Brittany has often been called the Land of Saints and with good reason; some 750 saints ranging from obscure personalities known in only one isolated location to renowned healers popularly invoked across the region were once venerated here. Many of the early evangelising saints were believed to have arrived from the British Isles in the 5th and 6th centuries in stone boats propelled by angels.
Several of Brittany’s Celtic saints were held to have had strong connections with the legendary King Arthur. Indeed, some scholars have argued that the character known as Saint Armel, reputedly a son of King Hoël the Great, a nephew of Arthur and the father of Sir Tristan’s wife, Iseult, was the historical basis for King Arthur himself.
Legend tells that King Arthur was visiting his cousin, King Hoël of Brittany, when he met the Irish prince Saint Efflam on the shore near Plestin; a land terrorised by a ferocious and cunning dragon. Saint and king were described as cousins but it was the saint that slew the dragon with prayer rather than Arthur who only succeeded in cutting off the dragon’s horn in three days of fighting. Another version tells that the first person that Efflam met upon disembarking his “old leaking boat” was Arthur the Terrible who had come to that place to kill the dragon. Paganism personified as an untameable beast was clearly a powerful image as some fourteen of the early saints were noted as dragon slayers.
Saint Gurthiern was a British prince who, overcome with grief for having mistakenly killed his nephew in battle, received divine inspiration to cross to Brittany and found an abbey at Quimperle. Interestingly, much of the genealogy associated with him is shared with that attributed to King Vortigern. Just 14km (8 miles) south lies the reputed site of the monastery established by Saint Ninnoc in the 5th century. The child of another British king, Brychan of Brycheiniog, Ninnoc left her family and lands in order to protect her virginity and devote her life to God; her father is said to have fought against Arthur while attempting to regain her kidnapped sister, Saint Gwladys.
The author of one of the earliest surviving chronicles of Britain before and during the Saxon invasions, the British prince Saint Gildas was said to have “loved and obeyed Arthur but his 23 brothers refused to acknowledge the king as their lord”. One of his brothers was killed by Arthur but nevertheless Gildas is said to have aided the king in the recovery of Guinevere who had been kidnapped by King Melvas of Somerset and kept captive in his castle at Glastonbury. Gildas’ connections with the early saints and aristocratic dynasties of Brittany must have been considerable as he appears in the accounts of many of their lives or perhaps the hagiographers thought establishing links to such a venerated saint were important.
Another child of noble birth, Saint Ke, is said to have left his father’s lands to escape invading Scots before eventually crossing over to Brittany in a stone trough without sails or oars. Landing near what is now the north coast town of Cléder, he established a small monastery but according to legend was quickly summoned to return and join a delegation of bishops beseeching Arthur to avert war with Sir Mordred and his Saxon allies. Unable to prevent the fatal conflict, he is said to have comforted the widowed Guinevere, exhorting her to enter a convent. While it is likely that accounts of Ke’s life have been conflated with other men who shared his name, the connection with Arthur is probably due to an over-eager hagiographer confusing him with Arthur’s foster-brother Sir Kay.
Saint Tudual arrived on the west coast of Brittany in the early 6th century and, given his antecedents, it is little wonder that he led an extraordinary life here and he has long been considered one of the Seven Founding Saints of Brittany. Tudual was kidnapped by mermaids; defeated a dragon; founded several monasteries before becoming the first bishop of Tréguier and is even said to have been Pope for two years. In later life, he is believed to have interceded with the Frankish king, Childebert I, to end his support for Count Conomor, a notorious local warlord.
It is worth noting that Tudual was claimed to have been the son of Saint Koupaia (Aspasia) and King Hoël the Great of Brittany; himself son of Budic, King of Kernev in Brittany and King Arthur’s sister, Anna. According to legend, Hoël is said to have led 15,000 men across the sea to Britain to aid his uncle then assailed on all sides by the Saxons and Scots. A less romantic version tells that massive raiding parties of Danes, supported by the Franks, seized control of large parts of Brittany thus forcing the Breton lords to return to their ancestral lands. Hoël and his men stayed in Britain for four years before returning to Brittany and eventually driving out the Danish armies. With his father’s Breton lands once again secure, Tudual, along with his brother Saint Leonor and their mother returned to Brittany with 72 other men led by her brother Riwal. The ship that carried Tudual home was said to have vanished at the instant the last of his party disembarked.
