St. Carantoc

An interesting source for the quest for the real King Arthur is the “Life of St. Carantoc” (Vita Sancti Carantoci).

The Life says that St. Carantoc was the eldest son of King Ceredig, the eponymous founder of the Kingdom of Ceredigion, the fifth son of Cunedda. After some time promoting Christianity in Ireland, he became a Christian leader in Ceredigion. There, “Christ gave him an honourable altar from on high, the colour of which no person could comprehend; and afterwards when he came to the Severn to sail over it, he cast the altar into the sea, and it went before him where God wished him to go.”

In old age, King Ceredig wanted St. Carantoc to take the kingship in his place and fight the Irish who were occupying his kingdom. St. Carantoc avoided so doing by fleeing to “the river-mouth of Guellit” or “Guerit”, led there by God’s guidance of his travel-altar. This name has been identified as from the same root as Williton, so the river is the Doniford, whose mouth is a mile east of Watchet in west Somerset, on the Exmoor coast.

Arthur was looking for “a very powerful, large and terrible serpent that had laid waste” the Carhampton area, and had picked up the saint’s altar. (Carhampton is five miles from the Doniford River.) St. Carantoc met and blessed Arthur, and asked him if he knew where his altar was. Arthur instructed St. Carantoc to first prove that he was a man of God by taming the serpent, and then he would tell him where the altar was.

Soon enough, St. Carantoc and Arthur came to the “enclosure” (i.e. hillfort) of Dindraithou, serpent in tow. “They went together to the castle, that they might salute Cador[1]; and they were well received by him.” When St. Carantoc first met Arthur, the story relates that “Cador and Arthur” were both living at Dindraithou and “were ruling” the country at that time. But as Arthur, as well as St. Carantoc, is described as saluting Cador, Cador must have been the master – the Governor in Roman terms, or king in medieval ones – with Arthur as his number two and heir apparent. This would be rational if Cador was an old man at that time with overall responsibility as Governor of Lindinis, and Arthur the young man doing most of the actual work of governing the civitas.

Dindraithou has commonly been identified as Dunster; but for no clear reason, other than that a castle was built at Dunster around 1000CE – more than five centuries after St. Carantoc’s time – and that it is very near Carhampton. There is nothing in the Life of St. Carantoc to indicate that the castle was close to his landing-place. The text implies only that it was in the same kingdom. Rather, the name Dindraithou appears to be a forerunner of the modern name Dundry. Linguistically, the similarity between both syllables, dun-dry and din-drai, is close in pronunciation, more so than in writing. The resemblance is so obvious that the abnormality of my suggesting they are the same place is astounding.

Dundry hillfort is naturally placed to control the lower Bristol Avon, which I have identified as the probable northern boundary of Lindinis. It is immediately outside the modern south-western border of the City of Bristol, on the way to Bristol Airport.

St. Carantoc, the Life says, put the serpent in the middle of the kings’ hall (i.e. their feasting hall for state business). The kings wanted to kill it, but St. Carantoc insisted that they let him take it out of the hall and send it away, commanding it to neither return nor hurt anyone again. It obeyed. The altar was produced. Arthur wanted to use it as a table, “but whatever was put on it was thrown off to some distance”, so presumably Arthur returned the altar to St. Carantoc. Cador gave St. Carantoc land at Carhampton, on which he built his church and lived there for some time. Carhampton became sufficiently prosperous over the following four centuries for Vikings to raid and sack it in 836.

St. Carantoc casting his altar into the sea and being guided by it as to where to seek refuge bears a family resemblance to other hagiographic tales, such as St. Piran crossing the sea from Ireland to Cornwall seated on a millstone, and Theneva, the mother of St. Kentigern, being forced to cross the Firth of Forth on a boat without oars or sail. St. Carantoc’s Life provides the bridge to understanding the real meaning of all Celtic hagiography’s fantastic sea-crossings. St. Carantoc sailed – he used the normal down-to-earth means of transport. But, being a saint, he surrendered his will to God’s will. He “went where God wished him to go”. His casting into the sea the altar given him by Christ is to be understood symbolically rather than literally. It represents that surrender, that worldly-reckless God-trusting letting go of control and of personal desire for his destiny, for God to guide him to wherever God wanted him to work. The place he chose to land, Doniford at the mouth of the Doniford Stream, has been proven by archaeology to have had a  small Roman settlement. So a fully rational, down-to-earth reason for St. Carantoc’s choice of landing-place would have been that he had a friend living there.

