The Legend of Saint Collen of Llangollen

St.Collen parish church: Stained glass window ( 1986 ) showing Saint Collen – by Wolfgang Sauber – CC BY-SA 3.0

Early life of St Collen

Saint Collen was a 7th century warrior monk who appeared to be more interested in living a life of quiet dedication to his religion, than fighting.  Nevertheless when he was called upon he proved to be a brave and effective warrior.  He gave his name to the Welsh town of Llangollen, with Llan meaning religious settlement, and golen, a derivative of Collen, which means hazel.  He built a church on the south bank of the River Dee which is the only one in Wales dedicated to him.  He is often associated with the 13th century Colan Church which is also known as St Colan Church in the Cornish village of  Colan, and Langolen a small community in Brittany, France.  Not much is known about his early years but he was believed to have been educated in Orleans, Gaul, staying there for about eight years before returning to his homeland to live in Porth Hanwig, which is now known as Southampton in England.

Fighting for the Pope

According to legend a pagan warrior chief from Greece by the name of Bras was ravaging parts of continental Europe with his war-bands.  Bras challenged the Papacy to find a champion who would fight him in single combat.  The losers would have to convert to the religion of the winner.  The Pope took this challenge seriously and possibly through some form of divine intervention was inspired to send emissaries to look for his champion to Porth Hanwig. Collen was the man they found and fortunately he was prepared to take up the challenge.

At the appointed time and venue the duel took place with the Pope and his retinue and the followers of Bras watching. Soon after the fight began Bras dealt Collen a blow which wounded his hand.  Bras offered him the opportunity to surrender and sportingly offered him a jar of magic ointment that would heal his wound.  The ointment was accepted by Collen who applied it and it healed his hand but refused to surrender.  Instead he threw the jar into a nearby river preventing either of them from using it again.  The fight then resumed and Collen managed to defeat Bras and made him beg for mercy.  Collen agreed to spare his adversary but insisted that the original terms of the fight be followed.  Bras agreed and the Pope baptized him there and then.  As was agreed his followers and people were also baptized and became Christians.

In gratitude for his services the Pope gave Collen a miraculous lily which was also a holy relic which was said to have been present at the Virgin Birth of Jesus. Although it had withered it had once flowered again in the presence of doubting pagans who dismissed the possibility of the Virgin Birth. Its miraculous flowering was seen as a divine sign of proof that the Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus. This holy relic was later kept and revered in the cathedral of the city of Worcester in Britain.

Glastonbury Tor


Glastonbury Tor – Attribution: Alan Simkins – CC BY-SA 2.0

Collen returned to Britain, settling in Colan, near Newquay after spending time at Langolen, Brittany.  Later, he moved to Ynys Witrin which is now known as Glastonbury where he became a monk.  It only took three months before he was promoted to abbot. Life in an abbey did not seem to suit hims and he then spent the next three years traveling around the countryside preaching the Gospel to the local people.  Eventually he returned to the abbey seeming to settle down for five years, but he had become so disillusioned with the society of his time he became a hermit living near a spring at the foot of Glastonbury Tor

Gwyn ap Nudd

One day at this hermitage he overheard two of the followers of Gwyn ap Nudd, the King of Annwyn, or the Otherworld, who was also known as the King of the Faeries. Disgusted with them he angrily admonished the men who lived locally telling them it was wrong to believe in such demons.

The two local men were unrepentant and told Collen that he would be invited to recant his words and would be visited by the messengers of  Gwyn ap Nudd.  Shortly afterwards a messenger of the King of Annwyn’s messengers arrived at Collen’s hermitage summoning him to a meeting with Gwyn on top of Glastonbury Tor.  The messengers were dressed in red and blue which were the colors of Gwyn ap Nudd. Collen refused to go and turned them away.  This happened twice more and he became annoyed with the messenger’s attitude so he bottled some holy water and climbed to the top of the tor.

On the summit, to his surprise, he found a beautiful castle which he had not seen before.  It was manned and guarded by the most strikingly handsome and best presented soldiers he had ever seen.  They were all dressed in the colors of blue and red, which were the colors of Gwyn ap Nudd.  Wonderful music filled the air and beautiful maidens danced and sang.  From the ramparts a herald dressed in blue and red hailed him and blew on a trumpet.  From the castle door an emissary came dressed in blue and red and respectfully escorted Collen into the castle to the hall of the King of Annwyn who sat amid his courtiers on his golden throne.

Gwyn invited Collen to sit and dine with him offering the finest food and drink imaginable.  He clapped his hands and the most wonderful entertainments began and Collen was most graciously treated by the King of Annwyn’s followers.  Gwyn told Collen that if he would stay he would give him anything his heart desired. He asked him if he had ever seen soldiers and followers as fair as those that followed him wearing  his red and blue colors. Despite all these fair folk and the great temptations Collen was not moved or in any way inspired by the promises.  Sternly, he told Gwyn he saw the red as meaning they would all burn in hell and the blue as the coldness of the corpse.  Quickly taking out his holy water he sprinkled it over the King of Annwyn and his folk and instantly Gwyn ap Nudd, the castle and all of his followers disappeared leaving Collen alone on the Tor.

Finding his sanctuary

Despite his victory over the King of the Otherworld, Collen became dismayed by what had happened and he prayed to God asking him for a place where he might live out his life in peace and seclusion.  In his dreams he was told to travel to the east and then to the north until he found a horse that was all alone and waiting for him.  Following the advice of his dream he traveled some one hundred and fifty miles over hill and dale until he found the horse waiting for him at a place known then as Rhysfa Maes Cadfarch, which is known as Llangollen today. He decided to build a sanctuary in the center of an area he could ride around on his horse in one day and was easily placed to help the local people.  Finding a suitable site he built a hermitage and chapel for himself to live a life full of prayer and quiet contemplation and service.   Another legend has his arriving in the area by coracle presumably along the River Dee.

The giantess of Bwlch Rhiwfelen

However his peace was disturbed when he discovered the area was part of the territory of a giantess who ate humans and lived in the high mountain pass of Bwlch Rhiwfelen and brought fear and terror to the local people. He decided he had to do something to help so he went up to the pass with his sword intending to fight and kill the giantess.

The giantess soon took up the fight after exchanging a few sharp words with him.  He called upon the Lord for help and strength and succeeded in cutting off one of his foe’s arms. She tried to cry out to the giant of the Eglwyseg Rocks to come to her aid, but Collen cut off her other arm and killed her before she could summon him.  He washed the blood of the giantess from himself and his sword in a nearby spring now called Ffynnon Gollen.  From then on he lived the peaceful life he seemed to have craved.   He was thought to have died on 21st of May possibly in the 7th century and was buried by the local people in his chapel that was sited to the west of the present day church of St Collen in Llangollen.

© 01/03/2015 zteve t evans

References and Attributions

Copyright March 1st, 2016 zteve t evans


7 thoughts on “The Legend of Saint Collen of Llangollen

  1. Pingback: Who is Gwyn ap Nudd? | michael9murray

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