It may interest us to pause just a second to notice the story of Kentigern’s life more closely. All of the early writers weave about him much which we know to be fable. All the early chronicles and histories of the early period are more or less obscured by a similar process. Gildas and Bede relate in connection with the great men of whom they write, and concerning the epochal movements which they record, the most preposterous stories of the miraculous. Holy water cured terrible diseases; the presence of the bones of saints restored life! However, scholars have been able to distinguish much of historical value.
A very few have questioned the fact that such a person as Kentigern, or in modern English Ewen or Ewing, we may properly call him, the great Cymric Briton Christian preacher, ever lived. But such a doubt ignores the facts. That that Eugenius, more generally known as Kentigern, existed, was a great preacher, and much concerning him and his times and his contemporaries are far more historical than much which the learned accept as the history of early pre-Scotland.
The most accessible information regarding Kentigern is The Lives of St. Ninian and Saint Kentigern, edited from the best manuscripts by Bishop Alex. P. Forbes, D. C. L., and published in volume five of The Historians of Scotland, which came from the press in Edinburgh in 1874. In that work Bishop Forbes gives both the original and an annotated translation of the manuscripts containing the earliest extant histories of Kentigern. Only part of one of the manuscripts survived “the all-devouring scythe of Time.” The surviving original is in the British Museum. The evidence indicates that it was written by a cleric in 1164. Fordun refers to an old life of Kentigern which he had seen in the “libro de Dunfermlyn,” and Forbes is inclined to believe that Fordun saw the original production of 1164. However, the Life of Saint Kentigern, by Jocelinus, a monk of Furness, written in 1190, is our chief source of information regarding Kentigern; and also a source of informing light upon Kentigern’s day. There is no question that these works treat of the life and times of Kentigern, or Mungo, or Eugenius, or Ewen (not improperly used as to him interchangeably), described as the bishop of Glasgow, and known to history as the great Cymric of the Strathclyde kingdom. (I am aware that some writers discard as “purely fictitious” all that is said about Loth, Thenew, and Ewen. See, for instance, a translation from the Aberdeen Breviary and the Arbuthnott Missol, by Rev. Wm. Stephenson, in Legends and Commemorative Celebrations of St. Kentigern, 1874. But for the same reason we would discard Bede and other early writers now generally accepted as the foundations of Scotch history.) Jocelyn’s work, to see the more modern spelling of the author’s name, says Bishop Forbes, “affords to us almost the only apparently authentic record which we possess of certain events which took place in the obscure history of the little kingdom of Cumbria, Combria, or Strathclyde, and it supplies confirmation of others which occurred among the kindred nations of the Wealas,” or Welsh.
Jocelyn says that there was in use by the church of his day a life of Kentigern “stained throughout by an uncultivated diction, discolored and obscured by an inelegant style, and what beyond all things any wise man would abhor, in the very commencement of the narrative something contrary to sound doctrine and to the Catholic faith very evidently appeareth.” Jocelyn, as he thus admits, was a monk of the Roman church. Kentigern was not a Roman Catholic; and Jocelyn further admits that he found no life of Kentigern which gives the fiction of later writers that Kentigern’s remains (relics, the clergy calls them) were translated; and no story of the many miracles performed after Kentigern had died. The faith of Kentigern’s day must have been freer from the absurdities which befogged later adherents of the Christian faith. So, dissatisfied with the more numerous copies of Kentigern’s life, Bishop Jocelyn says he “sought diligently” and found “an other little volume written in the Scotic dialect, filled from end to end with solicisms (sic), but containing at great length the life and acts of the holy bishop,” Kentigern. Forbes says “there seems no reason to accuse Joceline of falsehood in his statement.” The Scotic dialect was the tongue then spoken by the Scots of Ulster, and has no reference to later Scotch. Into that old work Jocelyn attempted “to pour the life-giving wine.” The original is now gone; but it seems evident that from all these sources he gave us a reasonably reliable story of the main events of Kentigern’s life. It is an irreparable loss that we have not the original as he found it, however.
Contemporary Irish Annalists mention Kentigern and his great Christian achievements; and he finds ample notice in the early Welsh poetry, and there is a record of him in the Saxon and Welsh additions to the Historia Britonum; and elsewhere there is much reliable evidence of him. To this day many churches dedicated at an early day to him are known; and St. Mungo’s well, a fine spring near one of them, certainly derived its name from him.
Therefore, speaking of work by Joceline and of the fragment by the unknown author, Forbes, says:
That, with every abatement, both lives of Saint Kentigern contain matters of history cannot be safely denied. … Saint Kentigern was an abiding reality in the minds of the people when both lives of the bishop were written.
This, and much more, is all very interesting as general history, but to us what those old works say of Kentigern’s parentage and the surroundings and scenes of his life work are more important.
