The Celtic Literature Collective

The Life of Saint Gwynllyw

Here begins the life of saint Gwynllyw, king and confessor,
March 29th.

§1. Of division of inheritance.
Amost noble king, Glywys, of the Southern Britons begat a son, his successor, the excellent Gwynllyw, from whose name the region of Gwynllywog was called for all time. Here, whilst a child, the son flourished as a floweret, whilst a youth as a full-blown flower; in a flowery place flowers were blooming, laws were increasing as fruits from flowers. His youthful age matured in royal military service, he being born very highly of both lineages, for his renowned mother was of most noble stock as of her father so of her mother. Nor is it strange that he should shine brighter than golden metal, when there preceded such a generation as this on both sides. After the death of his most renowned father each one of the sons strove to have dominion. The inheritance was divided among the brothers into cantreds counted seven times. He was an agreeable divider in the company of brothers, not one being left destitute but partaking of the hereditary right. Being the eldest he might keep the whole, but he was unwilling to suppress his brothers; not a suppressor, but a supporter of kinship he raised up those born of his stock. All the brothers obeyed his rule; he, however, their prince, and ruler, was himself worthy of lordship. He governed the seven cantreds of Glamorgan, as his own possession and by consent of his brothers. All the citizens were law-abiding, none dared at that time hurt another. If one should have done hurt, he suffered judgement; not covertly for a reward would one lose his patrimony. Peace being assured there were no disputes in his time, the king being a peaceful king, an upright ruler of his court. The royal court was established on the highest ground, surrounded by woods and adorned by a mountain chain; it was a lofty place on a lofty site, but higher was he who sat on the throne of its palace. He was a most famous conqueror in warfare, pacific after conquest, he was a victor never vanquished. His countrymen gloried in such a lord, frequently rewarded, they returned after every yearly circuit. The largeness of his household could not be certified at a fixed number, they could not be quartered in royal courts and houses, but tents were wont to be set up on the open grounds to quarter them.

§2. Of the betrothal of a wife.
When by the common advice of his fellow-citizens he wished to marry, he sent messengers to Brychan, king of the Brycheiniog folk, as the gentleness and beauty of Gwladus, his daughter, had been heard of by him. She was asked for as wife and promised (or received); she was given that he might delight in lawful marriage. After marriage the bride conceived; after conception she happily brought forth a son, Cadog. So grew the ages of this nobly born character that as was the first, so was the last, like to the best. The holiness of the most holy man gleamed with miracles, pre-eminent among all his contemporaries. He was diligent in admonishing his parents to put behind them transitory things; admonished by the words of their son, they resolved to reject all perishing things. He kept reminding them, ‘Such things as you possess will not last; seek lasting things; that kingdom of yours will pass away like a gust of wind, it will not return to continue, it will recede with sadness; you will rejoice, glorying in celestial glory; if you try to deserve it, your misdeeds will be washed away. The delights of this kingdom are beclouding you; daily as they are growing they are dying. Remember that the last day will come with terror, the whole world will burn, will be consumed, vomiting flames. Who would not fear the heat of the cleansing flame? this that is to be feared and is terrible to humankind draws nigh. Beware of and avoid the conflagrations, they are perils to be guarded against, to be avoided.’ After such incitements from their son, they were inspired from on high, desiring rather to serve God than to rule after the manner of men.

