(Revised January 27, 2020)
St. Padarn of Wales
Commemorated April 15/281
As with our study on St. David, it is recommended to read Dmitry Lapa’s work on St Padarn for a brief, yet clear review on this saint’s life and impact upon Wales. Here, the following essay presents an alternative theory to the identity of the third Rich Fisherman from Machen’s The Great Return.
A contemporary of David, St. Padarn flourished in the fifth to sixth centuries. Often known by the Latin name of Paternus, details of Padarn’s life are difficult to fully ascertain as no early history survives. This is further complicated by later documents which tend to conflate several figures into one. A “Padarn” is even woven into the Arthurian legends. Yet, a figure known as Saint Padarn did walk, work and establish churches and monasteries among the Celts.
Unlike other major Welsh saints such as David or Teilo, or even St. Ilar, a more obscure figure, a search of Arthur Machen’s writings does not readily offer up the name of Padarn. He simply remains hidden. To uncover him, we should begin with literature from a much remoter period than Arthur Machen.
While no early vita2 for Padarn is known to survive, there were later attempts to construct a history of the saint. From around 1120 AD, we have one such hagiography known as Vita Sancti Paternus. For this essay, we will be quoting pertinent passages from this document. For those so inclined, we have made it available in its complete form.
From the Life of St. Padarn:
“…a heavenly messenger comes to saint David in Rosina Vallis, serving Christ God, and says to him, ‘Rise and go to Jerusalem, that thou be ordained there. Join to thee two worthy companions, who likewise may be ordained, that is, Padarn and Teilo.’”
Obeying this heavenly command, the journey of these three saints from Britain to the Middle East is briefly told. Once ordained by the Patriarch of Jerusalem, they are presented with gifts: David received an altar; Teilo a bell; and Padarn a bachall (or staff) and a cloak. On the return to Wales, “They divided Britannia into their three episcopacies.”
This scenario is echoed in another vita, this one for St. Teilo, also written around the same time:
“God, therefore, seeing that they were adorned with so many virtues adjudged that they should be promoted to ecclesiastic dignities; and sent His angel to the holy men to inform them that they were to go to the holy city of Jerusalem, and there receive the rewards of their warfare. The holy men, namely, Teilo and David, being in all things obedient to their God, durst not resist the divine appointment, but associating with them Padarn, one dear to God, the three, in the name of the Holy Trinity, commenced the appointed journey…”
And, again, the theme of gifts are harmonious across the two texts: “Padarn had a staff,3 and a choral cap, made of very valuable silk, because they observed that he was an excellent singer.”
Because of their late dates, and the ecclesial issues of the twelfth century, these later hagiographies are best accepted as products of their time rather than strictly faithful records. Indeed, many would consider these documents as fanciful legends and nothing more. While there were three historical bishops named David, Teilo and Padarn with historical episcopates, the journey to Jerusalem can not be proven. It is perhaps improbable, however, I insist that it is not impossible. It is known that there was contact between the ancient Celts of the British Isles and the Eastern Churches. For example, there is much in common in terms of asceticism and monasticism between Wales and that of Egypt or Palestine.4
And, this historical reality is acknowledged by Machen. Referring to the work of Evelyn Underhill,5 he wrote: “She suggests that there was a strong Egyptian influence in Celtic Christendom.” 6
Returning to the Vita Sancti Paternus, we find an intriguing anecdote. It follows in full:
“When Padarn was in his church resting after so much labour at sea, a certain tyrant, Arthur by name, was traversing the regions on either side, who one day came to the cell of saint Padarn the bishop. And while he was addressing Padarn, he looked at the tunic, which he, being pierced with the zeal of avarice, sought for his own. The saint answering said, ‘This tunic is not fitting for the habit of any malign person, but for the habit of the clerical office.’ He went out of the monastery in a rage. And again he returns in wrath, that he might take away the tunic against the counsels of his own companions. One of the disciples of Padarn seeing him returning in fury, ran to saint Padarn and said, ‘The tyrant, who went out from here before, is returning. Reviling, stamping, he levels the ground (beneath) with his feet’. Padarn answers ‘Nay rather, may the earth swallow him.’ With the word straightway the earth opens the hollow of its depth, and swallows Arthur up to his chin. He immediately acknowledging his guilt begins to praise both God and Padarn, until, while he begs forgiveness, the earth delivered him up. From that place on bent knees he begged the saint for indulgence, whom the saint forgave. And he took Padarn as his continual patron, and so departed.”
This strange episode represents one of the earliest appearances of a certain King Arthur. Unlike the later romances, he is considered a tyrant. This excerpt recalls Padarn Beisrudd, or Padarn Redcoat, who may have been a Roman official of the fifth century. Historically factual or not, Padarn Redcoat became a figure of Welsh legend as a keeper of one of the Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain. His possession was a cloak which would not fit a coward. Another one of these reputed treasures is the Mantle of King Arthur.
Curiosities, to be sure, but what has all this to do with Arthur Machen?
Quite simply, this is a confluence of two of his greatest interests: the ancient Celtic Church and the legends of the Holy Grail. These two subjects occupied much of his thought and a sizable portion of his bibliography. At various points, both come together in his fiction and nonfiction work.
