Kentigern of Glasgow

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Icon of St. Kentigern (Mungo), Bishop in Scotland.

Our father among the saints Kentigern of Glasgow (in Latin: Cantigernus and in Welsh: Cyndeyrn Garthwys or Kyndeyrn), also known as Saint Mungo, was a late sixth century missionary to the Brythonic Kingdom of Strathclyde. He is a patron saint of the city of Glasgow that he founded. St. Kentigern is venerated as the Apostle of what is now northwest England (including Cumbria and the Lake District) and southwest Scotland. He feast day is commemorated on January 14 in the Eastern Orthodox Church, and on January 13 in the West. He also has associations with figures from Arthurian legends, having lived in that time of transition between post-Roman Celtic Britain to pagan Anglo-Saxon domination of the island. A contemporary of St. Columba of Iona, he reposed not long after the papal Augustinian mission to Anglo-Saxon England. Saint Mungo according to tradition founded a number of churches during his period as hierarch of Strathclyde, of which Stobo Kirk is a notable example. In Scotland he is considered a patron saint of those needing help against bullies, of those accused of infidelity, and of salmon.

His life and relics

According to medieval accounts of his life, St. Kentigern's mother Teneu (St. Theneva, also Thenaw, Denyw or Dwynwen) was the daughter of the Brythonic king, Lleuddun (Latin, Leudonus), who ruled in the Haddington region of what is now Scotland, probably the Kingdom of Gododdin in the Old North. She became pregnant after being raped by Owain mab Urien, according to one source. Her furious father had her thrown from the heights of Traprain Law. Surviving, she was then abandoned in a coracle in which she drifted across the River Forth to Culross in Fife. There St. Kentigern was born. He was brought up by Saint Serf who was ministering to the Picts in that area. It was Serf who gave him his popular pet-name Mungo. At the age of twenty-five, the saint began his missionary labours on the Clyde, on the site of modern Glasgow. Christianity had been introduced to the region by Saint Ninian and his followers welcomed the saint and procured his consecration by an Irish bishop. He built his church across the water from an extinct volcano, next to the Molendinar Burn, where the present medieval cathedral now stands. For some thirteen years, he laboured in the district, living a most austere life in a small cell, and making many converts by his holy example and his preaching. But a strong anti-Christian movement in Strathclyde, headed by a certain King Morken, compelled Mungo to leave the district, and he retired to Wales, via Cumbria, staying for a time with Saint David at St David's, and afterwards moving on to Gwynedd where he founded a cathedral at Llanelwy (St Asaph in English). While there, he undertook a pilgrimage to Rome. However, the new King of Strathclyde, Riderch Hael, invited Mungo to return to his kingdom. He decided to go and appointed Saint Asaph/Asaff as Bishop of Llanelwy in his place. For some years, St. Kentigern fixed his episcopal seat at Hoddom in Dumfriesshire, evangelizing thence the district of Galloway. He eventually returned to Glasgow where a large community grew up around him, becoming known as Clas-gu (meaning the 'dear family'). It was nearby, in Kilmacolm, that he was visited by Saint Columba, who was at that time labouring in Strathtay. The two saints embraced, held long converse, and exchanged their pastoral staves. In old age, Mungo became very feeble and his chin had to be set in place with a bandage. He is said to have died in his bath, on Sunday 13 January.

On the spot where St. Kentigern was buried now stands the cathedral dedicated in his honour. His shrine was a great centre of Christian pilgrimage until the Scottish Reformation. His remains are said to still rest in the crypt. A spring called "St. Mungo's Well" fell eastwards from the apse. Saint Mungo's Well was a cold water spring and bath at Copgrove, near Ripon, North Yorkshire, formerly believed effective for treating rickets. An ancient church in Bromfield, Cumbria is named after him, as are Crosthwaite Parish Church and some other churches in the northern part of the modern county of Cumbria (historic Cumberland).

His names and their meaning

The name Kentigern, an Old English form, seems derived from an Old Welsh name, today Kyndeyrn or Cyndeyrn in Welsh, with roots meaning either "hound lord" or "chief lord." His Welsh epithet Garthwys is of unknown derivation, although it is also the name of a warrior mentioned as being in the saint's grandfather Urien's band in the early Welsh poem Y Gododdin. His nickname Mungo possibly derives from an Old Welsh form for "my dear" or "beloved." His names illustrate the multicultural world of post-Roman Britain in the sixth century, sometimes called the "Age of Arthur," in the overlapping of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon cultures and languages, although his mission work would have been in predominantly Celtic-speaking areas of western Britain.

