The “Vita Sanctae Keynae”, an extract from the “Vita S. Cadoci”, and a modern myth about the year 490 at St Michael’s Mount

One of the Cornish saints was a woman.  Her name was Saint Keyne, or Keyna – there are various spellings – and she is known from a number of hagiographical texts.  She flourished in the late 5th century, and is connected to St Michael’s Mount.  Indeed there are various places on the web that make claims such as:

Legends tell of a visit by St. Keyne and a spring that miraculously gushed forth when she set foot upon the rock in 490 AD.[1]

The precise date of 490 AD is curious.  Other sites mention a meeting between St Keyne and her nephew, St Cadoc.  Let’s look at the actual origin of these stories, which is two medieval saints’ lives.

The Latin text of the medieval saint’s Life of St. Keyne (=BHL 4653) was written in manuscript by John of Tynmouth in 1366.  He produced an edited and abbreviated version.  It is this version that was printed by John Capgrave, an Austin Friar, in his Nova Legenda Angliae in 1516.  In the 1901 reprint by C. Horstman (online here) it can be found in volume 2, on pp.102-104.  A footnote in Horstman states that the text was reprinted in the Acta Sanctorum for October, vol. IV, for the 8th October, on p.276-7, and also that the same text can be found in MS. Bodleian 240, a manuscript from the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds dated 1377.

Let me give the Latin text first, and then an English translation.  Note the medieval spellings, notably “terre” for “terrae”, etc.  I have normalised a few “v” and “u” where it will make the text easier to read, but left most of the medievalisms.

¶ De sancta Keyna virgine.

Beata enim Keyna virgo de regali prosapia in occidentali parte Maioris Britannie oriunda extitit. Cuius pater rex Breghenocensium nomine Braghanus erat. Fuerunt autem regi illi filii duodecim et filie totidem, omnes deo placentes et vite sancte. Primogenitus eius erat sanctus Canochus; primogenita filia Gladus, mater sancti Cadoci; secunda Molari, mater patris sancti David meneuensis archiepiscopi. Ceteris vero propter prolixitatem omissis, ad beatam Keynam stilum convertimus. Antequam enim nasceretur, mater eius in visione vidit sinum suum mirra et balsamo plenum, et mamillas suas celesti lumine radiantes. Vidit et niveam se pro prole peperisse columbam. Cum vero enixam filiam mater diligenter educaret, mira quedam spiritualis gratie venustas in facie virginis apparebat, ita ut quandoque sicut nix, quandoque sicut solaris claritas refulgeret. Cumque ad annos nubiles pervenisset, et multi nobiles eam in conjugium affectarent; virgo sancta, virilem copulam omnino recusans, virginitatem suam voto perpetuo domino consecravit. Ob hoc enim, que prius Keyna vocabatur, postea britannice ‘Keynwiri,’ id est ‘Keyn virgo’ dicta est. Proposuit tandem patriam deserere et locum desertum, ubi contemplationi vacaret, querere: et arrepto itinere, ultra Sabrinam veniens, repertis quibusdam locis silvestribus, a rege illius provincie solitudinem illam in qua deo servire posset expetiit: cui, quod petiit hilariter se concessurum respondit, nisi quia locus ille tanta serpentium multitudine repleretur, quod tam hominibus quam iumentis et feris inhabitabilis extitisset. Virgo vero constanter respondit, se confidere in adiutorio altissimi, et in eius nomine se velle et posse omnem illam virulentam multitudinem effugare. Concesso igitur virgini loco, ad solitas preces se prostravit et omnia illa mox genimina viperarum mortificata in lapidum duritiem commutavit. Lapides enim usque hodie imaginem serpentinam exprimunt per campos et vicos, quasi arte lathomi sculperentur. Elapsis autem multis annis, cum fama sancte virginis ubique divulgata esset, et visitatis multis, oratoria multa construxisset, sanctus Cadocus Montem sancti Michaelis peregrinationis gratia visitans, sanctam Keynam, materteram suam, ibidem repperit, et magno repletus gaudio, cum illam ad terram propriam reducere vellet, a populo terre permissus non est. Admonitione demum angelica virgo sancta ad patriam suam rediens, in quodam monticulo ad radices cuiusdam montis magni habitationem sibi faciens, fusa ad deum prece fontem de terra produxit, qui multis infirmitatibus meritis virginis sancte salutem prebuit. Cum autem, spiritu sancto revelante, dies consummationis eius appropinquaret, vidit in visione noctis columpnam quasi igneam usque ad lectuli eius pavimentum descendere—in nudo enim pavimento ramusculis arborum superiectis dormire solebat. Et angeli duo sibi apparebant; quorum alter reverenter ad illam accedens, cilicium quo induebatur leniter exuit, et casula bissina una cum tunica coccinea, cum clamide quoque auro contexta decenter illam ornans, dixit: ‘Parata esto et veni nobiscum, ut introducamus te in regnum patris tui.’ Que, cum pre gaudio flens angelos sequi vellet, evigilans sensit corpus suum febribus aggravari et finem suum imminere : accitoque sancto Cadoco ait: ‘Locus iste est quem pre ceteris diligo : hic erit memoria mea: locum hunc sepius in spiritu, si licuerit, visitabo: licebit autem, quia dominus hunc mihi locum jure hereditario possidendum concessit. Futurum est autem quod locus iste inhabitabitur a gente peccatrice, quam ego violenter ab hiis sedibus extirpabo; iacebitque tumulus meus multis diebus incognitus, donec veniant alii quos ego precibus meis huc adducam, protegam et defendam, et in hoc loco benedicetur nomen domini in eternum? Et cum anima a corpore egredi festinaret, vidit ante se angelicum exercitum, intra celi palatium sine metu et periculo animam illius cum gaudio suscipere paratum. Quod cum astantibus indicasset, sancta illa anima [a] corpore soluta est, octavo idus octobris. Que cum egrederetur a corpore, subrisit sancta facies ipsius, roseum induens colorem, tantaque suavitatis fragrantia ex corpore virgineo procedebat, quod omnes qui aderant, se cum ipsa putarent in paradisi gloria collocatos. Sepelivit autem eam sanctus Cadocus in oratorio suo, ubi in sancta conversatione multis annis vitam artissimam et deo placentem duxit.