Another of the Seven Founding Saints was also claimed to have a connection to King Arthur; Saint Padarn, first Bishop of Vannes. Legend has it that Arthur envied the saint’s cloak and tried to take it from him but the earth opened-up and swallowed the king up to his chin, only releasing him after he had acknowledged his fault and accepted Padarn as his patron.
There are several other legends concerning the arrivals of the first Celtic evangelisers to Brittany on boats made of stone. Some of these saints seem to have left little trace in the historical records or in the local toponymy of the region. Such is the case of the 6th century Briton Saint Eneour who is patron of just three churches in the far west of Brittany; in the grounds of the church dedicated to him in Plonéour-Lanvern stands an Iron Age stele traditionally claimed to have been the mast of the stone vessel he used to cross the sea from Wales. Similarly, near Plounéour-Menez lies a stone said to contain imprints made by the saint’s body.
History does not tell how another British evangeliser, Saint Goueznou, reached Brittany but we know that he was given a gift of land by Count Conomor where he established a monastery whose importance was attested right up to the French Revolution almost 1,200 years later. The cult of this onetime Bishop of Léon was noted to have been in good health as late as the 1850s when pilgrims visited Gouesnou to touch the stone block upon which the saint was believed to have slept in hopes of being cured of their ailments.
Saint Vougay was believed to have travelled from Ireland on a large rock that he found on the seashore and which he commanded to leave and serve him as a ship to pass wherever it pleased God. The stone, an Iron Age stele, stands near the sea at Tréguennec and lies close to the saint’s fountain that was traditionally visited for its healing properties particularly for children slow to walk. In times past, the stone itself was the scene for two rituals invoking fertility; to raise or stop rain according to the needs of the sown crops and by women seeking children.
In the 6th century, Saint Ronan renounced all his possessions and left Britain, where he had been accepted into the priesthood, for a closer communion with God. According to tradition he reached the shores of northern Brittany in a stone boat and immediately established a modest hermitage where he soon established a reputation as a great healer. Having been guided by an angel to move southwards, he settled near the town that now bears his name; Locronan near Quimper. While here, Ronan was famously accused of being a sorcerer who in the guise of a wolf had devoured a young maiden but successfully proved the accusations false by not reacting to the fury of King Gradlon’s dogs and by telling the court where the maiden’s body had been concealed by her own mother. It is also near Locronan that a stone known as the Boat of Saint Ronan lies and to which, even towards the end of the 19th century, women would lie upon in the belief that it had the power to grant them children.
On the south coast Isle of Groix, the menhir of Kergatouarn is reputed to the stone boat that Saint Tudy used to cross the sea from the mainland. Similarly, the menhir on the small north coast Isle of Maudez is said to have been set in the ground in the 6th century after it had been used as a boat by Saint Maudez to escape the rocks thrown at him by the hostile pagans of neighbouring Bréhat.
A few hundred meters from the sea in Beuzec-Cap-Sizun lies a recumbent menhir some 8 meters long, which was traditionally held to be the vessel on which Saint Conogan, a noted healer, arrived there by sea in the 5th century. Saint Houardon, future Bishop of Léon, is also said to have reached Brittany on a stone boat and established his monastery not far from that of Conogan. Saint Conogan seems also to have sometimes been identified with Guénec which has led some to claim that the similarly sounding Saint Guénoc also arrived in Brittany on a stone boat.
The latter arrived here in the company of his family and a number of others in the early 5th century. The family is worthy of note because all were regarded as saints. His father, Saint Fragan was cousin to the King of Brittany and seems to have been more a warrior and pioneering settler than a missionary. Stronger evangelising traditions are accorded to Guénoc and his twin brother Jagu but there is precious little found in the life of their sister Klerwi.
It is therefore likely that the saintliness of the family was exaggerated in order to emphasise the virtuous origins of his younger brother, Saint Gwenole; a well-known Breton saint, to whom many miracles were attributed, including calming storms and parting waves. He is perhaps best remembered today as the founder of the important monastery at Landévennec and for having ripped open a goose to recover his sister’s eye, torn out by the bird; he replaced the eye in its socket before restoring Klerwi’s sight and the health of the goose. The saint also features in the earliest legend we have regarding the loss of the city of Ker-Is; it was he who helped King Gradlon escape the rising waters and led him to safety.
One curious aspect to the cult of Saint Gwenole is that he is one of the few recognised phallic saints; a singular honour considering that he was not associated with any ancient megaliths purporting to be a boat or a bed, such as was the case with Vougay and Ronan. Gwenole was not invoked as part of some archaic ritual that survived from the region’s pre-Christian past but due to the powerful healing powers attributed to him. This status might have been reinforced by the legend that his mother, Saint Gwenn, gave birth to him while her twin sons were still suckling; a conundrum solved by God who gave her a third breast so that she might suckle Gwenole.
