During medieval times Irish pilgrims travelled on pilgrimage to British shrines. One of the most popular destinations was the shrine of St David located in Pembrokeshire in Wales. It not surprising St Davids was such a popular destination given it possessed the corporeal relics of St David and in the later medieval period two pilgrimages to St Davids was equal to one to Rome. For Irish pilgrims a trip to Wales was a lot less expensive and time-consuming then one to Rome.
Like many important pilgrim sites St Davids was at the centre of an extensive pilgrim landscape composed of minor outlying pilgrim shrines/foci connected to the saint. As well as praying at the relics of St David, pilgrims would have also visited some of these minor shrines more often than not prior to visiting the primary shrine. This post focuses on one such site namely the chapel of St Non’s. This site is located in a field over looking St Non’s Bay approximately a mile from St Davids.
St Non (also known as Nonna or Nonnita) was the mother of St David. Her feast day is the 3rd of March and her cult spread to Wales, Cornwall and Brittany. The daughter of Lord Cynyr Ceinfarfog, she was born around AD 475. As a young woman she became a nun at Ty Gwyn near Whitesands Bay (Dyfed). St David was conceived when she was raped by Sanctus, a king of Ceredigion. Tradition hold that the chapel was built on the site where she gave birth to St David. St Non’s chapel is one of a number of sites which claim to be the location of St David’s birth.
Today the site consist of the ruins of a single room building aligned north-south. The walls do not survive to any great height and the present structure cannot be dated easily as there are not any distinguishable features. The alignment of the building is very unusual as churches are normally aligned east-west.
Fenton writing in 1818 states
In digging for earth within the walls of the chapel, stone coffins were found, and part of a curious image of pottery glazed, being the head and shoulder of a male figure. It was hollow, and filled with a prodigious hard cement, and is now in possession of Mr Archdeacon Davies.
An early medieval cross slab, of 7th/8th century date, is located in the corner of the interior of the chapel. When I visited the site in late June there were a number of beach pebble with names written on them, left in front of the slab perhaps as modern votive offerings.
A holy well also dedicated to the saint is located very close to the chapel. The waters of the well flow into a rectangular chamber covered with superstructure with a rounded top. The water then flows into a second rectangular stone trough.
Local tradition holds that the well burst forth from the ground upon the birth of St David.
The well and a small area around it are enclosed with a stone wall. A niche in the wall opposite the well holds a small statue of St Non with out stretched arms. Modern pilgrims have left a number of offering at her feet including a brown scapula , money and rosary beads.
The oldest written account of pilgrimage here is found in a 15th century poem and concerns the pilgrimage of Edudful ferch Gadwgon and her sons. The text records that Edudful visited St Non’s chapel and holy well on her way to St Davids. When she arrived here she washed her head in the holy water. She also prayed at an image of the St Non, most likely a statue and lit candles before the altar in the chapel. When her pilgrim rituals were complete she proceeded to her primary destination St David’s where as part of her pilgrim rituals she left an offering of wax and money (Cartwright 2007, 190).
On Sunday Edudful comes
to pray sincerely to God;
puts her head in the well,
raises her hands merrily,
worships the holy image,
lights the large, yellow candles,
and puts all of them on the altar;
From there she passes to
the good close of St David’s church;
makes an offering of crimson wax
and money and kisses the saint; ( ibid after Johnson 2007, 371)
Browne Willis (1717) writing in the 18th century quotes an early 16th century description of the well by George Owen of Henllys
There is a fine Well beside it , cover’d with a Stone-Roof and inclosed within a wall, and Benches to sit upon round the Well (ibid., 190).
Cartwright (2007) suggests the superstructure over the well was more substantial than it is today. The present covering may date to the 19th century but it was extensively restored in 1951.
The waters of the well are said to have healing powers and to be of particular use for eye complaints. In 1811 the following account of the well is given in Fenton’s Historical Tour Through Pembrokeshire
…a most redundant spring arched over, and at one time inclosed with a wall. The fame this consecrated spring had obtained is incredible, and still is resorted to for many complaints. In my infancy, as was the general usage with respect to children at that time, I was often dipped in it, and offerings , however trifling , even of a farthing or a pin, were made after each ablution, and the bottom of the well shrone with votive brass.
The immersion of children in the waters of holy wells were carried out at many Irish sites in the 19th and 20th century such as at St Moling’s well at Mullens in Co Carlow and at St Keeve at Glendalough.
A second chapel can be found a short distance from the well, in the grounds of St Non’s Retreat house . This chapel which has an ancient appearance was built-in 1934 by Mr Morgan-Griffith a solicitor from Carmarthen who had it built for his wife who had converted to Catholicism.
The building was constructed with recycled stones from cottages and possibly also from monastic buildings at Whitehall.
The modern chapel is dedicated to Our Lady and St Non. Within are a number of beautiful stain glass windows of the William Morris school depicting Welsh saints including St Non see image below.
The base of this window depicts a scene of St Non and her son St David arriving in Brittany by boat.
Another interesting feature within the chapel is the altar which incorporates numerous pieces of medieval architectural fragments.
Today the Passionists are the owners of the property and they have granted the Sisters of Mercy a licence to occupy and manage St Non’s Retreat Centre and chapel.
The ruins of St Non’s Chapel and holy well has a long tradition of pilgrimage. The stunning scenery and peaceful setting at the site makes it a must see for modern pilgrims. The modern church of Our Lady and St Non is also a lovely place to spend some time. Although there are no accounts of Irish pilgrims travelling here I suspect the majority of Irish pilgrims to St Davids would have also visited the site.
Cartwright, J. 2007. ‘The Cult of David’, In (eds.) Evan, J. W. & Wooding, J. St David of Wales Cult Church and Nation. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 182-206.
Fenton, R. 1811. Historical Tour Through Pembrokeshire Printed for Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme & co., 112-113
Johnston, D (ed) Gwaith Lewys Glyn Cothi. Walse: Welsh University Press.
Rees, N. 1992. St David of Dewisland. Llandysul: Gomer Press, 21-24.