Govan, Hermit of Bosherston

March 26 is the Commemoration of Saint Govan, Hermit of Bosherston.
“Saint Govan (Welsh: Gofan) (died 586) was a hermit who lived in a fissure on the side of coastal cliff near Bosherston, in the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, Wales. St. Govan’s Chapel was built in the fissure in the 14th century on what is now known as St Govan’s Head.

One story says Govan was an Irish monk who travelled to Wales late in life to seek the friends and family of the abbot who had trained him, variously identified as Saint Davidor Saint Ailbe of Emly. Another story identifies Govan with Gawain, one of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table; another that he was originally a thief.

Govan was set upon by pirates, from Ireland or the nearby Lundy Island. The cliff opened up and left a fissure just big enough for him to hide in until the pirates left. In gratitude, he decided to stay on along the cliff, probably to help warn the locals of the impending pirate attack if they were to return.

St Govan lived within a small cave in the fissure of the cliff. This is now reached by a long flight of stone steps, the number of which is said to vary depending on whether one is ascending or descending.
govan chapel 5
Saint Govan’s Chapel, near Saint Govan’s Head, in Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, Wales

The present small vaulted chapel of local limestone was built over the cave and dates from the 13th century although the site may have been of monastic importance since the 5th century. St Govan may be identified with Sir Gwaine, one of King Arthur’s knights, who entered into a state of retreat in his later years. Originally St Govan caught fish and took water from two nearby springs. Both are now dry; one was where the medieval chapel now stands, the other, which was lower down the cliff, later became a holy well. A legend says St Govan’s hand prints are imprinted on the floor of his cave and his body is buried under the chapel’s altar. The cave was once a popular place for making wishes.

Another legend regarding St Govan concerns his silver bell. He is supposed to have kept the bell in the tower of the chapel (regardless of the fact it was not built till the 14th century). When the bell pealed its sound was of perfect tone and clarity. But pirates who heard the sound left St Govan desolate when they stole the bell. Angels flew in and took it from the pirates and returned it to the hermit. To stop the pirates returning and taking it again, the angels encased the bell in a huge stone, that is, the Bell Rock which is found at the water’s edge. The legend said that that when St Govan “rang” the stone, its vigour had become a thousand times stronger.”
govan chapel 4
“St. Govan’s Chapel is a small medieval church clinging to the ragged rock halfway down the cliffs of a secluded headland. It is difficult to imagine a more strikingly situated church in all of Britain.
St. Govan was a sixth century hermit who established a cell for himself on this lonely spot, in the fashion of early Celtic Christian monks, who tended to live in isolated places. Legends sprang up about the saint, and about the curative properties of the natural spring which used to rise just inside the door of the chapel. During the medieval period the holy well and cell became a place of pilgrimage for cripples seeking a cure, and the original cell was rebuilt as a small chapel in the 13th century. The chapel is a very simple rectangular building with a steeply pitched roof and bellcote.
govan chapel
Much of what we know about Govan is a tangled web of myth and half-truths, but it appears that he was born in Ireland, a member of the Hy Cinnselach tribe of County Wexford, and his real name was Gobban, or Gobhan, meaning smith. From this we can deduce that Govan’s father may have been a smith or metalworker. While still a boy Govan joined a monastery founded by St Ailbe at Dairinis, near Wexford. Govan journied to Rome and later stayed at St Senen’s monastery in Inniscathy. When Ailbe died, Govan returned to Dairinis and became Abbot.

Ailbe had been a native of Solva, just along the Pembrokeshire coast from the chapel, and this fact may have influenced Govan to visit the area, or perhaps he was visiting a Welsh abbot. We simply don’t know what brought Govan, by now an elderly man, to Pembrokeshire. The stories tell that pirates from Lundy tried to capture the monk, who sought shelter in a crevice, or fissure, in the cliffs. The fissure opened up to receive him, then closed to hide him from the pirates. Once they had departed the crevice opened once again to release him.

Now we are left to speculate; why did Govan stay and build a small cell by the fissure? Once version says that he was ashamed of his cowardice, another that he thought to convert the pirates, another that he thought his presence could help the local population, who were constantly troubled by the pirates. whatever the reason, the elderly monk built a rudimentary stone cell and there he stayed for the rest of his life, preaching to the locals and traveling around south Pembrokeshire to spread the Celtic Christian gospel. Govan died in 586 and is said to have been buried under the stone altar in the chapel.

A crevice in the chapel has rib-shaped impressions on the sides, said to mark where Govan hid from the pirates. An ancient legend says that if you make a wish, enter the fissure, and are able to turn your body around within it, the wish will be granted. Presumably, the, it is easier for very thin people to get what they wish for!

