Life of St Collen

St. Collen and Gwyn ap Nudd

From Guest’s Mabinogion:
A very curious legend, in which Gwyn ap Nudd bears a conspicuous part, is contained in the Life of St. Collen (Buchedd Cohen), which is printed in a collection of Welsh remains, entitled the Greal. This Saint was the son of Gwynawc, ab Caledawc, ab Cawrdav, ab Caradawc Vreichvras, and having distinguished himself greatly in foreign countries by his zeal and piety, he returned to Britain and became Abbot of Glastonbury; after a time Collen desired to lead a life of greater austerity than his high office at Glastonbury permitted; so he departed thence, and went forth to preach to the people. The impiety, however, which he met with distressed him so much, that at length he withdrew to a mountain, “where he made himself a cell under the shelter of a rock, in a remote and secluded spot.

[The translation begins here:]
“And as he was one day in his cell, he heard two men conversing about Gwyn ab Nudd, and saying that he was king of Annwn and of the Fairies. And Collen put his head out of his cell, and said to them, ‘Hold your tongues quickly, those are but Devils.’–‘Hold thou thy tongue,’ said they, ‘thou shalt receive a reproof from him.’ And Collen shut his cell as before.

“And soon after, he heard a knocking at the door of his cell, and some one inquired if he were within. Then said Collen, ‘I am; who is it that asks?’ ‘It is I, a messenger from Gwyn ab Nudd, the king of Annwn, to command thee to come and speak with him on the top of the hill at noon.’

“But Collen did not go. And the next day behold the same messenger came, ordering Collen to go and speak with the king on the top of the hill at noon.

“But Collen did not go. And the third day behold the same messenger came, ordering Collen to go and speak with the king on the top of the hill at noon. ‘And if thou dost not go, Collen, thou wilt be the worst for it.’

“Then Collen, being afraid, arose, and prepared some holy water, and put it in a flask at his side, and went to the top of the hill. And when he came there, he saw the fairest castle he had ever beheld, and around it the best appointed troops, and numbers of minstrels, and every kind of music of voice and string, and steeds with youths upon them the comeliest in the world, and maidens of elegant aspect, sprightly, light of foot, of graceful apparel, and in the bloom of youth and every magnificence becoming the court of a puissant sovereign. And he beheld a courteous man on the top of the castle, who bade him enter, saying that the king was waiting for him to come to meat. And Collen went into the castle, and when he came there, the king was sitting in a golden chair. And he welcomed Collen honourably and desired him to eat, assuring him that, besides what he saw, he should have the most luxurious of every dainty and delicacy that the mind could desire, and should be supplied with every drink and liquor that his heart could wish; and that there should be in readiness for him every luxury of courtesy and service, of banquet and of honourable entertainment, of rank and of presents: and every respect and welcome due to a man of his wisdom.

‘I will not eat the leaves of the trees,’ said Collen. ‘Didst thou ever see men of better equipment than those in red and blue?’ asked the king.

“‘Their equipment is good enough,’ said Collen, ‘for such equipment as it is.’

“‘What kind of equipment is that?’ said the king.

“Then said Collen, ‘The red on the one part signifies burning, and the blue on the other signifies coldness.’ And with that Collen drew out his flask, and threw the holy water on their heads, whereupon they vanished from his sight, so that there was neither castle, nor troops, nor men, nor maidens, nor music, nor song, nor steeds, nor youths, nor banquet, nor the appearance of any thing whatever, but the green hillocks.”

Life of S. Collen from ‘The lives of British Saints’

The following is a chapter from The lives of British Saints Vol2 by A. Baring -Gould and John Fisher.

There is a Life of S. Collen in Welsh, but no copies of it appear to exist of earlier date than the sixteenth century.

According to this Life he was the son of Gwynog ab Caledog (al. Cydebog) ab Cawrdaf ab Caradog Freichfras, and his mother was Ethni (al. Eithinen) Wyddeles, daughter of Matholwch, an Irish lord. The Welsh genealogies differ as to his pedigree. Some agree with the Life ; others make him son of Pedrwn ab Coleddog ab Gwyn. They give his mother as Ethni or Ethinen Wyddeles, a name not uncommon as Ethne or Eithne in Irish. The Life states that she was Matholwch’s daughter by one of his wife’s handmaids, and was sent to Britain to be reared.

