Early Welsh Saint
(Supposedly lived about 550 AD)
PATRON SAINT OF LLANDEILO
(image from 15th century glass, Plogonnec, Finistere, Brittany)
Biographies of the very early Christian saints read very much like modern novels, because in both cases the authors have effectively created a work of fiction. For most of the saints who are said to have flourished in the early centuries after Christ, not a single written source exists from the period when they were alive, and presumably hard at work converting the local pagans to the obscure middle-eastern cult that was then only a few centuries old. One day, however, this cult would become the largest religion on the planet and, with almost two billion worshippers as the 21st century opened, the largest religion the world has ever seen. What people think are facts about such people as St David or St Teilo, after whom Llandeilo is named, are just an accumulation of legends, miracles, tall tales, church propaganda, and even outright fabrications, the earliest of which usually appear several centuries after their deaths. In the case of St Teilo the first written versions of his life appeared in the twelfth century, more than enough time for a thick crust of legend and supposed miracles to have completely obscured whatever are the true facts of his life.
The massive Dictionary of National Biography (DNB) is the authoritative repository of the nation's great and good (including plenty of the not-so-good), from Roman times to the present. First appearing in the late nineteenth century the latest edition of 60 volumes was published in 2004 and its 50,000 double-column pages contain entries for 55,000 people deemed important enough to have contributed in some way, great or small, to British history. The author of the entry for St Teilo concurs with this vagueness about his existence and describes him as supposedly living around 550 AD. And the biographer's scepticism goes even further when he calls St Teilo a 'holy man and supposed bishop' who was the founder of the episcopal church of Llandeilo Fawr in Dyfed. Of course, someone must have been around in the sixth century, otherwise the spread of Christianity in Wales couldn't have taken place, and the existence of 25 churches dedicated to Teilo, some as far afield as Cornwall and Brittany, indicates that whoever he was, he was a very busy little missionary indeed. (There are even two villages in Brittany named Landelau and Landêliau.) Only the patron Saint of Wales, St David, has more churches dedicated to him and he, too, was a man for whom there are no contemporary records to attest to his existence, his earliest biography appearing as late as 1090.
Summary of Life
Teilo [St Teilo, Eliau, Eliud] (supposed floruit about 550), holy man and supposed bishop, was the founder of the episcopal church of Llandeilo Fawr in Dyfed. Like David and Padarn Teilo was one of the most important saints in south-west Wales. His feast day is celebrated on 9 February.
As the archbishopric of Llandaff expanded its influence and its boundaries in the 12th century, it appropriated the cult of St Teilo as its own. By the eleventh century the church and abbey at Llandeilo had been absorbed into the kingdom of Morgannwg (Glamorgan) which led to its eventual appropriation by Llandaff who even claimed (wrongly) that Teilo had been their second bishop.
Lives of other saints in the twelfth century contain passing references to Teilo but it was a work of propaganda of that century that provides us with the first accounts of his life and deeds, though qualifying words such as 'alleged' or 'supposed' must be attached to anything that comes down after six centuries of silence. The main surviving accounts of these alleged life and deeds are two related versions of the Vita sancti Teiliaui (the life of saint Teilo). In order to claim Teilo, a hagiography (biography of a saint) was composed as part of the ecclesiastical propaganda in the Book of Llandaff, compiled under Bishop Urban in the early twelfth century, and intended to provide the episcopal church with a demonstrable early history. At best the information supplied is of uncertain provenance and much of it appears to rework earlier lost material on St David, and seems intended to elevate the status of Llandaff into a much more important bishopric. Spin, one of the black arts of modern politics, has a long and illustrious history, it would seem.
Of the two versions of Teilo's life, the earlier states he was of noble birth while the second version states he was born near Penally in Pembrokeshire and makes him the uncle of another saint, St Euddogwy. This link to Euddogwy conveniently provides Teilo with a suitable connection to his successor as the archbishop of Llandaff and casts suspicion over the whole genealogical scheme. Both versions claim Teilo as a disciple of St Dyfrig and that he succeeded Dyfrig as archbishop of Llandaff. A life of St David, composed around 1090, has the additional claim that Teilo was a disciple of St David, so his credentials are being very carefully constructed.
