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Vita Sancti Iltuti (Life of Saint Illtud)

Church of Saint Illtud

Here begins the Life of Illtud, Abbot.

The Beginnings of Illtud and his Kinship to Arthur

According to Vita Sancti Iltuti, written anonymously in the late Eleventh Century AD (or c 1140, or in the 1190s), Illtud was the son of “Bicanus”, a “British prince” (§1 – section one of this Vita), and a “cousin” of “King Arthur”, serving him as a young soldier (as stated in the Arthur W Wade-Evans’ “The Life of Saint Illtud” in Vitae Sanctorum Britanniae et Genealogiae, contained within §2 of Wade-Evans’ translation of Vita Sancti Iltuti, as with all subsequent quotes taken from his translation).  Illtud’s mother was “Rieingulid”, a princess and “daughter of Anblaud”, “king of” Lesser “Britannia” (§1).  This particular Arthur, considering the mention of Illtud’s mother as the daughter of “Anblaud”, could be the semi-legendary King Arthur (Arthyr) of Dumnonia (grandson of Amlawd Gwledig – being the same personage as Anblaud).  This King Arthyr was born c AD 474, flourished c 489 to c 525, and died c AD 525.   In the Arthurian Welsh Triads (and echoed by Alban Butler in Butler’s Lives of the Saints – Volume 11), Illtud the Knight is one of the triumvirate (the others were Cadoc and Peredur) to whom King Arthur gave custody of the Holy Grail.  On this basis, some scholars, including Father Robert F McNamara, have tried to identify the Knight Illtud with Sir Galahad.

Illtud’s Military Career with Kings Arthur and Poulentus

Saint Illtud InscriptionIn Welsh, Illtud’s name appears variously as Illtyd, Eltutas, Illtud Farchog, and Illtud the Knight; also as Ildut in Breton.  In Latin, he is Hildutus and Iltutus.  According to Vita Sancti Iltuti, Illtud’s parents intended him for service in the church and had him educated in literature for this purpose.  Even so, he forsook his devout upbringing, selecting rather to follow a military career.  In §2 of this Vita, “His parents vowed to dedicate him to literature, and they dedicate him so vowed to be instructed in the seven arts.”  After Illtud learned all that was taught to him, he set it aside.  He then applied himself to military training, yet he did not forget what he had already learned.  Illtud married Trynihid/Trinihid (mentioned twice in this Vita): when Illtud travelled to King Poulentus, as quoted from §2 “… accompanied by his … wife, Trynihid” and in §16 “The wife formerly of … Illtud, named Trinihid, …”.  Illtud became a soldier in western Britain, in service first to a King Arthur, and then to the King Poulentus (§2 “Journeying he came to Poulentus [Poulentus being a corruption of Paulinus – the Latin for King Pawl ap Glywys Cernyw of Penychen, born c AD 475, dying c 540], king of the Glamorgan [Gulat Morcantia] folk, … The king, perceiving that he [Illtud] was a court soldier and honourable retained him with much affection, loving him before all of his household and rewarding him bounteously.”  With great honour, Illtud remained in service to King Poulentus (Pawl ap Glywys Cernyw of Penychen); so that he could be chosen to preside over the royal household.  This is why Illtud is sometimes referred to as a Knight.

Illtud’s Admonishment by an Angel

Section 4 (§4) of Vita Sancti Iltuti tells of the arrival of an angel who admonishes Illtud in many ways, a few of which are quoted here: “Thou wast formerly a very celebrated soldier, rewarded by many kings.  But now I bid thee to serve the King of kings and no more to love transitory things. … Therefore seek again what thou hast left, lest thou be taken, caught by the plots of an unseen foe. … Love of wife also possesses thee … For this cause have I come from the supreme Creator, … to announce such things with good will. … let there be no delay in fulfilling them.”

The Building of Cor Tewdws and the Teaching of its Students

In Vita Sancti Iltuti’s §5, Illtud arrives to lead the religious life in the Hodnant valley, and live in conformity with the angelic exhortation. In §6, Illtud begins to dwell in said valley.  Section seven (§7) tells of Illtud being reminded of the penance imposed on him, of the reception of the clerical habit, his manner of watching and fasting, and the first building of a church.  The church in question is the one Saint Illtud founded, for which he is venerated.  He became abbot and teacher of its divinity school known as Cor Tewdws, located in Llanilltud Fawr (Llantwit Major) in Glamorgan, Wales.  Illtud is said to have founded this monastery and college in the 6th Century AD, and the school is believed to be Britain’s earliest centre of learning.  According to F M Rudge, at its height, the college had over 1000 pupils and supposedly schooled many of the great saints of the age, including Saint David (Dewi) of Wales, Gildas (the Historian), and Sampson of Dol.  Ebenezer Josiah Newell, Samuel Carter Hall, and Peter N Williams add seven sons of British princes, and scholars such as Saint Patrick, Paul Aurelian, and Taliesin to Illtud’s list of pupils.  What is certain is that Illtud helped pioneer the monastic life of Wales by founding a monastery in Llanilltud Fawr.  It became the first major Welsh religious school and was a hub of “Celtic” Christianity in Post-Roman Britain.

