Welsh Missionaries Convert Brittany

From the Founding of Christian Brittany to the Norse Invasion of the Continent

(c. A.D. 550 to the 10th Century)

Chapter 7

Welsh Missionaries Convert Brittany

The most important figures in this book have been missionaries. First came those unknown men who carried the Gospel west till it reached our islands. Next came men such as St. Martin, whose missionary work in Gaul changed the Church in the Far West to a monastic patter. Then came those Celtic monks who spread the rule of love among their own people in Scotland, Britain and Ireland. Lastly, we shall meet a few of the bold monks from the Far West who left their countries to teach Christianity to the pagan Teutonic invaders of England and the Continent.

From peaceful Iona came disciples of St. Columba to convert the Anglo-Saxons of wild Northumbria. British Christians had suffered too much to have anything to do with their work. But the Scots, having nothing to resent, appreciated English good qualities from the first, and so were quick to capture English hearts and minds for Christ. On the Continent it was the same. During the sixth, seventh and eighth centuries, Scots from Ireland founded over seventy monasteries among the Teutonic peoples settled in France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Austria and Hungary. Though many of the lawless princes they dealt with appeared little better than savages, few of them could resist being loved, scolded and converted by Celtic monks who recognized that they were lost children of God in sore need of advice and repentance.

Darkness Descends on Gaul

The first monks to invade the Continent, however, went to Brittany in the sixth century, and they went to help their own people. Like the rest of Gaul, the peninsula of Brittany belonged to the Celts till the arrival of the Romans. As in Wales, the Roman occupation of what they called the Country of the Sea meant four hundred years of peaceful farming, building, road-making, and tree-cutting. And as in Gaul and Britain, the Church grew steadily stronger till the beginning of the fifth century. Then, as in Wales, all Roman soldiers had to march east to help to defend the empire threatened by the mass of western-moving barbarians. The Roman soldiers never came back, and soon the Celts of Brittany were watching helplessly while the invaders killed their cattle and trampled their crops. The Dark Ages had begun.

Children no longer went to school; and though the Church struggled on, there were few so few priests left that the country ceased to be truly Christian. In 461 one of the few remaining bishops went to Tours to speak at a Church council of the destruction of his churches, of the poverty of his people and of how they were made even poorer by the numbers of refugee British who had begun crossing the sea to escape the pagan Anglo-Saxons.

During the next hundred years so many refugees arrived in the Country of the Sea that it began to be known as Brittany – a British colony. But the state of the people was pitiful because instead of reclaiming the land, the growing number of rival chiefs were perpetually fighting about it. They had forgotten that no good can come from the selfish rule of force.

Christian Invasion from Wales

In 547 whole tribes from Wales, complete with saints to protect them, began crossing to Brittany, driven by the terror of the Yellow Plague. They cannot have been welcome, yet the saints they brought turned what might have been a disaster into an opportunity for the Church. These men, and the friends who answered their call for more helpers, were born leaders. Indeed it came about that under the influence of Welsh missionary abbots, poor little Brittany grew so powerful that she remained independent of France till the sixteenth century when Anne of Brittany married the French king.

There was a tremendous amount to be done in sixteenth century Brittany before the country could hope to prosper. There had been missionaries before then – monks from Britain, such as St. Brieuc and St Malo. But as the map will show you, the settlements of these pioneers had to be placed for safety on the north coast.

In the sixth century, however, a determined onslaught was made on the dragons that infested all Brittany. As you know it takes a true saint to slay a dragon. But even the earliest writers all assure us that the Welsh monks excelled at this sport. St. Samson’s biographer wrote in 610 and he credits him with three kills. St. Paul Aurelian is said to have completely changed the island of Batz when he captured one of these destructive creatures. He led it on a leash to the top of a rock and when he commanded it to jump into the sea it disappeared with such a splash that the spot is still called after it. The saints killed dragons in Wales too; but St. Petroc preferred to reform Cornish dragons. So successful was he that one of them even allowed him to pull a splinter out of its sore eye.

Now, in my opinion, Brittany’s dragons resembled those invisible ones that add to the confusion of our own present life in an Age of Darkness. There were the appalling dragons of famine and disease to combat. There were murderous, dishonest and covetous dragons to be reformed. And the saints had to fight those dangerously lazy dragons that dragged themselves along muttering that they couldn’t care less. Instead of doing something to help, these dragons spent their time depressing people by ‘giving forth a sighting sound over the dreary wilderness’.

