Massacre at Bangor-is-y-coed

If the account of the Welsh historian Theophilus Evans is to be believed, then Augustine was no saint. He is commonly credited with bringing Christianity to the Saxons in Britain, but when he went to Wales he encouraged the Saxon army to carry out a massacre of 1200 monks and scholars at Bangor-is-y-coed near Wrexham.

Note: This Augustine is not to be confused with St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430).

Christianity arrived in Britain during the first century AD, as I have described in my article on Early British Christianity. The notion that Augustine brought Christianity to Britain is pure myth. He came here as the representative of the Pope and persuaded the Saxon kings to submit to Rome. There were mass baptisms all over the country as the Saxon people followed the example of their leaders. Then in 601 he went to Wales, expecting the same success, but was disappointed. The Welsh already had the true faith, given to them by the early church, and they did not need any new innovations from Rome.

Augustine demanded that the Britons should accept all the doctrines of the Roman Catholic church, although he offered them time to do it in piecemeal fashion, without converting to Roman Catholicism all at once. When they refused, he instigated the Saxon army to attack the monastery at Bangor-is-y-coed, killing 1200 monks and scholars.

The story so far is well known among British historians, but the monastery was not at Bangor on the Menai Strait near Anglesey as some people might suppose. It was at a relatively small and insignificant place called Bangor-is-y-coed, about 5 miles south-east of Wrexham, just on the Welsh side of the border with England.

This important point of detail is given to us by Theophilus Evans (1694-1767) in his "Drych y Prif Oesoedd" which was later translated into English under the title "A View of the Primitive Ages".

A View of
The Primitive Ages,

in two parts, translated from
the Welsh of

The Rev. Theophilus Evans,

Formerly Vicar of Llangamarch
and St. David's, in Brecknock,

By the Rev. George Roberts.

(Reprinted from the American edition
published at Edensburg, in 1834.)

Llanidloes: Printed and published by
John Pryse, & sold by all Booksellers.
View of the Primitive Ages

Theophilus Evans first mentions Bangor-is-y-coed in connection with an issue that has nothing to do with the massacre of the monks, but it is important to mention it here because he makes a clear distinction between the two Bangors. There was an abbot called Morgan who went to Italy and changed his name to Pelagius. He made himself famous by preaching a doctrine which became known as the "Pelagian Heresy". He maintained that salvation is not entirely the work of the grace of God within the heart of the sinner who repents, but it also depends on free choice, so that the person must work together with God, and is at perfect liberty to accept salvation or else reject it and perish forever. This doctrine is now known as "Arminianism", and the alternative doctrine which emphasises the sovereign grace of God is called "Calvinism".

On page 177, Evans describes the education of Pelagius as follows:

Pelagius received his education at the college of Bangor-is-coed, where he became a monk, and afterwards an abbot. This institution may properly be denominated the mother of all learning. It is not the same Bangor which is now in Caernarvonshire, and the seat of the bishopric which bears that name; but Bangor in Flintshire, on the river Dee, about twelve miles from Chester. In former times there was a very extensive monastery at this place. In addition to the students who were learning the sciences, there were 2400 religious persons who read the service in rotation, a hundred at a time, every hour in the twenty-four; so that the worship of God was continued by day and night throughout the year. [Vide Manuscript Hengwrt].

Note: County boundaries have changed. Bangor is now in the County of Wrexham, but before 1974 it used to be in Flintshire.

On pages 204-207, Evans describes an assembly held at a place called Augustine's Oak (Derwen Austin), at the border of Hereford and Worcester. Augustine met with the British Christians and made his demands to them, which they refused. One of his demands, that they should preach the gospel to the Saxons, was considered odious to the Britons because they believed that if the Saxons truly repented of their sins, they would restore the country that they had taken away from the Britons. However, they didn't get into political arguments with Augustine. Instead they rejected him purely on the grounds of his proud and pompous demeanour. The story is as follows:

