The Celtic Church in Britain

The Celtic Church in Britain

Irenaeus makes no mention of the British Church when, towards the end of the second century, he draws up a comprehensive list of Catholic Churches within the Empire. Indeed in Britain itself Christian inscriptions do not go back beyond the middle of the fourth century, and even in other countries there is no documentary evidence before the third century to support those who hold that Christianity came very early to Britain. By that time, however, there was undoubtedly growing up abroad a tradition that, as Eusebius, the fourth century historian, puts it: “The Apostles passed beyond the ocean to the isles called the Brittanic Isles.” Earlier than this, at the very beginning of the third century. Tertullian is significantly less definite, contending himself with writing from Carthage that “the regions of Britain which have never been penetrated by Roman arms have received the religion of Christ”. By the fifth century, however, bishops of the Eastern Church specifically mention St. Paul or his disciple Aristobulus as having first preached to the Britons. And as for Gildas, Britain’s own sixth-century historian, he maintains that “Christ the True Son, afforded His light, the knowledge of His precepts, to our island in the last year, as we know, of Tiberius Caesar”.

If the tradition Gildas follows is based on fact, then Christianity first reached Britain only six years after the Crucifixion. Curiously enough his statement does tally with that made in the first half of the ninth century by Freculphus, bishop of Lisieux, who relates that certain friends and disciples of our Lord, in the persecution that followed His Ascension, found refuge in Britain in 37. It tallies, too, with the strong tradition still held in the ancient heart of Britain – the West of England – that these Judean refugees were welcomed by Caractacus and given shelter by him in a druidic college at Glastonbury, where they were known as the strangers, or Culdees. Until the sixth century the name Culdee was often used to denote a priest of the Celtic Church and in some regions it continued in use tell well after the (French-)Norman Conquest(/Crusade). In Scotland, for example, Queen Margaret found communities of Culdees at Loch Leven, Dunkeld and St. Andrews. It Should be remembered, however, that most scholars think the word meant “servant of God”.

It is worth mentioning one other possible link between Britain and very early Christianity. There is a tradition that while Caractacus lived in Rome as a prisoner he was converted by St. Paul, and further, that his British son Linus (whose greetings are sent to Timothy in St. Paul’s second letter) succeeded St. Peter as second bishop of Rome. We have, certainly, more reason to believe that a British prince sat in the Chair of Peter than we have to accept the statement, so often made, that educated Romans first brought Christianity to these islands in 597, before which time they were inhabited by ignorant savages. The truth about the origins of Christianity in Britain will never be known for certain, but Tertullian’s sentence does infer that not only had Romans and Britons been worshipping together in British churches before the end of the second century, but that by that time the Faith had spread, however sparsely, to remote corners of Scotland and Ireland.

This would seem to contradict Gilda’s statement that the British first received the Faith so tepidly that it took long to spread. It is well to remember, though, that Gildas was always far more ready to denounce than to praise; and to remember also the unique way in which Christianity was, in fact, grafted on to the Celtic tribal system so that Druids and bards changed imperceptibly into Christian priests and poets. There is only one recorded martyr among missionaries to the Celts, and so carefully did the missionaries preserve the best of the ancient heritage of religion and learning that, in the sixth century, St. Columba studied and wrote poetry in the native tradition and spoke of Christ as his druid.

Between the years 66 and 303 the ever more powerful Catholic Church was considered so great a menace to the Roman Empire that two major persecutions were ordered as a means of destroying it. During the last of these, which began in 290, during the reign of the Emperor Diocletian, it is said that thousands of British communicants perished, including the bishops of York, Carlisle and London, and very probably the brave convert St. Alban, who died to save the Christian he sheltered.

It was Constantine who first realized that this drastic policy could achieve no more than does the pruning of a healthy tree, and who therefore changed it to one of toleration. When, in 314, he called the Council of Arles to discuss, among other matters, the validity of the ordination of the Catholic bishop of Carthage whom the Donatists refused to recognize, the British Church (as was observed in the last chapter) had recovered sufficiently from the recent persecution to send no less than three bishops to the south of Gaul to take part in the proceedings at Arles. Along with the rest of the Western bishops they signed the respectful letter sent to Bishop of Silvester of Rome acquainting him with the various decisions reached and begging him to write to all churches that the whole world might keep Easter on the same day. It seems impossible to prove whether the computation, to which later Celtic bishops clung with such tenacity, was that which they brought back from Arles, or the earlier and far more accurate computation of Anatolius of Alexandria which, after several more changes, was eventually adopted by Rome in 525. If they chose the former they were exceptional, as almost all churches were too conservative to pay the slightest attention to Silvester’s letter.