Ethni, the night she conceived, dreamt that a dove flew to her, took her heart out of her bosom, and bore it up to heaven, whence the bird returned, and restoring it to its place, with sweet odours, disappeared.
Collen, when a youth, was sent to France to study at Orleans, where he remained for over eight years, during the time, it is said, of Julian the Apostate, but this is an anachronism, as Collen lived in the seventh and not the fourth century.

To bring the incessant wars that were then being waged between the Pagans and Christians to a speedy termination, a paynim named Bras (possibly a Saracen) challenged to fight in single combat any one that the Christians might choose to pit against him, stipulating that the losing side should henceforth adopt the religion of the conqueror. The Pope was greatly perplexed, for he could not find any Christian brave enough to accept the challenge. At last he was divinely directed to go to Porth Hantwn, and the first person he met there should be his choice. He traversed land and sea until he reached that port, and the first person he met was Collen, who cheerfully accepted the challenge.

The champions met. In the first encounter Collen’s hand was slightly wounded. Bras counselled him to give in, adding that he would cure the wound for him by the application of a precious ointment that he had in his basinet, and at the same time magnanimously handed him the ointment box. Cohen applied some of the ointment to the wound and it was healed forthwith, but instead of returning the box to Bras, he threw it into the river, so that neither should get any further benefit from it. Collen next felled his antagonist, who, imploring him not to kill him, promised to embrace the Christian religion. The Pope baptized him there and then, and ” the whole nation of the Greeks believed, and they were all baptized.”

As a souvenir of this signal victory, the Pope presented Collen with a ” relic, none other than the lily that blossomed before the pagans, when one of them said that it was no truer that a son was born to the Virgin, than that the withered lily in yonder pot should ever bear fair flowers. Then that lily blossomed. That lily the Pope gave to Collen, who brought it into this Island, and it is said to be still at Worcester.”

Collen, landing in Cornwall, came to Glastonbury Abbey, where he took the religious habit, and in three months’ time was chosen abbot. Then, with the convent’s leave, ” he took upon him a life that was heavier and harder than being abbot,” which consisted in preaching and upholding the Catholic Faith. This he daily pursued for the space of three years, and then returned to the abbey, where he remained five years. ” Then he became angry with the men of the land for their wrong-doing, and cursed them.” His choleric temper now drove him to Glastonbury Tor, and ” there he made him-self a cell under a rock in a secret place out of the way.” One day, whilst in his cell, he overheard two men talking about Gwyn ab Nudd, and remarking that he was king of Annwn (the Underworld) and the Fairies. This was too much for Collen. He put out his head and bade them stop their foolish talk immediately ; these were none other than demons. They replied that he would have to answer for such words as those. He then drew in his head. Pre-sently he heard knocking at his door, and got for reply, I am here, the messenger of Gwyn ab Nudd, King of Annwn, to bid thee come by mid-day to-morrow to speak with him on the top of the hill.” Collen declined to go. The same messenger—. in raiment the one half red and the other half blue “—came again the next day, and the day after, when at last, losing patience, he said, ” If that dost not come, Collen, it will be the worse for thee.” The menace disconcerted him, and, taking with him some holy water he had prepared, he pro-ceeded up the hill. ”

On reaching the top, he saw the fairest castle that he had ever beheld, manned by the best-appointed troops ; and there were numbers of musicians with every manner of song, vocal and instrumental ; steeds with youths riding them, the handsomest in the world ; maidens of noble mien, sprightly, light-footed, gay-apparelled, and in the bloom of youth ; and every magnificence becoming the court of a sumptuous king. He beheld a courteous man on the rampart, who bade him enter, saying that the king was waiting for him to come to dine. Collen entered the castle, and found the king sitting in a chair of gold. He welcomed Collen with due honour, and bade him seat himself at the table, adding that, besides that he saw thereon before him, he should have the rarest of all dainties and luxuries his mind could desire, and should be supplied with every liquor and sweet drink his heart could wish; and that there were in readiness for him every luxury of courtesy and service, of banquet and honourable entertainment, of rank and gifts, and of every respect and welcome due to a man of his wisdom. I will not,’ said Collen, ‘ eat the tree-leaves.’ Hast that ever seen men better apparelled than these in red and blue? ‘ asked the king. Their apparel is good enough,’ said Collen, ‘ of the kind it is.” What kind is that ? ‘ inquired the king. Then answered Collen : The red on the one side betokens burning, and the blue on the other betokens cold’ ; and with that he drew out his sprinkler (siobo), and dashed the holy water over them, whereupon they vanished out of his sight, so that there was neither castle, nor troops, nor men, nor maidens, nor music, nor song, nor steeds, nor youths, nor banquet, nor the appearance of anything whatsoever but the green sumps.”

