Introduction Edited text Manuscripts Cymraeg

33. Vita S. Asaph

edited by David Callander


St Asaph is the patron saint of the cathedral of St Asaph, a position which he appears to have held since the twelfth century. Despite this apparently high status, the material surviving on the saint from Wales is relatively sparse. Beyond the Life edited here, in which Asaph himself barely appears, Asaph occurs most prominently in Jocelin of Furness’s Life of Kentigern (1175x1199), where he features as one of Kentigern’s disciples, performing a miracle as a boy (§25) and later succeeding Kentigern as bishop of what was to become St Asaph (§31). A Proper for St Asaph’s feast day (1 May) occurs in the Aberdeen Breviary, printed in 1510 in Edinburgh (Macquarrie 2012: 114–7). This consists in a collect and three lections. The lections are based upon Jocelin’s Life of Kentigern and were almost certainly produced in Scotland, as a result of Asaph’s connection with Kentigern, patron saint of Glasgow cathedral (Harris 1956: 11, 14–15). The collect derives from that for St Richard of Chichester in the use of Sarum (Harris 1956: 11). In the “foundation charter” of St Asaph, surviving in the fifteenth-century NLW SA/MB/22, Asaph is barely mentioned, although he is invoked once. Asaph occurs in the medieval genealogical tract Bonedd y Saint and in its later fifteenth-century offshoot Achau’r Saint (EWGT 56, 69). Asaph is alluded to in a number of Welsh poems from the late fourteenth century onwards (Harris 1956: 23). A restored stained glass window containing a depiction of Asaph survives in Llandyrnog, Denbighshire, dating from around 1500 ( Asaph does not occur in medieval Welsh calendars, a surprising fact given the high number of late medieval calendars produced in the episcopate, but he is found in some Welsh calendars of the early modern period and indeed his festival finds its way into the modern Roman martyrology (Harris 1956: 15–21). In addition to the cathedral, Asaph was patron of Llanasa in Flintshire and (together with Kentigern) the parish church at St Asaph (PW 101; LBS i, 182). Asaph also occurs in a number of toponyms at various locations within the bishopric of St Asaph (LBS i, 183–4). There are no early records of Asaph and his connection to his cathedral may have been invented when the episcopate itself was created in the twelfth century (Harris 1956: 6–7; Davies 2011; Davies 2009; Davies 2013).

The Life of St Asaph survives only in Peniarth 231 and its derivatives, and it was in very poor condition when copied there. Peniarth 231 copied material from the lost medieval manuscript Llyfr Coch Asaph, and was produced around 1620 by Robert Vaughan. In its extant form, the Life is not really a Life of Asaph at all. The prologue (§§1–2) describes the writer’s desire to produce a work in simple and brief style concerning the foundation of the cathedral of St Asaph (with details drawn from the more expansive Life of Kentigern) and then some things concerning St Asaph himself. The subsequent text closely follows Jocelin’s Life of Kentigern §§23–5 and 30–1, with almost all the events deriving from this and many sentences brought over verbatim. Of the two manuscripts of Jocelin’s Life, Dublin, Marsh’s Library MS Z 4.5.5 is generally but not always closer in its readings to the Life of St Asaph than British Library, Cotton Vitellius C viii. The Life of St Asaph tells of how Kentigern left his own See of Glasgow due to the persecution of king Morken. He made for St Davids and was well received by St David himself. Here two leaves of material are missing. When the text continues, we hear how king Caswallon supports Kentigern and a white boar guides the saint to the site where his church should be founded at Llanelwy. While the construction is progressing, the pagan king Maelgwn comes in fury and orders all the work to be undone, but is himself struck by blindness. He subsequently converts to Christianity and is baptized, cancelling his earlier commands and assisting Kentigern, whose monastery becomes a thriving religious community. Kentigern expresses his wish to die at the monastery, but an angelic message orders him to return to Glasgow. The text subsequently breaks off as Kentigern is instructing his monks on how to elect a successor.

While our writer’s debt to Jocelin is very heavy, he did make a number of significant changes. Most intriguingly, the descriptions of Asaph himself in §25 and §31 are all removed. Perhaps they were placed towards the end of the Life in a compilation of material concerning Asaph, as described in the prologue, but the text breaks off before we reach this. Any further material on Asaph, perhaps partly drawn from the vernacular writings of Welsh historians, as the prologue indicates, is also entirely lost. We are in the unfortunate situation of having the remains of what might well have been called a Life of St Asaph (‘Vita Sancti Assaph’ is the title in Peniarth 231), but in its extant state is much more ‘Pars vite Beati Kentigerni, et de fundacione Ecclesie Assavensis’ (‘Part of the Life of the Blessed Kentigern, and concerning the foundation of the church of St Asaph’), as the 1602 list of the contents of Llyfr Coch Asaph calls it (Roberts 1868).

The dating of this Life is complicated by several factors, notably its fragmentary extant state in an early-modern transcript and the fact that so much of its material derives directly from one source. The Life clearly postdates Jocelin’s Life of Kentigern (composed 1175×1199) (Downham 2013: 121). In Llyfr Coch Asaph, the Life was surrounded by documents from the late thirteenth century, and the Life itself could well date from this period, although there is no evidence that it is not somewhat earlier or later. The orthography of the proper nouns and the reference to Welsh vernacular sources indicates that the writer was familiar with Welsh, and the writer describes Asaph as ‘our patron’. This and other features show that he was most probably writing at the cathedral of St Asaph or at least in its episcopate.