Historical King Arthur: St. Arthmael?

Prince Armel, also known as Arthmael, stands as a significant figure in the hagiography of Brittany and Wales, embodying the intertwined legacies of sanctity, royalty, and legend. Arthmael was born in Morganwg, within the region of Penychen.

As one of the saintly sons of Hoel Mawr (the Great), according to one found in the Iolo Manuscript, page 133. Derfael, Dwyfael, and Arthfael were sons of Hywel, who was the son of Emyr Llydaw, making them cousins of S. Cadfan. They were part of S. Illtyd’s circle and later joined S. Cadfan in Bardsey. Consequently, Arthmael was the first cousin of S. Samson, S. Padam, S. Maglorius, S. Malo, and likely the brother of S. Tudwal of Tréguier, and perhaps also of S. Leonoret.

Arthmael received his education in a monastery under Abbot Caroncinalis, alternatively known as Carentmael, although he did not take monastic vows. Choosing instead to live as a secular priest, his life took a profound turn when he heard a passage from the gospel urging total renunciation. Feeling it spoke directly to him, Arthmael decided to leave his homeland, parents, and possessions. He confided in Carentmael, who agreed to accompany him, and a large body of colonists left South Wales together with Caroncinalis and Arthmael. They landed in the mouth of the Aber Benoit in Finistère, the principality of Leon, and went inland till they formed a settlement where is now Plouarzel.

Despite being related to Paul of Léon, Carentmael left little impact in his new settlement and is not recognized among the Breton Saints. Arthmael resided in Plouarzel until around 540 AD, when political turmoil forced him to leave for Paris.

Arthmael remained at Plouarzel some years till the death of Jonas, king of Donmonia, in or about 540, when Conmore married the widow, and obliged Judual, or luthael, the prince, to fly for his life to the court of Childebert. Arthmael, like Leonore and other Saints of Armorica, got on bad terms with the regent Conmore, and he was obliged to leave and go to Paris, where he did his utmost to induce Childebert to displace Conmore and restore Judual. His efforts were unavailing, till the arrival of Samson, whose energy and persistence in the same cause broke down finally the King’s opposition, and they were suffered to return to Brittany, and organise an insurrection on behalf of Judual. His efforts, however, bore fruit with the aid of S. Samson, leading to an insurrection that resulted in Judual’s return to power and Conmore’s demise in battle in 555.

Arthmael slays a Dragon

In gratitude for his services, Judual granted Arthmael land on the Seiche, now in lue et Vilaine, where there is the village of S. Armel. Here he established a monastery. Legend holds that a dragon infested the neighbourhood ; he went to it, put his stole about its neck, and conducted it to the river. He bade the monster precipitate itself into the stream, and was at once obeyed. This may have been a symbolic way of saying that he subdued Conmore, the old dragon of Domnonia.

Passing one day by the valley of Loutehel, the people complained to him that they lacked good water, and with his staff he miraculously produced a spring.

Saint Armel

Armel’s death and burial at Saint-Armel-des-Boschaux in the late 6th century marked the end of his earthly journey but the beginning of his veneration as a saint. His shrine, still extant, serves as a tangible connection to this saintly prince, drawing pilgrims and historians alike to reflect on the blend of faith, royalty, and legend that his life represents.

Armel was renowned as a healer, endowed with great power and kindness, and is still called upon by people to relieve ailments like headaches, fever, colic, swelling, and particularly gout and rheumatism. His reputation as a benefactor of health led to his selection as the patron saint of chapels, nursing homes, and hospitals, reaching the zenith of his fame in the early 16th century. His feast day was traditionally observed on August 16.

The iconic depiction of Saint Armel, armoured beneath a chasuble with a dragon led by a stole tied around its neck, vividly brings to life the legend of his saving Brittany from a devastating beast. This image encapsulates the essence of Armel’s sanctity—his protection of the land and its people, achieved through divine grace and depicted through the symbolic victory over chaos and evil represented by the dragon. Such imagery not only honours Armel’s saintly deeds but also embeds them within the cultural memory of Brittany and Wales, bridging the historical with the legendary and the sacred with the chivalric.