Now the English, translated by Gilbert H. Doble.   This was printed as a single paragraph, but I have split it up.

De Sancta Keyna Virgine.

For the Blessed Keyna, Virgin, sprang of royal stock in the western part of Greater Britain. Her father, king of the Breghenocenses was named Braghanus. Now that king had twelve sons and the like number of daughters, all pleasing to God and of holy life. His first-born was Saint Canochus; his first-born daughter Gladus, mother of Saint Cadocus, the second (daughter) Melari, mother of the father of Saint David, Archbishop of Menevia. But omitting the rest, on account of the great length (of the list), we begin at once to write the Life of Blessed Keyna. For before she was born, her mother saw in a vision her bosom full of myrrh and balsam, and her breasts shining with heavenly light. She saw also that she had given birth to a snow-white dove. And afterwards when she (Keyne) was born and her mother was training her with great care, a certain wonderful beauty of spiritual grace appeared in the virgin’s face, which shone— sometimes like snow, and sometimes like the brightness of the sun.

And when she had reached the age when she might be wedded, and many noblemen sought her hand in marriage ; the holy virgin, refusing altogether to be joined to a husband, consecrated her virginity to the Lord by a perpetual vow. For this reason, she who before was called Keyna, was afterwards called in the British language Keynwiri, i.e., Keyne the Virgin.

She finally resolved to leave her native country and to seek a desert place where she might devote herself to contemplation; and setting out on her journey she came beyond the Severn, and finding certain wooded places, she asked the king of that province to give her that solitary place so that she might serve God there; He answered that he would gladly give it, but that the place was filled with such a multitude of serpents that neither man nor beast might live there. The virgin however replied with steadfast courage that she trusted in the help of the Most High and in His Name was willing and able to drive out all that poisonous multitude. The place was therefore given to the virgin, and, after prostrating herself in prayer, as she was wont, she quickly changed all that offspring of vipers into hard stones. For the stones in the fields and villages there even to this very day bear the form of serpents, as if they had been carved by the sculptor’s art.

Now after many years had passed, when the fame of the holy virgin had been everywhere spread abroad, and she had visited, and also built, many oratories, Saint Cadocus, visiting Saint Michael’s Mount on a pilgrimage, found his aunt Saint Keyna there, and filled with great joy desired to bring her back to her own land, but the people of the land would not permit it.

At last, warned by an angel, the holy virgin returned to her native land and made for herself an habitation in a certain hillock at the roots of a certain great mountain, and after pouring forth prayer to God, she caused a well to spring out of the earth, which has given health to many infirm persons (lit. infirmities) by the merits of the holy virgin.