Whether or no British bishops decided on independence in such miner disciplinary matters, they made their choice while fully aware of the customs in Continental churches. Sufficient records exist to show that throughout the fourth century there was a well-organized Christian Church in Britain in constant touch with the Church in Gaul and, in the latter half of the century, with the Eastern Church also. British bishops travelled to council’s taking place as far from home as Italy and Bulgaria that those in their charge might be kept abreast of the great doctrinal disputes at which we glanced in the last chapter.

Arianism was by far the most dangerous of fourth-century heresies, and among the foremost of its opponents was the Catholic Hilary, Celtic bishop of Poitiers and teacher of St. Ninian’s master, St. Martin of Tours. Hilary’s letter to the Arian Emperor Constantine II, defying him to meddle with the Catholic faith as expounded in the Nicene Creed and by Athanasius, raised him to leadership of the whole Western Church. It mattered not that he was banished to Asia Minor. Willing messengers carried his letters even to “the bishops of the provinces of Britons” who desired to know what, since his banishment in 356, the Eastern Christians had written down as Confessions of their Belief. Not only did Hilary profit by the far richer instructional and devotional literature of the East, but, during his banishment, he learnt so much about the place music could play in the Church that Jerome considered his later success as a missionary in Acquitaine to be largely due to “the power of sacred song”. His hymns were soon popular throughout the Celtic Church. The first few words of one of them, an early version of the Te Deum, are incised on a stone found at St. Ninian’s Candida Casa at Whithorn.

The Briton Pelagius, who was notorious for about ten years at the beginning of the fifth century, affected the British Church only temporally, though, as we observed, his heretical rejection of original sin, together with its necessary complement, the necessity for divine grace, for long convulsed all Italy and Africa, and even today is among the most popular of the heresies. So well did Pelagius put his case to the bishop of Jerusalem, speaking in fluent Greek, that the Eastern Church, unlike the Western, refused to condemn him. Those who heard him lecture agree that he spoke always as one inspired, and was moreover a monk of blameless life. Some say he learnt his philosophy from the Syrian Rufinus, while others maintain that he really sought to revive the views on nature and freewill held by the druids. This last theory is strengthened if the tradition be true that Pelagius was an abbot of Bangor on Dee in North Wales, a place surrounded by ancient British druidic strongholds.

Be that as it may, the Pelagian heresy spread so alarmingly in Britain that a deputation of the faithful wrote to beg help from the bishops of Gaul. Backed by the bishop of Rome, a council was held in 429 which decided to send no less a man than the famous bishop, Germanus of Auxerre. The suppression of Pelagianism was not the only result of Germanus’ two fruitful visits to Britain. Though not himself a monk, he seems to have been one of the first to introduce monasticism to the British Church, which was so inspired by his dynamic personality that news of the religious revival reached Ireland where the few Christians straightway begged for a like mission. In response, the Church in Gaul sent St. Patrick, one of the greatest of all missionaries. Strengthened by the work of such men as St. Martin, St. Ninian, St. Germanus and St. Patrick – all trained in Gaul – the British Church was able to survive the terrible fifth century, at the beginning of which the Romans abandoned Britain, and by the end of which the British Church had been ousted by the Anglo-Saxon conquerors from such eastern strongholds as London, York and Lincoln.

It continued, however, to flourish in Welschland, as the Anglo-Saxons called Wales. This name means the land of the Romans (foreignerland?); and a glance at the history of Wales will suffice to show why that unconquered part of the country continued to be so called after the departure of the Roman legions and officials in 410.

The Romans occupied Wales for over three hundred years. But by the third century, Britons in Wales had become free and prosperous citizens of the Empire. There were no towns and the people were still divided into tribes living a pastoral existence. Neither the British children who studied in Roman schools, nor the many British girls who married Romans, forgot their language. They became bilingual.

