St Deiniol of Pembroke

By Terry John Calendar

St Daniel’s church stands on the hill to the south of Pembroke, its thin, needle-like spire clearly visible from the town. It is said to be one of the oldest religious sites in the county. An ancient rhyme claims that:

St Daniels could ring a knell

When Pembroke was a furzy dell

But who was St Daniel, and why has a church dedicated to him stood here for well over a thousand years? Well, it’s a fascinating story, shrouded in legend and tales of wandering saints, bishops, miracle cures and trigonometry!

St Daniel, or Deiniol as he should more properly be called, was probably born in the sixth century, the son of Dunawd fab Pabo Post Prydain, a great warrior descended from the royal line of Coel Hen, an ancient king. Although Deiniol’s family hailed from the north, the saint may have been sent as a young boy to a religious school that existed in the Vale of Glamorgan. The school had been founded by St Illtud, who often retired to Caldey Island on retreat. It may be that Deiniol followed Illtud’s example and came to Pembrokeshire to find a remote spot in which to devote his life to God.

Pembroke castle
Deiniol set up hermitage on the spot where the church now stands. It was a peaceful place, but there was one drawback - there was no adjacent water supply. How it eventually came to have one is an example of the many miracles performed by the saint and led to St Daniel’s becoming a focus of pilgrimage in later centuries.

It all began with a journey to Jerusalem. Deiniol wished fervently to visit the places where Christ had lived and suffered. After praying at the sepulcher where the body of the Lord had rested, he went on to the River Jordan, to the spot where Christ had been baptised. There, Deiniol ‘filled a certain vessel from that water and brought it with him all the way to the top of the mountain near Pembroke, on which his dwelling place had been built, where there was a great scarcity of water.’

Thrusting his staff into the ground, Deiniol invoked the name of Christ and poured the Jordan water into the ground around the staff, and immediately the staff grew up into a beautiful tree and a spring of the sweetest water burst from the soil.

The spring became famous as a healing well. It is said that a woman from Carew came to the well to find relief from a swelling sickness that seemed incurable. Praying to St Deiniol for help, she drank the water and then made her way to the church that had been built on the site of the hermitage. At the entrance to the church she ‘cast forth from her mouth, while many stood by and observed, three horrible worms, each with four feet, and the woman was made whole from that very hour’.

Another legend describes how ‘the wife of a certain man from the region of Oxford who had long been blind, having been admonished in dreams through St Daniel, indeed by divine revelation, when she had been brought to the said church of St Daniel, spent the night there in devout prayers, together with a certain blind chaplain and many others, and both of them received their sight that same night, through the merits of the same Confessor…’

During his time at his hermitage, Deiniol also performed many miracles. On one occasions two ‘evilly-disposed men’ stole the oxen that the saint had used to plough his fields. Seeing through a window what was happening, Deiniol politely called to them, ‘Wait, wait a little, in the name of the Lord‘. Hearing his voice, the men began to urge the oxen faster, but Deiniol made the sign of the cross and ‘straightway the thieves were turned into two stones on this very spot, like unto men standing unto this day‘. One of the stones remains, clearly visible in a field to the south of the church.

When Deiniol could not find oxen with which to plough his fields he was prepared to use wild animals. Another story tells us that, lacking oxen, he was delighted when two stags emerged from the wood of Pencoed close by. Going to the place where the ploughing was to take place, they bent their necks to the yoke and drew the plough all day until the work was finished.

The wood of Pencoed still exists in the deep valley that formed the boundary between the parishes of St Michael, Pembroke and Stackpole Elidyr, less than a mile from St Daniel’s Church.

St Deiniol eventually left Pembroke and travelled back to North Wales, summoned there so the legend says by the clergy of Bangor Cathedral, to whom it had divinely been revealed that he should be their bishop. Other stories relate that he founded an abbey on the site, and when it was raised to the status of a cathedral by the local king, Deiniol was elected its first bishop. When he died, full of years and wisdom, he was buried on Bardsey Island, one of the 20,000 saints reputedly resting there. His festival is celebrated on 11 September.

The well was destroyed in July 1592, when a purge was ordered against all the ancient holy sites in Pembrokeshire. The order also authorised the arrest of all pilgrims coming to these places so that they could be punished ‘for their disobedience and lewd behaviour’. The sites were to be thoroughly defaced so that no memory of them remained.

The church itself fell into disuse. In the 18th century Erasmus Saunders wrote a review of the state of religion in Pembrokeshire, remarking that many churches were totally neglected and if ‘they are not converted into Barns or Stables…do only serve for the solitary Habitations of Owles and Jackdaws; such (is) St Daniel’s…’

And the trigonometry? The answer to that is that the spire of the church became a well known landmark, appearing on maps of the area as early as 1580. In the first decades of the nineteenth century, Lieutenant-Colonel William Mudge and Captain Thomas Colby used it was one of the main inland trigonometrical points for the first Ordnance Survey Map of the area, published on 16 February 1818.

Categories:Pembrokeshire, History

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