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From an Article by Local Historian Derrick Pratt.  First published by the Bangor-on-Dee Local History Society 1992.
Whatever reservations one may have regarding 'contemporary' sources a common denominator in all narratives is the considerable Christian seminary (size debatable) laid out (exact site unknown) on the flood plain of the Dee (extent disputable), occupying a (then) secluded valley floor hemmed in by high ground, typical of the siting of early Welsh monasteries.  But in the absence of concrete physical remains what does the local historian look for in his efforts to reconstruct, and give more substance to, Bangor monastery?
Lacking an obvious starting point he would best emulate Professor Butler who suggests that a model of an ideal Celtic monastery may reasonably be based on a plan  [Fig. 4]  from the Life of St. Moluag (530-592).  Born in Ulster, the latter became a monk at Bangor-yn--Arfon before founding c.562 the island monastery of Lismore off the coast of Argyll.  In that he was a younger contemporary of St. Deiniol, Moluag's prototypical establishment may perhaps be of special relevance to investigations into Bangor Isycoed.
In the centre or inner zone is the church/monastery within its own protective bank, the most sacred in a series of concentric zones that decreased in sanctity as one moved from the centre.  From the centre would radiate access roads or tracks.  At cardinal points on the outskirts stood crosses but whether on the approach roads, in the open, cultivated fields or amidst dwellings, is not clear. The houses of the monks, dependants and labourers and ancillary buildings and workshops formed 'suburbs' or distinct quarters within the outer protective bank.
This model is no dry theoretic figment of a 6th century academic's imagination. Professor Butler draws attention to the proliferation of surviving examples in Ireland e.g. Armagh, Kells, Kilkenny, where the cores of these towns still reflect basic features of the idealised monastic city.  [Fig. 5]  The gently rounded, easily defended hill-tops preferred by founders of Irish monasteries lent themselves to the development of concentric morphological elements.  That such centres abound in Ireland is attributed, inter alia to the greater number of monastic/episcopal sees (over forty in 1200) compared with just four in Wales - Bangor Fawr, St. David's, Llandeilo Fawr and Llandaff  [11]  Also the varied and mainly mountainous relief of Wales did not make for such unanimity of siting.  The problems of identifying the 'concentric monastic city' in Wales will vary from location to location.  In connection with Bangor Isycoed certain premises inevitably have to be made.
Firstly, the present consecrated site of St. Dunawd's parish church is presumed to be that of the original mother church.  There has probably been a church here, if not since the establishment of the diocese of Lichfield in 664, certainly since the extension of that diocese westwards in the wake of Mercian conquest and territorial expansion, the limits of which are marked in the Wrexham district by Offa's (reigned 757-796) and Wat's Dykes.  It must be remembered that Bangor and other Maelor parishes did not become part of St. Asaph diocese until 1849. The silence of the Cheshire Domesday Book (under 'Hurdingberie' does not necessarily imply the non-existence of a church at Bangor.  Less than a century separates the end of Bangor monastery, implied after the slaughter and flight of most of its monks, and the imposition of some rudimentary diocesan organisation.  Because of the immense sanctity of the site, the monastic church, or near contemporary, survived to become the centre of a huge parish in the Archdeaconry of Chester, also taking in Overton and Worthenbury which became parishes in their own right only since 1868 (Overton) and 1658/1689 (Worthenbury).  Not even Overton's later status as a castellated commotal centre under the princes of Powys Fadog and a chartered royal borough of Edward I could dent or transcend Bangor's legendary and transferred ecclesiastical prestige.
Secondly, the prime requisite in the idealized model is the circular or oval inner enclosure, a characteristic feature of Celtic clas churches and an assured index of the antiquity of the Christian church on site - Meifod, Pennant Melangell, Betws Gwerful Goch, Llansilin etc. immediately spring to mind.  At Bangor, where the broad featureless terraces of the Dee would have offered no predetermined physical constraints in the construction of the sacred enclosure, the oval or circular form would be the norm because of the ease of constructing a bank without corners or angles.