§3. Of an angelic vision.
In the meantime, on a certain night, while they slept in their bedchamber, an angelic voice addresses them whilst they continued sleeping, ‘The heavenly king, the ruler of things terrestrial, has sent me hither that I might convert you, earthly ones, to heavenly service; he calls upon you and invites you, as a father does a son; he has chosen you and redeemed you by going upon (or ascending) the cross. Therefore he would be unwilling that those redeemed by the Lord’s passion should be condemned or should fail to possess the joys which he has promised. Follow now, pursuing his steps; may you discover them and hold to them when found. This discovery raises up the discoverers to high places; it does not allow but that they shall ascend, leaving devious ways. Your past way is not this way, but crooked; it deludes you, it thrusts you back to hell. I will show you the right path that you may possess the inheritance from which you came. The inheritance lost by the first man may be restored, may be filled by one lost; from now let there be no loss; already redemption has come to your aid, has raised you; therefore being raised raise your minds; do not despise your souls for things that perish. They who have been cast down with Lucifer love the oppression of souls; let the most cruel invaders be expelled, whose will may ye never satisfy. Put ye these to flight as victors with triumphs; therefore tomorrow, when you shall have risen, as vanquishers, thus I bid you, abandon the worldly things which you cling to.’

§4. Of the site of the habitation designated by the angel to Gwynllyw.
‘About a river’s bank there is close by a certain little hill. There a white ox will be seen to stand. One black spot on its high forehead below the horns, a happy omen, denotes all good to those who meet it. That land which thou shalt possess, now uncultivated, will be cultivated anew by oxen. The district will be named for these reasons shown.’ Awaking in the morning he recalled his dream to memory, and diligently recounted to the members of his household what he had seen. When these things were heard, and whilst all were dolefully sorrowing, he quitted the royal palace, having surrendered his rule and entrusted saint Cadog, his son, with it. Then he turned away and journeyed until he arrived at the predestined little hill foretold by the angel, that he might there immediately abide. On his approach there met him a white ox with a black spot on its high forehead, as the angel had predicted. That name, therefore, Dutelich, he imposed on the territory, namely, from the black colour [du, black], and from the forehead [tal, front], and from the ox which met him [ych, ox]. As such a name was imposed by him, so it was called by those who succeeded him, and it is still called by the same name. When this ox was seen, saint Gwynllyw was glad, and affirmed that the heavenly messenger had foretold true things. He strengthens his spirit, he loves God, as he ought, he holds cheap this transitory life, which injures more than profits. Then he said

§5. Of the token of the ox.
‘This farmer-ox denotes the fields to be tilled; useful in husbandry it affords a symbol to those who till lands. Sea shores with plains and a wood with lofty groves are seen extensively. There is no retreat in the world such as in this space which I am destined now to inhabit. Happy therefore is the place, happier then is he who inhabits it.’ These things being said, by virtue of the divine embassy and the grant of Dubricius, bishop of Llandaff he remained, building a dwelling-place; and subsequently he marked out a cemetery, and in the middle of it he built a church of planks and boughs, which he diligently visited with his frequent orisons.

§6. Of the penance of saint Gwynllyw and of Gwladus, his wife.
Gwladus, his most noble wife, and the chastest of women, although equally devoted to the Catholic religion, was nevertheless unwilling to remain near the dwelling-place of saint Gwynllyw, both leaving her lord and dwelling not far away, only one furlong distant. She came to the bank of the river Ebbw, where she dwelt, constructing what things were necessary in the two buildings, those of God and men. Both lived most piously, abstaining and fasting. In every fasting season such was the penance enjoined on them, first they were to use hair clothing, and barley bread mixed for a third part with ashes, and water, every ninth hour being appointed for the same. Cresses from the stream were theirs for relish, sweet herbs, but most sweet in that they allured to rewards. The faces of both grew pale as languishing with fevers. This was no languor but health was strengthening them inwardly. Being strengthened to restrain their corporal desires, being accustomed to wash themselves in coldest water, when frosty winter chilled, not then did they wash themselves less than in hot summertime. For in the middle of the night they rose from their beds, and returned after a bath with their bodies very cold. Then having dressed they visited their churches, praying and inclining before their altars until it was day. So they led an eremitical life, delighting in their own toil, taking naught of that of another.

