Martin Palmer, author of Sacred Land – Decoding Britain’s extraordinary past through its towns, villages and countryside, explores how Britain’s old towns were laid out as sacred landscapes, expressing spiritual ideas about our place within the universe. . .
Carmarthen – Caerfyrddin, South Wales.
Carmarthen is where pre-Christian, Christian and even post-Christian notions of the sacred are all to be found in the town’s layout, if you know how to find them.
The name tells us it was a Roman settlement: Caer is the Celtic word for Roman fort. This is how Cardiff was named (“taf”, or “diff” is the name of the river), and also Caerleon, which means the castle of the legionaries and is the same name as Carlisle.
The heart of the town has a medieval Christian layout. As the north is the direction of danger in the Bible – this is the direction from which invaders usually swept down on ancient Israel – towns and cities in Christian Europe usually have a protector saint to the north. Carmarthen is a good example of this: St. Catherine’s Street and now a new shopping centre named after her, run along the hill to the north, named after the long gone chapel of St. Catherine which stood above the town. St. Catherine was tortured on a wheel; she is a frequent saint of protection and of hills and probably took the place of an older pre-Christian deity of the hills, whose symbol was a wheel.
The main parish church in Carmarthen is St. Peter’s. St. Peter holds the Keys to Paradise, which is why he is often said to stand at the pearly gates of heaven. Since the East is the traditional Christian direction of Paradise, it is hardly surprising that this church stands to the east of the town, guarding the way to the afterlife.
St. Mary’s church used to stand in front of the castle but today is only commemorated in a street name. It was right in the heart of the medieval market area and “St Mary’s” is a common dedication in such a setting, because of both Mary’s compassion and her watchful eye. Here the Market Cross stood reminding people of the Christ story as they touted and bought their wares. The market cross in Carmarthen was destroyed by the Protestants during the Reformation. On the same site, in 1555 Bishop Ferrer, the Protestant bishop of St. David’s, was burnt to death during the persecutions under the Catholic Queen Mary, and it soon became a pilgrimage site for Protestants:
An interesting example of how the sacred continues in new guises.
As well as the layer of Christian geomancy – the sacred positioning of churches and street layout – which you can find in almost any town – is another story which is particular to Carmarthen. According to the notoriously unreliable 12th century writer Geoffrey of Monmouth, this is the place where the wizard Merlin was born. It seems unlikely that there was any such association until Geoffrey wrote his best-seller The History of the Kings of Britain but it has since become a major theme of the town’s geography. There is a local hill called Bryn Myrddin, which means Merlin’s hill, and now a new shopping centre just below St. Catherine’s Street has been called The Merlin Centre with suitably mythically named walkways within it. Until the 19th century there was even a Merlin Tree in the centre of the town. Legend said that if the tree fell, so would Carmarthen. It did fall in the late 19th century – a piece of it is preserved in the museum – but the town is still standing.
While this Merlin link is good for tourism, it now seems that the name Merlin – Myrddin in Welsh, is simply a corruption of the original Roman name for the town of Moridunum – traces of which town can still be found on the edge of the town, especially in the somewhat bedraggled Roman amphitheatre precariously preserved between the busy, noisy Priory Street and a modern housing estate.
The very name tells us this was as sacred town. In the eighth century, a relic of the Apostle Andrew was brought here and around it grew the largest religious complex in Scotland. However it is also a town scarred by the impact of the religious strife of the 16th century Reformation.
The entire town was laid out for pilgrimage. The ruined 12th century cathedral (replacing the older one which was built to house the relic) is in the east. As we learned in the Carmarthen section, this is the direction of Paradise, and building the cathedral in that location symbolises the authority of the Church to decide who goes to Heaven.
The relic was brought to St. Andrews by St Regulus and he is still honoured in the little ruined 11th century church of St. Rules beside the cathedral, a model, in town planning, of the humble disciple looking up to the great Apostle.
Pilgrims entered the town via South Street, which leads directly to the cathedral site, where they would worship straight away. From there they would process out via North Street, and then go shopping for food, souvenirs and lodging in Market Street – a street plan which would pretty much work in a pilgrimage town today.
A reminder of the power of the Catholic Church and pilgrimage canbe found in Market Street. The pub “The Cross Keys” means this was a pilgrim hostel licensed by the Pope. The Croos Keys are the symbol of the first Pope St. Peter and the logo of the Papacy.
The University was founded here in 1412 – it was the first one in Scotland, yet another product of the power of the relic of the Apostle in conferring status on this town. This link, through the Apostle to Christ, is emphasised by the oldest college of the University, which is called St Salvator’s, named after The Holy Saviour, or Jesus. The college chapel is the magnificent 15th century St. Salvator’s chapel.
St. Andrews was such a sacred place it was a natural target for the more violent anti-Catholic elements of the Scottish Reformation. It’s Archbishop was murdered and many Protestants were martyred here – sites marked to this day by various memorials.
The name of Alnwick tells us of an ancient spirituality, for it means marketplace (wick) on the Holy River. The magnificent Alnwick castle dominates the town and this was where the mighty Council of the North met to secure the defence of the north of England against the many invasions by the Scots, to launch in turn the many invasions into Scotland, and to agree laws and taxes.
The parish church is the other major feature to the north of the town, and it is dedicated to St. Michael. As I mentioned in the Carmarthen section, the north is the Christian direction of danger. Megiddo was one of the northernmost towns of ancient Israel, and it was sacked so many times that when the writer of the Book of Revelation, (the last book in the Bible), looked for a metaphor for the final battle of the cosmos would take place he thought of Megiddo. Armegiddo means the Hill of Megiddo and from this we take the term Armageddon. In Christian legend St. Michael is the archangel who threw Satan out of Heaven and who will fight Satan again in the Last Battle at the end of Time.
Many places have a St. Michael’s church to the north – Bristol, Bath, Glastonbury to name just three. What is unique about Alnwick is that the whole town is dedicated to that saint. So there is a St. Michael’s Square in the south of the town and a magnificent statue of St. Michael by the marketplace. Why? Because Alnwick itself was the British equivalent of Megiddo, our northern, much-attacked town. So when the ancients considered how to protect their vulnerable town with prayers as well as walls, they decided to go further than the usual church dedication. For Alnwick they summoned the specific and particular protection of the whole town by the Archangel who defends the north and who will win the great Last Battle of the Universe.
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