The first important Romano-British family consisted of the sons and the daughter of Maximus, a Roman general sent from Spain in the middle of the fourth century to defend Britain against the Picts. Later, he seems to have been made Ruler and Commander in Chief of Western Britain, marrying Helena, a British princess whose family owned land near Carnarvon. Both were ardent Catholics, and when (largely for this reason) British troops raised their beloved Maximus to the rank of Emperor in 383, it was not long before he had ked them across the channel, deposed the Arian Emperor and established himself and his Romano-British family in the palace at Treves.

There the family met the great missionary bishop, St. Martin of Tours. In their monastic settlements, his monks were busy transforming the land and peasants of rural Gaul, hitherto neglected by the Church. Maximus approved; and so great was St. Martin’s influence on his son Publicius (the Welsh called him Peblig), that five years later, after the defeat and execution of his father by the Emperor of the East, Peblig returned to Wales with the rest of his family to found Llanbeblig, probably the first of over five hundred Welsh monasteries. The little group of huts surrounding a tiny church, so typical of St. Martin’s settlements in Gaul, was placed in Helena’s northern part of Wales. It was from Snowdonia, too, that Helena herself, backed by the Romans, set about reorganizing the defences of a country almost denuded of trained troops by Maximus, and already being invaded by Scots from Ireland. Helena’s daughter married Vortigern, British king of central Wales, while with Roman approval, the rest of the land was divided between the three sons. Proud of their Roman blood and Roman traditions, descendants of this family continued to rule a large part of Wales for hundreds of years, producing many Welsh saints during the sixth century.

By themselves, Maximus’ sons were not strong enough to stem the Irish invasion. Thus it was that at the end of the fourth century the Romans ordered Cunedda to take an army to the help of Wales. This general, a Romano-British Christian from southern Scotland, sailed south, drove out the Scots and built and manned a line of defences along the coast of Wales. Merioneth and Cardigan are called after two of his family, among whom were divided the coastal districts of the north and west. Cunedda’s descendants shared with those of Maximus the honour of governing and educating the people of Wales after the Romans had ceased to do so. This they did so much in the manner of the Romans that it is small wonder that the Anglo-Saxons failed to notice any break.

Monastic settlements increased steadily in Wales during the fifth century. Among the earliest were Llanfeugan, founded on the west coast by Irish disciples of St. Ninian, and a monastic school also run by an Irishman, St. Brychan of Brecknock. During the second half of the fifth century, King Arthur won twelve victories against plundering Picts and Scots, thus ensuring a peaceful Christian country in which these centres of prayer, manual labour and learning continued to grow in power and number among the Welsh tribes. The stage was set for the age of saints

During the second half of the fifth century, the two figures of St. Illtyd and St. Dubricius begin to dominate the British Church in Wales and give to it a unity impossible without leadership. St. Illtyd’s origin is obscure; but like most Celtic saints he chose to work far from his birthplace. His name means exile, so perhaps he fled west from the Saxons. He worked first among the Irish in Brecknock, where he probably caught his enthusiasm for education from St. Brychan, who delighted to teach boys and girls alike. St. Illtyd’s largest school, at Llantwit Major near Cowbridge in Glamorganshire, was then known as Llanilltyd (“llan” first meant an enclosure but came to mean church), and was famous even before the end of the fifth century. From c. 520, Caldey Island, another of his foundations, was for about ten years so powerful a centre of light and learning that even today the monks there are inspired by St. Illtyd and St. Samson. Among St. Illtyd’s pupils were Gildas the historian, Maelgwn, successor to Cunedda, and St. Samson and St. Paul Aurelian, Brittany’s two greatest British missionaries.

It must be remembered that Llanilltyd or Llantwit simply means the place of lIItyd’s church and community. Like all Celtic monastic settlements it consisted of a village of huts grouped about a little church and surrounded by a defensive rampart of earth. The sixth-century Life of St. Samson tells how he and the other boys were educated. We read of their long lessons, their hard manual labour ,and their strenuous fasts and meditations. Some of the boys rebelled and ran away, so strictly did St.lIItyd follow the pattern laid down in Egyptian and Syrian monasteries which he had learnt from followers of St. Martin from Gaul. But these boys were the exceptions who proved how important was the rule of St. lIItyd’s foundation. Early Welsh Christians throve on extreme austerity, founded as it was, not on fear but on love. The kind of man St. lIItyd was shines through the following story.