To market Teilo's connection to St David, and build up his importance even more, the Vita sancti Teiliaui has an elaborate description of an alleged journey David, Teilo and Padarn made to Jerusalem and includes an account of Teilo's visit to Brittany (known as Armorica in Latin). But even the Catholic Encyclopaedia is sceptical about this visit to the Holy Land, commenting: "The story of his visit to Palestine with Saints David and Padarn (or Paternus) about 518, and their consecration there as bishops by John III, Patriarch of Jerusalem, is not now generally credited." The duration of Teilo's stay in Brittany, said to be "seven years and seven months", also looks suspiciously neat in its numbers, but the claim is at least plausible. North-western France was settled in the fifth and sixth centuries by Celts driven out of southern Britain by invading Germanic tribes, and churches dedicated to Teilo suggest missionary activity having taken place.
The entry for St Teilo in the Catholic Encyclopaedia summarises the life found in the two 12th century hagiographies, where the emphasis on Teilo's alleged aristocratic connections is clearly designed to add prestige to his status:
Archbishop of Llandaff, born at Eccluis Gunniau, near Tenby, Pembrokeshire; died at Llandilo Vawr, Carmarthenshire, probably in or before 560, an old man, but Ussher puts his death at 604. Sir John Rhys thinks that his true name was Eliau or Eilliau; in Latin it usually appears as Teliarus, in Breton as Teliau, and in French as Télo. He was cousin to St. David and born of a good family settled at Penally, near Tenby. His father, whose name was probably Usyllt, may possibly be identified with St. Issell, the patron of the parish church of Saundersfoot. His sister Anaumed, or Anauved, married King Budic of Armorica [ie, Brittany], and became the mother of St. Oudaceus, Teilo's successor.
But it is with Teilo's death at, or near, Llandeilo that early medieval 'biography' comes into its own. There were not one, but three claimants to the body of Teilo: the church at Penally (where he was born); Llandeilo (where he created his church and died); and Llandaff (who claimed him as their bishop), and they resolved these conflicting ownership claims in a most ingenious way. The life claims that Teilo's body was miraculously multiplied into three bodies, each of which was then buried at the competing churches, though the author of the life clearly regards the one preserved at Llandaff as the original!
Legends stick to saints like Velcro and another St Teilo legend concerns nearby Llandyfan church. A well existed for centuries at Llandyfan, which was known as Teilo's well. Pilgrims came from afar to drink of the spring-water which had a reputation as a medicine for curing paralysis and similar ailments, and which was drunk from a skull said by some accounts to be that of St Teilo. The skull has long since disappeared (the legend doesn't reveal which of the three Teilos it was) and the waters of the well have been diverted into a reservoir serving Llandeilo. A Victorian-built church stands on the site at Llandyfan today and the well, which was also used in the nineteenth century for outdoor baptisms, is still there next to the church.
In the 16 th century, when Catholicism was a persecuted religion in Britain, Teilo's well in Llandyfan was once the scene of a swoop by the authorities to apprehend Catholics visiting the spot:
At Llandyfan, a well known as Ffynnon Gwyddfaen was a popular source of pilgrimage. A large number of pilgrims were apprehended there in 1592 and brought before a local magistrate and squire - Morgan Jones of Tregib. A Bill of Complaint was brought against him in the Star Chamber because he refused not only to imprison them but also to examine them. Jones considered their action harmless, viewing them as "poor, sickly persons who had gone to the well to bathe, hoping by the help of God thereby to have their health". Two hundred or more people remained unapprehended at the well, indicating its importance as a source of pilgrimage, a continuity of tradition and the sympathy of a local dignitary towards Catholicism. (Catholic Llandeilo, A History of St David's Parish, Alan Randall, 1987).
Sunk into the wall in Church Street that surrounds Llandeilo church today is another well, once called St Teilo's baptistry, which was also visited as a healing well in earlier days.