Illtud’s Establishment of Agriculture and the Size of his Household

Section eleven of Vita Sancti Iltuti, tells that Illtud the Abbot peacefully tilled, sowed, reaped, and lived “by his own labour”. He appointed labourers and cultivators of husbandry throughout his fields. They increased seed and duly performed labours “with great profit”.  Illtud fed the poor, clothed the naked, and visited the sick and those imprisoned.  He had “a hundred in his household”, and as many workmen, and clerics.  Illtud saw “a hundred poor persons daily”.  He never refused hospitality to those who required it.  Illtud gave bountifully “whatever was put in his hands, not entrusting it to any guardians to be kept”.  Illtud was humble, kind, pure, and undefiled.  Many scholars were attracted to his teachings.  As noted earlier, Saint David (Dewi) of Wales, Gildas (the Historian), and Sampson of Dol were counted among them.

Two Illtuds?

According to Father McNamara, Saint Illtud was popular among the very ancient “Celts”, but there are few dependable sources about Illtud’s life story.  The earliest mention of Illtud is in Vita Sancti Sampsonis (Life of Saint Sampson), written in Dol, Brittany, c AD 600.  According to this account, Illtud was the disciple of Bishop Germanus of Auxerre (c 378 to c 448) in north-central France.  This would reckon Illtud’s birth as occurring in the early 5th Century (before c AD 448).  According to Vita Sampsonis, Illtud was the most accomplished of all the Britons and was well versed in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, as well as arithmetic, grammar, rhetoric, and geometry.  He was also “gifted with the power of foretelling future events”, as claimed by Emrys George Bowen; who goes on to say that it appears that Illtud was a learned Briton living not long after Rome’s departure from Britain.  There are two “Illtuds”: one born before AD 448 (most likely dying before the end of the 400s), and another born late in the 5th Century (dying in the 6th Century AD after possibly founding Cor Tewdws).  One must also keep in mind that, according to John Parker, John Stowe’s 1603 list of the bishops of London includes an “Iltuta”.  This Iltuta is sometimes conflated with Illtud.  With these dates in mind, it seems likely that it was the later Illtud the Knight who took a wife and then became a soldier in the service of King Arthyr of Dumnonia (c AD 474 to c 525).

The Arrival of the Divine Bell

A messenger of Gildas the historian, carrying a brazen bell made by the same Gildas, was travelling to see Saint Dewi (David), the bishop, in memory of past fellowship.  As he passed by Illtud’s cave, the bell sounded on its own. Saint Illtud came up to the person who was carrying it and swung it three times, being pleased with its very sweet sound.  Illtud asked the man where he was going with this bell.  He answered, saying, “I go and am carrying this bell to Saint Dewi at the bidding of the renowned Gildas.”  He then went on his way and presented the bishop with the gift as mentioned.  Being presented with the bell, he shook it.  But the bell made no sound.  The bishop, wondering at that marvel, asked the messenger whether it had been moved or tested by anyone along the way.  He told the bishop what had happened, and the bishop believed it to be true, saying, “I know that our master, Illtud, wished to possess it for the sweetness of its sound, but he was unwilling to ask for it, hearing that it was to be sent to me from Gildas.  God is unwilling that I should have this.  Return without delay to the cave, and restore to saint Illtud the thing meant for him which he desired.”  The messenger returned to Illtud and executed the bishop’s order.  Afterward, the messenger mentioned in the monastery what he had seen and what had happened to him.  The monks joyfully went to find Illtud.  They rejoiced in the discovery of their abbot, and he too rejoiced, knowing that he could not be found nor have returned “except by the divine will”(§19).  All their compatriots assembled, giving thanks for the return of their master.

The Return of the Stolen Divine Bell

Section 25 of Vita Sancti Iltuti tells of Illtyd’s bell being recovered from the armies of King Edgar the Peaceful and of Illtyd’s protecting his people against the people of yr Hen Ogledd (the Old North) in the time of William the Conqueror.  “Edgar, king of the English, moved by raging fury, … violating the territories of the saints and their very churches, and leaving not a homestead inviolate throughout the whole of that country. … in this invasion the bell of saint Illtud was taken away from his church, and carried off by a certain looter to English soil. … In the meantime, [a] … horse, carrying the bell, went forward towards the west in the presence of all who there remained and none compelling him, whilst the whole equestrian herd followed the sweet melodiousness of the bell, which was wonderful and admirable to one who heard and saw so great a miracle. … By such means, for the love of Illtud, God sent back the stolen bell, and the whole of the plunder to the most sacred church of the same.” (§25)

Veneration of Saint Illtud only since the Eleventh (11th) Century?