One year when the corn was almost ripe hundreds of vagabond sparrows alighted on it and began to eat their fill. It was St. Samson’s turn to guard the corn and he clapped his hands to frighten them off. Impertinently they did no more than turn their heads, whereupon he ordered them to go at once to the monastery and apologize to the abbot for their barbaric invasion. St. lIItyd received them in the cloister. “Bless you, creatures of God,” he murmured. “Bit don’t harm the corn, the graceful corn which bends to the wind, the generous corn which feeds men.” And again he raised his arm and blessed them. In later years St. Samson himself banished some birds that displeased him on the bank of the Seine. But St. lIItyd commanded that the sparrows be fed daily at the monastery; and they, in their turn, behaved themselves politely throughout his lands. So great was the love of birds in that early monastery that, when one of the monks returned from his work on the farm to find that a robin had started to build a nest in his indoor habit, he did without it till the mother had brought up her young.

St. lIItyd’s fellow leader was the bishop of Dubricius who, in 510, left the Britons, among whom he laboured in South Herefordshire, to visit the community at Llanilltyd and there ordain St. Samson. At that time he seems to have been the only bishop in Wales, for we meet him next at the monastic settlement on Caldey Island where St. Samson fled to take refuge from St. lIItyd’s dangerously jealous nephews. They suspected their uncle of planning to overlook their hereditary right to succeed him, in favour of St. Samson, a saint of another tribe. This they found intolerable – an interesting sidelight on the tribal background of the British Church. That St. Dubricius was able, without opposition, to install St. Samson as abbot of Caldey Island is a striking proof of how much both saints were respected.

Through his pupil Maelgwyn, later king of North Wales, St. lIItyd’s influence spread north to the old Christian settlement at Bangor on Dee. There Deiniol, Maelgwyn’s school-fellow, became the first bishop of North Wales and was accompanied from lIIanilltyd by so large a contingent of priests and monks that the Church in North Wales produced from then on a line of scholar abbots following the tradition of St. lIItyd. The influence of St. Dubricius on South Wales was as marked as that of St. lIItyd on the north. It became the custom for abbots in the south to follow his example and be bishops. Among these were St. David of Menevia, and St. Dubricius’ successor St. Teilo of Llandaff. Bishops in a Church without dioceses, and in which the presbyters habitually consecrated new monastic churches and, like Eastern priests, administered the chrism in the confirmation that completed the baptism of adults, had no other function but to ordain. They were thus free to become artists or craftsmen (many were scribes and metal workers) or to combine their office with that of abbot.

In the west of Wales are many dedications to St. Tathan of Caerwent, in Monmouthshire. He was one of those who taught St. Cadoc; though St. Cadoc’s Irish training, and St. Finnian, his Irish friend, proved more important to the British Church. St. Cadoc of Llancarvan ruled supreme in Glamorganshire, Carmarthenshire and Monmouthshire during the first of the sixth century, largely owing to his kinship with the royal family. Only a change of dynasty could force his monastery of Llancarvan to yield the leadership to Llandaff.

It is plain that in the sixth–century. Wales the important monasteries belonged of necessity to the important tribes. Branches of the ruling tribe of Cunedda alone produced fifty saints, including St. Teilo and St. David. A saint of great repute sometime gave his name to his tribe, and every male Celt belonging to the tribe of a saint was entitled to orders if he wished them. For, as an ancient Welsh law puts it: “The people have a right in the Church and the Church in the people. Baptism, Communion and requiem of the soul and offerings are due from the church to every person after his proper belief, with the recital of God’s word to all who listen to it and keep it.”