From the centre roads or tracks radiated outwards via the four obligatory gates, in Bangor's case gates eccentrically and irregularly placed rather than sited at the cardinal points as in the idealized model.  Two of the gates, at Porthwgan and Cloy, are common to most literary sources.  Edward Lhwyd mentions a third at 'Porth Hwva' (his "Bron Hwva", present-day Bryn Hovah) and a fourth at "Dwngre' (Dungrey).  The location of these gates, even approximately, has important implications as to what actually comprised the outer bank at Bangor. (Fig. 6)  In particular, the last three gates, which took travellers over or around the tip of the low ridge south and east of Bangor, point towards the utilisation by the monks of a convenient natural feature for a sector of a protective bank, relieving them of the difficult task, time and labour consuming, of raising a considerable man-made 'fortification' of outer rampart and/or ditch.  The disposition of the entrances thus also hints at the monastery lying closer to these three gates and at the Dee flowing some distance beyond that again, towards the north.  Here marshy flood-plain difficult to traverse and of access (query the existence of a causeway), and the Dee busily eroding its bluff-line below Plâs-fron and Cerwyn Fechan, focussed exit and entry traffic upon one gate' at Porthwgan - a state of affairs that would appear to have persisted into the fourteenth century.
Significantly, in 1391, it was at Porthwgan, one of six strategically recognised entry points into the lordship, that the itinerant bailiffs of Bromfield and Yale positioned themselves on crucial market days, especially fairs and markets in Ruthin and the Vale of Clwyd, to collect tolls of traders, drovers and merchants in transit as they crossed the Dee from Maelor Saesneg, Whitchurch and points beyond - at Porthwgan NOT at a Bangor bridge or ford, the logical point (had they existed) as conditions pertain today or even in 1813 when a toll-gate was proposed for the Denbighshire end of Bangor bridge.  The plan was never endorsed by Quarter Sessions but the erection of a toll-house was over-enthusiastically anticipated by the Barker/Castineau engraving of 1830! Conclusive evidence, then, that at the end of the fourteenth century the Dee was still flowing hard under the Plâs-fron bluff line [12]
For a parish church with a former pastoral jurisdiction over some 22sq. miles, the churchyard surrounding St. Dunawd's on just three sides is a pitifully inadequate burial ground, even allowing for burials in its outlying chapelries.  One would expect it to have been much larger, logically taking on the characteristic oval or circular shape hinted at earlier.  Three factors may have worked to obscure this presumed earlier form.  The churchyard has been truncated and squared off (a) by the river Dee shifting its course to flow right under the west end and tower of the church; (b) by the erection of a bridge over the new course of the river (the present bridge dates c.1658), and (c) the refocusing of roads on both ends of the bridge, which involved, for example, the Overton road making its highly suspect right-angled bend to join High Street, taking off part of the churchyard in the process.  Similar adjustments, with same end result, were made to the Whitchurch and Worthenbury roads. Bangor's would not be the first oval Celtic churchyard to be so mutilated, especially in the early turnpike era - Liansilin churchyard is a case in point.
John Leland's words come to mind: "... and yet they plough up bones of the monkes, and in remembraunce were digged up pecis of theyr clothes in sepultures", implying accidental exhumation over the former parts of the churchyard as post-holes, foundations, cess pits etc. were dug during the marking out along new alignments of Bangor's curtilages and the erection of cottages and houses there-on.  This is a process still going on. If memory serves correctly 1985-6 saw the last piece of 'skulldiggery' as an 'ancient' skull, complete save for jaw bone, was unearthed by Mrs. Vivian Lavis-Jones at Millstone Cottage, Whitchurch Road, a site that helps determine the approximate eastern limits of Bangor's original 'Celtic' churchyard or 'inner enclosure' of the idealized model.
Thus it is reasonable to conceive of an original church placed eccentrically within its oval enclosure.  Other historical tendencies towards the idealized plan or model are more problematical.  Due allowance has to be made for limitations and peculiarities of site and position.  Bangor is not a hill-top site and the Dee, wherever it flowed, was, and is, a significant constraint to expansion of settlement in one direction. Concentric 360° development would be unlikely.  However, the researcher may legitimately discern some segmental development of the outer zone in favoured directions.
Bangor Isycoed's failure to emerge as an early quasi-urban institution was partly due to the limited economic resources of the area but largely to the sudden failure of the monastery and its relatively short life-span of 60-70 years, scarcely sufficient to develop fully as a focus for subsistence crafts and the little basic commerce arising from the community's struggle for self-sufficiency
That there may have been an opportunity and some capacity for localised, low key commercial activity can be deduced from the fact that at a later period the Dee at Bangor marked the boundary between 'the two Maelors', Maelor Gymraeg or Bromfield on the west, and Maelor Saesneg on the east, both commotes or cymydau first of Powys and then of Powys Fadog.  The 'broom field' (Brom-field) of English colonists was by far the earliest (pre-750) place-name in use but the Malaur, Maylaur Saisneg of the Welsh expansion was current by 1200.  The name 'Maelor' means not only 'land, country, plain' but also 'a market or mart' from mael + lawr 'profit, gain + land').  As a Welsh-English dictionary of 1803 puts it, under maelawr 'There are districts so called in the marches of Wales ... where trade was carried on'  [13]  but whether such trading activity can be projected back into the 6th century is another matter.  In the later medieval period, with unassailable if artificial advantages of market (1279) and borough (1292) charters, Overton was to become the monopolistic commercial centre for Maelor Saesneg.