The saint’s earliest hagiography tells that Gwenole was a disciple of the Breton prince Saint Budoc; another saint reported to have had very close associations with the sea. A legend recounts that Budoc’s mother, wrongly accused of adultery, was banished from Brittany by being placed in a barrel and condemned to be carried where the winds and tides listed. It was during her five months at sea, when she was succoured by an angel, that she gave birth to Budoc; accounts differ as to whether they eventually landed in Ireland or Wales. After taking holy orders, Budoc was visited by an angel that bade him to return to Brittany. He is said to have crossed the sea in a stone trough that began moving as soon as he entered it, landing at Porspoder on Brittany’s west coast. In time, he succeeded Saint Maelor to become the third Bishop of Dol.
Miraculous stone crafts are also found in the legends of neighbouring lands; both Saint Piran and Saint Gerbold were reputed to have been tied to millstones which, when thrown into the sea, floated like boats that carried them to the safety of Cornwall and Normandy respectively. Legends of holy men being carried in stone boats are also found in the lore of Galicia.
It is worth mentioning another of the Seven Founding Saints of Brittany because the early hagiographies of this saint, Saint Pol of Léon (Paulinus Aurelianus), highlight many of the common bonds shared by these early evangelists. Pol was the son of a Welsh lord and possibly related to the legendary warrior Ambrosius Aurelianus, a man mentioned in one of the earliest histories of Britain written by Gildas in the mid-6th century and identified as the elder brother of Uther Pendragon and briefly King of Britain, after he and his brother defeated the Saxon leader Hengist on their return from exile in Brittany in a 12th century work by Geoffrey of Monmouth.
Like many other early Breton saints, he was a disciple of the learned Saint Illtud; the son of a Breton lord and cousin to King Arthur whom he served when a young warrior. Illtud’s other notable pupils included Gildas, Padarn, Maelor, Samson and likely his cousin Malo too: six of Brittany’s most important early evangelists. The early saints were not just spiritually close but were also tied together by bonds of kinship and this is likely no accident as the British settlers to Brittany seem to have arrived in waves led by tribal chiefs and monks from similarly aristocratic families. Saint Pol himself was said to have arrived here with “twelve priests, as many noble laymen of his kinship, some nephews, others cousins and slaves in sufficient number”. However, a local legend on the Île d’Ouessant maintains that the saint landed there first, having travelled on a stone boat!
Saint Samson likewise arrived in Brittany accompanied by forty companions including his cousin Saint Maelor; another cousin, Saint Malo, arrived later. Samson later became Bishop of Dol and was one of the signatories to the canons of the Council of Paris in 557, so, it is fairly certain that this historical figure existed but tradition also attests that Samson was a step-brother of Sir Kay and thus foster-brother of King Arthur.
The iconography associated with Brittany’s saints often depict quite localised traditions from the many tales told about the lives of these early missionaries. Some are featured carrying hand-bells or standing with dragons and wolves, others with birds, horses and stags. The stag seems to have been a popular trope in the hagiographies of the Breton saints, featuring prominently in the lives of Leonor, Ninnoc and Ke as a symbol of the saint’s authority over the stateliest of wild beasts.
Perhaps the most unusual item depicted with a Breton saint is its own detached head and several such cephalophores are known here. According to one legend, Saint Triffin, a princess from southern Brittany, married King Arthur but in another tale she marries Count Conomor and is beheaded by him when he discovers her pregnancy. She is restored to life by Saint Gildas and with her head in one arm and her new-born baby in the other, she leads the saint and her vengeful father to her husband’s castle which is ultimately destroyed by the wrath of God. Having re-attached Triffin’s head, Gildas takes the boy to be schooled in his monastery while Triffin enters a convent.
The wily Conomor survived the destruction of his castle and tried to arrange the assassination of his son but the boy could never be found. Unhappily, Conomor did find him crossing his lands some nine years later and immediately removed his son’s head with a blow from his sword. Legend has it that Saint Tremeur allowed his father to flee before promptly picking up his head and walking the few miles to repose at his mother’s grave.