Though it proved a tremendous unifying force, the British Church in Wales was necessarily composed of largely independent units because of the independence of the tribes. But within each tribe the authority of the monastic clergy was immense. They even judged debtors and suchlike criminals publicly in their churches. And if they thought fit to excommunicate a man, he lost all his tribal rights and could be killed with impunity. In return for their work as preachers, teachers, judges and priests (Gildas holds the Catholic view of the priest as one who offers the sacrifice), the tribe supported the Church with offerings of land, cattle and their own offspring. Indeed a monk of the British Church who set up as a teacher did not so much found a school as rear a family; for the boys of his tribe were already related to him ,and those brought to him because his beloved foster-sons for whom he was responsible for the rest of his life. Through the numerous offshoots of the seven or eight chief monasteries of the chief tribes of Wales the whole country gradually became Christian.

In 597, Britain, already harried by Saxon invaders, was stricken by the Yellow Plague. So many saints accompanied the people of South Wales in their terrified flight to Cornwall and Brittany that monastic settlements were left as empty as the people’s homes. Among those who took refuge in Brittany, but who later returned to reorganize the British Church in Wales, were St. Cadoc, St. Teilo, and St. David. In the latter half of the sixth century St. David’s monastery of Menevia, situated on the extreme westernmost tip of Pembrokeshire, grew as pre-eminent in South Wales as was Bangor on Dee in the north. As for the latter, its scholars and missionaries grew so famous that the abortive conference with St. Augustine of Canterbury was held there. Later still, at the battle of Chester, in 613, over one thousand of Bangor’s monks were massacred while praying for the victory of British soldiers against the Saxons. We know that the place survived, despite the tragedy, for Bede mentions double that number of monks as residing there in the eighth century; and in the twelfth century William of Malmesbury exclaims that at Bangor lie the ruins of the largest city he has ever seen.

St. David attended a synod held c. 560 at Brevi in Cardiganshire, where 118 British bishops and a vast concourse of clergy and people discussed and confirmed the penitential discipline of the British Church. But the most interesting result of the synod was that the Bishop David, from being the local saint of Pembrokeshire with most of his contacts in Ireland, left the synod as the chosen ecclesiastical head of all South Wales. His eleventh-century biography points out that many of the decrees of the synod “are found in the oldest writings of the father, written in his own sacred hand.

St. David was no exception to the rule that of the great Welsh saint of the sixth century none were purely of native stock. His father, Non, was of the tribe of Cunedda, and his mother is said to have been descended from Maximus. His first teacher in Wales was Paul, an aged disciple of St. Ninian’s, and his education was finished in the north among his own people, where his father sent him to study with Manchin, St. Ninian’s successor, at Candida Casa in Wigtownshire. The monastery founded by St. David on his return to Wales proved surprisingly popular considering the many stories of startling austerities practised by his monks. The labourers among them were not even allowed the help of cattle on the farm, but dragged their own ploughs. Gildas deplored this habit as arrogant; and St. lIItyd’s heart, too, must have been saddened, as he was himself an expert farmer and the inventor of an improved plough.

But it was not for nothing that St. David rose eventually to be patron saint of Wales. The countless legends show him to have had that indescribable quality of holiness. A contemporary bishop spoke of him as one “who has an angel for companion – a most lovable man”. In great demand among other saints as a Soul-Friend or Confessor, he was also revered by the boys in his school, who could always feel the love that lay behind his severity. Across the water in Ireland he had as many friends as in Britain. St. Brendan of Clonfert, the abbot Barre of Cork, and St. Cadoc’s friend the great Finnian of Clonfert were among the many who sailed across the Irish Channel to enjoy his company. During one visit St. Finnian had to act as judge in a quarrel between St. Cadoc and St. David, and gave his verdict in favour of the latter. At the end of another visit St. Finnian returned to Ireland armed with a copy of the liturgy then in use in the British Church. It had been written out for him by St. David, St. Gildas and St. Cadoc, all three enthusiasts for their choral version of the communion service they called the Offering.

As an historian writing from the point of view of a sixth-century monk, Gildas can only see such calamities as the Saxon invasion as punishments for the wickedness of British kings, the lack of zeal among the “harmless good” secular clergy (they married and had often more than one wife), and the superstitions of a people who persisted in venerating springs and fountains, and who covered the land (he said) with their idols. When he wrote, in the first half of the century, monks were as yet very few; but they are the only Christians he dares to praise. Even his country he describes as “paralysed with icy cold and in a far corner of the world remote from the sun”, which may well account for the fact that this great but dismal scholar seldom set foot in it again after his flight to Brittany.