The author of the much more recent biography of Teilo in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography , is quite blunt about the reliability of these early lives:
The information about the saint contained in this life has been coloured by the interests of Llandaff to such an extent that its reliability as a source for hagiographical (never mind historical) information about the original Teilo, patron of Llandeilo Fawr, is uncertain. (DNB, 2004)
There is, however, some valuable information about the cult of Teilo closer to his times and closer to home. Evidence for the existence of Teilo's cult and episcopal church at Llandeilo has been preserved in the margins of the so-called Lichfield Gospels , written in the eighth or ninth centuries when the manuscript was still housed at Llandeilo, where it is presumed to have been written. The marginal entries include grants of land to 'God and St Teilo' (that is, his church), as well as other documents witnessed by the 'bishop of Teilo.'
The Book of Llandaff , already mentioned, also contains a section entitled Braint Teilo (' the privilege of Teilo '), thought to have been written in the late tenth or early eleventh centuries. The privileges and immunities granted to the church of Teilo by the kings of Morgannwg (Glamorgan) are described in this text, demonstrating that by this time St Teilo's church was located in the kingdom of Morgannwg and explaining its eventual appropriated by Llandaff.
Further evidence that the appropriation of Teilo's cult by Llandaff was a late development can be found by the geographical distribution of the early churches dedicated to Teilo, for they are all in the region of Llandeilo and west Wales, not Llandaff and east Wales. These early dedications are concentrated in western Carmarthenshire (around Llandeilo) and western Pembrokeshire (in Penally where he was born, and Daugleddyf). This distribution closely follows that of St David's cult and could reflect the early association between these two important south-west Wales saints. As we've seen, his Llandaff life claims Teilo also visited Brittany and it is no surprise to find dedications to him there, especially in Cornouaille, including the church and parish of Landelau and the church of Landêliau in Plévin.
Teilo is not infrequently represented in Breton churches as riding on a white hart (stag), a reminder of yet another legend. When a local ruler in the Cornouaille district of Brittany offered him all the land he could encircle between sunset and sunrise, Teilo chose a stag as a swift mount to cover as much ground as possible in the time available. The choice of White Hart for the name of a Llandeilo hostelry may be a coincidence.
- The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004)
- Catholic Encyclopaedia, New York,1914.
- Llandeilo, Eirwen Jones, Carmarthen,1984.
- Hanes Plwyf Llandybie (History of the Parish of Llandybie), Gomer Roberts, 1939.
- Catholic Llandeilo, A History of St David's Parish, Alan Randall, 1987.
A brief note on early Welsh Christianity
The middle-eastern mystery cult of Christianity was first brought to Britain by the occupying Romans in the second century AD and was widespread by the fourth century. In 313 AD Christianity became one of the official cults permitted in the Roman Empire and by 391 AD it was the only permitted religion. In 410 AD the Romans withdrew their legions from Britain completely and had already left Wales even earlier. What we now call England was then subjected to a wave of invasions by Germanic people such as the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, the first of these tribes giving their name to the lands - Angleland, the name eventually evolving into England. The native Welsh-speaking inhabitants were gradually driven west to modern-day Wales and Cornwall but some were forced to leave British shores completely and settled in north-western France, eventually giving their name to the region - Brittany. It is therefore highly plausible that Teilo could have travelled to Brittany, as is claimed, to convert his fellow Welsh-speakers to Christianity, and the churches named after him clearly demonstrate a presence there. Whether the actual missionary work was undertaken by Teilo himself, or his later followers, is impossible to ascertain.
The barbarian tribes who settled and eventually became the English worshipped various Germanic deities, and when they drove out of the native Brythonic (British) tribes they also exterminated Christianity for a couple of centuries. It wasn't until later Celtic missionaries began to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxons, followed later still by missionaries sent from Rome, that Christianity became the unitary religion for the whole of the British Isles. This included Ireland, whose missionaries spread the religion to Scotland and then to England. Missionaries from Wales had first taken Christianity to Ireland after the Roman exodus from Britain (St Patrick was Welsh), for the Romans never occupied the emerald isle, having decided that Wales was the furthest west they cared to venture. The Scandinavian Vikings who next invaded and settled parts of these islands in the 9 th and 10 th centuries were also pagan, resulting in renewed missionary activity, but by the time of the Norman conquest in 1066 the British Isles were once again Christian in worship. The Welsh, in the meantime, had been happily practising this religion uninterrupted since the 2nd century AD.