Monday, 4 January 2010


The still impressive Roman walls of Caerwent (Venta Silurum)

The Church of England has been memorably described as a Protestant Church haunted by its Catholic past. I think it’s possible to go one step further and describe the southern two-thirds of the British Isles as a part of the world haunted by its experience of the Roman imperium.

We are used to the version of history which describes the withdrawal of the last Roman legions in 410, leaving behind a disorganised and crumbling society which fell easy prey to the pagan Teutonic tribes which settled in what is now England.
We are also familiar with the narrative which sees the return of Roman Christianity with St Augustine and his followers in 597 and the adoption by the Celtic Christians of the Roman Calendar and ecclesiastical jurisdiction at Whitby. Modern scholarship also suggests a hitherto unappreciated indebtedness of Saxon England to its Roman, British past.

Yet there was a small part of the British Isles where the idea of Romanitas lived on more fully and outwardly. Wales, particularly South Wales, long held on to a kind of hybrid Romano-Celtic identity until it largely disappeared under the succession of Norman invaders from the end of the eleventh century onwards.
This was, of course, also the part of the world visited by St Germanus of Auxerre in his mission to counter the heresy of Pelagianism in the 5th century.
The church here in this village, interestingly in the later middle ages under Augustinian patronage, receives its first reference in a document (The Book of Llandaff, Liber Landavensis), referring to events in the tenth century, as being under the jurisdiction of the Celtic bishop at Caerwent, the Roman town of Venta Silurum, whose ruined walls still stand as a reminder of a submerged heritage.
A kind of “British” memory of romanitas also achieved a cultural colonialism far beyond these shores with the various versions of the Arthurian Romances, a series of legends originating from the time of  the collapse of the authority of Imperial Rome in Britain, but reappearing in an international form under the literary disguise of feudal chivalry.

Of course, the Reformation and the rise of an  all encompassing English nationalism under the Tudors (with which the Welsh were only too eager to identify) effectively buried this nostalgia for a form of Roman, “European” identity. The Reformation, though probably at first rather grudgingly accepted in Wales as it was in England, and the later spread of Methodism – in its Calvinistic form - effectively put paid to such dreams of the past by tying itself to the myth of a separate British identity, in religion as in politics. Although the remarkable success of nonconformity in Wales, as in Cornwall, can perhaps be accounted for by the lack of emotional affinity from a Celtic people towards the wordy sobriety of the Cranmerian Prayer Books, so wholehearted embraced by their socially ambitious gentry. The passion and colour of medieval Catholicism, rejected by the Church of England, was perhaps eventually rediscovered in another form in the chapel pulpits.
“Catholic” Wales lived on in isolated pockets of, at times bloodily persecuted and, later, barely tolerated recusancy, particularly in north-east Monmouthshire, until the waves of Irish immigration to South Wales in the nineteenth century gave it a wholly different character.
Anglicans in Wales were influenced greatly by the Oxford Movement (from Isaac Williams onwards) in places as far apart as rural Bangor and the seaports of industrial South Wales, and the “Anglican province” of the Church in Wales which emerged from its reluctant disestablishment in the nineteen twenties had a distinctively anglo-celtic “Prayer Book Catholic” ethos which it has taken modern theological liberalism some time to destroy. Little remains of it now except, ironically, an instinctive and viscerally anti-catholic Welsh nationalism - a world away from  the religion of  the Catholic, Saunders Lewis, not to mention the Anglicans, C. A.H. Green or  A. E. Monahan!

Is any of this significant? Probably not; it is little more than a somewhat fanciful historical ecclesiological footnote, but maybe one worth recording before even the memory of it is swept away by the onslaught of modern secular barbarism.
Yet perhaps the fragments of ‘Romanitas’ buried deep in our religious and cultural consciousness also form a forgotten element of the patrimony of Welsh members (if there will be any) of a future Anglican Ordinariate.

1 comment:

  1. It is worth mentioning that until Methodism swept them away, many Catholic things were preserved in popular devotion (e.g. prayer for the dead and to the saints, pre-Reformation carols and other religious songs, visits to holy wells and former shrine), and these among the great mass of the population who weren't even "church papists" (let alone recusants).

    And the gentry weren't perhaps entirely monochrome. Whilst many became establishment protestants, there were those who had what we should now call Anglo-Catholic tendencies (consider the private chapels at Rug and Gwydir in North Wales), to say nothing of those who were recusants and (at the other extreme) puritans.

    (It's often forgotten that, though it became a popular movement, non-conformity would probably have fizzled out without the patronage of certain of the gentry in its early days.)


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