St Illtud's Galilee Chapel, St Illtud's Church, Llantwit Major

Saint Illtud

From “Lent with the Celtic Saints’ a lecture series given at St Illtud’s Church during Lent 2007

His Life
Among the leading figures among the early Christians of Wales was Illtud, founder of the monastery at Llanilltud Fawr (Llantwit Major).

The Llantwit monastery stressed learning as well as devotion and was the hub of the Christianity of the Celtic-speaking countries.

In the early seventh century a Breton monk was asked to write the life of St Samson, a major figure in the church in South Wales, Cornwall and Gaul in the sixth century.  The author took his commission very seriously visiting both Cornwall and Wales in the course of his research.

The ‘Life of St Samson’ gives us what is probably our most reliable window into the religious life of the ‘age of saints’ in Wales. That’s not to say that it’s always to be relied on in the details

And it has a particular importance for anyone interested in the historical St Illtud, because Samson was one of Illtud’s pupils.

The Life of St Samson tells us nothing about Illtud’s nationality or his early life. It does however describe the range of Illtud’s intellectual gifts. The author tells us that:

Illtud was of all the Britons the most accomplished in all the Scriptures, namely of the Old and New Testaments, and in those of philosophy of every kind, of geometry namely, and of rhetoric, grammar and arithmetic, and of all the theories of philosophy. And by birth he was a most wise magician, having knowledge of the future.’

This picture is fascinating as an outline of the type of education which Illtud’s pupils, who included not only Samson but also Gildas and Paul Aurelian, might have received.

Illtud is depicted as a scholar who is well-versed in the Bible and it’s study was central to the life of the community. Something that seems to be characteristic of fifth century British Christianity.

However the ‘Life of Samson’ also suggests that other elements had their place in the education that was provided here.   Philosophy and/or science, geometry, rhetoric, grammar and arithmetic are mentioned.  The Roman Empire may have crumbled and the Britons may have been being driven westward by their enemies and turned into the Welsh, but in the school presided over by llltud the intellectual heritage of Romano-British society survived and was valued and cherished.  Llantwit Major was a place of learning in a sea of barbarism, a surviving outpost of a civilization which many elsewhere on the British mainland must have assumed had vanished forever.

Illtud was not only attuned to the Christian Bible and the intellectual heritage of the Roman Empire, he was also rooted in the traditional culture of his own people.

Samson’s biographer remarks of ‘the famous master of the Britons’ that “by birth he was a most wise magician, having knowledge of the future.”

Patrick Thomas : ‘The reference to Illtud’s hereditary prophetic powers suggests that he was a man well versed in traditional Welsh culture.   It also suggests that he may have been the sort of person whom tribal rulers would have regarded with respect and possibly even a degree of fear.’

Seems not to have been a very ascetic community:

According to his biographer Samson at the age of fifteen he fasted strictly and look part in the long prayer vigils of the older monks, sometimes even trying ‘to maintain the appointed posture’ for two whole days.  This ‘appointed posture’ was presumably to stand with both arms stretched out as though he was being crucified.

Illtud, as a wise and humane spiritual director, swiftly put an end to this outburst of adolescent over enthusiasm, telling Samson that, “It is not meet, little son, that the tender body of a youth, up till now in the flowering stage, should be broken by too many and ill-regulated fasts.”

In the end Samson decided that Llantwit Major was not sufficiently austere.   We are told that he meditated deeply on the way in which ‘that monastery was regarded, through all the land as turbulent and indeed wasteful.’ He decided that he would leave the lush pastures of Glamorgan for the rather more demanding island monasticism of Caldey off the coast of Pembrokeshire.

Perhaps the most fascinating reference to llltud in the ‘Life of St Samson’ is a digression in which the author gives an account of Illtud’s death, based on what had been told him when he visited the community at Llantwit Major.   In his study of Illtud the Cornish scholar Canon G.H. Doble commented that this passage “is much more original and convincing than any of the other stories about the saint.” He went to say that, “It bears every mark of antiquity and may be a genuine glimpse into the Age of Saints in Wales.   We seem to see the figure of a real saint and prophet, and to feel the veneration inspired by his personal holiness in the monastery that he had founded, and remembered long after his death.”

His Cult

In the Celtic countries it is not the Lives of the saints that tell us most about the existence of the saints and the national organisation of religion, but the names of places.’

Llantwit Major was of course the chief centre of the cult of St Illtud and in many cases the reason why a place in Wales is dedicated to him is because it belonged to Llantwit.

Near Llantwit are two places the churches of which are dedicated to St Illtud – Llantrithyd and Llanhari. Newcastle, Bridgend is also an Illtud church.

Two other great centres of the cult of S. Illtud in South Wales – one in Brecon and the north of Glamorgan, the other in Gower.

Llantrisant according to many scholars these three saints were Illtud, Gwynno and Tyfodwg.

Merthyr Tudful, where besides the holy well of Saint Gwynno there is Ffynnon Illtud.

West of the town of Brecon is the church of Llanilltud (sometimes called Capel Illtud) on a mountain known as Mynydd Illtud. Near this church is a megalithic monument associated with St Illtud, where he was honoured until comparatively recently by the practice of ‘watching’ (vigil) before his festival. It is known as the Bedd Gwyl Illtud.

There is another cluster of Illtud dedications in Gower. He is the patron of Ilston which was formerly called Llanilltud Gwyr, and of Oxwich. In the parish of Llanrhidian on the north coast of Gower there was a holy well of S. Iltut.

Between Llantwit and Gower lies Llanilltud Fach, or Llantwit-juxta-Neath. Facing the north of Gower, on the coast of Carmarthenshire is Pen-bre, whose church is dedicated to St Illtud. In north Wales Illtud is the patron of Llanelltud, close to Dolgellau in Meirioneth.

It’s thought that there are no dedications to St Illtud in Cornwall.

In Brittany there are many churches dedicated to St Illtud and many signs of the liturgical cult of St Ildut but they are confined to the ancient dioceses of Leon, Treguier and Vannes and no dedications to the Saint are found outside these three diocese.

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