The spread of Christianity throughout Roman Britain and the "Celtic" nations in the post Roman period provides an important perspective into the popular mood and politics of the times. Britain had been exposed to the new religion well before the Emperor Constantine called the first representative meeting of Christian Bishops at the Council of Arles (Southern Gaul) in 314 AD. Two bishops from Britain attended this first council which heralded the religion's favoured status within the state of Rome. The Emperor Theodosius confirmed it as the official state religion in 380 AD.
By 400 AD the majority of Gaul had accepted Christianity, however, this could not be said of Britain at the time, certainly not Cornwall. During the 5th century Bishops were repeatedly sent from Gaul to Britain and also to Ireland both to strengthen orthodoxy and to evangelise, however after Rome's control of Britain was released in 410 AD christianity was no longer exclusively promoted by the ruling elite and both pagan and christian beliefs co-existed according to geography and family tradition.
The independence of Britain's Christianity was most strongly expressed within a theology promoted by the British monk Pelagius, who lived between 360 and 418 AD. The arguments put forward by Pelagius were determined as heretical to Rome at the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD, being at odds with the Augustine teaching that, as mankind are all sinners with a sinful hearts, salvation is impossible except by the grace of God. Augustine taught that no one has a choice to accept or refuse such free gift and their passage through life is therefore predetermined. Pelagius was concerned that this boundary to free will was being used as an excuse for immorality and he argued that people could use their free will to change themselves by actively following Christian principles.
Pelagianism was influential across the Empire and Germanus, Bishop of Auxerre was sent to Britain in 429 to combat the threat at source. The Pelagian philosophy resonated strongly in Britain and flavoured to some extent the distinctive “Celtic” church of the British Isles, fitting more firmly perhaps with the more individualist and self reliant spirit of the people. The arguments made on both sides remain relevant and, perhaps to a degree, unresolved to this day. Perhaps the psychological make up of the “Celtic” peoples, as much as their distance from Cantebury or Rome, may account for the proliferation of non-conformist tendencies in these regions over the centuries.
By 500 AD the power of the Roman Church had become entrenched as an instrument of authority and political influence in the areas of Europe which were still largely under Roman influence, however in contrast to this the British tradition remained more independent. Celtic Britain was by this time under great pressure from the heathen Saxon invaders. The Saxons held the majority of Britain's eastern coastline and over the next 100 years the inexorable advance westwards would mean that the land bridge between Cornwall and Wales was eventually cut. Progressively the Celtic British enclaves of Cumbria, Wales, Cornwall and Brittany became separated. The Saxons were not to embrace Christianity untill 597 AD when AEthelberht was converted during Augustine of Cantebury's mission.
In the years 430 to 460 AD, St Patrick had carried out his mission to Ireland, however this country was not predominantly Christian until 530/40 AD. Ireland had always been a beligerant neighbour to Britain throughout the Roman period and this continued after Romes retreat from Britain. Christian evangelism was now added to Ireland's expansionist activities, both in Wales and later in Cornwall. The mix was not at first welcome and stories tell of an Irish legion led by St Gwinear being massacred by the Cornish at Hayle at around 500 AD.
In the early years of the 6th Century individual monks, particularly those from neighbouring South Wales were better received. Aesthetic and austere proselytising monks spread their word by example and in uncompromising fashion travelling the common lands of Wales, Cornwall and Brittany. The power of the early church in the Celtic nations derived in large part from these holy men and women's ability to demonstrate that Christianity surpassed the power of worldly leaders who were often shown to have feet of clay. They stood up against lords and kings, overshadowing them by steadfastness and good works, in later years there was a strong tradition of powerful people giving up their privilege to become monks and indeed saints themselves.
This moral battle was also being played out in raw conflict in Ireland. Around 560 AD the opposing supporters of St Columba and King Diarmait fought pitched battles, the outcome of which eventually led to future Irish kingly power being tempered by that of the church. This cultivated the Irish monastic tradition whose moral authority put bounds on secular government. Much later, In 697 AD, for instance a conference of bishops and abbots endorsed a code of war which defined war crimes and set out penalties for offences against non combatants especially women, children and students. Ireland became at this time a leading moral force in Europe, renowned both for its spiritual authority and scholarship for centuries to come.