... the assembly was held under a thick oak in the open field. A very great number of the Britons attended, besides seven of the bishops of Wales, viz., the bishops of Worcester, Hereford [These two bishoprics were at that time considered part of Wales,] Llandaff, Llanbadarn-fawr, Bangor, St. Asaph, and Holyhead in Anglesea; besides whom, the able and intelligent students of the college of Caerleon, a place as noted then as Oxford is now; and from North Wales many hundreds of educated teachers from the great monastery of Bangor-is-y-coed, in which were taught in that age all the different branches of literature which were then known: for such was the clamour raised by Augustine respecting the supreme authority and claims of the pope, that the people crowded from all parts of the country to see the messenger he had sent from Rome. But before they arrived at the end of their journey, some of them met with an elderly man, who inquired where they were going. - "We are going," said they, "to meet Augustine, who was sent by one he calls the Pope of Rome to preach to the Saxons. He asks us to obey him, and also to receive the same ceremonies and articles of religion as are received and held by the church of Rome. Pray, what is your opinion on this subject? Shall we obey him, or will we not?" The elder answered, "If God has sent him, obey him." "But how can we know whether he is sent by God or not?" said they. "By this shall ye know," said the elder: "consider what our Saviour says - 'Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me, for I am meek and lowly in heart;' (Matt. xi. 29,) and if Augustine is a meek and humble man, and poor in spirit, hear him; if otherwise, have nothing to do with him. "But how shall we know," they rejoined, "whether he is proud or humble?" "Easily enough," said the elder: "proceed, slowly, in order that Augustine may be at the place appointed before you, and sit in his chair. Now he is only one, and I am told there are seven bishops on our side, besides many other respectable men, therefore, if Augustine will not rise from his chair and salute you, you may then judge at once that he is a proud man: do not obey him." The counsel of this elder was considered by the whole of them as a kind warning from God, and they were unanimous in adopting it. After they had bid farewell to the elder, they proceeded on their journey, in the name of God; and, when they came into the presence of Augustine, he offered no salutation, nor did he move from his chair.
After looking at them a considerable time, with an air of cold indifference, he condescended to address them as follows: "Dear brethren, although you hold many things contrary to our customs, yet we will bear with you in them, if you will at this time agree with us in three particulars: 1st. To observe the feast of Easter according to the discipline of the church of Rome: 2nd. To perform the ministry of baptism in the manner practised by the said church: 3rd. To assist us in preaching the gospel to the Saxons. If you will join us in these ordinances, we will bear with you for a time in other matters now in dispute between us." The bishops of Wales replied, that they would neither coincide with the church of Rome in these particulars, nor acknowledge him as their archbishop; "for," said they to each other, "if he was too proud to rise from his seat to salute us now, how much more would he despise us if we were to submit to his authority?" "Is that your answer?" said Augustine angrily, (and his blood boiled within him as he spoke,) "Is that your story? Perhaps you will repent this hereafter. If you do not think proper to join us in preaching the gospel to the Saxons, rely upon it, the time will come, and that speedily, when you will receive death at their hands."
This was no idle threat, without intent; for, although Augustine possessed no more of the spirit of prophecy than did Simon Magus, he was instrumental in verifying his own predictions. He instigated and encouraged ETHELBERT, one of the Saxon kings, to collect men and arms to punish the Britons for their disobedience in refusing to receive him as their archbishop. Ethelbert prevailed upon another king ELFRED, to join him; and together they marched a very large army towards Chester, on the river Dee. When they were within two miles of that city, they were met by BROCHFAEL YSGITHROG, a grandson of Brychan Brycheiniog. He had but a few men under his command - not one tenth of the number of the enemy: he therefore determined to act with caution and prudence, and to seek terms of peace, lest his army should be sacrificed by rashness and temerity. "Or what king, going to make war against another king, sitteth not down first, and consulteth whether he be able with ten thousand to meet him that cometh against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is yet a great way off, he sendeth an ambassage, and desireth conditions of peace." Luke xiv. 31,32. So Brochfael, the governor of Chester, considering the weakness of his army, sent messengers to the two Saxon kings, desiring an amnesty; but their efforts were unavailing, and, instead of receiving that respect and attention to which they were entitled, they were slain at the request of the haughty monk who had excited the invasion. [Vide Goodwin's Catalogue, c. 4, p. 45] Brochfael then retreated towards the monastery of Bangor-is-y-coed, in which there were more than two thousand monks - pious and holy men, who served the Lord, "in the beauty of holiness." They were not, like the monks of the church of Rome at the present day, indolent carousers and lovers of carnal pleasures; but their lives were devoted to the aquisition of knowledge and the performance of works of holiness and charity. Some of them studied divinity, others medicines: some the languages, others the sciences; nor were gardening, agriculture, or the mechanic arts without some professors amongst them. When Ethelbert and Elfred, with their immense army were approaching, these monks, who had fasted for three days, went out of the monastery to meet Brochfael Ysgithrog: they prayed that he might be victorious, and encouraged him to be firm and fearless, notwithstanding his great inferiority to the enemy in point of numbers; for they knew that, in the event of his defeat, they could expect no favour or mercy from Augustine. When one of the kings saw the multitude thus assembled, he inquired who they were; and when he was told that they were the priests of the Most High God, who had come to pray for the success of their countrymen, he was very wroth, and, in the violence of his rage, rushed upon them, and murdered twelve hundred of them in cold blood, without the least resistance on their part. Whilst this act of cruelty and barbarity was being perpetrated, Augustine was a spectator of the scene, and consenting to the massacre. Not more than fifty of them escaped! What the papists were then, they still remain - a vindictive people. [Vide Spelm. Concil. Britan. p. 110.] This occurred A.D. 601.
The Roman Catholics are offended at this heavy and, as they say, unfounded accusation against Augustine. They not only refuse to acknowledge that he was concerned in the massacre of the monks, but would have us fain believe that he died previous to its occurrence. [Hanc Parenthesin in Bed. 1.2, c. 2, (quamvis ipso Augustino jam multo ante tempore ad caelestia regna sublato) Pontifici intexuerunt contra omnium MS. Saxonicorum Librorum fidem. Spel. Concil. p. 110.] It is certain, however, that this could not be the case, for his signature is affixed to several instruments of writing which were executed several years afterwards. [Jewel's Defence, pt. 5, c. 1, p. 438.]

I would like to hear from anyone who can comment on this last paragraph, where Theophilus Evans answers his critics.

Copyright 2000 (Except for the quotatations from Evans which are public domain because it's an old book with expired copyright.)

Mike Gascoigne
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