12th and 13th Centuries

St Cybi’s becomes a Collegiate church.

During the 12thcentury St Cybi’s was well connected with the ruling Princes.  In 1137 Gruffudd ap Cynan, King of Gwynedd, who successfully resisted the Norman advance into Gwynedd, died and on his deathbed left 10 shillings to St Cybi’s and in 1195 Prince Rhodri of Gwynedd, Lord of Anglesey and Arfon, was buried before the High Altar.

According to a plaque on the wall of the north aisle of the church John Lloyd Griffith MA, a Holyhead solicitor, was a descendant of Prince Rhodri. He was born in Holyhead on 6th January 1839 and died on 1st January 1902. He was the son of clergyman, Rev. Henry Griffith and Sarah Lloyd. Henry Griffith was Anglican rector of Llandrygarn, Anglesey between 1829 and 1862. John Griffith was active in fundraising for the establishment of the University College of North Wales in the 1880’s and was a member of the first council of the university. He married Elin Young Griffith, his cousin, in 1876 and had one daughter, Sarah Winifred.

At the University of Cambridge in England, a ‘Wrangler’ is a student who gains first-class honours in the third year of the University’s undergraduate degree in mathematics. The highest-scoring student is the Senior Wrangler, the second highest is the Second Wrangler, and so on. At the other end of the scale, the person who achieves the lowest exam marks while still earning a third-class honours degree, is known as the wooden spoon.

He was also interested in the history of the area. In 1870 the Cambrian Archaeological Association held its 24th Annual Meeting at Holyhead and their Journal records “The preliminary arrangements had been carried out by the Local Committee and John Lloyd Griffith, Esq., of Stanley House, who, having undertaken the responsible duty of Secretary for the meeting, performed it in so efficient a manner as to ensure, as far as possible, the complete success of it.”

The Journal also notes that the Rev. Thomas Briscoe, D.D., Vicar of Holyhead, was Chairman of the local committee.


John Lloyd Griffith Plaque

During the twelfth century the Clâs changed status to that of a Collegiate Church and the Celtic Church finally acceded to the rule of Rome.

Miss E. M. Fussell, M.A. comments: “St Cybi’s brotherhood at Holyhead was similar to that of St Deiniol at Bangor Fawr, and that of St. Beuno at Clynnog, but the idea of seclusion from the world, so marked in the site of Seiriol’s house [at Penmon], was not very prominent.  The majority of the Welsh churches founded before the tenth century were really monasteries in the hands of communities of clergy, and there is little doubt but that Caergybi was one of these, and the centre from which a great part of the western side of Anglesey was evangelised by the practice of sending out missionaries.  It was a “clâs” or mother church, and as such had the power to establish daughter churches directly dependent on itself.  The brethren, like those of Ynys Seiriol, would themselves cultivate the land around the church, and, subject to the authority of the abbot, would be free to wander outside, thus differing considerably from the monks of the later religious orders.  Much time would be spent in prayer and study, but the fact that most buildings of this period were wooden, accounts for the fewness of the remains.  St Cybi had the title abbot or bishop, for a non-diocesan episcopate was quite familiar to Welsh churchmen of the time.

Rhodri was the son of Dafydd ab Owain Gwynedd and his second wife Christina, who were first cousins which meant their union was not recognised by the church and Rhodri was therefore considered to be illegitimate.

Following Owain’s death in 1170 there was a period of family conflict involving Rhodri and his brothers.  Hywel was killed in a battle at Pentraeth.  With other brothers killed or exiled Rhodri acquired part of Gwynedd but was then challenged by his brother Dafydd who captured him.

In 1175 Rhodri escaped and regained part of Gwynedd after which he reached agreement with Dafydd.

In 1188 Rhodri and his followers attended a meeting conducted by Archbishop Baldwin of Canterbury who was raising support for the Third Crusade.  Gerald of Wales tells us they refused to ‘take the Cross’.  Rhodri was admonished for marrying the daughter of Rhys, related to him by blood in the third degree.

In 1190 Rhodri was again driven out.  In 1193, with Manx support, he regained prominence for a few months.

He died in 1195 and was buried before the Altar of St Cybi’s Church.

One of Rhodri’s brothers, Madoc, is reputed to have sailed to, and discovered, America long before Christopher Columbus.

In 1713 whilst work was being carried out on the Chancel Rhodri’s stone coffin was discovered.

“Holyhead continued to retain for many years its “clâs” character, though this would be opposed to the Norman policy of subjugation, which aimed at breaking up the old “clâs” organisation. To the Norman the “clâs” was a college of secular canons and a type of ecclesiastical institution very much discredited, so that only when it had a bishop at its head did it continue to exist as the cathedral chapter.  Elsewhere, with the exception of places like Holyhead, Aberdaron, and Towyn – out of the reach of the spoiler’s hand – it was either displaced by a new monastic foundation, or reduced to the level of an ordinary parish church.  Speaking of Holyhead, Tanner says, ‘in after times there was founded….a college of prebendaries,’ who continued to exist right up to the dissolution of the monasteries.  Pilgrimages to the neighbourhood also occurred, as is evident from the remains of a building, ‘Capel Clochwydd,’ on the western side of the mountain.  The mediaeval collegiate church – the present parish church – was built on the site of what was probably a Roman fortified station.  The provost and prebendaries of which the college consisted received the revenues of St Cybi’s, which was endowed with several churches in the neighbourhood, but they did not necessarily exercise spiritual functions there.