§7. Of the admonishing of saint Gwynllyw.
Saint Cadog, abbot of Nantcarfan, holding both the government and the abbacy of the Nantcarfan valley, used frequently to visit his parents, whom he comforted and admonished with sacred discourses, lest they should fail in their undertakings, often interspersing his talk to them when hearing with that gospel precept, ‘Not to those who begin good things has the crown been promised, but to those who persevere in good’. And so he said very often, ‘Persevere, as you have begun that you may be crowned when you are meet to be crowned. Be ye therefore crowned. See you not that the day of this life is passing away? Strong ones will fail, as though they had never been strengthened. What is worldly power with respect to future blessedness, except the greatest delusion? For they are deluded, who love such things. They live today, not to live tomorrow. What unhappiness and how great a misery if the heaven-born are to lose the things of heaven! Ye will not lose the joys of heaven, ye future inhabitants of heaven and right-siders on the right-hand side. May you hold in mind the saying of the supreme Judge, who will speak this word to those who are being judged, “Come ye blessed ones of my Father, receive the kingdom, which is prepared for you from the beginning of the world” and so forth.’

§8. Of the second interspacing between the blessed Gwynllyw and Gwladus his wife.
Upon second thoughts regarding these and other such things, he was unwilling that such close neighbourhood should be between them, lest carnal concupiscence by the persuasion of the unseen foe should pervert their minds from a chastity which should not be violated. Wherefore he exhorted his mother to abandon the first place of her residence, and she, being admonished, left it all by the advice of her son, leaving there seven nuns, including virgins and chaste women, to serve God. Then she went to a mountain solitude, distant a space of about seven furlongs from her first place, where she chose a place for habitation, and, having marked out a cemetery, built a church in honour of saint Mary. There she saw none except her own attendants and wild animals. She kept fasting, kept praying, for no opposition stood in the way. In accordance with his affection necessaries were sent to her by her son; there left not his holy mind the remembrance of this gospel precept, which says thus, ‘Honour thy father and thy mother that thou mayest be long-lived on the earth.’ He took greater care of his parents than of himself at all times. He rejoiced that religion was increased in both, being more glad of this than of his own works. Their excellent works shone, being everywhere spoken of without the bounds even of Britannia. And when they were freed from the burden of the flesh, they were deservedly reset in celestial glory.

§9. Of the eruption of a well at the intercessions of saint Gwynllyw.
The venerable saint Gwynllyw was complaining one day because of the aridity of the little hill on which he dwelt, namely, that it wanted a well of water. The most high Auditor heard his complaints and prayers. In the meantime, while he was one day sitting in a field, very thirsty and wishing to quench his thirst, he pierced the dry ground with the point of his bachall. After this was done he saw flowing in that same place a most limpid spring, which flows now and will flow without stop. Whence it is that it was named and is named ‘Gwynllyw’s Well’, which God granted at the prayer of the saint.

§10. How saint Dubricius, the bishop, and Cadog visited the blessed Gwynllyw when in extremis, and of his death.
When the most holy Gwynllyw began to be ill, the end of his life approaching, he sent for his son Cadog and for Dubricius, bishop of Llandaff. They came before the sick, administering the sacrament of penance on him, by exhorting and comforting him with wholesome doctrine. After the latter was given, the bishop gave him absolution and the apostolic blessing. These things being done reverently in order, the soul of the blessed Gwynllyw went forth from the bodily chamber in which it sojourned, on the fourth day before the Calends of April, shining with angelic brightness, wherewith he was accompanied through the air to rest in eternal rest. Afterwards his body was buried in the floor of the church, where a frequent visitation of angels was seen about the place of his burial, and sick people with divers disorders were made well from every ill.

