King Arthur’s Saints

We tend to get only one side of the medieval stories, and it’s not necessarily the side that the medievals would have thought important.

For example, when you think of King Arthur, it’s very unlikely that you think about the Welsh saints with whom he is associated. For all the books and novels about the “historical Arthur”, it’s very seldom that the Romano-British, Welsh, Cornish, or Irish servants of the Church are even mentioned or considered. Heck, most writers don’t even want to think too hard about these people having mostly been Christian for a good two to four hundred years.

So you hear about Ambrosius Aurelianus, but not that he was associated by some with St. Ambrosius, the abbot founder of Amesbury. (A lot of Arthurian types retire to the monastery or convent, of course, but founding Amesbury is a big deal!)

Also you hear a good deal about Uther’s kid Arthur, and about the legendary Morgan and Morgaine, his half-sisters. But Welsh genealogy and legend is much more likely to talk about his daughter Anna Pendragon, St. Anna of Gwent, whose descendants were kings — as well as allegedly being the mother of St. Samson, Bishop of Dol, who historically went to the Council of Paris in 560, and his brother St. Tydecho.

Apparently the chronology gets all messed up by Geoffrey of Monmouth, who has Uther’s parliament attended by both St. Samson and St. Dyfrig (who was about 50 years later). St. Samson was apparently part of St. Illtyd’s school; and St. Illtyd was either a contemporary of Arthur or associated with the same St. Dyfrig (Dubricius).

And who was St. Illtyd (or Iltutus)? A guy from Brittany, who was the grandnephew of  St. Germanus of Auxerre! (This doesn’t chime with one very late story that he was converted only after he came over to Britain and was converted by St. Cadoc.) He is said to have been ordained by St. Dyfrig in his see at Llandaff, and went on to found one of Llandaff’s three famous schools (Llanilltyd Fawr). His school was apparently on an island when he started; the story says it rejoined the land of its own accord, but the monks may have done landfill or reclaimed land from the sea. (There were drowned cantrev legends in Brittany as well as Wales, so maybe this was a real issue.) Ss. Gildas, Samson, and Maglorius all were supposed to have been his students.

St. Dyfrig, the bishop of Llandaff, has gotten a bit of attention from the historical Arthur crowd, as Norma Goodrich claimed that he was also Merlin. (Dude. You’d think people would’ve noticed this. Especially at Llandaff.) Legend has him the illegitimate son of a king’s daughter. The king tried to drown them both but failed, and Dyfrig was born at Madley in Herefordshire. The wicked king was struck with leprosy, which was only cured when Dyfrig greeted him with a kiss. Dyfrig went on to found monasteries in Hentland and Moccas. Legend has him made bishop by St. Germanus of Auxerre, and his see (which later became the diocese of Llandaff and was run from there) was headquartered at his grandfather’s capitol. Some say he crowned King Arthur. He attended the Synod of Llandewi Brefi in 545, and allegedly resigned his see in favor of St. David.

Yes, now we’re connected to St. David, just as we earlier were connected to David’s buddy St. Teilo (who succeeded to a large chunk of what had been St. Dyfrig’s see), and who was a buddy of yet another of the St. Aidans, who was St. Gildas’ brother.  Which again is the sort of thing which would have deeply interested the medieval Welsh, because St. David is Wales’ patron saint.

Anyway, back to St. Anna of Gwent, aka St. Anna of Oxenhall. Maybe she was a Pendragon (or maybe that was her first husband’s mom). Maybe she was a daughter of King Meurig of Morganwg. Maybe she was the daughter of King Vortimer Bendigaid (the Blessed) of Gwerthefyriwg. (Maybe she was Uther’s fostersister, or counted as one since she was Arthur’s fostermother.) Either way, she first married Cynyr Ceinfarfog, Lord of Caer Goch in Dyfed, and bore him six children. Among them were Cai Hir (yes, Sir Kay, and yes, the Welsh say he died a hermit saint and had his shrine), St. Non (became a nun, was raped, and bore St. David — but, um, also bore Mor, the mother of St. Eltin of Kinsale, and Magna, the mother of Setna), and St. Wenna the Queen (wife of King Mark’s cousin and successor, St. Salom of Cerniw, who was also uncle to St. Selevan; and mother of St. Cybi and St. Fracan, who married St. Gwen Teirbron who bore him St. Winwaloe but later remarried and bore St. Cadfan, who spent a lot of time with his cousin St. Teilo).

