Saint Keyne – Equal Rights for 5th Century Women

saint keyne

We often think of saints as somehow ethereal beings who did miraculous, unbelievable things in far-away lands and in times so distant from our own.  And let’s face it some of them very much live up to that reputation.  But we shouldn’t forget that they were actually real people.

The Real Saint Keyne

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 three 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.

King Brychan with 11 of his children on his lap

Sadly her father Brychan hasn’t really made it into the history books for being anything other than a 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!

“St Keyne was a very lovely maiden and retained her chastity by the strength of her purity. She was also able to turn snakes into colis of stone.”

The folklore of Cornwall, 1975

A Woman on a Mission

Saint Keyne was a woman with a mission.  She wanted to see something 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.

St. Keyne’s Holy Well

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.

“This is Cornwall’s most famous well, for its waters provided mastery in marriage.”

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 not only have the chance at an equal partnership with their husband but also rule the roost.  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 with her to the church on their wedding day:

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 of course those 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!

Further reading

The Giant’s Crossing – Statue of Saint Piran, a journey to Brittany

Saint Germoe’s Chair

For another story of an interesting place near Looe try Cornwall’s Oldest Road

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15 thoughts on “Saint Keyne – Equal Rights for 5th Century Women

  1. I have a sci fi novel self-published. I chose for the instrument the name Malapert Press. A malapert is someone who delivers “saucy speech,” and even though the definition doesn’t say so, all the examples you can find are women. You won’t find a lad among them. So in reality, it’s “saucy speech from a woman.” Even though my little sci fi novel is intended for the most faithful of faithful Catholics (the characters set up a Catholic religious state on a terrific asteroid, for example) to whom a pert woman would be distasteful–I couldn’t help myself. Even in the Faith, there’s a bit of room for equaling things up. So then, I love this tale. Here’s to malaperts the world over.

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