What was the nature of any development in the 'outer zone' between Bangor church and the outer protective bank?  While one lacks early charters with important topographical detail or is unable to refer to specific lines drawn on maps, the researcher can make some confident assumptions as to the possible character of this 'urban' growth.
Community life, whether or not the monastery was composed entirely of 'professional' monks, was the normal expression of a religious vocation in the 7th century.  A monk's vocation, however, did not require celibacy and, as already hinted, their way of life had little in common with the popular image of the cloistered monk. Bede referred to the self-sufficiency through manual labour of the Bangor monks; this implies that landed property formed the basis for support and for income of that community.  Likewise his inflated statements re numbers and organisation can be interpreted as indicating a community with some degree of regulation of the day with a balance between manual labour, prayer and worship.
According to the Vitae or saints' Lives the men who founded monasteries were 'saints' by virtue of their special holiness, who determined to devote their lives to God, and encourage others to do so, in a separate and special environment - hence Deiniol founded a monastery at Bangor Fawr, but in search of greater asceticism left it shortly after with a community of monks established there and went off to Found another, more spartan monastery at Bangor Isycoed, complete with disciples, companions or followers and familiae.  One cannot rule out some secular involvement and encouragement in this foundation process.
Writing about Bangor monastery A.N. Palmer hints that it was also a royal foundation.  Sources are not given, but if we accept his statement  [14]  that Cyngen Glodrydd ('Renowned'), son of Cadell Ddyrnllug ('Bright Hilt') and father of Brochfael Ysgithroq ('Tusked'), in the first instance endowed the monastery with lands, then Bangor's plantation was the result of lay and clerical initiative for reasons both of piety and influence, prestige and income as befitted someone deeply involved in the dynastic struggles of an emergent Powys.
As noted earlier physical descriptions of Bangor Isycoed monastery are few, ambiguous in factual statement and therefore subjective in interpretation.  Archaeology has done nothing to positively augment our knowledge.  But acknowledging the 'corporate community' and 'landed endowment' elements one may reasonably imply for Bangor (a) that the monastery was a separate place, marked off from the world by well defined bounds (the interpretation of the latter crucial to the concept of a 'monastic city'); (b) the church or oratory of timber, sitewise possibly the most constant and enduring element within the complex; (c) huts, distinctive eating and sleeping quarters, and probably a hut or house for guests; (d) buildings for reading or writing.  Lack of evidence does not permit one to hint at individual cells.  In that Bede refers to a community supported by. its own labour, construction work at Bangor would have been performed by the monks themselves, Deiniol's companions taking their tools to cut down trees and build.
Sources do not mention different functionaries beyond seven abbots or 'section heads', but even at such an early period there must have been an hierarchy of monks responsible for managing spiritual and temporal resources and acting as deputies to Dunawd.  However, it may be that the life span of the monastery was too short to permit the increased specialisation and proliferation of roles attendant upon further general growth.
While the landed basis of community support is accepted, questions of utilisation and exploitation must remain unanswered.  There must have been herds, flocks, especially pigs, and barns and threshing floors.  All this required labour.  According to Bede we are dealing with an almost self-supporting community with necessary labour being demanded of the monks themselves.  But some labour must have been supplied by others, dependants resident within the community or nearby and possibly vocationally distinct.  This implies an element of landlordship and even the existence of stewards etc. to organise and oversee the workforce and its products.
Thus the monastic church at Bangor must have had adjacent to it quite a complex of more secular buildings, but where exactly in the context of present-day village lay-out?  As already deduced, church and churchyard, the innermost zone of Butler's 'monastic city' occupy a slightly elevated position, a matter of a metres, no more, but sufficient to make them a dry island site amidst a vast lake of water during the historical annual flooding of the River Dee.
West of this enclosed 'tump' was, and is, a 'no go' area, being the flood plain of the Dee.  Graduated posts along the roads converging on the west end of Bangor bridge still bespeak possible flood hazards.  East, south and north of the church the line of the churchyard wall/embankment was partially paralleled by an encircling road from which minor streets ran away to the outer urban banks and their 'gates'  (Figs. 6 & 7),  linking the monastery with its outlying possessions.  It is worth adding here that the road running roughly between the Bryn Hovah and Dungrey gates was in the later medieval period the 'royal highway' (Shrewsbury)-Overton-Bangor-Shocklach--(Chester) and figures on the British Library 'Gough Map' of c.1350, possibly the oldest road map in Britain.  In Bangor it was deflected from its relatively straight line by the curve of the churchyard boundary bank.  (Fig. 7)  The full extent of the monastery's growth within the 60 years allotted it by fate, will never be known, but with the evolution of even small-scale, casual 'urban' characteristics, one cannot rule out the development of a small market-place at a street intersection.
