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Dydd Santes Dwynwen – love, loss and legend in Wales

25 January 2018

Wales' national identity is a magnificent tapestry woven from years of diverse history and mystical legends. The home of Arthurian legend, a source of inspiration for the works of JRR Tolkein and the land of mysterious mountains, it is little surprise that Wales is so often linked with myths, tales and stories.

One of these stories is that of the Welsh patron saint of love, Santes Dwynwen. Similar to the St Valentine's Day of popular western tradition, Santes Dwynwen is the patron saint of Love and her day is celebrated on the 25th of January every year. Celebrations of the day are in fact on the rise, perhaps inspired by its more commercial equivalent, Valentine's Day, and these are characterised by parties and events to promote the day and romance in general. Matchmaking get-togethers, fairs and special meals all feature, and cards are exchanged between lovers, admirers and unrequited dreamers.

Unlike many romantic endeavours, the sad and unfortunate Santes Dwynwen does not have the happiest or most upbeat of endings. We begin in the 5th century AD, at the heart of South Wales somewhere near the Brecon Beacons. Brychan Brycheiniog was a king who married three times and had around 24 children. One of these children was the beautiful Dwynwen who, with her gentle brown eyes and flowing brown hair, was one of Brychan's favourite and most admired daughters. She was a princess, and her beauty was known around all of South Wales.

Dwynwen fell in love with the son of a neighbouring king, a man called Maelon Dafodrill. Likewise, Maelon found himself taken by the spirited Dwynwen, and the two dedicated their lives to each other. Maelon went to King Brychan in order to ask for Dwynwen's hand in marriage. Upon finding himself in front of the king, he was informed that he could not marry Dwynwen because Brychan had already picked out a husband for her, as was the norm in the 5th century.

Furious and distraught, Maelon blamed Dwynwen and left court in a blind fury. The princess herself was equally upset and fled into the forest where she fell into a deep sleep. Waking up, Dwynwen knelt and prayed to God that she would fall out of love with Maelon. An angel then appeared before her, informing her that, for his rage and unfair blame of Dwynwen, Maelon had been frozen as a block of ice so as to not trouble her anymore. The angel then gave Dwynwen three wishes for her troubles.

The good princess' first two wishes were benevolent ones. Her first wish was that Maelon be thawed out of his ice, and the second one was for all true love to come to fruition and that all lovers either obtain the objects of their affection or to forget their desires completely. Her last wish was that she would never fall in love or marry, and that she would be free to live her life on her own. All three were granted and Dwynwen left home to escape her father's desires for her to be married. She travelled throughout the entirety of Wales, helping those in need and dedicated churches to God and to lovers across the world. She finished her pilgrimage in North Wales, off Anglesey, on an island which was thenceforth named Llanddwyn. There, she built a modest church whose remains can still be seen today along with a well bearing a fish, whose movements were said to indicate the fortunes of lovers.

Dwynwen's sad tale is an important legend in Welsh mythology and one that pervades many different parts of Welsh culture. Famously, the welsh lovespoon is a possible product of St Dwynwen's day. These beautiful wooden spoons are marvels of carpentry, often designed with twining Celtic decorations and shaped in some semblance of a heart. Originally created in the late 17th century, they were traded amongst friends and families, giving the opportunity to declare appreciation, love or belonging to those closest to them. They were often given to young women by their suitors and often as an indication of romantic intent. There are different kinds of lovespoon, many of which have their own selection of motifs, symbols and styles reflecting a different thing depending on the craftsman.

Dwynwen's island Llandwyn is a wonderfully serene and tranquil place. A high-tide island, separated by a small stretch of water which recedes every day, it is well worth a visit to those who travel to Anglesey. The enchanting mystery of the island is enhanced by the remains of Santes Dwynwen's church as well as a large stone cross which gazes right across the water. A short distance from the cross is a short lighthouse, warning incoming ships of the land and rocks below. The small beaches are a delight to explore, and the coves are choice spots for birdwatchers.

So this was the story of one of the saddest of all Welsh saints. Across Wales on the day, small celebrations will take place in selected areas, and all that remains to be said is cariad mawr i gyd o'n darllenwyr, a dydd Santes Dwynwen hapus i pawb!