The fragment of the life of Kentigern is believed to be older than Jocelyn’s work. In the former the unknown author says that “the blessed Bishop Kentigern’s mother was Thaney,” the daughter of “King Leudonus, a man half pagan, from whom the province over which he ruled obtained the name Leudonia in Northern Britannia.” This girl, “so far as her faith was concerned,” was a Christian, “and set herself most devoutly (sic) to learn what she could of the Christian rites.” She “had for a suitor a most graceful young man, namely, Ewen the son of Erwegende, sprung from a most noble stock of the Britons.” Later this author says that this young Briton “in the Gestes of the Histories is called Ewen, son of King Ulien.” But Thaney was so absorbed in one phase of Bible information that she would not listen to Ewen. Thaney’s father greatly favored Ewen; and, when “gentle speeches” had failed, “gave his daughter the alternative of accepting Ewen or being turned over to the care of a swineherd.” She chose “the service of the swineherd,” and thereupon old King Loth became very wroth, and turned her over to the swineherd. She was most kindly treated; but Ewen “was exceedingly sad at heart for her loved her much.” Ewen has beardless; and, therefore, very young; but he was adroit and he lived in a day when women were made captive slaves as booty of war. So he dressed as a woman, sought Thaney's company; and “by chaste embrace … sought to raise her from the care of swine to a royal palace, and make her, instead of the keeper of hogs, a lady over knights.” Thaney was thus, in the one moment of that embrace, deceived; and also Ewen was deceived, for he got a wrong impression which was not corrected until “a long time afterwards by Saint Kentigern, his son” by Princess Thaney. But when the affair came to the ears of old King Loth, he decreed the death of his daughter. Accordingly, for the old clerics (sic) never failed to befog the real facts they recorded by impossible supernatural colorings, she was thrown over the Troprein Rock, but miraculously escaped unhurt. Next she was put into a coracle, that is, a boat made of hides, and carried “down the Clyde estuary into deep water beyond the Isle of May.” But, oh! “all the fishes of that self-same coat attended her in procession as their mistress, and after the day of her departure the take of fish there ceased.” Again right here creeps in another bit of history; about the Isle of May, when that old writer wrote, “fish were found there in such great abundance, that from every shore of the sea, from England, Scotland, and even from Belgium and France, very many fishermen came for the sake of fishing.” So the boat landed its burden upon the shore; and when the child was born it was taken into a nearby ecclesiastical school over which the great teacher Servanus presided.
To our regret and loss the remainder of that life of Kentigern is lost. So much of the old copy as remains to us is in Latin. Our name in the original is spelled as in the English translation:
Erat namque ejus juvenis guidam elegantissimus, Ewen videlicet filius Erwegende, noblissima Brittonum, prosapia ortus. … In gestis histori arum vocatur Ewen filius regis Ulien.
Jocelyn gives us a full record of what he terms “the glorious life of the most famous Kentigern,” “famous for his race and beauty,” saying the mother of Kentigern “was the daughter of a certain king, most pagan in his creed,” and tells us that the boy was educated and brought up by Saint Servanus, and that the monk christened the young boy Kentigern and the mother Taneu, and that in the language of that country the boy was commonly called Monghu. Kyentgern is a Welsh word, and suggests the Welsh or Cymric origin of Kentigern. When grown Kentigern left Servanus’ school, in due time was consecrated bishop of the Briton church, and “established his cathedral seat in a town called Glesgu, which is, interpreted, The Dear Family, and is now called Glasgu, where he united to himself a famous and God-beloved family of servants of God … who lived after the fashion of the primitive church,” says Jocelyn. What Jocelyn calls the Cumbrian Kingdom, which he says “reached from sea to sea,” was the region over which Kentigern “presided as bishop.” Kentigern was the thorough esthetic; he slept on a stone couch, a stone for a pillow; immersed to his neck in the stream near his home while he chanted the Psalter; and “no corruption of the rebellious (sic) flesh either waking or even sleeping polluted or defiled the lily of his snow white modesty.” His “speech was flavored with salt,” and “honey and milk were under his tongue.” “Yet the saint preached more by his silence than many doctors and rulers do by loud speaking.” He was cheerful, ruddy, robust, beautiful. He “raised the dead,” harnessed under one yoke a stag and a wolf and plowed nine acres; he sowed sand and harvested from it wheat!
The monkish interpolation of untruth in the life of Kentigern, as I have said, is not peculiar to his biographers. For instance, St. Colman was always awakened at the proper moment by a mouse; and the line at which he left off reading was always marked by a fly!
Finally paganism triumphed against Kentigern for a season and he fled to Wales. He visited Rome to consult the Pope, according to Jocelyn, tho that statement must be taken with caution, as I know of no corroboration. Jocelyn was a loyal Roman Catholic. At length Kentigern was recalled by Rydderch. Rydderch, divested of royal robes, gave homage to Kentigern, handed over to him the dominion and princedom of all his kingdom. Kentigern gladly grasped this opportunity for the re-establishment of Christianity in the Strathclyde kingdom under Rydderch’s dominion. (Series of Chronicles and Memorials. Published by authority of the Lords Commissioners of Her Majesty’s Treasury under the Direction of the Right Honorable the Lord-Clerk Register of Scotland, edited by Skene—pp. cliv. clv., 255).
Kentigern Ewen died on or near the spot where Glasgow Cathedral now stands, in a window of which some one, years ago as we have seen, placed our ancestor’s coat of arms, possibly in recognition of the descent of our progenitors from the clan founded by Kentigern’s Ewen ancestor. Kentigern Ewen generally is regarded as the founder of that cathedral.
Page last updated 13 October 2008.