We think of saints as being ethereal characters who did unbelievable things in distant lands and in unknown times. And lets face it some of them very much live up to that reputation. But we shouldn’t forget that they were also real people.
Saint Keyne was the daughter of King Brychan of Wales and his wife, Gwlady. And apart from being royal this was
no ordinary 5th century family. Brychan had an impressive 24 children with 3 different wives (Christmas and birthdays must have been a nightmare). His first wife, poor woman, produced 15 children for this mammoth brood and one of those was our lovely Keyne.
Sadly her father Brychan hasn’t really made it into the history books for being anything other than an celebrated producer of numerous progeny!
As for his daughter, well, whether it was seeing her poor mother in a perpetual state of pregnancy or the call of something greater Keyne decided that married life was not for her. Before leaving her home in Brecknock in South Wales she reportedly turned down the advances of several young suitors and she remained single until her dying day!
A Woman on a Mission
Saint Keyne was a woman with a mission. She wanted to see some of the world and spread a little Christianity on the way. This she pretty much achieved, spending the rest of her life travelling through Wales, Somerset and Cornwall and according to legend founded numerous churches along the way. She is meant to have arrived in Cornwall in around 490AD and had a little holiday on St Michaels Mount, Penzance with her cousin, Saint Cadoc. Saint Keyne you see came from a very saintly family, no less than 14 of her siblings were canonized. Many of them have connections with Cornwall also – Morwenna, Clether, Nectan, Ive, Maybn to name just a few.
After a long life spreading the word of the Lord far and wide Saint Keyne decided to settle in Cornwall and made her home in a valley not far from Looe. In this valley there was a beautiful spring of fresh running water and she loved the spot so much that she planted trees there to add some shade – an oak, an ash, a withy and an elm. On her death bed she asked to be brought to lie beside it so that she could listen to the soothing babble of the stream. It was this spring that Saint Keyne blessed with her dying breath and bestowed upon it a special power which every woman in the county soon heard of.
For once here was a well that wasn’t supposed to cure rickets, infertility or lumbago! This well was meant to give equal rights to women!
Women Get the Upperhand
The story goes that who ever drank from this well would have the upper-hand in their marriage. For the first time perhaps a woman could have the chance at an equal partnership with their husband. John Murray wrote about the well in 1859 in his guide to Cornwall. He claimed that belief in it’s mystical powers was still common. Robert Southey also recorded the powers of the well a comical little rhyme:
A well there is in the west country
A clearer one never was seen.
There is not a wife in the west country
But has heard of the Well of Saint Keyne.
The poem tells the tale of a foolish Cornishman who is out-manoeuvred trying to reach the precious water of the well first when his smart wife takes a flask of it to the marriage with her:
I hastened as soon as the marriage was done
And left my wife in the porch
But in faith she was wiser than I
For she had took a bottle to the church
Sadly the trees Saint Keyne planted are long gone, Mabel and Lillian Quiller-Couch report in their guide to holy wells in 1894 that they were blown down in a fierce gale in 1709. It is however still a wonderfully secluded and beautiful spot to visit. I have to admit I did have a little sip of the water too . . . just in case!
For another story of an interesting place near Looe try Cornwall’s Oldest Road