§11. Of a certain composer of verses from the acts of saint Gwynllyw.
Acertain British versifier, versifying in British, composed verses on his own race, and in the British speech praises concerning the manner of life of the most holy Gwynllyw and of his life’s miracles, which God for love of him allowed him to do. These same verses had not yet been completed by the composer, for a fourth part of the verses was wanting in composition; he had, however, sought matter for his theme, but natural genius to discover more to say there was not. In the meantime a very furious sea-flood with overwhelming strength covered the flat land; it overwhelmed all the inhabitants and buildings; horses with oxen, oxen with horses, swim in the water. Mothers held their children on their outstretched hands; the flood seizes them and they went no further. What great distress and what great misery! They who were then living there become corpses. Between the church of saint Gwynllyw and the Severn none came alive to the wood except the aforesaid composer by favour of the most holy Gwynllyw. For when he saw the very high flood threatening, staying in the midst of the maritime parts of the Severn, he began to compose the fourth part of his verses, fearing for fear to be then submerged. When he had begun [the house] was filled with waves. After these things he mounted higher on a beam, and a second time there followed him the swelling flood. A third time it followed him on to the roof, nor does he even so give up his busy praises. When these were done, the British poet escaped, and propped up and secured his house, but the other houses the water subverted and swept away.

§12. Of vengeance on pirates, who plundered the church of saint Gwynllyw.
Griffudd, king of Gwynedd (that is, Snowdonia), driven from all the borders of Britannia as the result of war, and fearing for fear the plots, which his enemies were designing to lay against him, William the old king of the English then reigning, the English having been conquered and subjected because of that same conqueror, sailed to the Orkney Islands with speed to avoid his enemies who had gained this cruel success, wishing for protection and to enjoy protection. Abiding there between this plan and that, desiring to spoil and not to construct, preparing to take vengeance on account of his banishment, he incited many of the islanders towards the practice of piracy, to death-bringing gain and invasion. And so being mischievously assembled and excited, and twenty-four ships being manned from the assembled invaders, they sailed under Griffudd’s command through the Irish sea, and after an endless and fear-fraught voyage arrived in the Severn channel which washes the banks of the Glamorgan folk. Then sailing along the length of the chan­nel, very greedily making for plunder, they dropped anchor in the estuary (or on the shore) of the river Usk. Their fleet being secured, they take their battle axes and spears. Armed they courageously encompass fields and woods. These being encompassed, they collect very much plunder. The natives who were on the lookout through watchers escape, and those not on their guard are taken to the fleet by impious hands. The iniquitous pirates, seeing that the church of saint Gwynllyw was barred, reckoning that precious articles were inside for safety and protection, broke the bar, and after breaking as violators entered. Whatever precious and useful thing was found, they took. After the sacrilegious theft they left the church of God plundered. Then they returned to their ships burdened, more weighted with crimes than heavy with burdens. The weight of wickedness was there, intolerable to all who carry it. Sweet gain and dear it seemed to the gainers, nay rather, bitter, about to be most bitter to the transgressors. Having loosed anchors and hoisted sails they returned rejoicing to Barry Island. There no joys or solaces were meet, but heaviest sorrow after robbery. When from this place they began to hoist sails, and to return to the Orkney Islands and to Ireland, they saw a single being, one terrible, riding day and night, and pursuing them on every side. That terrible rider was holy Gwynllyw, who had been sent from heaven to withstand the sacrilegious ones. The ships were under canvas, but the sails could not face the winds for their raging violence. The more the rowers rowed in one direction, by so much the more did the billows thrust them back athwart. The ships’ gear, shaking, became shattered. The trembling sailors exclaimed, ‘In all this does wickedness appear; we oppose ourselves against ad­verse things, and the contention of the unrighteous profits not.’ For some of the ships had been broken on the rocks, whilst each vessel drove on other, as if driven by human efforts. The whole fleet was overwhelmed, their deserts requiring it, two ships of the fleet excepted, before they could reach the wished-for shore. Those two escaped and were able to avoid the danger. For king Griffudd owned them, who had been present only; he, however, wasted not, nor even willed to be participant in the robbery, nor even entered the church, but waited on the shore with his companions for the coming of the pirates. He returning after an interval of time and making peace with William, king of England, related the miracles which he had clearly seen done on account of the sanctity of the most holy Gwynllyw.

