The Celtic Church in Brittany

The Celtic Church in Brittany

Armorica means the country of the sea, and a glance at the map will show how well chosen was the Roman name for Brittany. During their occupation the Romans carved roads through the immense forests that covered the centre of the peninsula and left so deep a mark on the people that when Roman legions withdrew, at the beginning of the fifth century, the Celtic inhabitants had become Gallo-Roman in speech and customs. The terrible Teutonic invasion after the Roman retreat was followed, from 450 onwards, by yet another. Band after band of Britons from Cornwall and Wales sought refuge in Armorica from the ferocity of west-moving Angles whom only the hills and sea could halt. Gildas relates how “some, trembling, crossed the sea, and instead of the rowers’ song was heard: ‘Lord. Thy hand hast delivered us like sheep to the slaughter and hast scattered us amongst the nations,’ “ By 600 the country was no longer either Roman or a Frankish domain, but had become a British colony known as Brittany. (Little Britain)

A fourth invasion of Brittany took place in the second half of the sixth century: an invasion of British saints from Wales. Some of them were introduced to the country through fleeing there with parties of their people from the Yellow Plague in 547. But the majority came to Brittany with the express purpose of redeeming their unhappy kinsmen from the depths of material and spiritual poverty to which they were reduced through lack of leaders and through the lack of unity that was besetting failing of the Celts. The creative Welsh abbots – many of them bishops – under whose authority the neglected land was ploughed and reaped and the encroaching forest cut back and used for timber, were Brittany’s first chiefs.

Wherever the monks settled they built little churches about which were grouped the cells of their disciples. The word plou and lann before a saint’s name denote the sites of such monastic settlements, since grown to villages containing the parish churches of Brittany. Because the founders so often had like settlements in Cornwall, many parishes often bear the same saint’s name on both sides of the Channel.

Till the Age of Saints, the British emigrants resembled the Scots in Dalriada before the arrival of St. Columba: they were for the most part nominal Christians only. Early settlers from Cornwall were probably still pagan; but some Welsh tribes came accompanied by their clergy, and at least one of their monastic bishops attended a council at Tours as early as 461.

Some twenty years later, St. Brieuc and his disciples arrived from Wales. They began to organize and convert the north of Brittany, working from a coastal settlement on the site of the present town of St. Brieuc. The pioneers among the missionaries naturally tackled the north, and they so often chose sites near the sea because thus they were in touch by water with Wales and Cornwall and with other monasteries along the north coast of Brittany. Though most of their  names have been replaced by those of the great saints of the sixth century who followed their example, St. Brieuc had doubtless many successors during the next fifty years.

Of the sixth-century saints who finally accomplished the conversion of the north little is known but their still-cherished names. St. Samson is one of the few exceptions, and his Life, first written c. 610, only sixty years after his death, is of immense value in showing how Welsh saints laved at home and abroad. For this reason, and because it reveals also the mind of the sixth-century monk who wrote it, the book will be dealt with fairly fully in due course.

The Channel Islands are on the direct route to north-east Brittany and were from the first alive with Celtic saints. St. Samson himself spent some time in Guernsey, and his successor St. Magloire ended his days in a monastery he founded in Jersey.

Due south of Jersey lies the Breton port of St. Malo. Of the Welsh founder of the original settlement little is known, but the rather late Life of his successor, St. Gudwal, who remained for long an important figure in Breton liturgies, shows him to have been a typical Celtic saint. He disliked the crowds his miracles brought to his monastery, and retreated from them, first into a cave, and next on to a minute, rocky island. When this threatened to sink, even the fishes took pity on him and brought sand to rebuild it. When he sang angels responded, and when he died in a monastery he had founded on an island in the inland sea of Etal, heaven miraculously lit up his cave. That his retreats bore practical fruit is shown by the numbers of sites bearing his name both in Cornwall and Brittany.

