Dictionary of National Biography – Asaph

detail of a stained glass window of Saint Asaph, Shrigley and Hunt, 1909; Thomas Becket chapel, Cathedral of Saint David, Pembrokeshire, Wales; photographed on 21 July 2011 by Wolfgang Sauber; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsArticle

Asaph, or, according to its Welsh forms, Assad, Assa, or Asa (fl. 570), Welsh saint, was the son of a North Welsh prince named Sawyl (in old Welsh, Samuil) Benisel, son of Pabo. The epithet Benisel (‘of the low head’) applied to Pabo’s son, was changed in all the later genealogies into Benuchel (‘of the high head’), thus confounding Asaph’s father with a Glamorgan chieftain of the name of Sawyl Benuchel, who is described in the Welsh triads as one of ‘the three overbearing ones of Britain’. The genealogies also represent Asaph as nephew of Dunawd, founder of Bangor Iscoed, and cousin of Deiniol, first bishop of Bangor in Carnarvonshire. His mother, Gwenassed, was granddaughter of Cunedda Wledig, being the daughter of Rhun ‘Hael’ (or the generous) of Reinuc or, as he is elsewhere called, Rhufawn of Rhyfoniog, which was the name of the cantrev in which Saint Asaph is situated. He himself was probably a native of the adjoining cantrev of Tegengl, which corresponds to the western half of the main portion of the modern Flintshire, a district where many places still bear his name, such as Llanasa (his church), Pantasaph (his hollow) near Holywell, Ffynnon Asa (his well) at Cwm, and Onen Asa (his ash-tree).

The saint, who is said to have been ‘particularly illustrious for his descent and beauty,’ is first heard of in connection with the missionary efforts of Cyndeyrn or Kentigern, the exiled bishop of the northern Britons of Strath Clyde, who about 560 established a monastery at the confluence of the rivers Clwyd and Elwy in what is now Flintshire. The site may indeed have been selected owing to the cordial welcome which the house of Sawyl seems to have extended to Kentigern, as the person named Cadwallon, who invited Kentigern to the place, is probably to be identified with a nephew of Asaph and a grandson of Sawyl, Sawyl’s own attachment to Christianity may also doubtless be inferred from his epithet of Benisel. Asaph himself became a disciple of the missionary, ‘imitating him in all sanctity and abstinence,’ and, according to the legend, succouring him on one occasion by carrying in his woollen habit some burning charcoal to warm his shivering master. On his return to Strath Clyde about 570, Kentigern, who ‘bore ever a special affection’ for Asaph, appointed him his successor. It is surmised that it was in Asaph’s time that the monastery was elevated into a cathedral foundation, and that, though Kentigern was the founder of the monastery, Asaph was in fact the first bishop of the see. The name of Kentigern does not seem to have ever been associated with the nomenclature of either cathedral or diocese, which, though originally known by the Welsh name of Llanelwy, has since about 1100 also borne the English name Saint Asaph, both which names co-exist to the present day. ‘Bangor Assaf’ is also a name applied to the cathedral in one manuscript. The old parish church of Saint Asaph, however, consists of two equal and parallel aisles, known respectively as Eglwys Cyndeyrn and Eglwys Asaph, and in this respect served as the model for most of the churches of the Vale of Clwyd. The dedication of this church and that of Llanasa (which is similar in form) is to Saint Asaph in conjunction with Saint Kentigern.

The anniversary or wake of the saint used to be celebrated by a fair held at Saint Asaph on 1 May, on which day he is believed to have died, probably about 596. He was buried, according to tradition, in the cathedral. He is said to have written a ‘Life of Saint Kentigern,’ which, though not now extant, probably formed the basis of the life compiled in 1125 by Jocelyn of Furness. A saying attributed to him has, however, survived— ‘Quicunque verbo Dei adversantur, saluti hominum invident’ (Capgrave). ‘Myn bagl Assa’ (‘By Asaph’s crosier’) appears as a mediæval oath.

His well, Ffynnon Asa, in the parish of Cwm, is a natural spring of great volume, described as ‘the second largest well in the principality.’ It was formerly supposed to have healing powers, and down to some fifty years ago, if not later, persons bathed in it occasionally. It is now chiefly noted for its trout. At Saint Asaph ‘the schoolboys used to show . . . the print of Saint Asaph’s Horseshoe when he jumpt with him from Onnen Hassa (Asaph’s Ash-tree), which is about two miles off’.

MLA Citation

  • Daniel Lleufer Thomas. “Asaph”. Dictionary of National Biography, 1885. CatholicSaints.Info. 8 April 2019. Web. 29 July 2021. <>