Transforming Land and People

The Welsh abbot-bishops attacked these age-old dragons in their usual practical way. They appealed to the chiefs for land. For the first thing to do was to change the dreary wilderness into a smiling land capable of feeding the people. St. Samson set up his wooden cross at Dol on a marshy plain in north-east Brittany, and did not start to build till he had made the ground holy by forty days of prayer and fasting. When his neighbours saw how he and his monks transformed the place into food-growing fields and orchards, they took new heart and set about improving their own land and livestock. Far to the west, St. Roman likewise affected his neighbours. This time it was not bog but thick forest that was changed by the monks into cultivated land. Many places in the south-west are still called after St. Gildas. This Gildas may well have been the British historian, for he complained of northern winters and is known to have ended his days in milder Brittany.

Whenever you find a village beginning with plou or lann you may be sure that the word that follows is a muddled version of the name of a sixth-century saint whose well-farmed monastic settlement this once was. The same saints’ names are often shared by Cornish villages, showing how little these energetic missionaries thought of the crossing. St. Brendan, as one would expect, often sailed over from Ireland to explore the Breton coast. To this day Breton fishermen use the prayer of Ireland’s sailor saint: ‘O Lord, help me, for my boat is so small and Thy sea is so great.’

Independent Missionaries from Ireland

The first abbots of the most important monastery in the west, Lanndevenec on the Crozen peninsula, obviously had friends in Ireland too. For, till the Norsemen came in the tenth century, they always celebrated the birthdays into heaven of St. Patrick and St. Brigid, whose exciting Lives must have been among the favourite books of those Far Western Breton converts taught to read Latin by the monks. Before setting out for Brittany in ‘a fleet like a flight of birds’. St. Samson had visited Ireland. His grand Irish chariot, drawn by two horses, was well-known around Dol, and was most useful when he wished to visit his more distant monasteries.

For the great abbot-bishops, such as St. Samson, St. Ronan and St. Paul, soon spread the Faith by founding daughter houses manned by their converts, and build on land presented by chiefs they had helped. There were also hundreds of independent missionaries. Indeed, almost every Breton village church contains the statue of a sixth-century saint who, by the strength of his love for God and man brought Faith, Hope, and Charity back to his people. Wales and Cornwall have almost forgotten their saints. But Brittany has never had a Reformation. Paimpol on the north coast still remembers how sixth-century children loved being taught by St. Maudez. And near Pontivy, in the heart of the country, the little church in which stands the status of St. Gonery and his dog, holds a special service each year to which the people of the district come in hundreds to do him honour, dressed in their lovely peasant clothes.

Healing the Sick

By the end of the sixth century, what Breton dragons remained had shrunk to manageable proportions. Welsh monks, whom the people called papas or staff-bearers, went about healing sick bodies and befriending sick souls. As in all Celtic countries, much of their work was done out of doors. They preached on hillsides and baptized in rivers. We read that the priests among them sometimes carried special folding tables on which to celebrate communion in the open air, with the birds and the waves joining the choir. Small organs, harps and drums accompanied what Gildas called ‘the tuneful singing of Christ’s servants’.

In their long hours of solitary prayer, Celtic saints grew close enough to God to get glimpses of beauty and love so wonderful that they were able to spread great happiness to the people they taught. They were also helped by the fact that their converts, unlike so many of us, shared the out of doors atmosphere of the Gospel story. Fishermen, shepherds, farmers and village carpenters – they knew the stars, the seasons, the soil and the sea in the same intimate way that Christ had done. It is sad that their Welsh songs are forgotten. For the psalms and the gospels grew familiar to Breton Christians not in Welsh but in the sonorous Latin of St. Jerome.

We have only one clue to the part played by girls and women in the life of the monastic church in Brittany. The Pope wrote from Rome to protest that women in Brittany were allowed to pass the cup of wine to communicants as though they were deacons. The fact that Welsh abbot-bishops thought women merited this honour, shows what splendid nurses and teachers these nuns and abbesses must have made.

Celtic Crosses in Brittany

The stone Celtic crosses found in Brittany are even more crude and primitive than those of Cornwall. But the crosses scraped on the great pagan standing-stones were a sign that the ancient gods had given place to Christ. Pre-Christian stones, wells, rivers and trees remained sacred, as did pre-Christian feasts, but they were now harnessed to the service of the Celtic Church. The Roman Catholic priests who carried on after the tenth century ruin of Breton monasteries by the Norse, built their parish churches on the sixth century sites used by the saints who first showed Brittany the way to heaven. Thanks to them, the saints’ days were kept as feasts and their Lives read aloud in the churches. They were especially interested in St. Samson, whose name was for long as well known in northern France as that of St. Martin.

