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A cloned corpse, a murderous cook, and the saint who sailed away on a leaf

04 August 2017

To mark significant anniversaries of St Padarn and St Magnus, Ted Harrison explores the value of commemorating British saints 

Michael S. Nolan/age fotostock 

Daughter of Durham? Interior of St Magnus cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney

Daughter of Durham? Interior of St Magnus cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney

FIFTEEN hundred years ago, in 517, a party of missionaries travelled from Brittany to the west coast of Wales. Led by a young and charismatic leader, Padarn, it is believed that they landed the location of near modern-day Aberystwyth. Padarn came with three of his cousins and a large group of monks, and set about founding a monastery, which was later to grow into one of the pre-eminent seats of learning in Europe. It became known as Llanbadarn Fawr — “the great church of St Padarn”.

Padarn was to become one of the first three bishops in Wales, having travelled to Jerusalem to be consecrated with his contemporaries David and Teilo. After his death, legends took root about all three of the saints. David became patron saint of Wales. Legend has it that Teilo’s relics were so sought after that that three identical versions of his corpse were miraculously created. The skull, now kept in a glass case in Llandaff Cathedral, was used by pilgrims as a cup to drink the healing water from St Teilo’s well.

It is said that Padarn, on a visit to Ireland, stood between two rival armies and prevented a battle. The staff he was presented with after this event, although now lost, survived for centuries as a symbol of peace: those in acrimonious dispute with each other could be reconciled by touching it.


TODAY, St Padarn is widely recalled in and around Aberystwyth in all kinds of settings (Padarn Surgery, the Padarn Alarm Company, and so on), and St Padarn’s, at Llanbadarn Fawr, believed to be on the site of the original sixth-century church, is now an Anglican parish church of almost cathedral proportions.

Phil Robinson/age fotostock Crown of horns: the Viking Saint Magnus the Martyr depicted in stained glassEarlier this year, to mark the 1500-year anniversary of St Padarn’s arrival, the Roman Catholic Bishop Emeritus of Wrexham, the Rt Revd Edwin Regan, celebrated a Welsh-language mass in the church in the presence of Anglican clergy from the benefice. Many other churches in the area are celebrating Padarn during this significant year, with events ranging from an academic conference to an art exhibition.


PADARN is not the only British saint being commemorated this year. The martyrdom of Magnus took place 900 years ago in AD 1117, when the pious saint was murdered on the Orkney island of Egilsay at the instigation of his cousin Hakon. The two cousins met to discuss the succession to the earldom of Orkney; Magnus arrived unarmed, Hakon turned up with a fighting force, and then ordered his cook to kill Magnus, taking the earldom for himself.

It was the start of one of the most celebrated martyrdom cults of the north. “Strange things began to happen in secret northern places,” the Orcadian poet George Mackay Brown wrote. “People with harelips and black coughs and scabs and deranged minds and quenched eyes began to go, or be led, to the murdered earl’s tomb.”

Pilgrims were said to cross the tidal causeway to the monastery at Birsay where Magnus was buried, “carrying candles and offerings and many of them were cured”. He became known as St Magnus the Martyr, and tales of the miraculous powers of the relics spread rapidly through the newly Christianised Norse world.

In Orkney this year (as in Wales), the local community has arranged a programme of events. As well as the annual St Magnus International Festival of the arts, an ecumenical pilgrimage to Egilsay has just taken place, culminating with a mass in St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall. The 12th-century building, which is now owned by the local people and in the care of the Church of Scotland, was built to honour the martyr whose broken skull is entombed there, and is reputed to have been built by the masons who had worked on Durham Cathedral.


THE celebrations for these significant anniversaries have been long in the planning, and yet it must be pointed out that neither the date of Magnus’s martyrdom, nor that of Padarn’s arrival, isprovable.