South-west of the Channel Islands is the little coastal town of Paimpol. Here, and in the neighbouring islands of Paimpol, St. Maudez, who was also honoured in Cornwall, was beloved in the sixth century as a marvellous teacher of children. Treguier, a little farther west, was once the base from which worked St. Tutwall, the only British missionary of Cornish extraction. So wide was St. Tutwall’s influence that there were dependent churches all over North Brittany looking to Treguier for direction. It is also one of the many places in which St. Gildas lived.

Still further west St. Paul Aurelian – he and St. Samson were both disciples of St. Illtyd – founded one of his Breton settlements at St. Pol de Leon in 565. He arrived about 530 at the invitation of a cousin who, because he owned much land and was a favourite with the Frankish king, may have been partly responsible for the extraordinary extent of St. Paul Aurelian’s activities in Brittany. He had many monasteries, among them one to the west of the peninsula on the island of Ushant, one at Lannpaul, and one on the island of Batz to the north of St. Pol de Leon.

Like his friend St. Samson, St. Paul Auurelian was both an abbot and a bishop. But he knew of the great presbyter-abbots reigning in Ireland, for among his visitors was the navigator, St. Brendan of Clonfert. They would seem to have had a bond in their common dealings with monsters. Indeed all the medieval Lives of Welsh missionaries to Brittany boast of their ability to rid districts of blood-thirsty serpents and dragons. Even the almost contemporary Life of St. Samson credits him with no less than four victories over such creatures. St. Paul Aurelian’s serpent only shared the island of Batz with him till he had time to lead it on a leash to the seashore and bid it jump into what is known to this day as the Snake Pit. Thereafter there was such a holy peace on the island that St. Paul Aurelian returned to it to die, a very old man, c,580.

In the extreme west of the peninsula St. Ronan was the pioneer. Through a tenacity nourished by his faith in God he converted a vast area in which war and plunder had prevailed before. No suicidal dragons are mentioned; but tradition gives him a wolf that he trained to guard his flocks. Oxen pulled him to his burial place at Locronan, at that time in the heart of the forest he strove to tame.

St. Winalloc, or, as the Bretons call him, St. Guenole, founded Lanndevenec on the Crozon peninsula, towards the end of the fifth century. Despite its remote position in the far west, it was originally the chief religious centre for all Western Brittany. Through its geographical position it was as much in touch with Ireland as with Cornwall and annually honoured the two chief fifth-century Lanndevenec still flourished, its Celtic customs unchanged. Its abbot deeply shocked the French king, Louis the Pious, by the oddness of his tonsure.

The chief sixth-century names associated with the south coast of Brittany are those of St. Corintin, the first bishop of Quimper, and St. Gildas. Between the town of Nantes and the small peninsula of Rhuis where he founded his chief settlement c. 547, many sites bear name of St. Gildas. Dom Gouguad may well be right in doubting whether the gloomy British scholar could have been responsible for so many foundations. It is quite possible that a local saint of the same name was also at work in Brittany.

The little town of Pontivy lies in the very heart of the land. St. Gonery chose to work among the forests of this inland region. As in Cornwall before the Reformation, the Bretons continued to remember their local pioneer saints down the ages. Pardons are held to celebrate their births into eternity. St. Gonery died in October and, except for one day in that month, his remote little church stands empty save for the wooden statue of himself and his dog. But in his day it is opened, the bell is rung and his people drive through the woods to hear yet another Mass said in his honour. To the pardons of the mighty overlords among the Bretons saints, such as St. Ronan and St. Samson, crowds gather from far and near, bringing with them the statues of their own humbler saints that they also may pay tribute to the greater leaders of Christian Brittany.

