Vita Sancti Paterni (Life of Saint Padarn)

Here begins the life of Saint Padarn, bishop.

Overview of Padarn and his Vita

Llanberis Eglwys Sant Padarn Padarn(us) (Paternus) was an early 6th Century AD consecrated British Christian abbot-bishop.  This British Padarn and Saint Paternus of Avranches in Normandy appear to be the same person.  By tradition, it is said that Paternus of Avranches was born in Poitiers, became a monk at the Abbey of Saint-Jouin de Marnes, France, and retreated with his fellow monk, Saint Scubilion, to the forest of Scissy in the diocese of Coutances (as presented in “Lives of the Saints, For Every Day of the Year”, 1955).

According to Vita Sancti Paterni (written anonymously in the late 11th/early 12th Century AD), the British Padarn is Armorican by race, born to his father Petran and his mother Guean, as stated in section 2 (§2) of this Vita.  His parents “dedicated themselves in service to the eternal God” (also in §2), and Petran left Letavia (Brittany) for Ireland.  Thomas Wakeman, in Lives of the Cambro British Saints, names Padarn as a nephew of Hoel of Cornouaille (Duke Hoel of Armorica).

This Padarn built a monastery in Vannes and is considered one of the seven founding saints of Brittany.  John Strong Perry Tatlock, in the Speculum article “The Dates of the Arthurian Saints’ Legends”, says that Vita Sancti Paterni is one of five insular and two Breton saints’ Lives that cite King Arthur independently of Historia Regum Britanniae.  The feast day of Padarn is 16 April.  This Vita, a major source for biographical details of Padarn, may be an epitome of a previous and more extensive source.

Padarn’s early Life

According to Thomas Wakeman, Padarn became a student at Illtud’s school, Cor Tewdws.  Later Padarn founded a monastery near Aberystwyth (at Llanbadarn Fawr).  It became the seat of a new diocese with Padarn as its first bishop.  Circa AD 524, Padarn left a trusted steward in charge and proceeded to Ireland to reunite with his father.  He joined a fellowship of monks led by his cousin, Saint Cadvan.  In many saints’ Lives of the era, there is an aristocratic military function in Padarn’s career.

Among those with whom he travelled were his cousins.  They appointed Padarn as the fourth leader of their troop, saying, “Since the Lord has made thee to excel in morals, it behoves that thou shouldest rule over peoples …” (from §6 of Vita Sancti Paterni).  Eric Maddem tells us, in his Snowdonia Folk Tales, that Padarn’s spiritual countenance was sufficient to calm the armies of the kings of two provinces (“By the grace of his countenance the devils of discord are driven away.  Perpetual peace springs up between both provinces, eternal unity is born from God, so that as a sign of the unity of the men the woods of one province” depend on the downfall of the woods of the other province) §10.

Maelgwn and Padarn

After Padarn returned to Llanbadarn Fawr, Maelgwn of Gwynedd tried to cheat him out of property belonging to the monastery.  Two of Maelgwn’s messengers were ruined by “trial by ordeal of boiling water”.  Blistered and thwarted, “Their souls in raven-forms fly to the riverbed, which unto this day by the name of one of them is called … Graban.”, as quoted from §18 of Vita Sancti Paterni.  First, Maelgwn is cursed.

Then he is cured of his illness and sightlessness when he arrives to ask Padarn forgiveness.  Maelgwn bestows lands on Padarn’s community, which are laid out with the precision of a deed: a quantity of land from the mouth of the Rheidiol River to the limit of the Clarach River; and along the extent of the same river, to the sea; as paraphrased from Arthur W Wade-Evans (§19 of Vita Sancti Paterni).  In addition to the church at Llanbadarn Fawr, there is a second church dedicated to Padarn, in Llanberis, Gwynedd.

Pilgrimage and Successful Return

In this Vita, Padarn travels on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem with Saint David and Saint Teilo, for all three are to be ordained bishops by the patriarch.  Eric Maddem tells us that along the way Padarn and his fellow travellers acquire the gift of tongues so that to whomever they spoke understood them in their own language.  The patriarch gave Paternus (Padarn) two gifts, a crozier (hooked staff as a symbol of holy office) and a finely woven tunic.