Sources about his life

The main source for knowledge of his life today is the "Life of Saint Mungo" written by the Norman-era Cistercian monastic hagiographer, Jocelin of Furness, in about 1185. Jocelin states that he rewrote the Vita from an earlier Glasgow legend and an old Gaelic document. There are two other certain medieval accounts: the earlier partial Life in the Cottonian MSS [scholarly abbreviation for manuscripts] now in the British Library, and a later one, based on Jocelin, by John of Tynemouth. The saint also appears in Welsh and Cambro-Latin poetry and texts thought to derive from earlier sources, however. There seems little reason to doubt that Mungo was one of the first evangelists of Strathclyde, under the patronage of King Rhiderch Hael, and probably became the first Bishop of Glasgow. The Annales Cambriae record his death in 612, although the year of his death is sometimes given as 603 in other sources (his death date, Jan. 13, was on a Sunday in both years). Mungo's ancestry is recorded in the Bonedd y Saint. His father, Owain was a King of Rheged, who survives in the later legendary French Arthurian romances of Chrétien de Troyes as Yvain, as well as in other Arthurian stories. His maternal grandfather, Lleuddun, was probably a King of the legendary Gododdin; Lothian was named after him. His paternal grandfather Urien was an early Christian king of Rheged, in the "Old North" of Cumbria and the Lake District, celebrated in early poems attributed to the legendary bard Taliesin. In Scotland, excavations at Hoddom have brought confirmation of early Christian activity there, uncovering a late 6th century stone baptistery, likely to have been associated with the saint's missionary work. Jocelin's post-Schism Life seems to have altered parts of earlier accounts that he did not understand; while adding others, like the trip to Rome, that served his own purposes, largely the promotion of the Bishopric of Glasgow. Some new parts may have been collected from genuine local stories, particularly those of Mungo's work in Cumbria. His association with St. Asaph in Wales may have been a Norman invention.

Oral traditions, legends, and legacy

In the "Life of Saint Mungo," he performed four renowned miracles in Glasgow, memorialized in this verse:

Here is the bird that never flew, here is the tree that never grew, here is the bell that never rang, here is the fish that never swam.

The verses refer to the following:

The Bird refers to how the saint restored life to the pet robin of St. Serf, which had been killed by some of his classmates, hoping to blame him for its death. The Tree refers to an account of how he when had been left in charge of a fire in St. Serf's monastery, he fell asleep and the fire went out. Taking branches from a tree, he restarted the fire. The Bell is thought to have been brought by him from Rome. It was said to have been used in services and to mourn the deceased. The original bell no longer exists, and a replacement, created in the 1640s, is now on display in Glasgow. The Fish refers to the story about Queen Languoreth of Strathclyde who was suspected of infidelity by her husband. King Riderch demanded to see her ring, which he claimed she had given to her lover. In reality the King had thrown it into the River Clyde. Faced with execution she appealed for help to the saint, who ordered a messenger to catch a fish in the river. On opening the fish, the ring was miraculously found inside, which allowed the Queen to clear her name. An almost identical story concerns King Maelgwn of Gwynedd and St. Asaph.

These four miracles in Glasgow are represented in the city's coat of arms. Glasgow's current motto Let Glasgow flourish by the preaching of His word and the praising of His name and the more secular Let Glasgow flourish, are both inspired by Mungo's original call "Let Glasgow flourish by the preaching of the word." In a late 15th century fragmentary manuscript generally called "Lailoken and Kentigern," Mungo appears in conflict with the mad prophet, Lailoken alias Merlin. Lailoken's appearance at the Battle of Arfderydd in 573 has led to a connection being made between this battle, the rise of Riderch Hael and the return of Mungo to Strathclyde. The Life of Saint Mungo bears similarities with Chrétien de Troyes's French romance Yvain, the Knight of the Lion (Yvain being a derivation of Owain, Kentigern's father). In modern literary fiction, he is the patron saint of Father Brown's parish in G.K. Chesterton's "Father Brown" mystery series, and the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling refers to St. Mungo's Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries as a place for treating wizards.

In American Orthodox Christian publications, the 2001 St. Herman Calendar (from the St. Herman of Alaska Press) featured St. Kentigern Mungo on its cover.

Further reading