Church of Saint IlltudThere is no formal evidence for a cult of Illtyd (Illtud) surviving from before the 11th Century AD.  However, in “Celtic” countries it is the names of places that tell most about the existence and veneration of the saints during the oldest times.  Samuel Lewis says that the town of Llanilltud Fawr (Llantwit Major in English) where Illtud’s college is located is of course named for him, and was the chief centre of the cult of Saint Illtud.  In Glamorgan, many churches are dedicated to him, first and foremost Saint Illtyd’s Church, Llantwit Major, which stands on what is believed to have been the site of the monastery.  Many other places are dedicated to him because they belonged to the Llantwit monastery.  Near Llantwit are the villages of Llantrithyd, Llantwit Fardre, and Llantrisant.   At Newcastle and Bridgend, churches are dedicated to Saint Illtud.  Brecknockshire (north of Glamorgan and the Gower area) were two more centres of Illtud’s cult.  East of Brecon, Llanhamlach church is dedicated to him.  This church lies south of a Megalithic grave called Ty Illtud, which was a site of mediæval pilgrimage.  The inside walls of the grave feature incised crosses.

Numerous Dedications to the Saint in Wales and Brittany

This ancient grave is thought to have been a hideaway for Saint Illtud, as was the similar megalithic monument Roc’h Ildut near Coadut (Coat Ildut/Coed Illtud/ Illtud’s Wood) in Brittany.  However, it was destroyed in the 19th Century.  Llantrisant’s three saints were Illtud, Gwyddno, and Tyfodwg.  In Merthyr Tudful there are holy wells of Gwyddno and Illtud.  West of Brecon, the church of Llanilltud is on the mountain Mynydd Illtud.  Dedications of holy places to Illtud abound in and around Gower.  They include Ilston (formerly Llanilltud Gwyr, Oxwich), Saint Iltut’s holy well in Llanrhidian, and Pen-bre, Carmarthenshire.  A 13th-Century AD church on Caldey Island, Pembrokeshire is dedicated to the saint.  In Northern Wales (near Dolgellau), there is a Llanelltyd.  There are no dedications to Saint Illtud in Cornwall, but many exist in Brittany (approximately twenty-four if other place-names like Aberildut are included) though they are largely restricted to the ancient dioceses of León, Tréguier, and Vannes, with small outliers in the region of Saint-Malo, originally in the diocese of his pupil Sampson.

Illtud’s Death and Feast Days’ Commemorations

According to the Martyrologium Romanum and the National Calendar for Wales, Saint Illtud’s feast day and commemoration are celebrated on 6 November, yet, as Ildut, at Locildut in Brittany, his feast day is held on the last Sunday of July.  According to legend and folklore, Illtud was buried west of Brecon, in the church of Llanilltud (which was torn down in the late 20th Century), on Mynydd Illtud.  Near this church, there is the megalithic monument Bedd Gwyl Illtyd, or the “Grave of Saint Illtud’s Eve”.  Until relatively recently, Illtud was honoured by the practise of ‘watching’ (keeping vigil) at Bedd Gwyl Illtyd before beginning his festival celebration.

Conclusion

Even though Illtud appears to be a composite of two persons, it makes sense in terms of reconciling Illtud the Knight and Saint Illtud.  The earlier Illtud was the disciple of Bishop Germanus of Auxerre (c 378 to c 448) in north-central France.  This Illtud would have been born before AD 448 (most likely dying before the end of the 400s), and the later Illtud being born late in the 5th Century (dying in the 6th Century AD after possibly founding Cor Tewdws).  Let us not forget that John Stowe’s 1603 list of the bishops of London includes an “Iltuta” who is sometimes conflated with Saint Illtud.  It seems most likely that it was the later Illtud the Knight who took a wife and then became a soldier in the service of King Arthyr of Dumnonia (c AD 474 to c 525).  The Welsh Triads and Butler’s Lives of the Saints names Illtud the Knight as one of the triumvirate (the others were named Cadoc and Peredur) to whom King Arthur gave custody of the Holy Grail.  On this basis, some scholars have tried to identify the Knight Illtud with Sir Galahad.  So, we end up with an early Illtud the Saint, and a later Illtud the Knight (who is connected to the Grail as a possible “Galahad”), who may or may not have founded Cor Tewdws.  The founding of Cor Tewdws could have been an event in the life of the earlier Illtud (the Saint).  All in all, we have two Illtuds and the possible identity of the “Arthur” who interacted with Illtud the Knight.  Further study is necessary to extract additional information that can more precisely place the entire Vita Sancti Iltuti within a wider chronology.