Sunday, 29 March 2015

The feast day of Saint Gwynllyw Milwr, patron saint of Welsh smugglers and pirates

29 March is the feast day of Saint Gwynllyw Milwr or Gwynllyw Farfog, St Woolos the Warrior or the Bearded, a late 5th century Welsh petty king who found religion and was later canonised as patron saint of Welsh smugglers and pirates.
“One night some of Gwynllyw’s brigands arrived for loot at a certain town, in which dwelt a certain religious Irish hermit, Meuthi by name, who served God very devotedly, inasmuch as the aforesaid Gwynllyw was very partial to thieves, and used to instigate them somewhat often to robberies. But that hermit possessed no worldly goods except one cow in calf, the best of all in that province, by whose abundance of milk the hermit himself and his twelve ministers were sufficiently supplied; which cow the aforesaid thieves vilely stole.“ (The Life of Saint Cadog)



The popular image of Sub-Roman Britain image is quite well set. Emperor Honorius orders the island’s three fighting legions back to the continent to fight the barbarian invaders around 410, leaving the Romanised cities to fend for themselves. The provinces become petty kingdoms, the British lords hire Angles and Saxons as mercenaries to defend their domains from marauding Pictish and Irish raiders, the Germanic leaders Hengist and Horsa revolt against their master King Vortigern, take the British eastern coast and invade the rest of the island with more Germanic tribesmen following up, brutally killing and displacing the former inhabitants until Romano-British warlords like Aurelius Ambrosius and later King Arthur manage to stem the tide for a while in hard fought battles that echo the events on the continent. After King Arthur dies, the rest of Roman Britain finally goes to the dogs as chronicled in the contemporary writings of Gildas the Wise and later those of the Venerable Bede. If the popular image would bear a reality test is questionable, though. Hardly any archaeological or even archaeogenetic evidence backs up the theory of a cataclysmic Anglo-Saxon invasion of Sub-Roman Britain, but rather suggest waves of immigration into a still rather Romanised world with local petty kings fighting each other from reopened Iron Age hill forts, while the large cities gradually decayed over a timespan of three centuries. And then there are the droves of saints in the Insular Celtic tradition, in Cornwall and Wales. Obviously, a lot of local chieftains, remembered in local tradition, had the rather dubious honour to get canonised in the Middle Ages, probably in the same spirit that transformed a cattle raid into a heroic epic. And one of the sanctified cattle thieves was Saint Gwynllyw Farfog, Woolos or Gundleus the Bearded, King of Gwynllwg in modern South Wales.


Romano-British cavalry from the days of St Gwynllyw Milwr, as reenacted by the wonderful people from Comitatus (image found on: http://www.comitatus.net/cavalry.html)


Late in the 11th century, a monk, Lifris of Llancarfan, then a monastery in the Vale of Glamorgan, wrote down the vita of Saint Cadoc, a popular Welsh saint and one of the four children of King Gwynllyw. The petty monarch had already made himself a name for cattle theft and then fell in love with the daughter of a neighbouring ruler, Gwladys, one of the 24 later beatified children of King Brychan of Brycheiniog. True to his old custom, Gwynllyw mounted an expedition to steal Gwladys straightaway, slaughtered the pursuers with the help of his kinsman King Arthur and married the girl and lived, cattle-stealing and saints-siring, ever after. Until the old rogue finally found religion, naturally in the vision of a stately black bull, guiding him to a monastery. There he lived out his life, first with his wife and later as a hermit, doing wondrous work until his son, St Cadog, administered the last sacrament to him around 523 CE. His hermit cell became a shrine and later St Woolos Cathedral of Newport. When the place was plundered during the 9th century by Viking raiders, the saint sunk their fleet into the waters of the Bristol Channel and Harold Godwinson’s defeat at the Battle of Hastings is attributed to him as a revenge upon the Saxon king for plundering the saint’s church during a foray into Welsh Gwent while fighting King Gruffydd ap Llywelyn of Gwynedd. And as curious as his life and medieval miracles were, so is his patronage. Besides being the patron saint of Newport, St Gwynllyw became the holy helper of Welsh smugglers and pirates, most notably that of Wales’ most famous buccaneer, Sir Henry Morgan.


Sir Henry Morgan, arguably the most popular protégé of St Gwynllyw Milwr's flock




Depicted  above is a late Roman ridge helmet from the 4th century CE, made of iron, sheathed in silver-gilt and decorated with glass gems. This type of helmet was worn primarily by Roman and post-Roman horse soldiers since the late 280s CE until about the late 7th century CE and a magnificent piece like the one below may have well served warlords in western Britain, if not as a family heirloom or highly priced trophy from a raid. The earliest find of a ridge helmet we have was indeed made in Richborough in Kent. The helmet below was found among the "Berkasovo treasure“ in Serbia and is on display in Novi Sad. 

(Picture found on
 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Late_Roman_ridge_helmet#/media/File:Casque_orn%C3%A9_4%C3%A8me_si%C3%A8cle_Mus%C3%A9e_Novi_Sad_Colis%C3%A9e_Rome_Italie.jpg)

And more about St Gwynllyw Farfog on:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gwynllyw