In 1907, The Academy periodical published a trilogy of essays by Machen entitled The Sangraal, in which he articulated a theory that the romantic legends of the Grail were, in part, embellishments of the early Celtic saints, such as David. This theory went counter to many other ideas of the era, including fertility or gnostic cults. Throughout these essays, among Machen’s best work, he quotes from saintly vitae and the romances, and speculates on the lost Celtic Liturgy. (The original incarnation of The Sangraal can be found the Darkly Bright edition of The Great Return.) While he does not mention directly the saint Padarn, Machen does speak briefly on his possible double, Padarn Beisrudd from legend.7
The crucial importance of these endeavors lies in the fact that Machen’s research as found in The Sangraal essays form the narrative underpinning of his novella The Great Return (1915). In that story, mysterious events occur to the people of a small Welsh village of Llantrisant, or Church of the Three Saints. Fittingly, a trio of unnamed figures, known only as The Rich Fishermen, herald the return of the Holy Grail. As the story progresses, witnesses offer descriptions of the visitors, including one bearing an altar and another a bell. As we have seen, these artifacts come directly from the medieval vitae, and therefore, allows us to identify both Sts. David and Teilo as two of the Fishermen. 8
And the third? Here, we discover a rise in difficulty. Yet, Machen once declared that there could be no fun without difficulty. 9
Unlike the altar and bell, Machen does not furnish us with a similar clue. In the text of the novella, we can find no staff or red cape. The third figure is not described as having either of these items, but only that he carries the Chalice. Despite this, we can make an educated guess of the final Fisherman’s identity as belonging to St. Padarn. Most easily, we can suggest this because of our (and Machen’s) knowledge of him as a companion to David and Teilo on their journey to Jerusalem for ordination and the reception of heavenly gifts.
However, by digging deeper, we can discover not only more evidence of Padarn’s place in the story, but Machen’s own love and commitment to mystery and wonder. To do this, we should consider the church of a nonfictional village of Llantrisant. Today, the three saints of this parish are thought to be Peter, Paul and John. Yet, some have doubted it.
From an earlier essay of mine:
“If correct, this application of saintly identities curiously brings us back to… that Llantrisant which is situated in the eastern Wales country of Gwent, Machen’s homeland. Consulting the aforementioned Out and About in Monmouthshire by the historian [Fred J.] Hando, we discover:
‘Backed by the emerald hills, The Church of the Three Saints stood, an emblem of age-old goodness, beauty and truth. Who were the three saints? Were they, as we are told Peter, Paul and John? Is it not more probable that they were the saints known in the Welsh triads as the Blessed Visitors of Britain—David, Padarn and Teilo?’
This suspicion is not unique to Hando, but can be found in A History of Monmouth by Sir Joseph Bradney. Crucially, Machen and Hando enjoyed a decades-long friendship and both men were steeped in the lore and geography of their native country. Not only did Machen supply the introduction to Hando’s The Pleasant Land of Gwent (1944), but Hando dedicated a entire chapter of the book to Machen’s childhood in the area.
Is Hando right about the true identity of the saints of this particular church?10 The historical veracity of this claim isn’t necessary, nor even Machen’s personal belief in it, only his probable knowledge of it. The scenario of a hidden, secret patronage of early Celtic saints proves a delightful concept and one which harmonizes with the spirit of the novella.” 11
Saint Padarn, a historical Father of the Church in Wales, has often been veiled in a cloak of mystery. From purported journeys to the Christian East or his likely transformation into Padarn Redcoat of romantic legends, he has often been obscured throughout history and in literature. Machen, no doubt aware of him, casts Padarn, however secretly, as a hieroglyph, or type of icon bearing the Grail, which is Machen’s hieroglyphic symbol par excellence. Both the Grail and the figure of Padarn relate an unknowable and ineffable mystery.
And, like the Grail, Padarn remains hidden from our clouded sight, but able to burst upon us at any time.
1 Feast dates for saints are given for new and old calenders.
2 A vita is a history of a person’s life, most notably a saint. In such a case, it can be equated with hagiography.
3 An ancient poem on the subject of Padarn’s episcopal staff survives:
The Englyn on Padarn’s Staff
Amdinnit trynit trylenn.
Amtrybann teirbann treisguenn.
Amcen creiriou gurth cyrrguenn.
Amdifuys dual bacl patern.
Much accomplishing, much loved, it gives protection,
Its holy power reaching the limits of three continents.
No other relic can be compared with Cyrwen-
A wonderful gift – Padarn’s Staff.
The Beginnings of Welsh Poetry. ed. Rachel Bromwich. Cardiff: UoW Press, 1972.
4 A recent and excellent volume on this East-West connection is The Egyptian Desert in the Irish Bog (2001) by Fr. Gregory Telepneff.
5 Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941) was an Anglican writer best remembered for the studies Mysticism (1911) and Worship (1936). However, lesser known is her fiction work. Her novel Column of Dust (1909) was dedicated to Machen and his second wife, Purefoy. Underhill is commemorated by the Church of England on June 15th.
6 Machen edited and revised The Sangraal essays for inclusion in the collection The Shining Pyramid (1925). This quote comes from that later version, retitled The Secret of the Sangraal.
7 The Great Return, page 73. Darkly Bright Edition, 2017.
8 Furthermore, the portable altar is also discussed by Machen in The Sangraal. (The Great Return, page 82. Darkly Bright Edition, 2017.)
9 For an Evening News article of November 8, 1915 entitled “How Should We Spend Christmas?,” Machen writes: “I want something a little difficult, for there is no fun without difficulty; something mysterious like the jigsaw puzzle-or the Universe.”
10 After the Norman Conquest, the native British Church went through a period of Latinization. As a part of this process, many churches originally dedicated to a Celtic saint were rededicated according to Roman custom. So, it is quite possible the Hando is correct. For more on this subject, refer to The Settlements of the Celtic Saints in Wales by E. G. Bowen (University of Wales Press, 1954).
11 The Village of the Three Saints, Christopher Tompkins. (The Great Return, pages 129-30. Darkly Bright Edition, 2017.)