And certainly St. Samson is worth knowing. He was born in 480; and you will remember that he went to school at Llanilltyd where he met him scaring the sparrows off the corn. The monk who wrote his life praises his work in the classroom, but owns that at fifteen he had to be stopped by a ‘sensible master’ from overdoing the length of his fasts and prayers. Although nephew usually succeeded uncle in Celtic monasteries, so popular did the young priest, St. Samson, become with St. Illtyd that the abbot’s nephew grew frightened. He tried to poison the young saint, but only succeeded in giving himself a terrible fit of remorse.

The Work of St. Samson

As for St. Samson, he soon moved on to the daughter house on Caldey Island where he followed a day’s hard work in church and fields by nightly studies by lamplight. He slept little and when he did it was always on the ground. After the death of the old abbot (he fell into a pit at night while ‘stupidly drunk’) St. Samson was chosen to succeed him. Welsh saints must have been fond of wine for we are told proudly that as an abbot St. Samson was never once seen drunk. On the contrary, the brothers objected he would never join in their merry feasts. They must have been relieved when their hermit abbot went off to see how Irish monasteries were run. After Ireland came a spell in a cave by the Severn. But he was not allowed to become a hermit. In 521, Bishop Dubricius decided to consecrate him bishop. If St. Samson hesitated, his doubts were set at rest by a dream. Before the chosen day, he dreamt that the bishops St. Peter of Rome, St. James of Jerusalem, and St. John of Ephesus, appeared before him wearing the golden crowns of Celtic bishops. All three laid their hands on him. And after the task had been completed by St. Dubricius, St. Samson was the equal of the presbyter-abbots in Ireland and free to work where he would.

St. Samson was one of the earliest of the great abbot-bishops who went to work in Brittany. On his way there, he and his party crossed Cornwall. The ‘holy vessels and books’ had a cart to themselves while the saint bumped over the rough tracks in his Irish chariot. Finding some pagans worshipping a standing-stone on a Cornish hill-top, he stopped to preach to them. They watched him work on their stone. For, ‘with his own hand he carved the sign of the cross with an iron tool’.

Progress in North-east Brittany

During the next twenty years his home was at Dol. From there he worked to spread the Kingdom of God in north-east Brittany. Then a dragon appeared, in the shape of a wicked chief who murdered the ruling prince, took his place, and threatened the life of the chief’s small boy Judual, the rightful heir. The child was sent for safety to the Flemish court in Paris. St. Samson followed him there, determined that he should return as the true prince. Without the saint’s help, Judual would never have returned. As it was, it took the saint twelve years to win the king’s help, for he would listen to the friends of the wicked chief. Meanwhile, St. Samson was allowed to educate the boy and so impressed was the king at the life they led together, that he gave St. Samson much land near Rouen on which he founded several monasteries.

At last the dragon was slain and Prince Judual won back his kingdom. He rewarded his old teacher by making him chief bishop, and from then on Dol became the religious capital of the kingdom. St. Samson was the first of eighty bishops who succeeded each other at Dol till the French revolution. So rich did that once desolate plain become that, at Church Councils in France, the bishops of Dol always sat in the grandest chair.

St. Samson would have smiled at this – he who never even slept in a bed. His determined fight for justice had made him long more than ever for the simple quiet of the monastery. There is an amusing story of how, when he visited the strictest of his Frankish monasteries to rest in quiet, he failed at first to find perfect peace.

The marsh which surrounded the Pental was the meeting-place of thousands of geese and ducks. ‘Often, and especially after rain, those creatures made so intolerable a din shouting together that the monks could scarcely hear themselves sing or pray. St. Samson went down to the marsh determined to put a stop to this. “Be quiet, in the name of the Lord!” he cried, “and go silently into the monastery.” The guilty birds obeyed. Geese and duck formed themselves into a column and followed the road up to the monastery.’ There they remained all night, abashed and silent, till at dawn St. Samson had pity on them. ‘If you promise not to deafen the monks any more with your ceaseless chatter,’ he said, ‘I will let you go.’ Ducks and geese stretched out their wings and gave the last raucous cry the monks were ever to hear. As they took flight, nothing could be heard but the powerful beating of their wings as they left the monastery for ever.

In 565 St. Samson died at Dol, promising his monks that when he came before God he would pray earnestly for them. they might think the country miraculously changed. But he well knew that he and his friends had only laid the foundations of Christian Brittany.