Stained glass window in Feock Church showing St. Kea, St. Feock & St. Perran.
Cornwall's Celtic Saints
The recorded lives of the early Celtic Christian Saints are often confusing, contradictory and full of fancy, mainly written hundreds of years after their lifetimes, and often by authors whose motives might have been were more about enhancing the status of their religious organisations than providing objective histories.
Gilbert Doble, Canon of Truro Cathedral has done more than any other to untangle the threads, publishing his forty eight “Saints of Cornwall" booklets between 1923 and 1944. Future work has drawn heavily on his studies. Possibly the most nearly contemporaneous record he was able to use is the Vita Sancti Samsonis written as early as 50 years after the Saint's death and which is commonly regarded as the most authoritative record and therefore used as a touchstone for comparison with others.
St Samson was born c. 485 AD in Wales and educated at St Illtud's monastery college in Llantwit Fawr, South Wales. This was probably the earliest centre of learning in Britain having hundreds of pupils at its height and counting St David and St Gildas within its alumni. St Samson sought an austere life in Wales but later travelled to Cornwall where he lived as a hermit. In the “Life of St Petroc” he is decribed as greeting Petroc as he landed ashore near Padstow. Samson subsequently travelled to Brittany where he established the famous monastery of Dol dying there c. 565 AD.
The 6th century was the principal period of evangelism in Cornwall by early “Celtic” Saints, however throughout this time pagan currents still ran strongly in Cornwall.
Four major “families” of saints are recorded at this time:
1. The first were of Irish origin and include the Saints Gwinear, Breaca, Crowan, Germoe, Ia, Uny and Erc, all dedicated in the area between St Ives, Hayle and Helston. Stories told of a legion led by St Gwinear, a total of 700 men and including 7 bishops, which landed at Hayle some time in the early 6th century. They were met on landing by the pagan King Teudar and many, including Gwinear, were killed. The stories had Gwinear beheaded, but picking up his head and carrying it away from the battle field. Irish raids on Britain had resumed in the final years of the 5th century following the breakdown of the british King Vortigern's Irish diplomacy. The period was a fervent time for Christian advancement in Ireland, which become predominantly Christian by 530 AD.
2. The second was a far larger band coming from Brecon in South Wales and included the Saints Clether, Issey, Juliot, Keyne, Mabyn, Minver, Necten, Teath and Wenna, described as sons and daughters of King Brychan. This influx may have been associated with the incidence of plague which first hit Wales and then devastated Ireland in c. 550 AD. The plague was described in the Book of Llandaff written in c. 1133 as “ a pestilence which nearly destroyed the Welsh nation. It was called the Yellow Pestilence because it made everyone it attacked yellow and bloodless; it appeared to men in the form of a column consisting of a watery cloud, passing over the whole region, everything living it touched with its pestilential breath either died straight-way or became sick unto death “. Some, who survived, made their way to Cornwall where they were well received and also then travelled onwards to Brittany. Many returned after the plague had subsided which was said to have been seven years and seven months after it started. The plague appeared to have spread from the Mediterranean and reached Britain via ship-born trade along the Atlantic coastal routes, making the British Celts particularly at risk. The English Saxons escaped the infection because the ongoing hostilities with the British reduced their contact with the disease.
3. The third was a smaller group of Breton Saints including Mewan, Austell, Budoc, Cury, Mawes and Mylor who were dedicated later in the century in areas on the south coast near the ports on the Fal and Fowey having most contact with Brittany. Cornwall and Brittany were very closely aligned at this time with Kings and other leaders having authority on both sides of the channel. Even 1,000 years later during the reign of King Henry VIII Bretans represented the largest foreign element in Cornwall although, as they spoke the same language, they might hardly be called foreign. The most likely derivation of St Feock lies in the connection with St Maeoc and the village of Lanveoc near Crozon, south of Brest. In the cornish language Feock can be mutated to Meoc or Veoc according to context.
4. The fourth group were saints of Cornish origin including Seleven, Just and Constantine, possibly descended from the royal family of King Geraint whose castle was Dingerian on the Roseland.
Written by Phil Allen