Where I and my partner currently live in Wales we have a lot of saints. So many in fact, that it seems impossible to walk down a street without tripping over a chapel, shrine, hermit’s cell, a holy well or a place where a saint worked, knelt, prayed, cried, or was generally displaying mutant super-powers. A testament to this is the Isle of Bardsey a little way north of us – called “the Home of 20,000 Saints” because it’s dirt is so stuffed full of their relics. As you may already know, one of my hobbies is being an amateur history nerd – and I am constantly fascinated by this intersection between history and mythology.
One of our local saints is a guy/guyess named Saint Sulien, Sulian, Silyn or Silin. Early British, post-Roman history being what it is, these names could all refer to the same person or they could just as easily be referencing 3 or 4 completely different vagabond holyists.
Confusing, huh? Well – just hold on…
Let me share a little bit of what inspired my current historical fascination with this misplaced saint: About 5yrs ago a friend of mine happened across a stone decorated with strange markings in the precinct of Silian Chapel (the village of Silian, and yes, it is consecrated to Saint Sulien). It turns out that this slab is one of four similarly decorated medieval (9th-10thC) church markers, one of them already located right there at the Chapel (Silian 2, below). Perhaps the work of the same mason? The same saint-cult? No one really knows for sure, but as there aren’t many of these early medieval rocks knocking about, the questions are fascinating. The only problem being, is that the churches nearby each of these markers are all differently dedicated, and all sit many miles from each other – from south Wales all the way up to the north.
Not only that, but there is another stone built into the walls of Silian Chapel (renovated in the 19th C) with the inscription Silbandvs iacit. The iacit is translated as the early Christian grave-Latin hiacit, or “here lies”. Silbandvs becomes Silbandus (whose name we will delve into a little later) but who is generally thought of the founder or patron of the village of Silian. This silbandus stone is dated to late-5th/early-6th century, smack in the middle of the age of Saint David and those 20,000 saints of Bardsey, it also helps that around Silian Chapel is an ancient 5-6thC enclosure, or llan.
So who was Saint Sulien? Is the precinct of Silian Chapel where he resides?
In short ~ maybe?
Liturgical tradition tells us that there were at least two recognized Saint Sulien’s (who both lived in the same century and who could have been the same person, maddeningly), one from north Wales who was a companion of Saint Mael, who ended up in that Bardsey dirt. Another was an abbot of Luxulyan down in Cornwall, whose hagiography has very little to do with mid-south Wales at all.
Nothing about either of them finding their end in that village of Silian.
The Lay Forest Saint
There are other sources of information however; a lay belief in a saint who resided nearby known as Silyn or Sulian. Historian Canon Patrick Thomas, in his work uncovering the histories of nearby Brechfa has unearthed a mass of information relating to Ffynnon Sant Silyn, or the Holy Well of Silyn in a nearby village. The holy well itself has sadly been lost, but searches for its exact location continue, and the associated legend is of the hermit Silyn who healed the blind, lived in a tree, and to whom wild animals of the forest would seek shelter.
This local Silyn Sant, to use the Welsh variant, is alluded to by a number of other regional chapels dedicated to him/her, and in the late 1830s the “Topographical History of Wales” by Samuel Lewis describes the village and Silian Chapel as belonging to the parish of Sulien, whose following flourished here in the early 6th C.
Same person? Well-traveled wonder-working, forest-dwelling god-botherer? Who is this silbandus person buried there, if not Silyn Sant?
Contenders & Contention
The plot thickens when we consider another contender to the holy title – the well-known Saint Giles of Brittany
I know, Saint Giles sounds bugger-all like Silyn or Sulian, right? Well…
Saint Giles was a 7th- and 8thC Greek saint whose hagiography bears a striking resemblance to Saint Silyn’s, in that he was a forest hermit who saved a deer when the creature sought him out as refuge from a hunting nobleman. Saint Giles was shot with an arrow, he survived, miracles ensued. Church historians Baring-Gould and Fisher, in their 1907 The Lives of British Saints claim that Saint Giles was commonly translated into the Latin Aegidus, which can also be translated back into Brythonic Welsh as none other than Silin. This theory is compounded by the fact that Wrexham’s Saint Giles church (in the borders between Wales and England, as was) was historically dedicated to Saint Silyn before it changed its name.