Saint Armel in Brittainy

In Ploërmel (Morbihan) St-Arme there is a window of stained glass of the sixteenth century, representing the story of the Saint in eight compartments:

  1. S. Arthmael bidding farewell to his parents.
  2. S. Arthmael healing a leper.
  3. The messenger of Childebert sunmions Arthmael to court.
  4. Arthmael performing a miraculous cure.
  5. Arthmael and his companions bid farewell to King Childebert.
  6. S. Arthmael with his stole round the dragon.
  7. S. Arthmael precipitating the dragon into the river.
  8. The death of the Saint. Arthmael became one of the most popular Saints of Brittany.

St Armel in Britain

A church called Saint Erme is dedicated to him in Cornwall, perhaps because King Henry VII of England believed that Armel’s intercession saved him from shipwreck off the coast of Brittany.   

There is a statue, below, of Armel in Henry VII’s chapel at Westminster and another on Cardinal Morton’s tomb at Canterbury.   In paintings on the altar pieces of Romsey Abbey and elsewhere, he may be represented in armour and a chasuble, leading a dragon with a stole around it’s neck. A small chapel is dedicated to him just north of Westminster Abbey, where the St Ermyn Hotel is now. (The name St Ermyn is a corruption of St Armel).   Pilgrims went there to ask the Saint for help.  

The Name of the Saint and Its Phonetic Insights

The exploration of Saint Armel’s name reveals a fascinating journey through history, linguistics, and regional variations, reflecting the depth of cultural intertwinement between Wales and Brittany. This inquiry highlights the evolution and adaptation of the name across centuries and geographies, underscoring the saint’s enduring legacy.

In Wales, the earliest forms of the name appear as Arthmail and Artmali, documented in the 10th and between the 8th and 9th centuries respectively. The name come from the Celtic “arz” (bear) and “Mael” (prince).These variations suggest a deep historical root, with Oxford’s Professor John Rhys noting subsequent evolutions into Arthuail or Arthvail, and Arthuael. This linguistic progression illustrates the name’s enduring presence and adaptation within Welsh culture.

In contemporary Brittany, the name persists both as a family and a baptismal name, predominantly in the form Armel, recognized as the classic rendition. As a surname, it transforms into Ermel, with regional pronunciations varying significantly, highlighting the dialectical richness of Brittany. The name’s adaptation to local phonetics, such as Armoué in areas of linguistic competition, points to its integration into the fabric of Breton identity.

Historical documents from Brittany further trace the name’s evolution from Arthmael in the 9th century to variations like Armael and Arsmel in subsequent centuries, even introducing forms like Asmel. These shifts are mirrored in the Latin liturgical texts, where Armagilus and its variants serve as the liturgical names, illustrating the name’s adaptation to ecclesiastical contexts.

M.J. Loth’s scholarly work proposes that Armel and Arzel are divergent forms of the same name, with Armel directly deriving from Arthmael and Arzel evolving through linguistic changes within Breton. This distinction between scholarly and popular forms enriches the understanding of the name’s cultural and linguistic journey.

The presence of the name in geographical designations like Plouarzel and its historical renderings further emphasizes Saint Armel’s significance in both the sacred and the secular spheres, marking him as a figure of considerable historical and cultural importance in the collective memory of Wales and Brittany. This exploration not only sheds light on the linguistic aspects of Saint Armel’s name but also on its enduring legacy in the regions that venerate him.

The Cult of Saint Armel

Frances Arnold-Forster, in her comprehensive work on church dedications in England, does not mention Saint Armel, a notable absence given the saint’s inclusion in Richard Stanton’s “A Menology of England and Wales” as an important figure within the Roman Catholic martyrology of Great Britain. This oversight is curious, especially considering the historical veneration of Saint Armel in England, which seems to have been overlooked or forgotten by later accounts.

