Saturday, 10 January 2015

The legend of Saint Gwen of Brittany and Dorset

The church of Whitchurch-Canonicorum in Dorset is dedicated to Saint-Candida (a.k.a Saint-Wite). Below the east window there is an altar tomb with three openings which allowed devotees to reach inside the shrine in the hope of a miraculous cure for whatever ailed them. On the top of this there used to be a 14th century coffin built into a slab of local marble.
When the local vicar opened it in 1848 he found a stone box. Inside the stone box he discovered a Saint's relics. When the coffin was examined again in 1899 another vicar found teeth, a lot of  bones resembling those of small, forty year old woman and an inscription:
Here lie the relics of Saint Wite
What was even more extrordinary about this find was that all relics such as these had been destroyed during the Protestant Reformation. The only other collection of saint's remains still extant were those of St Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey. Perhaps this shrine looked more like a tomb then a reliquary and that is what saved the bones.
But who did bones belong to? And who was this Saint-Wite or Saint Candida? 
Sabine Baring-Gould, writing in 1910-11, thought Saint-Gwen, a 5th century Breton saint, was the answer to both questions. So how did the relics of a Breton saint end up in a Dorset Church?
Saint-Gwen (Gwen Teirbron) was born in Brittany. Her name comes from  Breton: gwen(n)/wenn ‘white’, ‘blessed’ [Old Cornish: guyn; Welsh: gwyn]. In France,  she is also known as Sainte-Blanche or Sainte-Candide. 

Her grandfather was Audren (Aldroen) of Brittany, a 5th century king of Brittany, who lived at Châtelaudren, in the castle he had built and which was named after him. Her father, Emyr Llydaw, a Breton Chief, still lived there and this was where Gwen was born. 
Saint Cadfan
She first married Eneas Lydewig in Brittany and had her first son, Saint Cadfan.  After her husband died she married Brychan (Fracan), cousin of Cador (Cado), Duke of Cornwall, and migrated with him back to Brittany.
They had two children, Saint-Jacut (see Saint-Jacut of Brittany)and Saint Guethenoc. After arriving in Brittany, they had two more, Saint-Winwaloe (who founded the Abbey at Landévennec) and Saint-Clervie. Saint-Gwen was called Teirbron, the 'three-breasted', because she had been twice married and had children from two husbands.
Her ‘royal’ connections in Brittany allowed her to make a claim for tribal land which she enclosed  at Pléguien, just north of Châtelaudren and northwest of her husband's plou ('parish') at Ploufragan.
Gwen's name appears in three other settlements: at Saint-Guen near Mur-de-Bretagne (in Central Brittany) and at Lesguen (where Fracan built a castle) in the parish of Plouguin (near Brest in the far west) - twenty-nine hours apart by foot (according to Google). 

According to this version of the legend Saint-Gwen's connections with Dorset are largely posthumous: it was only after her death that her remains were transported to Dorset and all because of the Vikings.
In the  9th and 10th centuries, Breton princes and priests fled  in the wake of Viking invasions. They carried with them Saints' relics for safe-keeping. Some went inland, but many others went across the sea to England. The English kings welcomed them and sent the refugees and their relics to a selection of British-speaking places in the southwest. Inscriptions with Breton names have been found in Dorset -evidence of how far east the refugees finally settled with their relics.

Gwen is 'white' in English and it is possible that she becomes Saint-Wite in England, just as she is  Saint-Blanche in France. And she is also Saint Candida at Whitchurch, a  name that was first given to her in Brittany. There must be a connection here.

  Saint-Wite at Whitchurch
.At Saint-Cast in Cotes d'Armor, Sainte Blanche can be found in chapel overlooking the town of Saint-Jacut on the other side of the bay. The streets surrounding the chapel are appropriately called Santez Gwen and rues Fragan, Gwenole and Guethenoc
Chapelle Saint-Blanche, Rue Fragan, St. Cast
According to a Breton legend Saint-Gwen was carried off by pirates to England. She managed to escape by  climbing down the side of the ship, but not before one of the pirates with an axe had chopped off two of her fingers.  The myth may have been told to symbolise the removal of her relics to England. At Whitchurch,  interestingly, there are sculptures of both a ship and an axe both of which seem to recall this particular legend -the legend of Saint-Guen of Brittany and Dorset.
The ship and the axe at Whitchurch


  1. But a few miles away from Whitchurch Canonicorum, in Marshwood, is the Celtic Orthodox parish church of St Gwenn, and an alternative martyrology of St Gwenn Teirbron can be found on their website -

    Much of what is stated in this blogspot is correct or nearly so, but St Gwenn's husbands were in the opposite order - Fracan first, then Eneas Ludewig. St Gwenn's children (most of them becoming saints themselves) are also confused here. The Celtic Orthodox tradition is that, in later life, St Gwenn/St Wite/St Candida returned to the South West of England and settled as a holy hermit near Whitchurch where she was mercilessly slaughtered by Saxon pirates.

    Because of the number of saints she bore St Gwenn has been given the Orthodox title of saint-bearer.

    St Gwenn's intercessions have helped cure many sick and infirm people over the centuries and continue to do so to this day.

    Her Troparion runs:

    O holy martyr Gwenn,
    You praised God in your saint-bearing life,
    and in your death you were glorified.
    Miracle continue through your prayers;
    intercede for all who call upon you in faith
    to Christ our God,
    that He may make them whole.

  2. Thanks for your wonderful comment. I have to stand on the shoulders of giants when it come to the biographies of Celtic saints (it can be very complex). St Gwen(n) has a special place in my heart because I live near many of her (and her children's) sites in Brittany. The confusion of husband order goes back to Baring-Gould. I'll use your info in my book, if I may.

  3. I was just visiting Wales last week and was in her Church (now Anglican) in Talgarth where she was martyred!!! I can't believe you found her relics and they were not destroyed like all the others!!

    1. Your Saint Gwen is a different Saint Gwen but still awesome!

    2. What do mean, a different Saint Gwen? The Saint Gwendoline of Talgarth was the daughter of the chief/king Brychan Brycheiniog. She was murdered or killed by invaders (Saxon, Welsh, Irish, not sure)

  4. Hello. Are the relics of St. Gwenn still housed at this church in Dorset?

  5. I doubt it. But check with Fr Leonard Hollands:

  6. The relics are indeed still at Whitchurch - the only English parish church to hold the relics of its patron saint, I believe. The entire skeleton is in a lead lined sarcophagus which surmounts an intercessory shrine (second image above).