The Welsh Christianity, transplanted by her saints into Brittany, is well described contemporary first Life St. Samson, written by an anonymous Welsh monk. St. Samson was, of course, of the ruling class and was born in Glamorganshire in 480, in which year St. Benedict was also born. Even as a baby “his happy mother directed his play to keeping festival and to reading, and even to a pretence of writing”. For his school, his parents selected the monastery of Llantwit in Glamorganshire for “Illtyd was of all the Britons the most accomplished in all the Scriptures, namely of the Old and New Testaments, and in philosophy of every kind, of geometry namely, and of rhetoric, grammar and arithmetic, and of all the theories of philosophy. And by birth he was a most wise magician, having knowledge of the future.” Before departing, the parents left the customary gifts for the monastery and kissed their five-year-old son affectionately. With the tactless fanaticism of young saints he saw them go without regret and, “as if he had been nourished there from his very cradle, he stayed with steadfast and delightful grace. It was wonderful the way he learnt in one and the same day the twenty letters of the alphabet and all the signs, and there was no need to show him any further; and, what is more wonderful than all these things, within seven days he was able, by God’s revealing, to understand the meaning of these letters in the co0ordination of words; for in reading indeed, so exact was his mind that, in so far as the human reason is capable of it, he quite completely mastered all the psalms. Moreover ,when he was about fifteen he exercised himself in the very frequent fasts and the longer vigils which were kept by all the brothers who lived there, so much so that when he often tried to maintain the appointed posture, sometimes even for two days, that most sensible master forbad him.”

The description of St. Samson’s ordination as deacon by St. Dubricius is interesting. As in the Gallican Church the assembled brothers acclaimed him as worthy. Before the bishop laid his hands on him the whole company joined in the Litany and were afterwards given absolution. When, at the end of the service, he received communion he had become one of the company of deacons who, in the Celtic Church, administered the chalice and sang the Gospel and prayer. Presbyters in Wales and Cornwall were thought of as those who offered the sacrifice. When St. Samson had attained that rank he was known, as were his brother priests in Wales and Cornwall, as an “offerer”; though in Brittany the people emphasized the energy of their priests by calling them “staffbearers”. The Greek word papa, brought to the west by St. Hilary, was also popular and is used by St. Samson’s biographer when writing of the Bishop Dubricius.

After St. Dubricius had ordained him priest, St. Samson began to yearn for “keener and stricter fasts” while more worldly rivals yearned for his death. Only the power of the Holy Spirit prevented him being poisoned through the jealously of hte abbot’s nephews. After the failure of the attempt, one of them was so overwhelmed with guilt when about to partake of communion, that St. Samson had to heal him of an agonizing fit. Thereafter he confessed the plot and promised from then on to serve God and St. Samson. But, not unnaturally, Llantwit began to seem “turbulent and indeed wasteful”; and, after over twenty years, St. Samson departed, probably by boat, for another of St. Illtyd’s settlements, this time on Caldey Island “where the Holy Spirit was ever wont to breathe profound peace”. It lies off the south coast of Pembrokeshire and was ruled by an aged Abbot Piro who looked “like an angel of god sent down from heaven. And leading, with untiring patience, a wonderful, isolated and above all a heavenly life, St. Samson ceased not, day or night, from prayer and communion with God. Spending the whole day in working with his hands and in prayer, and the whole night, moreover, in the mystical interpretation of the Holy Scriptures, he carried the lamp to his dwelling in order that, bent upon reading, he might either write something or exercise himself in spiritual contemplation; for although, as a man, he had need of rest for the sake of human weakness and reclined against the wall or anything hard for support, he never slept in a bed.” St. Columba’s stone pillow, still preserved in Iona’s further evidence of the austerities of Celtic saints.

St. Samson was recalled from the world of spirit by an anguished message from his apparently dying father. With his abbot’s blessing, he “put the horse in the cart” and, accompanied by a timid young brother, set off through a vast forest in which they met with an ancient but still powerful sorceress. She almost murdered St. Samson’s companion and was so steeped in wickedness that he had no choice but to command her to die. The result of his home-coming puts one in mind of a well-known episode in St. Bernard’s history; for, not only did his father recover, but his entire family decided to devote themselves to the religious life. His mother, knowing that he was destined to become a bishop, made him promise that, when that happened, he would come back to consecrate those churches and monasteries which she and her sister, together with St. Samson’s father and uncle, purposed to found with their wealth. The last two accomplished him back to Caldey Island and on the way St. Samson relieved the district through which they passed of “a fire-spitting serpent which gave forth a rustling sound over the dreary wilderness”. Their journey ended at the beginning of Lent and in the quiet monastery St. Samson’s relations told the miracle to the Bishop Dubricius who was, as usual, spending his Lent in retreat on Caldey Island. Heartened by the story, the bishop gave them much encouragement for their new enterprise.