From a 15th-century English Book of Hours, post-1500 prayers invoke Saint Armigilus (Armel) for healing from illnesses, particularly gout, indicating a once-significant cult presence. Montague Rhodes James, a respected authority from the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, identified several depictions of Saint Armel dating back to the reign of Henry VII (1485-1509). Henry VII, of Welsh descent, harbored a special devotion to Saint Armel, likely adopted during his time in Brittany. It’s speculated that Henry’s youthful immersion in a fountain dedicated to Saint Armel, seeking vigor, contributed to this reverence, a devotion visibly affirmed by the placement of the saint’s statue on the monarch’s tomb.

The Reformation likely led to the disappearance of Saint Armel’s cult from England, with no records of his veneration before the Tudor period found in earlier ecclesiastical texts. This absence is evident in the 14th-century Grandisson Ordinal and the Salisbury Breviary of 1483, neither of which mentions Armel. Conversely, Cornish dedications to Saint Erme are thought by some, like Mr. Baring-Gould, to be Latinizations of older dedications to Armel, though this theory is contested by linguistic evidence and historical confusion with another saint, Saint Hermes.

Additional historical narratives, including those by Alain Bouchart and Bertrand d’Argentré, recount Henry VII’s (referred to as the Count of Richemont) arrival and honorable reception in Brittany, suggesting the Duke of Brittany’s role in fostering the English prince’s devotion to Saint Armel. Despite the difficulties in cataloging all of Saint Armel’s representations in England, the connection between Henry VII’s veneration and the broader cult of Saint Armel in Britain during this period highlights the intricate, often overlooked web of saintly devotion that spanned the English Channel, deeply intertwined with the political and cultural currents of the time.

  1. Anjou: Pilgrimages are made to Saint Armel in the commune of Soucelles (Briollay canton, Angers district), as documented by Célestin Port in his historical, geographical, and biographical dictionary of Maine-et-Loire (1878). The mention of Saint Armel wearing gauntlets, holding a closed book, and a stole tied around a dragon’s neck on a tomb illustrates his depiction as both a priest and monk, highlighting his religious significance.
  2. Normandy: While the Avranches missal of 1505 does not include Saint Armel in its calendar, his cult was indeed present in the diocese, as indicated by a 1412 register mentioning a chapel dedicated to him in Saint-James (Avranches district). The presence of a village named Saint-Ermel and historical chapels dedicated to him showcase his regional veneration.
  3. Maine: A 15th-century breviary from Le Mans includes Saint Armel in its calendar on August 16, alongside Arnulphi and Frambaldi. However, by the early 16th century, only a commemoration for Arnulphi and Frambaldi is noted, indicating changes in liturgical commemoration over time.
  4. Orléanais: The church of Château-Renard (Montargis district, now within the Diocese of Orléans) houses relics of Saint Armel, originally from Le Mans. Despite this, Saint Armel is not listed in the calendar of the gothic breviary of Orléans printed around 1510, suggesting variations in regional veneration.
  5. Paris: Armel reportedly spent about seven years at the court of Childebert, yet traces of his worship in Paris are elusive, with no mention in the Paris missals of both 1487 and the 13th century, indicating a possible decline or regional specificity in his veneration.
  6. Touraine: Saint Armel is the patron saint of Beaumont-la-Ronce (Neuillé-Pont-Pierre canton, Tours district). His legacy includes a chosen retreat in an uninhabitable wood in Touraine, aligning with the area of Beaumont-la-Ronce. Pilgrimages to Saint Armel occur in Crotelles and Montlouis, further evidencing his significance in this region.

These insights collectively underscore the complex and regionally nuanced nature of Saint Armel’s veneration across different parts of France, from documented pilgrimages and dedications to the varying presence in liturgical calendars and missals.