was a school classroom for lectures and disputations to aid and sustain spiritual and intellectual development. Visiting religious and even local laity could be found participating in the daily lectures on the Bible. The Dominican Order promoted the cultus of the Holy Rosary. The ancient tradition maintains that the B.V. Mary herself instructed St Dominic to preach and use the Holy Rosary.
It is recorded that they formed guilds and fraternities sometimes associated with the use of the ’Sallwyr Fair’ [Psalter of Mary] or Gwasanaeth Mair [the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary] - A later vernacular version became available through the scholarship of Dafydd Ddu, Abbot of Neath in South Wales.
“As soon as I get into a cell by myself, I am a different person! Prayer becomes what it ought to be. Everything is quiet. The door is closed, but the window open”
The writer Thomas Merton.
A cell at Mount Grace Priory
Rhuddlan Priory would have been no exception. The encouragement of personal devotion was also undertaken through the forming of a Tertiary group – The Third Order of St Dominic. The friars of the Order of Preachers promoted the practical daily use of the Book of Hours which was modelled on the Breviary and the use of Primers as an aid to learning and meditation. The Primer or the Lay Folks’ Mass Book written in English also acted as a simple catechism and Mass guide. It contained guidance on personal holiness and sanctity, providing aids to enhance literacy and faith instruction to local Catholic adults and children.
There was a library within the priory for the use of the students and preaching friars. The books would have been small in number unlike a foundation such as Llanthony Priory [nr Brecon] which had around 500 books. Among the Priory collection at Rhuddlan would have been Latin Codexes of the Old Testament, four Gospels and the Epistles – “Euagulthen”. The founding collection would have contained philosophical works by Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus in the vernacular. Theological tomes of the Summa Theologica and Summa Contra Gentilesby Thomas Aquinas and other works by Ludolph of Saxony. A selection of works by the early Church Fathers. Later additions to the library would have included the mystical works of Walter Hilton, Richard Rolle and The Imitation of Christ by Thomas â Kempis. These later new books show a change from the traditional Dominican way of thinking and introduced a new strand into the content of their preaching. Nothing substantial is recorded about the Priory library, however, The Monastic Libraries of Wales observes that the Welsh poet Hywel ap Dafydd says of Rhuddlan – “he was anxious that Prior Elis should have some diversion, as he needed the loan of a bow and arrow: ‘the Christian in full armour’ was evidently no empty phrase at Rhuddlan”. In the 15th Century the friars were known to possess a book press to undertake their own bindings of ‘in house’ writings.
To enhance the quality and experience of study, preaching and solitariness the OP preferred separate cells. The word is taken from the Latin ‘cella’.
The Priory was funded and built by five Burgesses of Rhuddlan. The land upon which it stood, and the adjacent conventual buildings were gifted from the estate of the Castle. This endowment was relatively small with the surrounding lands being used by tenant farmers of the Castle. Characteristics of all Dominican priories, in terms of their construction and layout were based on the criterion of frugality, simplicity, and immateriality.
Running water for the site was provided by a conduit from the Ysbyti. Flint Historical Records mention leaden pipes which carried the supply from the Hospitalium? As no actual plans of the Priory have yet been found online, we would be left to speculate on its size. We do know however, when the nearby St Asaph Cathedral was rebuilt at the end of
the Welsh - English Wars the new building was still smaller than Rhuddlan Priory, which coincidentally was proposed by Edward 1st to be the new Cathedral. He was considering enlarging the nave of the Priory Church. Some figures from similar foundations listed in The Cistercian Abbey of Strata Florida may enable us to guesstimate an idea of size. If we first look at the video of Roscommon Dominican Priory - follow the link to https://youtu.be/5LLftJZ_DTE
These Irish priories may give us a clue? The total length was somewhere around 180 feet. This would be of a similar size to Brecon Priory Church? In medieval times its total length was around 170 feet, Length of the Nave 107 feet, Nave and Aisles 34 feet in width?
One of the striking features of Rhuddlan was an image of peculiar sanctity which stretched across the nave. This was known as the ‘Blessed Christ of Rhuddlan’. It was treasured by the priory and its magnificence was extolled by bards and poets. One of the many poems about this image is still extant.This one was written by the Welsh bard Gruffudd ap Ifan ap Llywelyn Fychan [1485 -1553].
Rhodded er nodded i ni lawn obaith
fal yn Aber Hodni
Rhwydd fu gael rhodd fawr geli
Rhwydd iawn tad rhoddion i ti
Rhoddion digoddion duw gweddawl biau
Rhoi bowyd ysbrydawl …….
There has been given, as a protection to us, full hope,
as happened in Aber Hodni (Brecon);
generous it was to receive a great gift from God,
– very generous, Father of gifts – for you.
Kindly gifts, it is the prerogative of excellent God
to grant spiritual life …
The poet appears to reference here the individual roods at Brecon and Rhuddlan. Both would have featured the central figures of Christ on the Cross, Mary, Mother of Jesus and St John. Both roods may have been comparable in splendour and size? The poem would also have been a device, if not intentionally, to publicise the ’Blessed Rood of Christ’, its strong sorrowful visual narrative depicting the main characters. It seems the Rhuddlan rood could also have had ornate panels showing events leading up to the Passion and images of people like Caiaphas and Judas. Imagine how it must have looked. The Rood at Brecon was of gilded wood, three or four stories in height with a concealed staircase in the wall to give access to the rood loft. It portrayed statues of Matthew, Mark and Luke, the two thieves and seven archangels. Its proportions were so large that pilgrims were afraid to touch it. The Blessed Rood of Rhuddlan must have looked equally striking, as the image of Christ and the Cross was made of gold.
