The article of the month

Living Stones: Saints of Our Isles by Katie Thamer Treherne

Saint Keyne

It could have been the night three hundred warriors swooped down on her home like a cyclone of buzzards that prompted Keyne’s vocation in the late 5th century. But the groundwork had already been laid. For a start, her parents were devout Christians and they treasured their faith above all their possessions—which were many. Her father, King Brychan of Brycheiniog in Wales, had such power that the mountains of his kingdom were named after him. Her mother, equally powerful, is said to have borne twenty-four children and taught them to live lives that soared, like their mountains, towards heaven.

Of all their children, Keyne became one of the most cele­brated. Before she was born her mother had a vision that her womb was filled with balsam and myrrh, her breasts full of light, and the baby within a bright white dove. Keyne means “fair, beautiful, white, and bright”. “She shines like the sun and glows like drifted snow,” said the royal family. The suitors who beat a path up through the steep mountains to win her heart agreed. With suitors, brothers, sisters, extended family, and retainers crowding the castle, Keyne liked nothing better than to steal away and read about the saints who had left everything to dedicate their lives to God in the wilderness.

The night those three hundred men stormed the castle, they were led by the pagan, Farfog, who captured Keyne’s older sister, Gwladys. Although Gwladys was not averse to Farfog, her father was. Brychan roused an army; and only by the intervention of the High King Arthur was the land spared the pockmark of graves. Gwladys and Farfog did marry, and Keyne made up her mind at last. She told her parents she felt called by God to leave everything and follow where He led.

She took nothing and wove her way south until she came to the woods on the other side of the Severn River. When she asked the local king for permission to stay, he looked grave. “You are welcome but for the snakes that infest that place.”

Undeterred, Keyne built a house. People heard of the young woman who turned snakes to stone and spoke with God in the dark woods. They ventured in to seek her prayers, and eventually a community was established. God next led Keyne south and west to the very edge of the sea in Cornwall. There she uncovered an ancient well, around which she planted four trees; oak, ash, elm, and willow. Keyne lived alone and drew holy water for those who came with their ­withered limbs, sightless eyes, and feverish children. In time her four trees grew into one and after being warned in a vision, Keyne returned to the mountains named after her father, where her prayers brought forth a spring; its waters healed many. Eventually it was an old, frail, but beautiful woman who sat beside that spring.

Saint Cadoc, the son of Gwladys and Farfog, came to care for his aunt as death stepped closer. She spoke to him of a time when the love of God, like her tomb, would be forgotten. But she also predicted a time following, when men of faith would return—and her prayers of protection would be with them. They say angels came to visit her, taking off her rough brown dress and clothing her in a fine white linen tunic and a scarlet cloak woven with gold. Those who were with her when she died witnessed a pink tinge to her cheeks as well as the sweet smell that rose from her body. The day was the 8th of October in the year 505. 

Katie Thamer Treherne grew up in California before marrying an Englishman. They have four grown children. She is an artist, illustrator, and writer; her latest book, on twelve Saints of the British Isles, will be published by Second Spring in 2022.