|St Teilo - stained glass in|
Holy Trinity church, Abergavenny
The period called the Age of Saints lasted from about the mid-fifth until the late eighth century. It was a particularly productive -- and yet perilous -- time for the Catholic Church in Britain. Close to annihilation, thanks to the pagan invasions of the Anglo-Saxons after the fall of Rome (410 AD), the British Church -- present in these islands since at least the second century -- was desperate for courageous and holy leaders. It seems that God in His mercy kept the Church in the old province of Britannia in mind, for many holy men and women were sent to revitalise it – saving the old British (now generally called ‘Welsh’) culture and civilisation in the process.
St Teilo, like so many other early British saints, was born to an ancient noble British family. From modern-day Penally in Pembrokeshire, he was the grandson of a king and the son of a priestly prince. Another ancient British saint born of royal blood is Seiriol, whose feast day was kept last week (1 February). These men, along with many others, managed to do what that rich young man we encounter in the gospels was sadly unable to do – give away their possessions and renounce a privileged life in order to follow the Lord into holy poverty and everlasting joy.
At the time of Teilo’s birth, probably around 490 AD, conflict, invasion, and genocide had already ravaged Britain -- the old Roman province of Britannia -- for many years. According to the account of men such as St Gildas, the Anglo-Saxon invaders had slaughtered the Britons who then lived in what is now called England. They had also reintroduced a particularly violent form of paganism to these shores, which led to the near destruction of the Catholic Church in the eastern and southern parts of the old province.
By the beginning of the fifth century, then, the ancient Christians of Britain, and their Church, had been virtually obliterated. Many Britons had fled westwards, or escaped to the European continent. Christianity -- what was left of it -- survived in a much simpler form than that which had been the norm under Roman rule. The followers of Christ retreated to the caves, marshes, and mountains of West Britain and the old North – modern day Wales, Strathclyde, Cumbria, Cornwall, Brittany (were many Britons had fled, seeking refuge), etc. Those who had been kept alive by the Saxons, usually as slaves, either had to convert to paganism or keep their faith a secret.
It was not an easy time to be a Christian in Britain during the fifth and sixth centuries. Also, although the British Church remained extraordinarily devoted to Rome and attached to continental Christendom, many of its members were, practically speaking, left to their own devices – a situation that led to ecclesiastical eccentricity and a time of particular isolation.
Just as in today’s secular Britain, many of the country’s Christians often decided to just ‘join the crowd’ rather than stand out and be persecuted for their faith. Others felt great despair, and thought, as the Israelites had done centuries before, that God had abandoned them -- in turn, they often abandoned Him. Thankfully, some managed to hold on and fight back – proclaiming the Good News of Christ’s victory over sin and death, even if to do so was suddenly unpopular. St Teilo was one of those men who refused to let his faith as well as the faith of his people die. As a result, he went on to save a multitude of souls, whilst confirming the faltering faith of so many more.
St Teilo’s teacher was St Paulinus of Whitland, who also happened to be St David of Wales’ tutor – both men were first cousins. Along with two others, David and Teilo founded the great monastery of Mynyw (Menevia) – now called St David’s (Cathedral). It was no easy task – for not only were these Britons facing death at the hands of Saxon pagans in the east, but also from Irish ones who had settled along the Welsh coast. Fortunately, God took care of the western pirates who had invaded Pembrokeshire – thus allowing St David the space and peace needed to found his monastic settlement.
After years of prayer, penance, and study, David and Teilo, as well as another monk, called Padarn, travelled to Jerusalem on pilgrimage. It was during this expedition, in around 520 AD, that, according to legend, all three were ordained to the episcopacy, during a detour to Rome, by Pope St Hormisdas. (Another version of events, though, tells us that it was John III, Patriarch of Jerusalem, who consecrated them).
At the time, many of the bishops of the ancient British Church travelled to Rome to be ordained – such was their desire to remain in close communion with the See of St Peter. Sometimes it was also necessary to seek consecration at the hands of the pope or some other patriarch as it was practically impossible to create bishops within the old province of Britannia, mainly due to the decimation of the British Church as a result of the various pagan invasions.