There’s something to like about this theory. The similarity of legends, the Wrexham cross-over. Should we stop searching and consider this local Silyn Sant as none other than a confusion of Saint Giles/Aegidus?
I would hazard not for the following reasons: Archaeology and Community.
- Archaeologically, there is reference to Sulian, Sulien, Silin, Silyn as early as the 5th/6thC in Wales, and we have it on all authority that Saint Giles was 7th/8th.
- From a perspective of community and cultural heritage, Sulian/Silyn are not only alluded to in the silbandus stone, but also in place names across Wales – Ffynnon Sant Silyn (Holy Well of Silyn), Cwm Silyn (Silyn’s Lake, north Wales), Bethel St. Silyn (the various Chapels of St. Silyn). The prevalence of the “Silyn” formula without any reference to other parts of the life of St. Giles or Aegidus seems to suggest a more localized saint to me. [But then again, I might be biased…]
We’re not getting any closer to deciphering who the silbandus stone is referring to, or even who Saint Sulian was, are we? Most of the time on this search it feels like we’re wearing the proverbial blindfold trying to describe an elephant. You feel a bristle tail, you feel a trunk – you have no buggering idea what it is you are describing, but between it all you start to get a sense of the shape it might take.
Let’s widen our scope a bit, and take a look at what we know about the Age of Saints in post-Roman Wales.
Those pesky Romans finally retreated from Britain and France around 400 some-odd, after trying to triage something called The Great Conspiracy. Guards along Hadrian’s Wall (mostly all Britons, it has to be said) decided ‘stuff this, I’m not dying here’ and returned to whatever home life they could scavenge as Picts, Saxons, Franks, the Irish and anyone else who wanted to have a go invaded Britain and Gaul to loot all of those luscious Roman villas. Or so the story goes according to the Roman historians, anyway.
Whatever. Britain was in free-fall from about 360 onward, and the Roman Empire tried a couple of times to reinstate control, but to no avail. Different parts of Britain and France held on for different periods of time, but in the end the writing was on the wall.
[Interestingly enough, it is during one of these raids that Saint Patrick was allegedly captured to live as a slave in Ireland, thus putting him on the path to become who he is today]
In this chaotic time there was a surprisingly large influx of Early Christianity into far-flung, war-torn areas. Christianity had been existent in these places since the first century, remember – with various Bishops, Saints and Martyrs appearing and disappearing in Northern Europe either under Roman Empire persecutions of ‘pagan’ ones. Early Christianity was no stranger to these shores, we should say.
But what is intriguing is that as the Roman Empire collapsed, Early Christian mystics concentrated in this vacuüm, either fleeing here because the barbarians were sacking their hometowns, or because Rome didn’t care to protect their faith, or they found in turn that they were protected by those wild pagans because the mystics could also provide healing, sanctuary, teaching. Such seems to be the story of Wales in the 4th-6thC: a whole heap of saints (20,000, perhaps) concentrated here because it was far from the Saxon raids of England [as we call it now], and it was also still secluded and wild enough to be a fitting place to contemplate the divine.
The Lost Mystery Schools of Early Christianity
Such was this confluence of learning, that by the time that we have Silyn Sant living in his tree and healing people, there were already well-known and established colleges in the British Isles. They existed thanks to a very hazy relationship to whomever the local general happened to be. One of the most famous was Cor Tewdws at the bottom of Wales (between Cardiff and Swansea), although we can add to this list the “Magnum Monasterium” (Greatest Monastery Ever) of St. Ninian called Candida Casa in Galloway, Scotland; as well as Clonard’s Abbey in County Meath, Ireland; and whatever has been going on at Glastonbury, Somerset for the last few thousand years.