And when the day of her consummation approached, which had been revealed to her by the Holy Spirit, she saw in a vision of the night as it were a fiery column descending to the floor on which her bed lay—for she was accustomed to sleep on branches of trees laid upon the bare floor. And two angels appeared to her; one of which, coming up to her with great respect, gently took off the hair shirt which she wore and clothed her with a linen chasuble, together with a scarlet tunic, and arraying her as became her dignity with a cloak woven with gold, he said, “Prepare thyself and come with us, that we may bring thee into the kingdom of thy Father.”

And she, weeping for joy, and wishing to follow the angels, awoke and felt that her body was oppressed with fevers and that her end was near: and calling for Saint Cadocus she said: “This is the place which above all others I love; here shall be my memorial; I will often, if it be permitted, visit this place in the spirit; and it shall be permitted, because the Lord has granted me this place to possess by hereditary right. But it will come to pass that this place will be inhabited by a sinful race, whom I will violently root up from these seats ; and my tomb shall lie unknown for many days, till other men shall come whom I by my prayers shall lead here, and whom I shall protect and defend, and in this place the Name of the Lord shall be blessed for ever.”

And when now her soul was hastening to leave her body, she saw before her the angelic host ready to receive her soul without fear or danger within the palace of Heaven, And she signified this to those who stood by, and straightway that holy soul was loosed from the body, on the eighth of the Ides of October. And when it left the body, her holy face smiled and assumed a rosy hue, and so great fragrance of sweetness proceeded from her virginal body that all who were present deemed they had been transported with her into the glory of Paradise.

Now Saint Cadocus buried her in her oratory, where she (had) lived a life most strict and pleasing to God in holy conversation many years.

Now for some very necessary bibliography, the gathering of which consumed some hours today.

The translation that I have just given was made by Canon Gilbert Doble; a High-Church Anglican clergyman of the first half of the 20th century, who collected an enormous amount of lore concerning Cornish saints.  His publications were slight and made in obscure places, and sometimes more than once. Accessing them is not a trivial enterprise, and even the bibliography can be confusing.  He produced around 40 pamplets on various saints in his “Cornish Saints” series.

One of these was  G.H. Doble, “S Nectan, S Keyne and the Children of Brychan in Cornwall”, Cornish Saints series 25, Exeter: Sidney Lee, 1930, which contained this translation.  After his death this was included in a 6 volume compilation “The Saints of Cornwall”; but sadly abbreviated.  Thus St. Nectan appears in volume 6, but I find that St Keyne has got lost along the way.  A reprint of the complete article, which was 60 pages long, was produced in 1990 by Oakmagic Publications.

Fortunately I was able to access a two-part article by Doble, also titled “S Nectan, S Keyne and the Children of Brychan in Cornwall”, in the Downside Review, volume 48 (1930) and volume 49 (1931).  The latter article contains the translation above.

    *    *    *    *

The other half of the story about St Michael’s Mount given in the Life of St Keyne is to be found in the Life of St Cadoc, which exists in two versions.

One version of this is was printed with English translation[2]  This text is BHL 1491, incipit “Quondam in quibusdam finibus Britannicae regionis”.

The Life is long, but we are only concerned with chapter 27.  According to the editor (p.22), the text was printed from MS Britsh Library Cotton Vesp. A. xiv, p.17, and collated with Titus D. xxii, p.51.

27. Quomodo Sanctus Cadocus in Cornubia fontem salubrem precibus de terra produxit.

Necdum Dei bonitatem mirabilibus mirabiliora adicere piget; verum ejus clarum vernulam signis clariorem miraculisque celeberrimum humane debilitati remedium atque solatium prebendo libet efficere. Nam dudum cum idem vir illustrissimus de monte Sancti Michaelis venisset, qui in regione Cornubiensium esse dinoscitur, atque illius provincie idiomate, Dinsol appellatur, et ibi idem arcbangelus ab omnibus illo adventantibus veneratur estuans ex itinere fatigatus, valde sitivit. Locus autem quo hoc accidit vehementer aridus extitit; beatus ergo Cadocus humum baculo pepugit, ac continuo illic fons largifluus de solo scaturiit; indeque tam ipsi qui sibi comitantes affati quoque potaverunt, in similitudine Israelitici populi sitientes in deserto, cum Moises virga petram percussit, et fluxerunt aque in habundantiam. Ut autem omnes limpha satiati sunt, dixit ad socios suos, “Oremus, fratres, divinam obnixius benignitatem, quatinus cuncti, qui ad hunc sacrum fontem languidi venerint, ex eo diversorum morborum medelam, Dei gratia annuente, recipiant; et sic nostram flagrantem sitim, ita corporum venenosas pestes extinguat. Si quis namque egrotus, ab ipso fonte firmiter in Domino confidens bibit, ventris ac viscerum sanitatem reciperet, cunctosque virosos vermes ex se perficiet.” Postquam autem Cornubienses crebra sanitatum remedia utriusque sexus apud eundem fontem indeficienter fieri divina pietate conspexerunt, in honorem Sancti Cadoci ecclesiolam juxta fontem edificaverunt.

