Bardsey is an elongated island 190 ha. in extent, on a north-east - south-west axis. It is 1 km wide and 1.6 km long in its northern portion, narrowing to an isthmus in the south, connecting to a peninsula at its southern tip. The island lies 3 km from the headland of Pen y Cil and 6km from the shore at Aberdaron. The landform of the northern part is a landscape of dramatic contrasts. The western side is low and relatively flat; the eastern side rises steeply from sea level to 160m. The mountain is un-enclosed, rocky and scrub-covered. The western plain is cultivated farmland, dissected by generally ruler-straight clawdd banks with farmhouses mostly disposed along the interface of the plain and the mountain. The southern peninsula is occupied by a lighthouse.
Early settlement is indicated by unassociated flint scatters and, more directly, by the recognition of later prehistoric hut circles, all on Mynydd Enlli and a possible promontory fort at the southern tip of the island (PRNs 782, 783, 784, 4534, 4535, 4536, 4538, fort: 3277). There are also indications of rectangular house platforms, mostly undateable but some at least thought to be Medieval. (PRNs 16786 - 16789, 16795, 16838, 16840, 16844 - 16851, 2760, 2761, 4529 - 4531, 4533).
The documentation of the traditions surrounding Bardsey’s monastic foundations are relatively late. Llywelyn Fardd, writing in the twelfth century, refers to the sixth-century foundation by Cadfan and Lleuddad. Beuno of Clynnog, Dyfrig of Gwent and Padarn of Arfon are also reputed to lie there. Giraldus had heard that Deiniol of Bangor was also buried on Bardsey and it is Giraldus, in the 1180s, who provides an early account of the tradition that a vast number of holy men were buried there; 20,000 in later accounts.
Specific evidence may be found in the discovery of two burial memorials: a fragment of a cross slab bearing a figural image above a panel of interlaced knot work, with an inscription commemorating ‘Esyllt’, or a similar name on one of the short sides; and a cross-incised stone of very broadly the same date. In 1012 (s.a. 1011) the Brut y Tywysogion records the death of Iarddur, a monk of Bardsey. In 1995, graves were excavated by Chris Arnold, then of the Bardsey Trust, one of which contained a burial with a coin of c.1070 in its mouth
During this early period in the monastery’s history it is almost certain that the establishment on Bardsey was an inextricable linked component of the clas, or quasi-monastic community, of Aberdaron. By the late twelfth century the clas structure, along with several similar ancient churches, was considered to be in decay and in need of reform. In the very early years of the thirteenth century the clas of Aberdaron gave up many of its rights to its abadaeth and the church on Bardsey was reconstituted as a community of Augustinian canons, under pressure from no less a figure that Llywelyn ap Iorwerth himself. New building works were undertaken on the island and a significant portion of the former abadaeth was transferred to St. Mary’s. Additional lands were granted in 1254 and a ‘court’ and ‘exchequer’ on the mainland managed the canons’ interests there. In addition to the houses, barns, meadows and pastures on the island, there were cash rents from the mainland townships, baskets of grain and barley and lamb’s wool or the cash equivalent.
In the 1530s all monastic houses were surveyed in respect of their temporal and spiritual assets and then suppressed. Bardsey, albeit one of the poorer houses, was confiscated in 1537. The island and its appurtenances, including the conventual buildings, was granted and sub-let by Edward VI to Thomas Seymor and, in 1549, sold to John, Earl of Warwick. Four years later, the Earl of Warwick transferred Bardsey to John Wyn ap Huw Bodfel. During the reign of Elizabeth, John Bodfel was accused of being the chief captain of the Ynys Enlli pirates. It is said that he used the island to store stolen goods which were then sent on to Chester for sale in the fairs and markets there. Bardsey remained in the Bodfel family, however, until 1722. Thirty years later Sir John Wynn of Glynllifon acquired Bardsey where the island remained in the family for over two hundred years.
Pennant visited Bardsey in 1773 where he found the abbots’ lodging still habitable. thirty years later, Fenton was to describe it as a miserable old house. It was, however, the largest property on the island and accommodated three of four families. Fenton saw a dozen or more other properties occupied with a total population of about 60. By 1850 the population had risen to 90. In addition to what has been described as a fertile plain in the late eighteenth century, the sea around Bardsey was rich in fish, lobsters and crabs. The shellfish were carried from the island in open boats to the markets of Liverpool.
In 1821 a lighthouse was built on the southern peninsula. In the 1870s the farm buildings were rebuilt to a planned programme and architectural style, mostly comprising pairs of conjoined houses with a shared yard adjacent. There are ten farmhouses, all of which lie along the axial north-south road, except for Carreg Fawr, which stands a short distance to the west of it. Only one house, Carreg Bach, a croglofft cottage, survived the rebuilding, a little to the south of the Abbey ruins. All ten houses are
listed buildings, with examples of associated farm courtyards, outhouses and enclosure walls. A chapel (Methodist) with chapel house adjacent was built by Lord Newborough, at the tenants request, in 1875. It now provides an ecumenical service. The two early Medieval stone memorials described above are housed within the chapel.
Notwithstanding Penant’s eighteenth-century description of the abbot’s house and what would appear to have been elements of the Priory church and scattered remains, the only surviving structural component of the conventual buildings is the ruin of a thirteenth-century tower on the site of the priory, at the north end of the island.
In 1960, the permanent population of the island had reduced to seven residents. In 1979 the island was bought by the Bardsey Island Trust and is now managed by the Trust in conjunction with the Countryside Council for Wales and Cadw. The late nineteenth century design of the estate-planned farmhouses together with the contemporary Methodist chapel and the relatively recent field system have redefined the man-made landscape of Bardsey. The character of the Bardsey landscape is, therefore, one of insular isolation while, at the same time, displaying several indications of estate planning and heritage management.
Historic Landscape Character
Bardsey, a Scandinavian designation, or Enlli in Welsh, is well known for its monastic associations. The early history of the island is, however, obscure. Islands in the western sea have a numinous quality which, in a pagan context and in later tradition, are associated with deities, regeneration, timelessness and everlasting life. A fifteenth-century text recalls a tradition wherein Merddin (Merlin) occupies the place (Clas Merddin) having secreted the thirteen treasures of the Island of Britain there. Among these treasures are talismans of rebirth and plenty. It is not uncommon that a place, particularly an island, considered to be sacred in a Pagan context, should be succeeded by a Christian community.
The island presents a landscape of dramatic contrasts between the rocky, uncultivated mountain and the neat, enclosed agricultural fields and associated farmhouses on the western plain. Despite the comprehensive exercise in Victorian estate management carried out in the 1870s, the slight visible remains of an important Medieval and early Medieval monastic community and the evidence of round houses, and possible medieval platform houses, display a contrasting facet to that of the pattern of more recent farmlands.
The association between the island and the church of the monastic clas of Aberdaron on the mainland and the extensive mainland interests of the Abbey of St Mary after 1200 is important.