§13. Of the anchor placed in the church and not seen, and of the bloody cheeses.
In the time of Griffudd, the valiant king of all Wales, Edward, king of England, then reigning, merchants frequently came from England, and exchanged wares at the mouth (or harbour) of the river Usk. After finishing they paid toll, and if they had not paid the usual custom, they would no more have had leave to land and to traffic up the river mouth. But it happened on one occasion that they were unwilling to pay. When this was heard, Rhiryd son of Ifor, nephew of king Griffudd, proceeded to the river mouth (or shore) with anger, and full of indignation, ordered the debt to be paid, but for all such commandment they did not pay. Afterwards in derision and to the disgrace of the Englishmen he cut the rope of their anchor, and caused the freed anchor to be taken away to the church of saint Gwynllyw. The sailors and the merchants having returned to the earl Harold, narrated the disgrace and the derision inflicted on them. Therefore the earl, ill-disposed, moved with very great anger and wishing to take vengeance, assembled an army. This being assembled, he invaded Glamorgan, hostilely determined to burn and to lay waste the whole region. This movement being heard of, the natives took their goods to the sanctuaries of the saints. When these were so taken, they fled and hid themselves in the woods. After the army had come, it burnt and ravaged, sparing none, seizing everything it found. In the meantime, the bar having been broken, some of the ravagers entered the church of the venerable Gwynllyw, which was full of garments and provisions and many precious things. When these were seen, like wolves most greedy for rapine, they seized everything which they had seen within the church. But the aforesaid anchor, which was the cause of the devastation and rapine, was seen by none, and yet it was in an inner corner of the church. Cheeses were divided by the robbers, but, when they were being cut into, they appeared bloody within; the whole army was astounded, restoring everything, which it had seized, with ready hands. Moreover, the earl Harold among the first offered of his own to the altar, being pricked with terrible compunction. Thence he returned, greatly fearing that more revenge would be taken, promising never to violate the sanctuary of the venerable church. Forthwith in the next month for that iniquity and for other transgressions he was conquered in the battle of Hastings by king William and slain.

§14. Of the blinding of a violator of the church of saint Gwynllyw, and of the taking away of its sacred vestments.
Ednywain of Gwynedd, a most intimate friend of Caradog, king of the Glamorgan folk, led astray by persuasion of the devil, entered the church of saint Gwynllyw by night after breaking the bar. And after his abominable entrance he stole the chalice and church vestments—to his loss, not to his gain. Then with his dishonest burden he returned, retracing his most wrongful journey. Now on his journey he saw the sea meeting him, driving and rising over against his face. At length greatly confused at the sight of the watery invasion, he got back to the threshold of the violated church. Therefore, his wits being dulled, he entered, and before the altar dressed himself from the sacred vestments, and tied himself about with stoles as with iron fetters. At the hour of matins, when the priest had entered the church, he saw by candle light an incongruous figure vested not as it ought to be vested. Seeing this he trembled exceedingly, and having signed himself with the sign of the holy cross he strengthened his trembling heart. In a state of terror, he resought the door and at the door he called the clergy with a great outcry. When the clergy arrived and were wondering at so great a clamour, he, being interrogated, related such things as these, saying, ‘There is a stranger in the church, clothed not as a layman but in ecclesiastical attire. I know not why it is so, either he is of benevolent intention or entangled in his own wickedness.’ Having heard these things, the clergy entered, seeing that same senseless person, and forthwith they took hold of him whom they saw. And so they led him captured and confessing his fault to be judged at the court of king Caradog. Some there were for condemning the malefactor to be deprived of his eyes, whilst others recommended the cutting off of his two hands. But Herwald, bishop of Llandaff, there assisting, agreed not that such a deed should be performed, because God, the true judge, had caused him to be judged more rightly. ‘Verily sounder and celestial judgment has been done on the sacrilegist, since, having transgressed, he has been rendered dull-witted without proper sense.’ These things being said, the evil-doer was liberated from the royal prison by the bishop’s judgment, and ended his wretched existence in dull-wittedness of this kind, because he had violated the privilege of the saint and of the church.