Cor Tewdws was by all accounts a marvel of its time (late 4thC). It was first built by one of those retreating Romans (Emperor Theodosius) in an attempt to secure some foothold on that ‘fading light of civilization’ – or perhaps he just wanted to placate the angry and rebelling Britons by building a place where they could study and receive free medical care..?
Anyway, it was sacked by the Irish and Saint Illtud/Illtyd rebuilt it. Saint Illtyd is a fascinating figure all by himself – a distant relation to King Arthur, he was a knight who turned to scholasticism in his later years (and was apparently one of the keepers of the Holy Grail), who could foretell future events and was skilled in all sorts of ancient languages and philosophies. Interestingly, Saint Illtyd is supposed to have taught Saint David (Dewi Sant) of Wales, as well as Saint Patrick, Saint Gildas, Saint Samson and half a hundred other prominent Celtic Christian saints there at the college.
This story is kinda corroborated by Irish accounts that Saint Patrick “learned his way of celebrating Mass from the Welsh monastics“.
Freewheeling back to the story of Saint Sulian; one of the stories about the North Wales Saint Sulien (the friend of Mael who is enriching Bardsey island) is said to have been that he was a Breton, who traveled to Wales along with Saint Cadfan and thirteen other saints as they fled the Frankish barbarians. That all sounds very fitting for what we know of the time. Legends have it that they stopped off and studied at Cor Tewdws.
As we have pointed out – there was already a high concentration of traveling mystics in Wales thanks to its isolation, somewhat friendly local population, and the grand college of Saint Illtyd. Brittany and southern France was another such hot-bed of Early Christianity, with many saints passing through that region (no less than Martha, sister of Mary and Lazarus according to some stories). One such saint coming up from Breton, through the Cor Tewdws underground railroad of mystics, was Saint Padarn.
Saint Padarn is another local saint to mid-west wales. His main stomping ground is the coastal town of Aberystwyth, which is only an hour away by electric scooter to the haunts of Silyn Sant. Also 5th/6th Century, also a mystic. Why do I bring this guy up – because Saint Padarn used to be called Saint Paternus, which is the Latin version of his name. This very small detail got me thinking about that silbandus stone and how all the pieces of the topographical elephant fitted together.
[And here follows the wild conjecture…]
Silbandus iacit is a Latin phrase, or “grave-Latin” because for most everyday lay people it was only encountered as the language of memorials and gravestones. Latin would have been the language of study at Cor Tewdws, which we already know was one of the most important Early Christian Mystery Schools. It wouldn’t be such a great stretch of the imagination that whomever Silbandus was, they might also have been a student or familiar with Cor Tewdws. Like the North Wales Sulien, they might have been a Breton, traveling north to escape persecution.
We can guess from the vast number of saintly lives associated with Cor Tewdws that it acted like a holy magnet for prophets and hermits, sages and students. Maybe Cymru (Wales) itself could be considered a sanctuary for these heretics – especially as the rest of Northern Europe is being torn apart by war. I am picturing a kind of society that we might have seen in ancient India, with lots of holy teachers packed away in the nooks of forests and mountainous caves, seeking mystical experiences. I imagine travellers from all over Europe landing in the Last Friendly House of St. Illtyd, and then having to decide how to make a life for themselves. Some become evangelizers like Saint David/Dewi Saint. Some commit to pilgrimages like Saint Gildas did to Rome and Tours. Others may take to the secluded hills and trees, just as their antecedents wandered into the deserts in search of wisdom.
In this sort of topography, I would consider silbandus to be a Latin grave-side variant of our good old Sulian – but beyond that it gets difficult to split the hairs between the travelling Breton and the humble forest-dwelling Silyn Sant. It can be noted that silbandvs might have been a way to Latinize and legitmate a local hero? We can further complicate matters by adding that silbandvs is also an awful lot like Silvanus – the Roman pagan deity of woods and boundary spaces. Although the lay people at the time would probably never think to equate the life of the dead Silyn with the ancient Roman god, it might further allude to his arboreal pursuits.