That night, on his return to his cell, Collen prayed God that he might have a place to dwell in for the rest of his life, and he was bidden to go a journey next day until he met a horse, which he was to mount ; and as much ground as he could compass that day should he “his sanctuary until Doomsday.” He met the horse at a place called Rhysfa Mas Cadfarch; and “he rode it round his parish, and in the centre of the sanctuary made his cell,” in which he spent the remainder of his days, and within it was laid to his rest.

This strange legend, which makes Collen act the part of S. Michael the Archangel—the common champion of Christianity against the Powers of Darkness in Celtic as in other lands—is still current, in a slightly altered form, in the Vale of Llangollen. The older and fuller version printed is to the following effect. Long ages ago there dwelt et Bwlch Rhiwfelen, an elevation commanding an extensive view of the country round, a giantess popularly called Cawr y Bwlch (the Giantess of the Pass), who had a penchant for killing and devouring every human being: that attempted to go through the pass. The good mart S. Caen, who lived hard by, determined to rid the district of the pest. So one day, having specially whetted his sword, he proceeded up the Bwlch. The giantess duly made her appearance, and he asked her who she was, and what was she doing there. She replied, ” It is I myself killing myself ” (” Myfi fy bun yn fy lledd fy hun.”) They both engaged in combat, and Collen knocked off her right arm with his sword. She quickly picked up the bleeding dis-membered arm and began to strike the Saint with it, but he next cut off her other arm. Then she cried aloud on Arthur the Giant to come to her aid out of his stronghold in the Eglwyseg Rocks. But Collen had the mastery over her, and slew her, and washed himself of her blood-stains in a well near at hand (on the mountain), which is known to this day as Ffynnon Gollen.2 S. Collen is the patron of Llangollen,2 Denbighshire, an extensive parish comprising originally nineteen or twenty-one townships.

The Rural Dean’s Report of 1749 says of the church, ” There is a building adjoining the tower, westward, called the Old Church,’ in which the tutelar saint Collen h..” This has since disappeared, Es also the recumbent figure of an ecclesiastic, popularly supposed to represent S. Collen. Norden, in 162o, mentions a field called ” Capel Collen ” in the township of Dinhinlle Isaf in the parish of Ruabon, Denbighshire. Edward Lhuyd (died 1709) wrote of it : ” Capel Collett is the name of a field, wherein is a cross, in the parish of Ruabon. They keep their wake on S. Collen’s Day, the third week of summer.” The ” Capel Collen ” probably represented the ” Ecc’a Sancti Colyem ” (in Maelor) of the Norwich Taxatio, 1254. There is a farm named C.tell Collen, near an ancient camp called Y Gaer, in the parish of Llanfihangel Helygen, Radnorshire. Trallwm Gollen is one of the townships of the parish of Welshpool, Montgomeryshire. A brook called Collen runs into the Towy at Llanegwad, Carmarthenshire, and .other into the Trowi, near Llanarth Hall, Cardiganshire. He is probably the patron of S. Golan, Cornwall, called M the Register of Bishop Bronescombe ” Ecclesia de Sancto Choul.o,” also ” Sancti Culani,” 1272 and 1276. In the Taxatio of 1291, “Ecclesia. Sancti Colani.” So also in the Register of Bishop Grandisson, 1341 and 1355, and Bishop Stafford, 14u6 and 1412. In Brittany is a Langolen, where is his statue in the church, and the Pardon is held on the second Sunday in August. Langplen is near Brice in Finistare. The statue represents him as an anchorite, with head and 55 bare, and a staff in his hand. S. Collen’s festival is the 21st of May, which occurs on that day in all the Welsh Calendars except one, that M the Prymer of 1546, where it is entered on the 22nd. no doubt by mistake. Browne Willis,’ followed by Re.,2 gives it on the loth, but the error is due in all probability to the fact that the Wake-fair was held (Old Style ; New Style, 31st) on the eve of his day. But it was not unusual for fairs to fall on the eves of Festivals, as may be proved from existing Welsh fairs in parishes where the patron is, for instance, the B. V. M., or S. Michael the Archangel ; in fact, the vigil, feast, and morrow was the common charter phraseology.