A further legend states that King Arthur’s knight Sir Gawain lies buried beneath the stone altar of the chapel. Outside the chapel is a large rock called The Bell Rock. The name recalls another story; that Govan was given a silver bell, which was stollen by pirates. When Govan prayed for its return, angels retrieved the bell and placed it inside the rock for safety. when Govan tapped the Bell Rock the bell sounded, one thousand times louder than the original bell.

There used to be a well inside the chapel door, but this has dried up. The small arched wellhead below the chapel covers the site of another well, also dry. This was said to be both a holy well and a wishing well.

St. Govan’s Chapel is contained within the Pembrokeshire National Park, and the Pembrokeshire Coast National Trail runs along the nearby cliffs. The area is far enough off the beaten track that even today it retains an air of secluded beauty.”
govans well
On the floor just inside the main door of the chapel is a simple, shallow well. The water, which could only be scooped with a small spoon or a limpet shell, was said to cure eye complaints, skin diseases and rheumatism. Located just outside the chapel and covered by the stone arch, is the saint’s holy well. Although it is now dry, it was known for both healing powers and as a wishing well.

“The little chapel solidly built of limestone is said to date from the 13th century – being restored at that time, so I think we can assume that there was an earlier chapel on this site, possibly one founded by the saint himself. Inside the building measures 18 feet by 12 feet and it’s roof is vaulted. At the eastern side an entrance leads to a hermit’s cell in the cleft of a huge limestone boulder. According to the often-told legend: the saint was pursued here by marauding sea pirates; he hid in the cleft of the great boulder which then closed up, hiding him from view, or his hermit’s attire matched the rock thus he became invisible. You can still make out some marks in the boulder that were made by the saint’s fingers when he hid here back in the 6th century AD. If you make a wish while standing in the cleft of the rock, facing the wall, your wish will be granted, hopefully!
govan chapel 6
At the side of the hermit’s cell is a stone altar beneath which, according to legend, St Govan is buried. A holy water stoup (piscina) is built onto the wall and, beneath this a spring of water runs out of the ground but is never said to run across the chapel floor, though it has been known to happen! The spring is said to have miraculous healing properties. There is a recess in the wall (aumbrey) that may have been used for sacred vessels or perhaps relics, and there are some solid looking stone seats up against the wall. The little bellcote on the roof did once possess a bell but this was long ago lost to the sea; it can apparently still be heard ringing on stormy nights from beneath the turbulent waves off shore, foretelling an impending disaster at sea. Another tale put forward says the bell was stolen by pirates, but later rescued by sea nymphs who placed it inside a rock near the chapel. It was said that if you struck the rock the bell would ring out.
govan chapel 3
Some steps lead down below the chapel to a rock strewn area and St Govan’s holy well (Ffynnon Govan) covered over by a stone hood. However, this well has been dry for a long time now, but up until the mid 19th century it was the site of many healings with crutches being left by previously crippled pilgrims as a votive offering. Red soil that is found around the chapel site was used in a poltice form to cure sore, itchy eyes, and it is still said to be effective today! Francis Jones in his well-known work ‘The Holy Wells of Wales’ says about this well: “On the cliff side by St. Govan’s Chapel, Bosherston parish : especially famous in the cure of failing eyesight, lameness, and rheumatism.” “Near the well is a deposit of red clay formed by rock decomposition, and great virtue was attached to it : a poultice of this was applied to limbs and eyes, and the patients then lay there for several hours in the sun.”

So who was St Govan? It is strongly believed that he was St Gobhan who founded the monastery of Dairinis-Insula near Wexford, Ireland, about the year 530 AD and was a follower of St Ailbhe, bishop of Emlech (Emily) in County Tipperary. Gobhan (Govan) came to as a missionary to south-west Wales in old age and became a friend of St David. He may have been present when St David died in 589 AD? Gobhan became a hermit in south-west Pembrokeshire and lived out the rest of his life in a cell beside the rocky cliffs, now known as St Govan’s Head. His feast-day is celebrated on 26th March. He died towards the end of the 6th century, and is patron saint of builders. However, some individuals have tried to link the name Govan with Gawain, King Arthur’s knight who supposedly retired to this hermitage after the death of Arthur, or to a St Cofen, daughter of King Brychan. This is unlikely. And St Ailbhe, mentioned earlier, also came to Wales and baptised Wales’ future patron St, David, at Porthclais. He is called Aelbyw or Elvis and was said to have dwelt in the area to the east of Solva at St Elvis farm now named after him.

At Bosherston in the medieval church of St Michael a stained-glass window shows St Govan as bearded old man holding a model of his chapel; another window shows St David, patron St of Wales. The churchyard has a 14th century preaching cross with a tiny carved head near the top, which is thought to represent Christ. It stands on two-tiered steps that enabled it to be used as a sort of stone crucifix. The cross was found in the 16th century having survived the Reformation; the head was placed on top a standing stone that may date back to pre-Christian times or the Dark Ages?”

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