Site of the 'Holy Rood' of Brecon
How exciting to have been a pilgrim and witnessed the spectacle of the mid-morning High Mass on a national holiday, perhaps the Feast of Candlemas [Feb 2nd] *. Pilgrims and locals would have attended and witnessed the majesty and colourfulness of the medieval liturgy, the full Gregorian arrangements of the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei. The Holy atmosphere enhanced with the aromas from the burning incense and the tiers of lighted candles. The spectacle of the High Mass would have illuminated the interior of the sanctuary beyond the rood screen and drawn the pilgrims’ attention to the mystical presence of the Eucharist.
The Doors below the rood would have been thrown open so that the pilgrims and visitors could ‘watch’ instead of ‘hear’ the Mass. At the Communion they would have received the Sacred Host from one of the Friars. They would have first taken advantage of the presence of the tad enaid - ‘soul father’, to hear their confession and ‘to carry out the penance imposed by the father confessor’ – ‘gwneuthur y Penyd a roes tad enaid arnaf’. This was and is the solemn obligation of the Christian Catholic to relieve temporal debt and to ease time in purgatory. What a wonderful feeling they must have experienced upon leaving the Priory Church which had been the object of their pilgrimage – soul cleansed and strengthened, the senses inebriated by the awe and majesty of the occasion.
* A special Fair was organised in the township of Rhuddlan to coincide with the feast of Candlemas. This would have been an added attraction for the pilgrims who may have been staying overnight in the local taverns and inns.
A little less known aspect of the spiritual outreach of the friars was a quasi-religious work to which the Friars must have given much time and trouble, namely that in connection with Pilgrimages. The OP was known to promote Catholic guilds and especially for pilgrims. The Shrine at Santiago de Compostella in Spain was an immensely popular destination for Welsh and English pilgrims. Scallop shells [the symbol of Compostella] have been found interred in medieval grave sites in Wales. Rhuddlan in common with other Welsh seaports was involved in the wine trade with Spain and France so pilgrims could easily be accommodated on the trade ships making their return journeys. Welsh ships were also frequently found harboured at Corunna. History records show that Rhuddlan in medieval times was a major port offering all kinds of facilities for warships and commercial vessels. The quickest route to Spain for pilgrims was via one of Ireland’s ‘Chief haven town’ ports. The other option was to sail down to Bristol where a designated fleet of ships carried only pilgrims across to Spain. Welsh visitors to the Shrine were accommodated at the ‘Pilgrims’ Hospice.
Irish pilgrim ship bound for Coruña Image: Irish Times
In this short essay we have only touched the surface of the events and priestly service of ‘The Preaching Friars of Rothelan’. The ‘Dominican Magazine’ evidences their involvement in national politics. Their attempts to broker a peace between the Prince of Wales and Edward 1 in 1276 are now hidden in the dusty annals of history. The Prior of Rhuddlan Ifor ap Gruffudd, two friars Rhys ap Gruffudd and Hywel ap Gruffudd laboured hard and long to resolve the impasse but sadly failed. The community was much admired by the Welsh and English Royal families. The friars played a major part in the regal events of the Monarch at the Castle. For example, the Christening Mass for the young Princess Elizabeth, 5th daughter of Edward and Eleanor who was born at the Castle in August 1282. They were rewarded by the Royal Family for their ministrations.
In concluding this brief insight into the life and activities of the Prior and Brethren Friars of the Order of Preachers at Rhuddlan the words of E. J Newell, the writer of A History of the Welsh Church is quoted –
“If the monastic orders erred from the strictness of their ideal, and at times fell into sins of self-indulgence, they set an example of charity and benevolence which should, in our eyes at least, cover a multitude of sins, and which may well put modern religious bodies to the blush. If the world and its snares led men of religion astray then, they do so as often now. Wales at the present day might well rejoice were it as united or as abounding in the deeds of charity as it was even in the thirteenth century.
*Gruffudd ab Ifan ap Llywelyn Fychan, unfortunately, did a U-turn on his Catholic faith, joining the Protestants and then attacking his former religion. What a difficult period it must have been to live in, especially for Catholics. ID
Celtic Britain and the Pilgrim Movement by Hartwell jones
A History of the Welsh Church – E J Newell
Cistercian Abbey of Strata Florida – Stephen William Williams
Friars of Sussex – E B Poland
Early Dominicans – R F Bennett
The Monastic Libraries of Wales – D Rhys Phillips
Catholicism in Medieval Wales – J E De Hirsch- Davies
Archaeologia Cambrensis – H L Jones
Flintshire Historical Records
The Dominican Magazine [1557 - 1957] – Bangor Civic Society
William Fresney OP, archbishop of Rages (Edessa) 1263-1290– WGumbley
Journey Through Wales – Gerald of Wales
English Dominicans – Bede Jarrett
With thanks to St Dominic and Prior Enion for their prayerful help.
Mon. Alex Rebello, Iestyn Daniel and Chris Magner Video: Kilmallock Priory courtesy Jack O'Shea
Google aerial photo of Abbey Farm
A ground plan of the Dominican Priory at Sligo - for a tour of the site go to -
Cloister garth 11?