Finding Ffraid: Brigid in Wales and further afield
Brigid, Bride, Bridie, St Bridget – it sometimes seems that there are as many Brigids or Brides as there are places named for her: springs and wells, churches, rivers, hills and fields, even whole towns. In Wales she is usually called Ffraid, pronounced “Fride”, and is almost always found as San Ffraid or Sant Ffraid, although there are variations here too. While looking at maps for places named for Ffraid, I noticed that a large proportion were on or near the coast, which makes sense when reading about her arrival in Wales. But more of this later.
I was checking out maps of the area around Hadrian’s Wall too, and when visiting noted that many altars and other dedications found at Roman sites in the area are to Brigantia. Some people believe Brigid and Brigantia to be essentially the same goddess, but I’ll discuss that too. Far too much to cover in one newsletter, but we plan to expand these short articles into a book to be published in the future.
I make no apology for including large swathes of northern England and parts of Scotland here, after all, the Old North, called in Welsh yr Hen Ogledd, was inhabited by people who spoke Cumbric, a Brittonic language closely related to, possibly even a dialect of, Old Welsh, and the people of Wales and the Hen Ogledd considered themselves to be one people, not only before the Roman occupation but right up into the early Medieval period. There isn’t room here for a great deal of detail but the map below shows how large this area was.1
Besides being the name of their tutelary goddess, Brigantia is the modern designation for a large confederation of tribes in the Old North, which did not cover all the area shown above but certainly took up a large proportion of it, with a northern boundary stretching beyond Hadrian’s Wall. Given the Roman habit of honouring local deities by including them in their own pantheon, it wasn’t much of a surprise to learn of so many dedications to her in Cumbria and Northumberland. Maybe the Romans did this for political reasons, but it’s just as likely to have been done to show respect and honour to local deities. And as Sheena McGrath writes: “Who better than the goddess who protected the area and had done so since time immemorial?”2.
Inscriptions found in northern England include an altar to Victoria Brigantia (Victorious Brigantia) and another is dedicated by a centurion to Jupiter Dolichenus and Caelestis Brigantia, both deities originally hailing from Syria, as Brian Wright tells us: Caelestis was the daughter of Astarte, founder of Carthage, and also associated with Juno, Queen of the gods.3 In a carving of Brigantia from Birrens, Dumfriesshire, the goddess is depicted as Minerva, complete with her shield and with the gorgoneion, the head of the Gorgon, worn at her breast.
Brigantia wasn’t the only British goddess to be incorporated in this way, the famous example of Sulis Minerva, honoured at Bath, appears to syncretise a British goddess named Sul or Sulis with the Roman Minerva (Greek Athene). If the Romans saw other British goddesses as related to Minerva, this could mean that Brigid and Brigantia are not, therefore, one and the same. Then again, a third dedication on the latter altar was to Salus, an ancient Roman goddess of – well, health and safety, to use a modern phrase! The names Sulis and Salus are similar enough to give me pause for thought – could Sul/Sulis also have been associated with Brigantia, and therefore Brigid, in this way? It seems a bit of a stretch, although there is nothing to prove that both Salus and Sul/Sulis, or at least their names, didn’t both originate before the Celtic and Italic languages diverged from their common ancestor some four thousand years ago. An even more conspicuous similarity of names is of course Brigid and Brigantia (-brig is normally taken to mean “high” or “exalted”), but to add to the general confusion it’s entirely possible that both Brig- names are titles rather than personal names.
Perhaps there is another route to identifying Brigantia and Brigid with one another, as Wright suggests.4 Briefly, after the Romans attacked and destroyed the main centre of the Druid order in Anglesey around 61 CE they turned their attention to subduing the north and the territory of the Brigantes was absorbed into the empire a dozen or so years later. Wright tells us that around this time a large number of people left Brigantian territory and migrated to Ireland, which he believes is evidenced by Ptolemy’s Geographia showing Brigantes occuping part of Ireland and also from archaeological finds in the area. Could these migrants have taken their own goddess along, later to be conflated with the Irish Brighid? I would not go so far as Wright, who suggests that Brighid was consciously created from Brigantia by Irish and Brigantian druids, although his point that the Celts regarded their gods as ancestors rather than creators is interesting and could suggest that the druids recognised Brigid and Brigantia as an ancestor in common. Given more space it would be very worthwhile to compare and contrast all the known attributes of Brigantia and Brigid and perhaps a later article can take this approach.
Meanwhile, what of Brigid, or Ffraid, in Wales? None of the extant lives of St Brigid mention any travels to Britain, despite a number of later writers such as William of Malmesbury, who claimed that on the contrary, Brigid did at least travel to Glastonbury. In Lives of the British Saints5 it’s carefully noted that Brigid is a common name, especially in Ireland, and there is certainly more than one saint with this handle. At this point it’s worth trying to separate out some of the most important of these saints for clarity and I’ll refer to the Brigid we usually mean when talking of the saint to Brigid of Kildare, who was known both as goddess and saint at this location. Then there is St Brigid of Cill-Muine, another virgin abbess, and the other well-known saint is Birgitta of Sweden, who lived much later but again stories have been conflated with those of the other Brigids. Baring-Gould claims that the Ffraid known to us in Wales is actually Brigid of Cill-Muine, whom we’re told in The Search for San Ffraid6 travelled with St Modwena or Monynna (yet another virgin abbess with a complicated confusion of names and stories). Modwena and her party were unable to find a ship for their journey but an angel helpfully marked out a circle of turf and on this they were able to sail, eventually setting down either at Deganwy Castle near Llandudno or at Tywyn-y-Capel, near Holyhead in Anglesey. We’re also told that this Brigid was sent to Cill-Muine, or St David’s, for instruction in the rules of monastic life. It’s no surprise to find that another writer7 disagrees and says that Ffraid of Wales is a conglomeration of all the above.
Of all the landing places that of Tywyn-y-Capel appears to have the most supportive evidence and there is a ruined chapel, said to have been built by St Ffraid, near the present St Ffraid’s Church at Trearddur Bay. Archaeological excavations in 2002-3 found over 60 burials dated between the seventh and twelfth centuries.8
There are some twenty churches or chapels dedicated to Ffraid in Wales and ten or so holy wells and there sadly isn’t room here to list them all, but we hope to make a map available via our website in the near future. Meanwhile, here’s a photo of the rather overgrown Bride’s Well at Llansantffraid Cwmdeuddwr.9
We’ve barely scratched the surface of the various Ffraids, Brigids and any relationship to Brigantia, but at least a start has been made and no doubt we’ll revisit this topic in the future.