Uncovering a lost landscape

5 mins read

The archaeology of Llanddwyn Island

Located off the south coast of Anglesey, Llanddwyn Island has a religious past dating back more than 1,000 years.

Located off the south coast of Ynys Môn (Anglesey), Llanddwyn Island was home to a small monastic community for more than 1,000 years. Now a decade of archaeological investigations have shed vivid light on this remote religious community, documenting the remains of a 12th-century church and its surrounding landscape. George Nash, Philip Dell, Leslie Dodd, Thomas Wellicome, and Carol James explain further the history and archaeology of one of Wales’ hidden island gems.

Llanddwyn Island is linked to Anglesey by a short causeway that is periodically severed by the tide, and (limited) archaeological evidence suggests that humans have made this crossing since probably the Bronze Age, if not earlier. The story becomes clearer, however, in the medieval period, when more visible material evidence reflects the establishment of a small Benedictine monastery centred on Llanddwyn Abbey, in probably the 12th century. This was based around the lore of St Dwynwen, the Welsh patron saint of lovers – although her story is rather more complex than her romantic epithet implies.

The remains of the nave and chancel of St Dwynwen’s Church, looking south- west. Unusually, this building is oriented north-east to south-west.

According to legend, Dwynwen was one of 24 daughters (at least 24; some sources name more than 30) of King Brychan, a 5th-century ruler who himself later became a saint. She fell in love with a young man named Maelon, but (the narrative varies) was already promised to another or chastely rejected his advances. Maelon’s response to this disappointment was to force himself on Dwynwen, after which she prayed to God to forget her love for her attacker. The Almighty went further than this, however, transforming Maelon into a lump of ice, and as a final gift, the story goes, an angel also granted Dwynwen three wishes. Her first request was that Maelon be freed from his frozen fate; she next wished that all true lovers should either gain their heart’s desire or be released from their passions; and finally, she asked that she would never marry. This last wish was achieved when Dwynwen took the veil, retiring to a reclusive religious life on Llanddwyn Island, where she died around AD 460.

After Dwynwen’s death, the island became an important place of pilgrimage, and a church dedicated to the saint was built about 60m north of the monastic settlement, probably in the 13th century. This building was abandoned in the 18th century, and today its ruined remains represent one of the most visible reminders of the island’s religious story. The site is now a scheduled monument in the care of Cadw and, ahead of a long- term conservation programme that included re-flooring the interior of the church, we were tasked with carrying out an archaeological investigation of the remains. Monitored by Cadw and commissioned by Menter Môn, this initiative saw two trenches opened within the structure’s footprint, as well as a building survey, centred on the standing ruins of the nave and chancel. We carried out an earthworks survey, too, exploring the land immediately around the church and on the site of the former Benedictine monastery, as well as geophysical surveys of the surrounding landscape to the north and south of the church. So, what did we learn about the island’s ecclesiastical past?

After St Dwynwen’s Church was abandoned in the 18th century, the island was settled by lighthouse keepers and their families, who established two lighthouses overlooking the southern section of the Menai Strait. This one was built in the 19th century, several hundred metres west of its predecessor.


To set the scene: St Dwynwen’s Church – which, unusually, is oriented north-east to south-west – lies within a slightly undulating landscape that is flanked on its eastern and western sides by exposed rock outcropping that protects the site from prevailing winds. To the west, there is also an ancient dune system while, to the east, the rocky outcrops dip dramatically to form a section of cliffs stretching to small shingle beaches and the sea beyond. The surviving masonry stands within the remains of a semi- circular churchyard that survives as a shallow earthwork and is delineated by a turf-stone wall. Based on a late 18th-century engraving made by Nathaniel and Samuel Buck (Yorkshire- born topographers and engravers, who prolifically produced prints of historical sites across England and Wales), the churchyard housed burials, though no markers can be seen today.

A nearby sub-rectangular earthwork is believed to be either a priest’s house or part of the remains of the medieval Benedictine abbey, and to the north is a series of sub-rectilinear earthworks that extend for some 350m and pick out the outline of nine elongated fields delineated by low turf/soil banks. These have been recognised from LiDAR imagery and are thought to be associated with another small community, albeit one with a rather more secular purpose: working two lighthouses at the extreme south of the island in the late 18th and 19th centuries. The lighthouse keepers and their families also established two boat sheds, a breakwater, a jetty, and a terrace of four pilot cottages that can still be seen today.

The Buck Brothers’ engraving of the church, dating to 1742, was a vital documentary source for the present project team in guiding their investigations.


Helpfully, historical maps suggest that little has changed concerning development within the central section of the island, where the church remains stand. Maps of 1889 and 1922 clearly show the cruciform shape of St Dwynwen’s, along with its churchyard; in both cases the church is shown as ruinous, labelled as ‘remains of’ (as is the abbey). The D-shaped churchyard was probably originally circular in plan, and was subsequently truncated by the later sub-rectangular field system that is shown cutting across its northern section.

Further clues can be gleaned from the surviving fabric of the church itself. St Dwynwen’s appears to be constructed of at least three phases. The northern portion (representing the nave and chancel), with its low-angled pitched roof, probably dates from the 16th century and appears to have originally stood as a separate unit. This is partly evidenced by the presence of long and short quoins that run up the south-eastern returns – however, within its walls we find features that clearly suggest an earlier incarnation. The presence of three Early English Decorative style windows and their associated moulded stone casements seemingly suggests a medieval date. By contrast, though, the eastern transept has a steeper pitched roof and contains two window openings of the Perpendicular style (with associated tracery), which probably date to the 16th century too.

LiDAR imagery showing the central section of the island: (1) St Dwynwen’s Church; (2) the earthwork remains of a monastic building; and (3) the 19th-century extensive field system.

Returning to the Buck Brothers’ engraving, close inspection reveals several features and structures that survive within the archaeological record, including a boundary wall delineating the churchyard curtilage. According to the engraving, this boundary was constructed of a drystone wall; today it is preserved only as a low turfed bank, and it is likely that the upper stone coursing has been robbed (probably at the same time as the masonry from the church) and reused in other buildings on the island that are associated with the later lighthouse community.

Based on the same engraving, there were several structures, probably associated with the church (or the ecclesiastical landscape), that once stood outside the precinct wall of the churchyard but have vanished from view. These include a small, rectangular stone building with window openings; the date and precise whereabouts of this structure are unknown today.

Historical mapping and documents also helped to guide the recent research. Here we see architect Clough Williams-Ellis’ proposed 1906 restoration plan for St Dwynwen’s Church.

This is an extract of an article that appeared in CA 405. Read on in the magazine or on our new website, The Past (click here to subscribe), which details of all the content of the magazine. At The Past you will be able to read each article in full as well as the content of our other magazines, Current World ArchaeologyMinerva, and Military History Matters.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.