“Serpent” is known from other Christian stories as a metaphor for Druids. To fifth-century Celtic Christians, the Druids were the religious arch-enemy, the priests of the old Celtic wisdom religion that the Christians aggressively and successfully sought to displace. To Christians, the serpent was symbolically interchangeable with the Devil. The symbolism is the same as in the well-known declaration that St. Patrick drove all the snakes out of Ireland. Fifth-century Christians arrogantly believed that their faith was the only true religion; any other religion, most relevantly that of the Druids, was of the Devil – as is illustrated by the propaganda story of St. Collen meeting “devils from Annwn” on Glastonbury Tor. (Annwn is actually the Celtic name for Heaven. Glastonbury Tor was the central feature of a sacred Druidic holy land ~ see my post of 26th July 2013 on the Seven Holy Islands.)

The decision in the kings’ hall makes sense when “serpent” is translated as “Druid” (or Druid leader). It conveys in the langauge of fifth-century symbolism, that the Christian ascendancy won religious power in Lindinis that day, and that the Druids were stripped of whatever previous religious rights and responsibilities they had at Cador’s court and over Lindinis’s citizens. It may be that the metaphorical tale was remembered and handed down within the tradition of Christian abbeys long centuries after its symbolic meaning had been lost sight of. Poems such as those by Merlin and Taliesin were similarly transmitted from the sixth and seventh centuries until they were written down in the ninth; the story of Seithenyn seems to have been likewise handed down all the way to the 19th century. I know an example from as far away as Samoa of this kind of oral retention of a story in a culture after culture change had caused its original meaning to be forgotten.

The anecdote that Arthur wanted to use St. Carantoc’s altar as a table, but could not control it, is another symbolic message. It says, in language that would have been more transparent to a fifth-century mind than to a literalist-trained modern, that Christ’s is a powerful magic which was stronger than the temporally powerful warrior Arthur.

The Life of St. Carantoc reveals significant information about King Arthur. It tells us that he ruled a territory jointly with a man called Cador, from a castle – the word castle, used when the Life was written, means what in its own fifth-century period was called a kaer: a defendable Celtic royal residence, often on a hillfort, that included a feasting-hall for state banquets and diplomatic business; that this castle was in the same kingdom as Carhampton, Somerset, and had a name that was probably the forerunner of Dundry, also in Somerset; and that Arthur was a Christian, for he received and was glad of St. Carantoc’s blessing as only a Christian would have.

The Life does not give any dates, but it does give information from which approximate dates can be derived. Early in his life, St. Carantoc was in Ireland and met St. Patrick “annually” (it doesn’t say for how many years). This implies that he was a youth or young man not later than about 450. The last story in his life told is that after his time at Carhampton, he returned to Ireland “in the year that St. David was born”. For reasons that I will explain later, I calculate that St. David was born in or close to 511. These dates allow for St. Carantoc’s arrival in Somerset and meeting with Arthur-not-yet-king to have been in approximately 480.

Sceptical historians argue that the Life has no historical value, because it was written in about 1100CE: a very long time after the events it purports to record. Certainly the document as such is in no way contemporary with Arthur and the events it describes. But the question is: what was the monk who wrote the Life’s source? Hagiographers were capable of both borrowing of stories from one saint to another; and of invention. But when they did so, it was for the purpose of enhancing the sanctity of the saint they were eulogising. They were not writing historical novels for entertainment. The ‘altar is no table’ anecdote could possibly have been a reputation-enhancing invention (though there is no reason to suppose that it was: the ‘symbolic story’ explanation is fully coherent), but St. Caradoc’s meeting and blessing Arthur at Carhampton, their visiting Arthur’s overlord Cador at Dundry together, and Arthur’s living at Dundry are all plain details that would have served no hagiographic purpose to invent. Nor did they serve a propaganda purpose (as “information” in some Lives did) to boost the claims to some rights of this or that abbey or bishop. Also, the content appears to be wholly independent of all Arthurian legend. Cador, Dindraithou, Carhampton, St. Carantoc: none of them feature in any Arthurian romance, French brut, or Breton minstrel’s lay. There is no overlap. The only simple explanation that fits the facts is that the Life must have drawn on written and/or oral records at Christian monasteries, and that its descriptions of encounters of Arthur, St. Carantoc, and Cador in Somerset were representations of unembellished plain and simple truth faithfully handed down through the generations.


[1] Cador is the name modern writers usually use for this ruler, “Cato” in the Life’s Latin.

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