The Welsh college older than Oxford University

Where was Britain’s first formal seat of learning? The University of Oxford has the best claim to be the oldest university in the British Isles, beating the University of Cambridge by some two hundred years. But were both preceded by a monastic institution in Wales?

Llantwit Major is a small town on the south Welsh coast, some 15 miles south-west of Cardiff. There are some remarkable buildings scattered amongst the unremarkable modern town, but nothing to suggest how important the settlement was in the history of Christian Britain and monastic learning. For Llantwit Major was the home to Cor Tewdws, the College of Theodosius and Britain’s first formal centre of learning.

The college was named for the Emperor Theodosius and was founded in the fourth century. Calling it Britain’s first school hints at its antiquity, but some go further and call it the world’s first university. And, with a history stretching back to at least 395 AD, it is a decent claim.

The claim was made in Huw Edwards’s ‘Story of Wales’, which emphasised Llantwit Major’s role as a beacon for Celtic Christianity and in the dissemination of knowledge throughout Europe. It was a training centre for the holy men who would become saints and was so successful in this role that its role of alumni is especially illustrious.

Saint Patrick, Saint Paul Aurelian, Saint Gildas, Saint Baglan, Saint Tudwal, the bard Taliesin, Saint Gildas the historian, Saint Samson of Dol, Saint Paulinus de Leon and Saint David read like a Who’s Who of the Celtic world and are all believed to have spent some time studying at the institution.

At its peak it reputedly boasted six separate halls, over 400 houses and over 2000 students – making it of comparable size to medieval Oxford and Cambridge. This was following its refoundation in around 500 AD after the original complex was burnt down during a Viking raid. It was during this period that the college was run by Saint Illtyd – an important and exceptional teacher.

It would later be known in commemoration of St. Illtyd as Bangor Illtyd, or Illtyd’s College. It would continue to have a central role in the training of priests and dissemination of medieval and early Renaissance learning until its monastic roots ensured it fell foul of Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries.

Little now remains of the college, of its halls and houses of learning. The church is an important Christian building, but dates from the 13th century – long after the town’s monastic peak. Only one of the original teaching houses remains, an ancient survivor in the church yard, but visitors can only get a sense of its illustrious Christian past.