By the middle of the twentieth century, it looked like the cult surrounding St Dwynwen, the Welsh patron saint of lovers celebrated on January 25, had finally dwindled away.

Greetings cards to mark the feast of St Valentine had been mass produced for a century, with the advent of the postage stamp in early Victorian Britain and continued advances in printing technologies responsible for a huge boom in the annual exchange of cards, chocolates, flowers and gifts that now fuels an annual estimated spend of £1.3bn in the United Kingdom alone.

But during the tumultuous decade of the 1960s, when Welsh language activism had been fired by Saunders Lewis’ speech ‘Tynged yr Iaith’, a student at what was then University College, Bangor decided to take matters into her own hands.

The National Wales: The old lighthouse on Ynys Llanddwyn off Ynys Môn. Llanddwyn means 'church of St. Dwynwen'. Photo: Ian Warburton CC BY-SA 2.0The old lighthouse on Ynys Llanddwyn off Ynys Môn. Llanddwyn means 'church of St. Dwynwen'. Photo: Ian Warburton CC BY-SA 2.0

Vera Williams ‘decided that Dwynwen’s cult should be revived and her status as the main patron-saint of Welsh lovers enhanced,’ writes Catrin Stevens, an author and historian who herself graduated from Bangor.

Williams persuaded Gwasg y Moresg, a press based in Llanystumdwy, Gwynedd to print a series of four cards designed by local artist Elis Gwyn Jones and his students at what was then Pwllheli Grammar School.

Soon other Welsh publishers were cashing in on the trend, with Catrin Stevens describing those printed by Y Lolfa as being ‘slightly less reverent’ than the originals – in line with some of the more humorous and risqué efforts associated with St Valentine’s Day.

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However, this modern day celebration of St Dwynwen’s Day – which has expanded further in recent years to include hospitality venues across Wales offering romantic getaways, a pilgrimage trail curated by Cadw, and a boon for the many craftspeople in Wales who specialise in traditional wooden lovespoons – is just the latest in a long tradition of reinvention that Dwynwen’s story has undergone in the fifteen hundred years since she (probably) lived. 

Unlike better-known fifth century Welsh saints such as Dewi, Illtyd and Teilo, there was no hagiography or biography written about Dwynwen, and therefore any ideas passed down through the centuries – about who she was, what she stood for, or how her story links to lovers – is mostly based on an unreliable mix of legend and imaginative conjecture.

In her brief guide to the saint, published by Gomer in 2005, Catrin Stevens writes that the most famous tradition regarding Dwynwen ‘is the legend related by the arch-forger of history, Iolo Morgannwg.’ 

The National Wales: Edward Williams known by his bardic name Iolo Morganwg was a poet, forger and antiquarian. He lived in what is now the Vale of GlamorganEdward Williams known by his bardic name Iolo Morganwg was a poet, forger and antiquarian. He lived in what is now the Vale of Glamorgan

Iolo Morgannwg was the bardic name of the antiquarian Edward Williams (1747-1826). Although as the founder of the Gorsedd of bards Iolo’s place in the history of Welsh culture is secure, after his death it emerged that he had forged some of the mediaeval Welsh literature on which his reputation rested, throwing much of his other ‘research’ into doubt.

‘According to Iolo,’ writes Catrin Stevens, ‘Dwynwen fell in love with prince Maelon Dafodrill and he returned her love. But Maelon tried to seduce Dwynwen and when she refused him, he became angry and attacked her.’ 

The story then has Dwynwen’s prayers answered in the form of a heartache-curing potion while her attacker was turned to ice. In a tradition familiar from many a northern European fairytale, Dwynwen is then granted three wishes. She chooses to have Maelon restored, to live her life in chastity and ‘to intercede on behalf of other lovelorn lovers.’ 

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Despite the scant evidence and Iolo Morgannwg’s sketchy reputation, it is clear that in the Middle Ages pilgrims within and beyond Wales believed something about the power of Dwynwen as a ‘love messenger’.

Among those who visited her shrine at the parish that bears her name, Llanddwyn on Ynys Môn, was one of Wales’ most celebrated bards, the fourteenth century poet Dafydd ap Gwilym, who venerates Dwynwen in a poem described by Catrin Stevens as featuring a ‘brilliant candle-lit choir’ and a ‘beautiful, golden image of St Dwynwen.’ 

A century later, another poet, Sir Dafydd Trefor, described the chaste saint as ‘the holy girl from Brecknock’, a reference to the tradition that traces Dwynwen’s background to being one of the twenty-four daughters of Brychan, king of the fifth-century kingdom of Brycheiniog in the south of Powys.

The National Wales: Brychan Brycheiniog was a 5th-century king of Brycheiniog (Brecknockshire), pictured here in a stained glass window at Brecon Cathedral. Photo: Menter Brycheiniog & Maesyfed CC BY-SA 4.0Brychan Brycheiniog was a 5th-century king of Brycheiniog (Brecknockshire), pictured here in a stained glass window at Brecon Cathedral. Photo: Menter Brycheiniog & Maesyfed CC BY-SA 4.0

Dydd Santes Dwynwen is now a fixture of the Welsh calendar. Although still not as popular as St Valentine’s Day, the celebration received significant boosts in the early 2000s when the Welsh Language Board distributed 50,000 free cards through retail giant Tesco, and then the event was promoted through Gwynedd Council.

Among the organisations promoting St Dwynwen’s Day this year are the Books Council of Wales, who are encouraging readers to gift a book with a romantic theme, and the National Trust Wales, who released an online ‘top ten romantic walks in Wales’ to encourage lovers to enjoy a winter stroll at one of their properties.

Valleys Daffodils, a Caerffili-based charity that work with individuals with additional learning needs and other disabilities ran a Saturday arts and crafts class to make cards for St Dwynwen’s Day, while in Newport, the Riverfront theatre ran a workshop in which families created ceramic lovespoons to gift on the day. 

The National Wales: Giving a Welsh lovespoon, carved from one piece of wood, to a loved one is a St Dwynwen's Day tradition in WalesGiving a Welsh lovespoon, carved from one piece of wood, to a loved one is a St Dwynwen's Day tradition in Wales

In the west of Wales, campaign group Yes Cymru Aberystwyth organised a Santes Dwynwen litter pick to clean up the community while independent businesses across the country have been seeking to leverage the celebration to raise much-needed post-Covid profits.

These include Cardiff-based Cwtchie, who specialise in colourful duvet day hoodies that look like blankets; the Goodwash company, based in Barry, who sell luxury wash products and promote ethical causes, and Calon Lân cakes, who have released a special range of heart-shaped Welsh cakes. 

The National Wales: The holy cross overlooks the St Dwynwen's Church on Ynys Llanddwyn. Photo: Dr Richard Murray CC BY-SA 2.0The holy cross overlooks the St Dwynwen's Church on Ynys Llanddwyn. Photo: Dr Richard Murray CC BY-SA 2.0

And outside of the inevitable commercialism, it seems Dwynwen’s revival is set to continue, with restoration work ongoing at the site of the holy well dedicated to her memory on Llanddwyn island - a narrow finger of land in the far south west of Ynys Môn where a simple cross looks out across the Irish Sea in memory of a chaste and mysterious woman who nevertheless seems down the centuries to have captured many thousands of Welsh hearts.

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