Keith Burdett/AlamyCathedral-like proportions: Llanbadarn church, AberystwythMagnus was definitely a historical figure, but Padarn is as much a figure of legend as of history. The stories told about him were not written down until five centuries after his death, and they range from the instructive to the improbable. The most extensive source is the 12th-century Vita Sancti Paternus, kept in the British Museum, but there are many other shorter references to be found in medieval poems and footnotes.

It is thought that medieval writers may have confused him with a namesake, and conflated the oral history about the two Padarns into one character. Some historians have argued that Padarn was not so much an individual as a generic figure, and that Padarn is simply a corruption of Paternus (“of a father” in Latin).

Despite the lack of concrete facts, both saints have a valuable part to play in rooting Christianity in time and specific locations in Britain. Others, such as St Thomas of Canterbury, St Alban, St Edmund, and St Winefride also spring to mind as historic-cum-legendary personalities with similar local ties and strong, quintessentially British, reputations. There are many more who have faded into history and survive as place names and church dedications, particularly in Wales and Cornwall.

Little is known, for instance, about St Tanwg, after whom the village of Llandanwg, in north Wales, is named; or St Euddogwy, who gave Llandogo, in Monmouthshire, its name; or St Caranog, from whose legend sprang the popular holiday town of Llangrannog, in Ceredigion.

Examples from Cornwall include St Austell (or Austol), St Neot, and St Ives — another set of mysterious figures shrouded by legend and folklore. St Neot was apparently only 15 inches tall, and spent much of his day in prayer while standing neck-deep in a well (the more improbable detail here is that any well could be less than 15 inches deep). St Ives, it is said, sailed across the Irish Sea to Cornwall on a leaf.


ALTHOUGH many of these saints would have been holy men and women (Magnus is genuinely thought to have sat at the bow of a Viking raiding boat singing Psalms instead of taking up his sword), some of their stories contain little of the Christian message.

Most of our local saints have simply become the focus of quaint customs, jolly traditions, and superstition. St Piran, for example (who was said to have washed up on the Cornish coast after sailing over from Ireland on a millstone), has become the patron saint of tin miners because of one particular story in which he is said to have lit a fire on a hearth-stone made from a tin-bearing ore, which released tin in the form of a perfect cross. Nowadays, he is celebrated with pageants and pasty-eating throughout Cornwall.

Quint & Lox Ltd/SuperStockRoofless ruin: Egilsay churchOthers stories have become exaggerated over time, or distorted as they have merged with local folklore. It is said that the ground rose under St David’s feet so that he could better address a crowd, and, at the time of his death, angels came to earth to escort his soul to heaven. Legend has it that Helier, the Jersey hermit, was beheaded by Vikings, but apparently picked up his head and took a boat to France. St Rumwold is famous for preaching a sermon on the Trinity at the age of three days.


THE fanciful nature of some of these tales does not detract from their worth. Besides the rich cultural value of these stories, they can also serve as a reminder of the universality of Christianity — the fact that in all periods of history there have been men and women who have borne witness to their faith.

In other cases, where local saints are corruptions of pre-Christian deities, these serve as a reminder of the way in which the gospel was first brought to Britain. Madron’s holy well, near Penzance, for example, which is still revered as a healing site, is named after St Madern, who may be a Christianised corruption of the Celtic mother goddess Modron.

The celebration of local saints also brings communities together, and can remind people of the value of parish churches, which often host such events. Special services are held and are attended by many who seldom go to church. And, indeed, these celebrations — such as the annual pilgrimage procession in St David’s which attracts large crowds, waving daffodils — can be a creative opportunity for witness, and can help to strengthen links with other churches, particularly between Anglican and Roman Catholic congregations.

For Christians, delving into the story of a local saint can also become a powerful devotional act. Last year, for example, a party from the London City church St Magnus the Martyr, Lower Thames Street, travelled north to Orkney to visit the cathedral, and the spot on Egilsay where he was killed. There, in the now roofless church, they celebrated mass, giving thanks for St Magnus’s continuing example of peaceful piety, which is as relevant today as it was in his own brutal age.

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