Just 27km (17 miles) south of this tomb lies the town of Noyal-Pontivy, final resting place of another cephalophore saint, Noluenn. This saint was believed to have been the daughter of a British prince who had fled to Brittany, accompanied by her maid, to avoid a marriage and devote her life to prayer; rather wonderfully, she was said to have crossed the sea on the leaf of a tree. Landing near the mouth of the Blavet River, they struck north in search of a suitable hermitage but near Bignan came to the attention of a local lord who demanded she marry him. Enraged at her refusal, the lord cut off her head which the saint quickly picked up and, guided by her maid, walked 20km (13 miles) towards Gildas’ sanctuary near the town of Pontivy. At Noyal, the pair rested; Noluenn planted her walking stick in the ground, which immediately turned into a hawthorn while three drops of blood that fell from her head caused three fountains to spring.
According to legend, Saint Melar was the legitimate heir to the throne of the kingdom of Kernev, then composed of lands on both sides of the Channel, usurped by his uncle Rivod who had the boy’s right hand and left foot removed thus making him unfit to wield a sword and ride a horse. A miracle gave him a silver hand and a foot of brass which functioned as well as his own limbs but seven years later, Melar was murdered, beheaded near Lanmeur. Both assassin and Rivod died shortly thereafter but the savage death of this wronged prince clearly once had such a powerful impact on the popular imagination that the young man was elevated to sainthood.
Another saint depicted holding his head in his hands is Gohard, Bishop of Nantes. In 843, he was celebrating mass in Nantes Cathedral on the feast of Saint John the Baptist when a raiding party of Vikings stormed the city, killing the bishop and all his congregation. A legend tells that Saint Gohard picked up his decapitated head and walked to the Loire River where a boat took him to Angers, the town of his birth.
While not depicted as a cephalophore, Saint Bieuzy was said to have been struck in the head by an axe wielded by a local lord angry that his summons to attend a mad dog had not been given the urgency he thought it deserved. The shattered Bieuzy completed his mass and, followed by his congregation, walked the 65km (40 miles) to the abbey of Rhuys, where he received the blessing of his close friend Saint Gildas and immediately fell dead at his feet. The murderous lord is said to have returned home to have found all his animals enraged; he being ripped to pieces by his own dogs.
Another Breton saint who lost his head was Saint Gestin, a onetime close companion of Saint Efflam who had renounced his noble birth in Brittany for the life of a hermit. Legend has it that Gestin left his hermitage on Ramsay Island, off the west coast of Wales, to serve as abbot at a monastery on the mainland but was so disillusioned with the lax behaviour of the monks that he returned to Ramsay to establish a more spiritual community. Sadly, not all his followers appreciated his more rigorous regime as he was beheaded. Angry at such a monstrous betrayal, the saint picked up his severed head and walked across the water back to the mainland.
Even into relatively modern times, Brittany retained a distinctive Celtic religious identity, shown particularly in devotions to local saints and shrines. The likelihood that many of the early saints were purely legendary did not matter; their stories allowed people to make sense of the name of their village or to understand why certain features, such as springs, were believed to contain healing qualities. Similarly, it was not a matter of any import if the lives of some saints had become confused, conflated or misrepresented over the centuries; what mattered was that their existence fixed them to their community and their community to the land.
By the time Albert Le Grand published his monumental Lives of the Saints of Armorican Brittany in 1637, the role of saints in salvation was more closely defined than it had been in the Middle Ages. Saints were now considered exemplars of Christian virtues and personal intercessors with God. The popular view of saints as miracle workers to whom veneration was made directly was frowned upon and superstitions surrounding cults discouraged.
In Brittany, particularly in the west of the region, local saints associated with the early evangelists continued to be favoured over the saints of the broader Church. However, their primacy slowly shifted over the 18th century when churches were re-dedicated or the old patron of the parish was relegated to a secondary role, supplanted by an internationally recognised saint. Above all others, veneration of Saint Mary the Virgin exploded across the region and with it, a growing veneration of her mother Saint Anne.
As the saints of the wider Church were progressively favoured, so Bretons incorporated new legends and traditions into their own history and so the international saints received a distinctly Breton context. One legend of Saint Anne tells that she was a princess of the ancient southern kingdom of Kernev, another that she was born in central Brittany near Merléac and had a sister named Pitié. The west coast town of Plonévez-Porzay is also associated with Anne, for it was here that her jealous husband forbade her to bear children. Driven from her home when her pregnancy was discovered, Anne wandered the land until an angel guided her into a boat and onto the Holy Land. Many years later, Mary married Joseph and Anne returned to Brittany to end her life in prayer. Another local legend refines this to say that Anne came to Brittany to avoid persecution and settled near Crozon where she was even visited by her grandson!