If St. Gildas was inclined to be bitter, St. Cadoc seems to have been an over-sensitive man. While in Brittany he was deeply hurt that a synod should have been held in Britain without his knowledge. He fell out so often with his friends that even so powerful a man as Maelgwyn took pains not to offend him. But St. Cadoc had a soft heart and greatly shocked Gildas by telling him he could not bear to think – indeed could hardly believe – that a poet of the quality of his beloved Virgil should remain perpetually in hell. So haunted was he by God’s apparent injustice that he was not surprised when one night he woke to hear Virgil’s voice pleading for the prayers of his friend Cadoc that he might be permitted to “sing the loving kindness of the Lord” in heaven.

St. David died in his monastery in 589, and St. Gildas, with whom he and St. Cadoc had in the north and in Brittany, died in exile in 570. In the same year the Saxons killed St. Cadoc. He returned from Brittany to his monks at Llancarvan, though he well knew that the enemy had long since broken through the main Welsh defences, and that his well-farmed land was bound to tempt them sooner or later. One morning, while he celebrated the Offering, the plundering soldiers burst into his church and slew him by the altar.

St. Cadoc once asked St. Teilo of Llandaff what he considered the greatest wisdom in a man. St. Teilo answered: “To refrain from injuring another when you have the power to do so.” Related to St. David, St. Teilo trained under St. Dubricius, whom he succeeded as bishop. We have already noted how his monastery of Llandaff became for a time pre-eminent in South Wales after the decline of Llancarvan. Like his friends, St. Teilo spent some time in Brittany during the visitation of the Yellow Plague. There he visited St. Samson and helped him to plant out a huge new orchard at Dol. Considering the nature of his advice to St. Cadoc, the last glimpse we have of St. Teilo is a little startling. In 577 the Saxons broke through British defences on the Wye. St. Teilo was an old man, but he joined the British army and when they neared the enemy he raised his voice, beat his little iron hand-bell and cursed them so ruthlessly that they stood as though turned to stone. When they saw this the British army rallied and repelled their half-paralysed enemy with terrific slaughter. As a reward, a grateful country gave St. Teilo yet more land on which to found monasteries in South Wales.

The Lives of St. Teilo and St. Cadoc are contained in the Book of Llandaff and were written in the eleventh century with the help of older sources. St. David’s Life, too, was written just after the (French)-Norman Conquest (Crusade), and by one of the scholars sons of the then bishop of St. David’s. in all three Lives there is obviously much truth to be gleaned among the legends set down by authors who wished to stress to (French) Norman readers that a church as old and distinctively Celtic (Western Rite Orthodox) as theirs could not expected to take orders from Canterbury (Which was Western Rite Orthodox now Roman Catholic after the Conquest/Crusade of England).

For long the British and Roman forms of Christianity mixed no better than oil and water (the Roman Catholic Church was created in 1054 when the Church in Rome broke from it own Western Rite Orthodoxy and went to war against any Christian who would not bow their head to the Roman Catholic Church and still continues today!). Neither side was capable of appreciating the good qualities of the other. The bishops and abbots of Wales detested what they took to be usurpers from Canterbury, not only because of their arrogant demands for conformity, but because they were the apostles of the Saxon invaders. For hundreds of years St. Augustine’s successors strove in vain to achieve unity with the stubborn British Church (Yet King Alfred the Great had a Welsh bishop in his court and he wrote the biography of King Alfred when he passed over there was no difference with churches it was the French-Normans with their Roman Catholic army and their Conquest/Crusade which brought great change), which in their eyes was little better than heretical. Ridicule of the veneration in which the Welsh held their native saints proved so potent a weapon against a sensitive people that there are only five Welsh saints who lived after the seventh century, though during the preceding three hundred years Wales had produced no less than five hundred. That the Church was still inwardly vigorous, though outwardly subdued, is proved by the fact that till the end of the eighth century it held out against the incessant demands for conformity even in such apparently trivial matters as the Roman tonsure and the Roman computation of Easter. Even after they had accepted these changes British bishops refused to acknowledge Canterbury, but continued to deal direct with Rome till the end of the twelfth century.

