The lifestyle of the Celtic saints

Around 140 separate Celtic saints were venerated in Cornwall. Later, it was assumed most of them came from elsewhere, from Wales, Brittany or Ireland, even though many were in fact probably native to Cornwall. As time passed, saints became the object of local folklore. In imagining the histories of their saints, the Cornish revealed how they saw themselves. Nicholas Orme (in his Cornwall and the Cross, p.18) has written that ‘between about AD 900 and 1500 … people in Cornwall … saw their past as linked with Ireland and Wales, not with England or Rome’.

Various miraculous events were associated with Cornwall’s saints. Cuby and Piran could carry fire without being burnt. Petroc lived on an island in the Indian Ocean for seven years sustained by a single fish, while Carantoc possessed a magic perambulating altar. This sailed of its own volition across the Severn from Wales with the saint hot in pursuit. Once across the Severn Carantoc had to tame a serpent that was annoying the locals. The same district near Bristol seems to have been particularly infested with serpents as Keyne turned them to stone by her praying. Not all serpents and dragons were being slain by the score in what was becoming England. Samson had to deal with one on his way through Cornwall for example.

Arthur figured in relation to several saints. Carantoc was assisted by Arthur when taming his dragon, while Kea returned to Cornwall from Brittany to broker a peace deal between Arthur and Modred. Endelient was the god daughter of Arthur, who had helped her when a local lord killed her cow. When she died, Endelient’s body was dragged in an ox-cart and the church built at the place the oxen stopped, something that also happened to Mylor.

Some saints were incredibly strong. Morwenna carried a stone for the font of her church on her head from the shore up the cliffs to the spot she chose. Selevan cracked a stone with a single blow of his fist. Menfre or Minver could fight off the devil merely by throwing her comb at him.

Saints seem to have had more than their fair share of bad luck. When a child, Mylor, son of a duke of Cornwall, had his hand and foot chopped off by an evil uncle. He received silver replacements that miraculously grew with him. Blaise was tortured with woolcombs but then very forgivingly became the patron saint of woolcombers. Selevan caught two fish with a single hook to feed the two children of his sister Breage. Unfortunately, the children choked on the bones. Gwinear was beheaded at the site of his church, massacred by the Cornish pagan King Teudar along with the rest of the company of 777 that he had brought with him from Ireland.

Sancred killed his father by accident and had to live as a swineherd in penance, later being revered for his ability to cure pigs. According to Nicholas Orme, in 1677 the too-clever vicar of Sancreed was prosecuted by his parishioners for unwisely saying that he was ‘the unhappiest of ministers, for that other ministers were patrons of their flocks but that he was but the herdsman of a company of swine’.

And finally, saints could make what look like quite odd decisions. God offered Sithney the chance to be the patron of young women, No, replied the misogynist, for they’ll always be pestering me asking for husbands and fine clothes. Instead he chose to be the patron of mad dogs. Much less trouble.

Cornish saints were sometimes replaced by international or English saints. At Redruth by 1960 Euny was sharing his church with St George

What to see in Cornish churches: 1

My religious correspondent has sent me this description of two Cornish churches which both have medieval art worth taking a look at.


The most striking thing about Breage church is its wall paintings. The two largest are opposite the main door. On the left is St. Christopher, patron saint of travellers, greeting you as you arrive and looking after you as you leave.  He is shown knee-deep in water, carrying Jesus safely on his shoulder. On the right is the figure of Jesus surrounded by various tools. Opinion is divided as to whether he is blessing the trades for which these tools were used or whether it is a warning to those who worked with them on a Sunday: working on a Sunday was forbidden. These figures would have been painted around the same time as the church was built, about 1470-1500. They give a good idea of just how colourful our churches were and, in an era when few people could read, they are powerful messages.

The wall paintings at Breage

In addition, in the north-west corner of this church is a tall stone, found near the church in 1924. It has a Latin inscription which translates as ‘To the Emperor Caesar Marcus Cassianus Postumus’ who reigned from about 260-268 AD. The stone is often referred to as a Roman milestone, but it is really a road marker, showing visiting troops that they were on the right road.

St Kew

If you like old, beautiful interesting things, head for St. Kew. At the end of the north aisle is a stained glass window depicting the last few days of Jesus’ life. It is at least 550 years old and was brought here from Bodmin in 1469. When you think how fragile stained glass is, how far it had to travel and by what means, it’s a real miracle that it’s in such great condition.

The scenes begin with Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey and end with a scene of him being laid in his tomb. There are a couple of sections filled with broken glass, but the other scenes are vivid. The scene of the garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus is praying and the disciples are all asleep, shows a group of Roman soldiers creeping up, hiding behind their shields. A few panels later we see Jesus before Pontius Pilate, who is literally washing his hands of the responsibility of sentencing Jesus to death. Take a pair of binoculars with you and you’ll be able to see details like the fur on the donkey, the drops of water when Jesus washes Peter’s feet and so on.

Lizzie Lander