The English:

27. How Saint Cadoc by his prayers produced from the earth, in Cornwall, a health-bearing fountain.

Nor it is unpleasant to mention the goodness of God in his more wonderful miracles, but it is agreeable to make his eminent servant more celebrated in miracles, by his affording a most excellent remedy, and comfort for human infirmity. For lately, when the said most illustrious man came from the mount of St. Michael, which is known to be in Cornwall, and in the idiom of the district, is called Dinsol, and there the same archangel, who was venerated by all who came there, being hot, and fatigued from his journey was very thirsty. And the place where this happened was very dry; therefore the blessed Cadoc struck the ground with his stick, and immediately a full flowing fountain sprang from the ground, and therefore they who accompanied him, also drank like the Israelites athirst in the wilderness, when Moses struck the rock with his stick, and the water flowed in abundance. As all were satisfied with water, they said to their companions. “ Let us earnestly beseech the divine goodness that all such persons, as shall come to this sacred fountain, may therefrom, with the favour of God, receive the cure of divers diseases; and as it extinguished our raging thirst, so let it heal the painful disorders of bodies.” For if any sick person, having firm confidence in God, shall drink of that fountain, he will receive the cure of his belly and bowels, and he will drive all venomous worms from his body. And after the men of Cornwall saw that frequent cures of the disorders of both sexes were constantly effected at that fountain by divine piety, they built a small church in honour of Saint Cadoc, near the fountain.

The other version of the Life of St. Cadoc is a much shorter Life printed by Capgrave (vol. 1, online here, p.167 f.) and reprinted in the Acta Sanctorum January vol. 2, 603-6.  This has the code BHL 1493, with incipit “Gundlei filius cum in utero matris…”.  The portion relating to St Michael’s Mount begins on p.171:

Dum autem de monte sancti Michaelis in Cornubia venisset et sitim maximam passus esset, in loco arido baculum fixit: et statim fons largifluus de terra scaturire cepit. Oravitque ut cuncti languidi illuc accedentes suorum morborum medelam reciperent, venenosas pestes illa aqua extingueret, vermesque cunctos de ventre potantium proiiceret. Juxta enim fontem illum in Cornubia in honore sancti Cadoci fundata est ecclesia magna.

A quick translation by me.

But when he had come away from St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall, and suffered very great thirst, he set up a stick in the dry place: and at once a free-flowing spring began to gush forth from the earth.  And he prayed that all who were faint coming there should receive a cure of their malady, that  the water might extinguish toxic illnesses, and drinking it would expel all worms from the stomach.  For near that spring in Cornwall in honour of St Cadoc a great church was established.

As far as I know, these are the only sources for St Cadoc and St Keyne at St Michael’s Mount, and what they did there. These are medieval legends, quite literally, and their historical value is low.  They are also very much later than the events that they purport to record by many hundreds of years.  They post-date the establishment of a Benedictine priory on the Mount, recorded in charters of the Norman period.

The date of “490” for these events, which we see online, seems to be a guess.  I have read suggestions that these saints were active in the late 5th century.  No doubt somebody with a web page to write turned that into “490”.

Update 28 May 2021: A query on the “Gender Desk” blog produced a long and very interesting post in reply – Monastic Matrix.  This includes the interesting information that a 1516 abbreviated translation exists of the Life of St Keyne.  This is Edmund Pynson, Kalendre of the New Legende of England, 1516, which is in EEBO: Early English Books Online (Only At Wealthy Universities).  This is drawn from Capgrave.  Luckily it is transcribed at https://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=eebo;idno=A17943.0001.001, and the St Keyne portion is here.  Let me modernise the spelling a bit (where I can understand it) for ease of reading:

¶De sancta Keyna virgine.

