Saint of the Day – 23 August – Saint Tydfil (Died c 480) Martyr of Wales, Princess daughter of King Brychan, Confessor, Evangeliser and Apostle of Mercy to the sick and the needy – born in the 5th century as a Princess in Wales and died by being Martyred in c 480 in Wales. She was murdered with her brother Rhun in Merthyr Tydfil, by either Welsh or Saxon pagans, and buried in the town. Also known as Tudful.
Tydfil gave her name to Merthyr Tydfil (Merthyr meaning Martyr in the Welsh language). Her Martyrdom took place during a pitched battle between her family and a band of marauding Picts during the fifth century. Although much of what is known about her comes from monks writing long after she lived, evidence shows that she did exist and that she did meet with a violent end for her faith in Jesus Christ.
Tydfil was the daughter of King Brychan, the half-Irish, half-Welsh ruler of Garth Madry (Brecon today). Brychan had four wives had 11 sons and 25 daughters. Tydfil was his 23rd daughter by his fourth wife. Most of Brychan’s children were well educated, girls and boys, at a school in Gwenddwr on the Wye and went on to live deeply holy lives folowing our Saviour. They founded Churches all over Wales, Cornwall and Brittany and were known as the “Wandering Saints.”
Tydfil chose as her home, the Taff River valley, sparsely populated by Celt farmers and their families. She became known for her compassion and skills as she nursed both sick humans and animals. She established an early Celtic Monastic community, leading a small band of men and women. She built a hermitage or enclosure around a small wattle and daub Church, much as other saints of the time. Her home included a hospice, outhouses and a scriptorium. There she lived quietly, bringing hope and support to the people of the Taff valley.
In his old age, King Brychan decided to visit his children one last time. He took with him his son Rhun Dremrudd, his grandson Nefydd and Nefydd’s own son, along with servants and warriors. They visited his third daughter, Tanglwstl, at her religious community at Hafod Tanglwstl, what is now known as the village of Aberfan, south of Merthyr Tydfil. Brychan wanted to stay with his daughters a little longer, so he sent most of his warriors and Nefydd on ahead, along the homeward journey. The King went on to Tydfil’s home while Rhun and Nefydd’s son were still at Hafod Tanglwstl.
So the party was spread out along the Taff Valley; a distance of about seven miles and all uphill. Wales at this time was suffering from raids from Scottish Picts free to roam around now that the Romans had long gone. Some had even settled at South Radnorshire, near Brychan’s kingdom. Perhaps the news of the King’s absence had reached the Pict settlement and they decided to take advantage of the King’s vulnerability. In retrospect, Brychan would appear to have made a very foolish decision in allowing his party to split up.
Rhun Dremrudd was attacked by a raiding party, a mile from Hafod Tanglwstl and he died defending a bridge over the river at what is now the village of Troedyrhiw. The bridge gave the Picts free access to the King’s party and Rhun Dremrudd put up a good fight. The Picts then split into two groups – one devastated the Hafod Tanglwstl community and the other pursued the King.
The King and his followers were robbed of their jewellery, money and clothes. Servants and family were all cut down. While the others ran and fought and panicked, Tydfil knelt and calmly prayed, before she too was brutally slain. Then the Picts retreated over the Aberdare mountain. By then, Nefydd and his warriors caught up with them and avenged the deaths of his family at “Irishman’s Hill” before returning to bury their dead.
Tydfil was buried within the Church she founded, amongst the people she had cared for. A Celtic Cross was put up in a clearing near the Taff which became a meeting place for the people of the valley. In the 13th century the Cross and wattle and daub Church were replaced by a stone Church dedicated to Saint Tydfil the Martyr. This was in turn replaced in 1807, and rebuilt again in 1894. The church still stands at its place by the River Taff (below) and is one of the first things the tourist sees as he or she enters the town centre from the south side.
When the Norman Church was demolished, a stone coffin was found, forming part of the foundations. Also, there were two stone pillars, one of which was dedicated to Brychan’s son Arthen, who also died in the battle. The site was probably still being kept sacred to the memory of Tydfil and her murdered family.
What contributed to the veneration of Tydfil as a Saint?
- First of all, her quiet witness to her beloved Lord. Tydfil was not an Abbess although she did lead a community of Christian men and women who were probably living under some kind of semi-monastic Rule. But it was never a big community just a small group of people comprised of farming families with a few Monks and Nuns serving the local people in whatever way they could through works of mercy. Jesus called his disciples to be lights in a dark world (Matthew 5:14-16) but He didn’t say how big those lights should be, just that they should shine. Tydfil certainly lived in dark times but her ‘good deeds’ (verse 16) and those of her community, attracted people like moths to a flame. And although her individual ‘light’ was extinguished by death, she lit a fire that burnt on throughout those dark and difficult times, showing others the way to God.
- Secondly, her great faith and dignity in the face of death. She did not resist or run but ‘turning the other cheek’ she awaited her death with quiet courage and a sincere belief that she would go to be with Jesus in the place prepared for her (John 14:1-7).
In the Letter to the Romans Paul, himself awaiting Martyrdom, writes that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers. nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:37-39) Beautiful words, which we all believe in the comfort and safety of our peaceful, ordered and affluent society. But it is in the heat of battle and in the face of suffering or death, when that belief is truly tested. Tydfil faced that test head on and passed. She is rightly remembered both here and in heaven as a consequence of her great fidelity to Christ and His Church.
- Thirdly, her love and compassion towards others – human and animal. For those of us living in a ‘Christianised’ society we very much take those qualities for granted as they are built into the very fabric of our society after centuries saturated in the teachings of Christ. And so, they can often appear to us as necessary and hardly regarded attributes. We take as read, the fairness of our laws, the peace we enjoy and the great benefits of a health services, which provides us with such wonderful care. We forget that no such things existed in Tydfil’s day. Christianity was still trying to win the Celts, never mind the Saxons, Jutes, Picts and others. There was very little law in Tydfil’s time other than the survival of the fittest. Love and compassion no doubt were seen as a sign of weakness in a disordered and fragmented society where the power went to the strongest In such a time Christians inevitably stood out and the teachings of Christ must have seemed counter-cultural with it’s insistence on love, meekness and humility. Tydfil lived those qualities out in a society starved of love and compassion and her example is needed, as much as ever today, as more and more people are distancing themselves from their Christian past. And in that sense – as well as the fact, that she continues to live with the Saints – Tydfil will always be our contemporary and of her we request her intercession for ourselves and for our world. Amen.