Among all these kids, St. Anna’s fostering of Arthur must have passed unnoticed.

After Arthur’s coronation, St. Anna and her husband Cynyr spent a lot of time at court. Then Cynyr died, and her hand was solicited by a prince of Brittany, Amyn Ddu. They married and among their kids were St. Samson, St. Tydecho, and St. Tegfedd, who married Prince Cynsig ap Hydwn and was mother of St. Teilo. (Amyn had moved to Dyfed and became an official at King Arthur’s court.) However, St. Samson eventually persuaded his parents to enter religious life, and Amyn became a monk at Ynys Byr while Anna moved back home to Gwent and founded churches.

Sabine Baring-Gould tells us that St. Amyn Ddu was persuaded to this move after nearly dying, and St. Samson coming home just in time to hear his confession  of a horrible mortal sin. St. Anna (who did the persuading after being in the room for the confession) decided that she also wanted all the younger kids to enter religious life and their estate to be given up. She presented the kids to Samson, who took his five brothers and his father and his uncle Umbraphel and Umbraphel’s three sons all back to Ynys Byr. St. Anna kept raising her youngest daughter (whom Samson had said should not enter religious life), and also took with her to Gwent her sister and sister-in-law Derveila or Afrella (Umbraphel’s wife). Baring-Gould also associates St. Amyn Ddu with St. Amon of Plescop, a holy man and knight who returned to Brittany just in time to die in his native land.

Yes, there’s a lot of this stuff. (We’ve barely touched on St. Gwen Teirbron, whose nickname means ‘triple-breasted’, who got kidnapped a lot by pirates but always walked home over the sea, and whose shrine is one of two to survive the Reformation — good one, Gwen! We haven’t talked about St. Anef, another son of Caw of Cwm Cawlwyd, like St. Gildas, St. Aneurin (who may be the birth name of St. Gildas), St. Blenwydd, and St. Ceidio.) It’s very sad that it’s not part of popular consciousness, just because it wasn’t Malory’s big thing.

We also haven’t talked about the infamous Yellow Plague of 547, which killed off Irish and Welsh saints, kings and normal people with truly appalling speed and thoroughness. This real, post-Arthurian times historical event is an extremely fruitful source of legends about how people survived or didn’t.

We haven’t talked about St. Elvis, even!

Sabine Baring-Gould’s four-volume work on the saints of Wales and Cornwall is available from archive.org. Here’s Volume 1, which includes our Anna. Vortigern Studies includes an extremely interesting attempt to tease out the history of Vortigern and Arthur’s times, and some nifty articles. And if you’ve followed the links, you know all about Early British Kingdoms, a staggeringly persistent and helpful site.

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5 Comments

Filed under Church, fandom, History

5 responses to “King Arthur’s Saints

  1. Joy

    Wouldn’t this just annoy the heck out of the guys who did the Clive Owen King Arthur movie (the one with the eeeeeeevil Christians?) I’m glad to see you are back up and running. I must go back to work now.

    BTW: I’m not going to see that Elizabeth movie–why give myself historical inaccuracy belly cramps??–but I’ve seen Clive as Sir Walter in the commercials **sigh** **drool** Can’t someone put him in some movie that isn’t offensive either historically or morally? or both?

  2. Pingback: The Grail Code» Blog Archive » A halo of saints

  3. I have the above weg pages about the above subject. Typed a long message on here then it said my email not valid and wiped it! No time to do again, Nothing wrong with email either. I wonder if you can email me with a private email as I have some info which you might find interesting. The blog also has interesting stuff.
    maryinmonmouth@googlemail.com
    Thanks
    Mary

  4. Gildas is Manchan the Master (Mancenus, Ninine). He was Saint Brigid’s brother by way of the same father, Dubhtchach. The Catholic Church has suppressed the information.

  5. Pingback: St. Gwen Teirbron | Aliens in This World

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