According to Kristen Lee Over (in Kingship, Conquest, and Patria), on their return, they amicably divided Britannia into three bishoprics.  Padarn finally returned to Letavia (Brittany), where his fame filled the region, and he “made peace” with bishop Samson in Vannes.  Padarn built a monastery in Vannes, and subsequently also made a peace with the existing six bishops of Armorica (of which he had become the seventh).

Arthur and Padarn

In a renowned episode, King Arthur attempts to steal Padarn’s cloak and afterward becomes Christian.  Even though it is not early enough to be reliable (late 11th/early 12th Century), the occurrence was probably meant to increase Padarn’s prestige and credibility as a saint by being granted credit for “Christianising” the leader who allegedly defeated the “Saxons” with the help of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary in the battle of Mount Badon (as given in the early 9th Century AD Historia Brittonum).

According to Eric Maddem, the author of Vita Sancti Paterni seems to confuse this Padarn with Padarn Beisrud or Pesrut (of the Red Robe), whose coat was one of the Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain.  Incidentally, Padarn Beisrud was the grandfather of the great Cunedda Wledig.

The Arthurian episode is as follows (§21 of this Vita, paraphrased from Arthur W Wade-Evans):

After much labour at sea, Padarn rested in his church.  While traversing on either side of the

region, the tyrant Arthur came to the cell of the Bishop Saint Padarn.  While addressing Padarn,

Arthur desired the Saint’s tunic for his own.  The saint answering said, “This tunic is not

fitting for the habit of … [a] malign person, but for the habit of the clerical office.”  Arthur left

in a rage.  He later returned in wrath to take the tunic against the counsels of his companions.

One of Padarn’s disciples saw Arthur returning in fury.  He ran to the Saint and

declared, “The tyrant has returned.  He is stamping, and thus levels the ground beneath his

feet.”  Padarn responded “Nay, may the earth swallow him.”  With that, the earth opened and

swallowed Arthur to his chin.  He immediately acknowledged his guilt and began to praise both

God and Padarn, until, while he begged forgiveness, the earth delivered him up.  On bent knees,

Arthur begged the Saint for indulgence, which Padarn granted.  Arthur took Padarn as his

continual patron.  He then left the presence of the Saint.

Padarn died c AD 550.  In §28 of Vita Sancti Paterni, it reads “After the death of saint Padarn, a terrible famine invaded …”.


Even though there is some confusion by the author of Vita Sancti Paterni as to the coherent identity of Padarn, Vita is filled with work and prayer.  Son of Petran and Guean, Padarn is dedicated from the start.  He founds monasteries in both Wales and Brittany.  Being a nephew of  Duke Hoel of Armorica, he is able to make a larger name for himself.

Padarn is one of seven saints of his era to encounter “Arthur”, although all of those saints may not have had dealings with the same Arthur.  (Those meetings are independent of the Arthurian episodes in Historia Regum Britanniae.)  Padarn is considered one of the seven founding saints of Brittany (not necessarily the same seven saints who encountered “Arthur”), and Padarn becomes the seventh bishop of Brittany.

He studied with saints, bishops, and military men.  He fights off tyrants such as Maelgwn of Gwynedd, and even tests (or rather tortures) Maelgwn’s messengers using “trial by ordeal of boiling water”.  Padarn not only travels between Wales and Brittany but also to Ireland and even Jerusalem.  His encounter with “Arthur” paints the picture of a tyrant attempting to steal the “blesséd” Padarn’s tunic.The Padarn in this episode is most likely an amalgam of at least two, including Padarn Beisrud (grandfather of Cunedda).

Fighting this Arthur with words, rather than with physical prowess, is meant to show the superiority of “holy men” over “warriors and tyrants”.  In this Vita and other saints’ Lives of the time, Arthur appears unable to accomplish tasks (whether against a saint or in the presence of one).  By prayer and the “utterance of holy words”, the saints can do what Arthur cannot.  Vita Sancti Paterni adds another episode to the list of meetings with “Arthur of the saints’ Lives”.

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