Saint Keyne virgin was daughter to the king of Breghenoke in the West part of Great Britain and nigh of kin to Saint David, and aunt to Saint Cadoc when her mother was with child with her, she saw in vision her bosom full of myrrh and balm, and her teats shining of a heavenly light, and she thought that instead of a child she was delivered of a fair wight, and when she was first born her face was sometimes white like snow, sometimes bright shining like the sun at her years of marriage she forsook all marriages advowing to keep virginity, & lived in a desert beyond Severn, where by her prayers serpents that before that time had made the country inhabitable turned into stones. Saint Keyne made many oratories & after she went to Saint Michael’s mount and there she met with Saint Cadoc, & by monition of an angel she went into her country again and dwelled at the foot of a hill, where by her prayers sprang a fair well whereby many have been healed. She saw in her sleep a beam of fire descend there where as she lay on a bare pavement with green boughs under her & two angels appeared unto her & one of them reverently did off a heer that she had used to wear & apparelled her with goodly apparel,  & bade her be ready to go with them into the kingdom of her father, & when she gladly would have followed them she awoke feeling her self sick of the Axes, and then she called Saint Cadoc to her and told him she would be buried in that same place, which she said she would in spirit often visit.  Before her death she saw a great company of angels ready to take her soul with great joy without fear or pareil, and when she had told them that stood about her thereof she departed the viii. Idus of October.  And anon her face was of a colour like red roses and a sweet savour was about her that all that were there thought it like a joy of paradise.  And Saint Cadoc buried her in her oratory where she had lived a hard and a blessed life many years.

I found the actual Monastic Matrix site (https://arts.st-andrews.ac.uk/monasticmatrix) very hard to use, but a search is the right way to do so.

The blog author drew my attention to Polwhele’s History of Cornwall (1816), where in book 2, p.126 (here), I find a mass of stuff about St Keyne, including this:

The first time I find this hill upon record as a place of devotion is in the legend of St. Keyne, a holy virgin of the British blood- royal, daughter of Braganus prince of Brecknockshire ; she is said to have gone a pilgrimage to St. Michael’s Mount in Cornwall, she lived about the year 490, and her festival is celebrated on the 30th of September. Now it must be concluded that St. Michael’s Mount was before of great repute , either for the residence of some saint or working-miracle hermit, or celebrated for some supposed angelic vision, as was the humour of those times, otherwise one of St: Keyne’s dignity and eminence would not have undertaken a pilgrimage thither ; St. Keyne made no short visit, she stayed long enough by the sanctity of her life and the miracles she was thought to have performed , to ingratiate herself with the inhabitants. For some years after this , St. Cadoc making a pilgrimage to this same place found here, to his great surprize, St. Keyne his aunt by his mother’s side, at which rejoicing he endeavoured to persuade her to go back with him to her native country Brecknockshire (the intercourse between Cornwall and Wales being then frequent and familiar ) but the people of the country interposing would not endure her removal ; at last having had an express command from above the saint obedient to the heavenly monition retired to her own country. Let it be observed here, that although there may be somewhat of the fabulous in these, as there is in most legends, yet that here are two pilgrimages of the same age, which mutually confirming each other, add tolerable support to the story in general.

This footnote is, I suspect, the origin of the date of 490 AD for the visit of Cadoc to Keyne at St Michael’s Mount.

Update (2nd June 2021):  Further discussion at GenderDesk here reveals a claim by Rice Rees, An essay on the Welsh saints, 1836, p.154 here, that in the Life of St Cadoc,

The Mount of St. Michael is the name of a hill near Abergavenny, which still maintains its sacred character.

The hill of Skirrid Fawr near Abergavenny is indeed said to have some form of association with St Michael on  various websites, although I have not investigated this very far.  The “Last Welsh Martyr” blog here offers various statements, calling it “St Michael’s Mount”, all post-Reformation and all unreferenced, unfortunately.  But the Life of St Cadoc  explicitly names Cornwall as the country in which the events took place.  In the Life of St Keyne, the Mount is said to be outside “her own country”, whatever that is; probably Wales, as this is a text written in the medieval period.  So I think it is safest to disregard the claim of Mr Rees.

Share
  1. [1]https://sacredsites.com/europe/england/st_michaels_mount.html
  2. [2]W. J. Rees, Lives of the Cambro British saints: of the fifth and immediate succeeding centuries, from ancient Welsh & Latin mss. in the British Museum and elsewhere, Llandovery (1853) (online here).  The Latin is on p.22-70; the English on 309-395.

2 thoughts on “The “Vita Sanctae Keynae”, an extract from the “Vita S. Cadoci”, and a modern myth about the year 490 at St Michael’s Mount

Leave a Reply