On his return home, Teilo was appointed Bishop of Glywysing and Gwent – which later became the Diocese of Llandaff (Teilo is also reputed to have founded the Cathedral there). It was also around this time that he saint founded his great monastery at Llandeilo Fawr, which became the centre for his new episcopal see. This monastery would remain for centuries one of the great seats of learning in Britain – well before the subduing of the Saxon pagans and their eventual conversion to Christianity in the late sixth and early seventh centuries. Many other important British monastic centres of learning were founded during the Age of Saints – including Tyddewi (Menevia, by St David), Llanilltud Fawr (Llantwit Major, by St Illtud), and Llancarfan (by St Cadog).
The monks of Teilo’s monastery provided both the local and universal Church with great minds and holy men, and the secular world with remarkable scholarship and learning. In fact, one of its great treasures is the disputed eighth century Llandeilo Fawr Gospels, which can now be found in Lichfield Cathedral, where the book is referred to as the St Chad’s Gospel. This beautifully illumined manuscript is written both in Latin and Welsh. It is probably one of the British Isles’ least known, yet most impressive, treasure.
Teilo didn’t stay in his new diocese and abbey for long. He was soon overcome with a strong desire to preach the gospel among his fellow Britons, living outside what we now call South Wales. He also had to leave Llandeilo for a while, as the whole of Wales – including the countryside around his abbey – was consumed by yellow fever in the mid-540s. As a result, in 549 AD the saint travelled with his monks to Cornwall and Brittany – often staying en route as the guests of local kings, chieftains, and other noblemen.
When Teilo and his companions arrived in Dol, Brittany, the local archbishop, a Briton called Samson (also a saint), warmly welcomed them. He asked them to minister to the local population. As a result, St Teilo founded many churches around that part of the world and his ministry there lasted over seven years. During his time in Brittany, it is also said that St Teilo planted numerous fruit trees in and around his various settlements – which explains why he is the patron saint of orchards and fruit trees.
Towards the end of his mission to the Bretons, Teilo longed for his old monastery and moved back to Wales with most of his monks in about 557 AD. On the way home to Llandeilo Fawr, King Geraint (Gerron, or Gerontius) of Dumnonia (modern-day Devon and Somerset) invited Teilo and his monks to stay with him. Geraint was at the point of death at the time, and was therefore able to receive viaticum and the last rites at Teilo’s hands. This king will be familiar to those who may have read the great epic poem of Aneurin, Y Gododdin – he is immortalised in it as Gereint rac Dehau (Gerontius for the South), the one who fought the Saxons in Catreath (known as Catterick in English).
St Teilo remained in Llandeilo for the rest of his life and was known even before his death as one of the holiest men in Wales. During much of his life, he had led the Church in most of what is modern-day South Wales with great skill. As was the way in those days, the saint consecrated one of his nephews as archbishop of St David’s, following the death of St David of Wales. Another relation of his succeeded him to Llandaff.
After many years of living the “solitary life gloriously” (as his Life, Vita sancti Teiliaui, puts it) the great Saint died around 566 AD. He was buried in his monastery church, though medieval accounts claim that his body multiplied so as to be found in various locations all at once! It is far more likely, though, that when Llandaff Cathedral became the seat of Teilo’s old diocese, the saint’s body was translated there. His body was placed near the high altar, whilst his skull was kept in the Cathedral’s south chapel. Llandaff Cathedral also contains a beautiful image of Teilo and Samson planting an orchard.
There are many ancient churches dedicated to St Teilo in Wales, Cornwall, and Brittany, as well as parts of France. He is always depicted as a bishop or abbot, usually in an orchard and / or standing next to, or sitting on, a stag. This creature reminds us of an incident from Teilo’s life when two stags helped the saint move some wood (which he was chopping to fuel the monastery’s communal fire). The animals had been sent by God to help Teilo in his work, so that he could hasten back to his prayers!
Sant Teilo, gweddia drosom ni!