Caergybi church in Holyhead, North Wales, is a church that has its origins dating back to the 6th century, when St Cybi – a Welsh saint who according to tradition was a cousin of St David – resided in a monks cell on the site. The church is set within a small Roman fort that dates to the 4th century, and the fort is unique to Wales as it is still standing almost in its entirety. The walls are constructed of local materials, the stone set in a typical Roman ‘herring-bone’ fashion, and the walls of the fort give a fascinating insight into Roman stonework and masonry. St Cybi was probably given the fort for his cell by a local king; the old Roman centres such as Chester and York becoming important centres for early Christianity during the sub-Roman period, the available stone sometimes being re-used for new religious buildings such as can be seen at Hexham Abbey. The old Roman centres also retained some strategic importance during this sub-Roman period, such as Chester, which was the location of a battle in the early 7th century. By the 7th century however, as the Venerable Bede tells us in his Ecclesiastical History, that Stone masons were brought from Gaul, to build a church ‘in the Roman manner’, which suggests that building skills had been lost in Britain sometime after the withdrawal of Roman troops in the early 5th century.
The old Roman stone buildings certainly held wonder for the early Church in Britain, as Michael e. Hoenicke Moore puts forward ‘this concept of a Roman tradition was thought to require, as if in a utopian dream, the replication in Britain of all the important features of the Roman church : its stone buildings, its windows, its sacred images and a doctrine about their use, liturgical equipment and Roman customs of chanting and ceremonial.’ In this sense, the old Roman stonework held the secrets and lost knowledge of the ancients.
Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, (London: Penguin, 1990).
Michael e. Hoenicke Moore, ‘Bede’s Devotion to Rome : the Periphery Defining the Center’, Histoire et littéraure de l’Europe du Nord-Ouest’, p. 199-208.