St. Samson’s biographer boasts that no one ever saw him drunk. It was, however, a “stupid intoxication” that caused poor Abbot Piro to stumble fatally into a deep pit in the monastery grounds after his death, with the full approval of the monks, St. Dubricius chose St. Samson as his successor. During the eighteen months of his reign, “the brothers regarded him as a hermit rather than as a member of an order of monks. And consequently amidst feasts of plenty and flowing bowls, he made a point of fasting always from food and drink.”

After a visit to Ireland sanctioned by St. Dubricius St. Samson returned, only to retreat to “a very spacious and very lonely cave” by the Severn. There he remained, emerging only on Sundays to celebrate Mass in a nearby castle, til urgently invited to a synod. Despite his protestations, the assembly appointed him abbot of Llantwit and also decided that on the next day of the Apostle Peter’s Chair he should be among the bishops consecrated.

Before this date, however, heaven took the matter into its own hands; for St. Samson had a vision of himself clothes in white and entering a church full of angelic figures, among whom three stood out clearly. They were the founders of the churches of Rome, Jerusalem and Ephesus – St. Peter, St. James, and St. John – and on their heads were the gold crowns worn by bishops of the Celtic Church. Amidst the rejoicings of the attendant angels these three proceeded to consecrate him; and when the next day he told his story, none doubted that he had thus become a true bishop of the Church. Nevertheless, when the appointed day came, St. Dubricius decided to place him in the Episcopal chair for the confirmation of faith. Those closet to him throughout the service observed that the Holy Spirit in the form of a white dove hovered above his head till the end. From that day, whether in Wales, Cornwall or Brittany, whenever St. Samson sang Mass, “the angels of God ever became holy ministers of the altar and of the sacrifice along with him and often broke the oblation with their hands though he alone saw it”. It will be remembered that concelebration was the custom, not only in heaven but in the Celtic Church also.

Only bishop-abbots in Wales were equal in rank to the sixth-century presbyter-abbots in Ireland. Not till he was a bishop was St. Samson really free. He longed to go to Brittany. But first he visited and consecrated the churches founded in Wales by his family who, save for his sister, whom he had to excommunicate, he found to be living “a noble and catholic life”. Then, with a favourable wind, he crossed the Severn on the first stage of his journey south. As he wished to see Cornwall, “he arranged for a cart to carry his holy vessels and books, and harnessed two horses to his chariots which he had brought with him from Ireland, and with the Lord for his companion he arranged his journey so as completely to traverse the country”. In that the Celts could for so long have maintained their political independence. Till the Breton prince Nominoe’s victory in the ninth century, the struggle with the Frankish over-lords who vainly demanded tribute continued perpetual and desperate. Thereafter Brittany’s position grew so strong politically that she only became part of the kingdom of France in the sixteenth century through the marriage of Anne of Brittany with the king of France.

In Roman times canon law had decided that the Armorican peninsula formed part of the diocese of St. Martin’s successors at Tours. But, until the ninth century, no attempt was made by the Franks to exercise provincial authority in the Church of Brittany. As for the Celtic bishop-abbots to whom the word diocese was quite meaningless, they occasionally attended councils in Paris, but, from the sixth century onwards, they considered the Frankish archbishops of Tours to be their enemies politically and – what was worse still – members of that secular church which their great contemporary Gildas had taught them to despise. They were indeed as shocked at the shortcomings of the Roman Church in France as that Church was at the strange form. Neither was ignorant of the affairs of the other. The author of St. Samson’s Life was so up to date in his reading that he had studied Pope Gregory’s contemporary works; while Rome was not long in protesting against the holy women of Brittany being considered worthy to administer the chalice at communion. It may be significant that a similar practice had to be forbidden as heretical in the early Eastern Church. The Roman protest at its adoption for a short time in the Celtic Church of Brittany is the only certain evidence we have of the influence and ability of the women among the missionaries.