§15. Of the indignation of king William against Caradog, the under-king.
Three liege knights of Norman birth were very much decried for having formed a conspiracy against the old William, king of England, after the victory which he gained over the English at the first contest. When this was discovered, the king wished to take and imprison them, that in their taking they might either confess to having done wrong or altogether deny it. These things being determined by the king, they came to realize their execrable crime. Unwilling to wait to be taken, they came in flight to Caradog, king of the Glamorgan folk. He received them honourably, his good word being given that he would never by royal bidding do them damage, though he should lose everything which he held from the king. The king, therefore, hearing that these conspirators had on account of the crime laid to their charge fled and had gone to Caradog the under-king, and that that same man had unjustly established such a compact aforesaid against his lord, sent ambassadors, commanding Caradog either to return them captive or to expel them from his possession, if he should wish to be master in his own inheritance. But Caradog, a benevo­lent man, fearing and shunning infamy more than the king, his lord, was unwilling to take them nor to expel them out of his dominion, but wished to keep and respect them, as his own son. These things being related by the ambassadors to king William, he was indignant and enraged with prince Caradog. Stirred by indignation and wrath, he sent William Rufus his son, still a young man, but strenuous and warlike, with an immense expedition and armed soldiers to Glamorgan, which was devastated and burnt, losing the whole of its wealth. The army being, therefore, fatigued on its return, one night rested in tents pitched about the church of the blessed Gwynllyw. The town had been emptied of people, for they had fled to the woods for safety on account of the foe. The houses were full of divers sorts of grain, whence it could have been taken in abundance and provided as fodder for horses. Here was no provender, but rather grim famine. Not a horse got a taste of the oats. The most high God had not desired to suffer the closed houses to be opened. Saint Gwynllyw prayed, whom the Deity heard. When this miracle was seen, William, still Prince, among the first offered precious gifts to God and to the church, asking mercy and pardon for the breaking of the houses. Afterwards the whole army knelt before the altar, making offering with penitence and fear, and promising not to violate the land of saint Gwynllyw more, and never in future to do such things as they had previously done. Then in chastened mood they returned to England, magnifying the might-working intercession of saint Gwynllyw.

§16. How by the overshadowing of saint Gwynllyw a dean unknowingly passed through an impassable river.
A certain layman unjustly laid a claim to a portion of land which the clergy of the most blessed Gwynllyw held of right. And on account of the claims oftentimes made they appointed a day for pleading with respect to the land claimed, that discord might be expelled byjudgement. In the meantime the dean of the church visited the court of Lisarcors in Lower Gwent, enjoying a royal entertainment, even as the custom was at that time through­out the country. But on the last day of the entertainment before the aforesaid day of pleading, towards night, he recalled to mind the pleas of the morrow, greatly grieving and fearing to lose by his delay the land claimed, and he would certainly lose it, if he did not arrive on the fixed day. However, he kept on his way, riding through the dark night, that hindered him by rain and wind, calling on the holiness of saint Gwynllyw, until he crossed a dangerous river, but without knowing that he had by divine help crossed a river, impassable to human and equine feet save by swimming, till he arrived at the other side. Then wondering and exalting the divine power, he recognized a very big stone near to the public way and immovable. In the early morning after the celebration of mass, the dean kept the fixed day, and owing to the judicial sentence snatched the disputed land from lay hands, which afterwards was subject and ought to be subject to the church of saint Gwynllyw by right.

Composed in Cemis, Pembrokeshire, in the 12th C. Found in the British Museum Cotton MS Vespasian A xiv.

Vitae Sanctorum Britanniae et Genealogiae. ed. A. W. Wade-Evans. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1944.

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