In Welsh monasteries the severe rule and the peculiar ritual had hardly changed when, at the end of the ninth century, Norse raiders began to appear. It had been a frightful century for Scottish and English monasteries and now Welsh monks swelled the ranks of Celtic martyrs. Many monasteries were destroyed again and again, the raiders being attracted by the crops and cattle, which were their only wealth. There was, after all, some sense in St. David’s refusal to own any animals. In the year 987 Llantwit, Llancarvan and St. David’s Menevia were all three sacked, to be patiently rebuilt yet again by the remaining monks.

In Cornwall, that lonely land of moors and mountains, the first Christian missionaries made their homes in dens and caves. Later, in the sixth and seventh centuries, Christians from Wales and Brittany dotted the countryside with small monastic settlements. As already noted, though curiously primitive, the stone crosses of Cornwall belong to this period. They and the stones incised with the Chi-Rho symbol, show that Cornish Christianity followed the true Celtic tradition.

So do Cornish hermits. All through Cornwall’s Age of Saints every available cave was occupied, and many little cells were built by men whose names we shall never know. But evidence still remains to show how useful these solitary followers of Christ were to lonely fellow Christians. Not only were they friends and councillors to all in trouble, but they guided lost travellers across the moors, they repaired bridges and roads and sought to make the treacherous coasts safe for ships by building and manning the first lighthouses.

The names of Cornish parishes are almost the only proof we have of the extent of the activities, from the fifth century onwards, of Welsh missionaries in the independent kingdom of Dumnonia. Nearly all of the parishes bear the name (many of them the pet name) of some beloved saint, as do to churches. Before the Reformation each of the parish churches (built on sites that were once the centre of monastic settlements in which these saints lived) contained the body of its founder; his staff, bell and gospel-book; and a copy of his Life, read to the people annually on the day of his death. Though in England these relics of Celtic Christianity were deliberately destroyed, Lives of some of the most widely known Cornish saints preserved in Brittany.

For most of them, not content with their voyage from Wales, kept crossing the Channel on visits to fellow saints or to plants monastic settlements of their own. These were badly needed, as Brittany had been ravaged and made desolate by Teutonic invaders at the beginning of the fifth century. St. Samson and St. Paul Aurelian, both Welshmen, were the outstanding figures in the great work of reclamation.

St. Petroc, chief of the saints of Cornwall, and the only one we know to have been a bishop, was an uncle of St. Cadoc of Llancarvan. Place names show him to have been the apostle of most of Cornwall and Devon (he may have founded Buckfast Abbey), and that he had monasteries also in Wales and Brittany. He first landed at Padstow by the estuary of the Camel – a Welsh prince dedicated to God. There, c. 543, he founded the chief settlements. Celtic saints were given to consecrating the sites of new churches by a forty days’ fast on the spot. Even the fourteenth-century Life stresses the rigour of St. Petroc’s fasts and the truly Celtic ardour with which he prayed in ice-cold streams. The story that St. Petroc gave refuge to a hotly pursued stag and converted its rich pursuer, Constantine, from a harsh tyrant to a “kind and gentle” Christian, rings true and is corroborated by the fact that Constantine’s ivory hunting-horn hung over the saint’s tomb at Bodmin beside his sacred staff.

There may well be truth also underlying the story of St. Petroc’s journey to Rome and Jerusalem. Celtic saints were indefatigable pilgrims; and though it seems improbable that a devoted wolf should follow him all the way home to Cornwall, or that an unhappy dragon should come to his Cornish cave as an out-patient desiring the removal of a splinter form its eye, yet it is undoubtedly true that the gentleness of the Celtic saints won them the homage of the fiercest creatures.

After his death, the monks moved to St. Petroc’s body from Padstow to his monastery at Bodmin, which, from then on till the Reformation, flourished as the religious capital of Cornwall.

