Across the Bristol Channel, at the most southerly tip of the ancient Parish of St Mary's, is the Island of Flat Holm. Now a Nature Reserve and a Site of Special Scientific Interest, the island has a fascinating history spiced with smuggling in the 1700s, the Second World War, the Napoleonic Wars, developments in technology (Marconi's first wireless signal transmitted across open sea was received here in 1872) and beyond that, far back, further back, to the sixth century world of St Cadoc, St Baruc and other ancient celtic saints, including their contemporary St Gilda who took up residence on the neighbouring island of Steep Holme
As you would expect of such a place, it is steeped in legend and it is, as you would also expect, difficult to draw historical truth from legendary tales!
It’s 1173. Three years after his death, the murdered Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, is canonised by Pope Alexander III, giving formal acceptance to an already growing popular cult of devotion, deepened by reported miracles at his tomb which was to make Canterbury one of the great pilgrimage centres of Europe.
Two years later, St Mary’s Church on the banks of the River Taff is rebuilt, and there is some evidence that the church receives a rededication to include the patronage of St Thomas. A contemporary charter of the Earl of Gloucester refers to it as “the church of St Mary and the blessed Martyr Thomas.” If this is true, the double patronage doesn’t endure, as in subsequent centuries the church continues to be known simply as St Mary’s. Whatever the case, there is perhaps more evidence that during the rebuilding a chapel of St Thomas, distinct from the main priory building, is established, making the dedication one of the earliest in the country.
Further south, out into the Bristol Channel, the Island of Flat Holme, marking the southernmost tip or dip of the parish, allows a legend to linger as a place where two of the four knights who killed the Archbishop are laid to rest. It’s only legend, of course, but in the “new” St Mary’s Church there is an altar (which formerly stood in St Agnes Church, Roath to replace one destroyed in 1958) dedicated to St Thomas Becket with five brightly painted panels depicting the bloody events in Canterbury of 1170, and including a colourful view across Flat Holm to the industrialised city of Cardiff and, in the corner of the panels, a pair of knights’ shields. The rest is left to imagination.
Further back in time, during the fifth or sixth century, an age alive with celtic saints, a more lively visitor to Flat Holm than the legendary late knights was St Cadoc, the Abbot of Llancarfan, near Cowbridge in South Wales.
Llancarfan was a monastery famous as a centre of learning, and it was where St Illtud spent the first period of his religious life under the instruction and leadership of Cadoc who is credited with the creation of churches in Celtic Cornwall, Brittany, Dyfed and Scotland.
A place of isolation and beauty, Flat Holm was an ideal place to make a retreat and to reside during Lenten times and yet, on one fateful day, Cadoc's companion, the soon to be beatified Baruc, was sent back across the channel to retrieve a forgotten manuscript. As Baruc journeyed back towards the coast his coracle capsized. He drowned in the waters of the channel and his washed-up body buried on Barry Island, the place which took his name. The ruins of a chapel dedicated to him can still be seen on Friars Road on Barry Island. His feast day is 27 September two days after the day that Cadoc's memory is celebrated.
Weather and water permitting, members of St Mary's make an annual pilgrimage to Flat Holm to celebrate Mass, close to the date of St Cadoc's feast of falling asleep and Baruc's boating demise.
In a biography of Fr Griffith Arthur Jones, written by two of his former curates and published in 1907, we glean the benefits a trip to Flat Holm could bring. They write:
"Father Jones greatly enjoyed his occasional trips to the Flat Holmes--an island in the Bristol Channel, which formed part of S. Mary's parish--where he could breathe a freer atmosphere for a few hours, as Ritualism and Anti-Ritualism were alike unknown there, and the few inhabitants welcomed his visits to hold a short service for them, baptize their children, or visit their sick; sometimes he took other clergy and friends with him, and the excursion formed a pleasant picnic or outing."
Father Jones of Cardiff
A Memoir of the Rev. Griffith Arthur Jones,
for over Thirty Years Vicar of S. Mary's, Cardiff
by Two Former Curates, J[ohn].W[ollaston].W[ard]. and H.A.C.
London: A.R. Mowbray & Co. 1907.
Canon Graham Francis, the former Vicar of St Mary's celebrates Mass on Flat Holm in an annual pilgrimage there in September. Concelebrating is Fr Dean Atkins who, at the time, was parish priest of St Saviour's, Splott, and is now Fr Graham's successor!
Details from the reredos of the altar of St Thomas Becket in St Mary's Church
O happy band of pilgrims! Prishioners from St Mary's and other parishes gathering for Mass on Flat Holm