The Wikipedia website describes a collegiate church as a church where the daily office of worship is maintained by a college of canons; a non-monastic or “secular” community of clergy, organised as a self-governing corporate body, which may be presided over by a dean or provost. In its governance and religious observance, a collegiate church is similar to a cathedral, although a collegiate church is not the seat of a bishop and has no diocesan responsibilities. Collegiate churches were often supported by extensive lands held by the church, or by tithe income from appropriated benefices. They commonly provide distinct spaces for congregational worship and for the choir offices of their clerical community.


Pope Nicholas IV initiated the Papal Taxation of 1291

“Some, if not all, were non-resident and held other appointments, on this account paying a vicar to conduct the services. In 1291, the time of the Papal Taxation, the college was said to consist of a provost and three prebendaries in receipt of revenue of 39 marks.  Twelve, however, seems to be the normal number of clerics, and at the dissolution in 1535, when the college was valued at £24, the provost was pensioned off with £12. 12s., and the eleven prebendaries with £1. 1s. each.  St Cybi’s church is described as Benefice of Holyhead, alias Caergybi.  The entry for St Cybi’s shows the church under the patronage of the King, through Robert de Cisterna, clerk.”[i]

  1. N. Palmer explained how, in 1291, these churches were administered and draws heavily on St Cybi’s as “a church concerning which we happen to know a great deal”. He describes at great length the available information and then concludes “Thus all the patron of the twelve canonries of Caergybi Church are represented in the last resort by Llywarch ap Bran and Hwfa ap Cynddelw.”[ii]

The Arms of Llywarch ap Bran above the south door of the church.

He goes on to say “Now there is a tradition that Llywarch ap Bran was a great benefactor to Holyhead College.  There is, in any case, a shield bearing the arms which have been attributedto Llywarch, still to be seen on the south side of the church; and this latter stands, we know, within a township of which he was the owner.  Hwfa ap Cynddelw is, in like manner, traditionally connected with the establishment of the College of Holyhead.  Dr. John Jones, of Galltfaenan, the antiquary, communicated to the Rev. Prebendary Tanner, before the year 1744, the tradition that this Hwfa was the actual founder of the College.  It is certain that Llywarch ap Bran and Hwfa ap Cynddelw were the owners of the greater part of the lands from which the tithes due to Caergybi Church were derived; and I think we may conclude, from what has been said, that they were also the joint rebuilders of that church, and founders of the latercollegiate body connected with it.  This latter appears to have been constituted so as to consist of a “Præpositus”, or Provost (so called in the Valor Ecclesiasticusof Henry VIII, but called “Rector” on the capitular seal, and “Penelas” in the current Welsh of the time), and twelve canons; the parochial revenues being equally divided between the Provost on the hand, and the body of canons on the other, the stipends (described in the Taxatioas “portions”) of the curates of the dependant chapels of Bodedeyrn, Bodwrog, and Llandrygarn having been previously deducted.

“In whose hands the patronage of the provostship (“præpositura”), so constituted, rested, is not evident; perhaps in those of the Prince of Gwynedd, whence it may have fallen to the King of England. But the patronage of the canonries was equally shared between Llywarch and Hwfa; so that, assuming there to have been twelve canonries from the beginning, each of the founders had the disposal of six.  The patronage of these canonries would then be subsequently distributed among the kins or tribes springing severally from Llywarch and Hwfa, according to the custom of gavelkind, whereby all the property of the deceased was equally shared among his sons, – a custom which in Wales ruled all things.

The Chancel of the church. This is the oldest part of the church with foundations dating from the 13th century. The East Window is by Charles Eamer Kempe and shows the risen Christ in radiance and, below, episodes from the Resurrection.

“What, then, have we actually ascertained? This, namely, that all the canonries in Caergybi Church were connected by patronage, and perhaps in other ways, with certain “gwelyau” within the parish, these “gwelyau” being occupied by an equal number of “cenedloedd”, or groups of kinsfolk, who were all derived from the two lords of land who in the twelfth century rebuilt the church, or founded the college belonging to it.  That these canons were in a real, though limited, sense tribal priestswe may even venture to say.”

[i]Some Aspects of Monasticism in Anglesey: Transactions of the Anglesey Antiquarian Society 1921

[ii]The Portionary Churches of Medieval North Wales; their tribal relations, and the sinecurism connected therewith: Archaeologia Cambrensis July 1886.