Tuesday, 7 April 2015

How did Saint Noyal lose her head?

In Brittany there are a series of communes which carry the name Noyal: Noyal Pontivy (Morbihan); Noyal-sous-Bazouges, Noyal-Châtillon-sur-Seiche, La Noë-Blanche (Ille-et-Vilaine); and Noyal (Cotes d'Armor). 

Most French and Breton writers assume the name is connected with the Gaulish: nauda, ‘wetland’, 'marsh'  [Old French: noue]. Examples elsewhere in France include Nods (Franche-Comté), Noé (Midi-Pyrénées) and Les Noës (Aube). A further group derive the name from Gaulish: novio, 'new' and Gaulish: ialo, 'clearance, 'clearing'. However, there is a saint whose name fits nicely.
St. Newlyn East, Cornwall
All these Breton place names could recall a 6th century Cornish saint who appears in the chronicles as Noyal, Newlyna, Noualuen (Noual Blanche, 'the white'), Noiala and Noal. She also appears as the patron saint of St. Newlyn East in Cornwall.
St. Newlyn East Parish Church
She is portrayed as carrying her own head in many statues and paintings in churches and chapels. So who was Sainte Noyal and how did she lose her head?
Fountain and well at Noyal-Pontivy
Noyal was the daughter of a Cornish king who decided to embrace the religious life and become a hermit. She fled when her father insisted that she should get married. 
The places mentioned in St Noyal's life story

She crossed the sea to Brittany on a leaf (or a branch) with her faithful servant and sailed up the river Blavet to Bignan. 

Ste Noyal's life in stained glass at Noyal-Pontivy
She settled at Bignan but a local chieftain called Nizam (at Bézon) fell in love with her and wanted her to marry him.  When she refused, because she had already dedicated herself to God, Nizam beheaded her. She then miraculously picked up her head and carried it all the way to Noyal-Pontivy which was some thirty miles away. 
St Noyal's Chuch, Noyal-Pontivy
Sabine Baring-Gould suggests a more secular account which describes Noyal as a young princess fleeing King Constantine of Cornwall after her brother Gildas had written a damning indictment of his rule in his diatribe, De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae ('On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain'). 
 
She carried with her two royal princes who were potential claimants to the throne. In the chivalric code of the Dark Ages they had to be eliminated and Constantine spies ensured that they were. Either way, saint or princess, Noyal lost her head.

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