Ever since St. Samson’s death Dol had grown increasingly rich. Owning as they did so much land in Domnonia, her abbot-bishops were at the same time such powerful overlords that at ecclesiastical assemblies it was their right to occupy the highest and most ornate seat. Much of the esteem paid to them, however, was due to the ever increasing cult of St. Samson, whose fame, by the tenth century, had spread all over north-west Europe and equalled that of St. Martin.

Dol’s position was further enhanced when Nominoe brought the schism between the Churches of Brittany and Rome to a head. His succession in 826 followed four campaigns undertaken by exasperated Franks in search of tribute. After 840 Nominoe in turn became the aggressor, and finally, in 845, the conqueror. He was now the king of Brittany and proceeded to purge her Church of the few remaining Frankish bishops and to transform the monastery-bishoprics into dioceses under the archbishopric of Dol, created in defiance of Tours and Rome. It looked as though the Celtic Church in Brittany had reached the end of the long struggle against interference with the ancient customs she preserved so jealously in a monastic setting, but in reality it proved the beginning of the end of her independence. Not till 1199 did Rome succeed in abolishing the archbishopric of Dol and in placing the Breton Church under the jurisdiction of Tours – a jurisdiction ignored successfully, despite many a sharp admonishment, for six hundred years. Yet before the close of the ninth century the Rule of St. Columban had been replaced by the smaller one of St. Benedict, and the Celtic Easter and tonsure had been changed to conform with those of Rome. Doctrinally the two Churches had always been at one. Such minor adjustments as have been mentioned would have come inevitably to the Celtic Church in Brittany. But only the destructive ferocity of the Norse invasions of the ninth century can account for the apathy with which they were accepted when that Church was in so strong a political position. The truth is that the damage done to the Breton monasteries by the Norsemen was so terrible that the only hope of a renewal of religious life lay in grafting their drooping branch to the vigorous Roman stock.

As in Cornwall, parish churches, many containing the remains of local saints, replacing most of the Celtic monasteries. Faithfully, in these churches, Bretons have continued their friendship with saints, many of whom in their lifetime were so tenderly loved as to be given pet names. There is ample proof in the great avenues of standing stones at Carnac and in the traces of druids still to be found in the Western Islands, that in Brittany – perhaps urged on by the sight and sound of the sea – men have always felt both the Celtic saints were no exception. As a matter of course they prayed for the dead and welcomed them by name to the Mass. Pagan customs and pagan feasts had to be adapted to fit higher purposes just as the more potent of the stones had to be baptized. Occasionally an evil spirit would refuse to leave its habitation. One longs to know the no doubt tortuous process by which a chapel near Treguier came to be dedicated to Our Lady of Hatred.

The Church of Rome faithfully cherished the childlike faith in the supernatural first harnessed to such good purpose by the saint of Wales.

There is the same lack of Celtic art in Brittany as in Cornwall; but as in Ireland, the lovely pattern of work, feasts and Sunday Mass flowed on and on through the centuries and gives the Breton peasant’s life a purposeful rhythm as satisfying as any Celtic design. The background on which the pattern is carved is eternity ,the tremendous reality of which was made so joyful by the saints who came to Brittany.



Christianity in Celtic Lands. Gougaud.

Life of St. Samson of Dol. Ed, Thomas Taylor.

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

St. Samson. Abbe A. Courtois.

Mariners of Brittany. Peter F. Anson.

La Bretagne. L. Gallouedec.

En Bretagne. Francis Gourvil.