If the Dee flood-plain was avoided by the monks, the urban sprawl of both monks' and lay accommodation and the functional buildings associated with the varied 'support services' and vaguely 'commercial' enterprises, must have spread out east of the church  (Fig. 7),  divided into three segments by the trackways making for the 'gates' on the outer bank - a diffusion pattern confirmed and strengthened by later source material.  For the period before Bangor bent unwillingly to its new function as a dormitory village, there is ample cartographic evidence for ancient strip cultivation close to the church, particularly where the 'outer zone' rose gradually to meet its confining bank.  The testimony of maps can be supplemented by medieval deeds, for example, those in the N.L.W. Elwes MSS.  In the 'open fields' of Bangor ancient rectorial glebe was inextricably mixed with the strips of other portioners.
Leland commented on Bangor monastery:  "The cumpace of it was as of a wallid town".  But, as stated above, one does not look for defensive works in the shape of a man-made ditch and bank with timber revetment.  A.N. Palmer, writing in 1889, was the first commentator to get at the true meaning behind Leland's words.  A wooded ridge and river bluff-line at once gave physical definition to the 'monastic city' or quasi-urban sprawl below, as well as affording an element of natural protection and seclusion.  In all likelihood these may have been augmented by the erection of a wattled fence - the 'bangor' - which, if not exactly providing security, would certainly work to isolate the religious more from the out side world.  One thing is certain - the outer protective banks were never topped by the 'half destroyed stone walls' of William de Malmesbury's vivid invention. Names on the ridge towards Whitchurch, 'Abbeygate' and the earlier 'Highgate' while apposite, are modern and of doubtful antiquity.
Beyond the gates, as already noted, there were the crosses and wells  (Fig. 6)  visible tokens or signposts marking zones of lesser sanctity, as well as perhaps marking bounds of sanctuary.  They were also recognised places at which pilgrims or travellers could refresh themselves, give thanks for a safe journey almost completed, or offer prayers for a journey just beginning.
Thus it has been tentatively argued that in Bangor Isycoed of the immediate historic past one can legitimately seek and find traces of the idealized 'monastic city' as postulated by Professor Butler.  True, present-day Bangor exhibits few, if any, urban characteristics and to many it may seem rather presumptuous to even attempt to marshal evidence that would attribute to Bangor early quasi-urban development on the scale discernible in the classic 'type' sites of Llandeilo Fawr, Bangor Fawr and St'. David's.  Actually, as acknowledged from the outset, to 'marshal the evidence' is the one thing that cannot be done adequately in connection with Bangor Isycoed since so little trustworthy material really exists.  But beneath all the legend and spurious data the local historian is conscious of only one unassailable fact - that there was once a considerable, prestigious, albeit short-lived, monastic settlement at Bangor.  This present essay simply attempts to give firmer definition as to what actually might have been.
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Click To View Large Version of Fig. 4 Schematic Monastic City based on the plan in the Life of St. Moluag (after L.A. Butler)
Click To View Large version of Fig. 5. An idealized development from the theoretical 'Monastic City' of St. Moluag
Click To View Large Version of Fig. 6. Provisional schematic development of the monastery at Bangor Isycoed
Click to View Large Version Of Fig. 7 Conjectural development of Bangor Isycoed
[11]  For background to early Welsh Church see W. Davies, Wales in the Early Middle Ages 141-168, especially maps, figs. 49. 53.
[12]  B.L. Add. MS. 10,013, f.19v. The other 'toll-gate' in Marford bailiwick was at Pant Olwen on the boundary between Gresford and Marford townships. This, too, has similar important implications for the interpretation of landscape, especially for the course of the River Alyn and the extent of the 'Pass of Pulford where now lies Rossett, Lavister and Darland.
[13]  Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru 2305-6 under mael maelor ci. 1. Morgan, Handbook of the Origin of Place Names in Wales &c. (1887) 118.
[14]  A.N. Palmer, op.cit., 15n.2. For dynastic pedigrees see D.P. Kirby, "British Dynastic History in the Pre-Viking Period", B.B.C.S. (1976) XXVII, 81-ll4esp. pp. 101-111.
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