It is hard to enthuse over bare names; and that, alas, is all most Cornish saints now are. Perhaps it is worth noting that St. Ives is called after St. Hya. She was one of the earliest of the many women saints revered in Cornwall. St. Teath, whose elegant cross had been described, and St. Keyne, seven of whose numerous oratories still remain, were two of St. Brychan’s so-called daughters. St. Brychan of Brecknock, in Wales, is said to have sent his twenty-four children as missionaries to Cornwall. In the fifth century an entire tribe from that district did migrate south so that a shred of truth probably clings to the legend. The people never forgot the coming of these pioneer saints. They knew all their names and perpetuated them wherever they lived. Chief among them was the eldest son Nectan who worked in North Cornwall and had his well at Hartland in Devon.

Many are the saints who have holy wells in Cornwall. Because the spring water, said to have been produced magically by the saint, had healing qualities, the wells were much revered and are still protected by solid stone roofs. St. Euny must have been outstanding in the Age of Saints for he has a well, some primitive crosses and no less than five parishes named after him in Cornwall, despite the fact that he worked for the most part in Brittany.

Among all the so-called Cornish saints, St. Cuby alone was born in Cornwall. Exile being part of the sacrifice Celtic monks rejoiced to make for Christ, we are not surprised to find that, though St. Cuby is the patron saint of Tregoney in Cornwall, he went north, was a friend of St. David’s, and founded an important monastery at Holyhead in Anglesey.

The Cornish parish of Gerrens contains the site where lived the only king among these monks, St. Gerent. It was he who, from c. 540 onwards, welcomed the tribes of refugee Britons fleeing from the Saxons and from the disastrous Yellow Plague that killed a third of the population of Europe.

The last of the great Cornish saints was St. Neot, half-brother to the Saxon king, King Alfred the Great. In the ninth century Britons and Saxons had a common enemy in the Norsemen whose ruthless invasion everywhere threatened the Church. A monk at Glastonbury, St. Neot fell in love with Celtic Christianity as expounded there by his Irish teachers. He was a very little man, but he made so deep an impression on his companions at Glastonbury that for long they preserved the iron stool on which he stood to say Mass. His brother Alfred also loved him and lived to mourn his death. On the eve of a victory against the Norsemen in 878 he saw him in a vision and the next day his soldiers rejoiced when he told them the brave little man fought for them in heaven. St. Neot went to Cornwall the better t be a hermit. Instead he learnt British founded a school at Hamstroke on North Cornwall and went about the countryside teaching the gospel. The crosses he erected were preaching stations like the sixth-century crosses of St. Kentigern in Scotland. Like St. Kentigern, too, stage are said to have helped him plough his land.

Many episodes in St. Neot’s Life, written with the help of contemporary sources, show that after an Age of Saints in Cornwall lasting 350 years, the heroic virtue, apostolic zeal, love of learning and of all God’s creation, that are the special marks of monks of the Celtic Church, still burnt steadily  in the person of this diminutive Saxon prince.

Because of its proximity to Somerset and Devon, occupied by the Saxon conquerors and converted to the Roman system of hierarchy by the vigorous Bishop Aldhelm of Malmesbury, Cornwall submitted to the Roman tonsure and Easter some fifty years before Wales. Otherwise the Cornish Church remained unchanged with its small settlements of monks, its monastic bishops and its many hermits, till in 936 the Saxons put an end to Cornwall’s political independence. King Athelstan then recognized St. Petroc’s successor as bishop of Bodmin, but granted him a diocese only in exchange for his submission to Canterbury. By the thirteenth century the reorganization was complete; but in their parish churches the people remained faithful to their saints till the Reformation.

It is pleasant to know that far from ridiculing the cult of St. Petroc the Saxon rulers straightway fell under his spell. A Saxon lady of Liskeard sent for his sacred bell that she might free her slaves in its presence; and in 963 Edgar, king of England, gilded St. Petroc’s shrine with silver and gold, that by the merits of a British saint he might “obtain length of days both in this life and in that which is to come”.



Christianity in Celtic Lands. Gougaud.

Celt, Druid and Culdee. Isobel Hill Elder.

Rise and Relations of the Church of Scotland. A.B. Scott.

Christianity in Early Britain. Hugh Williams.

The Church of Wales. Willis-Bund.

Lives of the British Saints. Ed. Baring-Gould.

Welsh Christian Origins. A.W. Wade-Evans.

Cornish Saints Series, including Life of St. Petroc. Ed. G.H. Doble.

Celtic Christianity in Cornwall. Thomas Taylor.