Friday, April 25, 2008

St Tecla-Virgin and Martyr of Chepstow and her namesake in Laodocia!

Above St Tecla's Rock at Beachley,
Umder the Severn Bridge at M48 is the site of the old Beachley to Aust Ferry, which could have been why it might have been Saxons coming over rom Gloucester or Bristol by boat. There are records at Llandaff or a raid by pirates from Bristol.
St Tecla of Chepstow
Coming to the last of our more publicised female saints, St Tecla is the only saint not to come from South Wales. She actually came from the Ruthin area of North Wales Llandegla and was given the name ‘Tecla’ after the great Eastern saint of that name,(Thekla) just as Tewdrig had been named after Theoderick,Emperor and Bishop). Tecla came down from somewhere in North Wales and had become a saint par excellance working with lepers. St Tecla’s well in North Wales is said to cure lepers and heal all manner of diseases.

St Tecla’s Well

I came across this account by a Mr Pennant who was speaking about the Village of Llandegla in North Wales .Tecla was known to have done great works of mercy there but Druidical practices may still have been part of the ritual. Ancient springs always were used for baptisms and healings.Mr Pennant says of St Tecla, Virgin and Martyr that not 200 yards from the church was the spring called Gwern Degla. The water , he says, was held to be under the protection of the saintand to this day, held to be very efficacious for the falling sickness (epilepsy-petit mal?) Now the patient had to wash his limbs in the well water , pay 4p (this Was Victorian times!) and then while walking around the well three times reciting the Lord’s Prayer (which he says is a Druid practice called ‘Deasuil’. This had to be done after sunset to inspire the votaries with awe! If a man was afflicted he offered a cockerel if a woman was afflicted it was a hen. In Caesar’s ‘De Bello Gallico’ he mentions the fixation the Celts had with fowl, hares and geese.They were not to be eaten and in connection with this ritual not killed. The sick person had to walk around the church three times then and recite the Lord’s Prayer again. The fowl is in a basket with a covering. The sick person then lay under the altar until daybreak with a Bible under his head and covered with a carpet or cloth (The altar replacing a cromlech) and then at break of day, if the fowl was dead, it was believed the sickness had passed to the anima;, of not the Saint had not wanted to heal the person and the chicken lived. Pennant called this ‘Christian heathenism’.Nevertheless very interesting to read. Oh yes and if healed, the person had to pay another sixpence to the saint! Another account also says the patient was given a drink from it!

St Tecla in Powys

St Tecla's church lies in the middle of Llandegley, a few miles to the east of Llandrindod Wells in Penybont, Powys. The small church has been largely rebuilt, though it retains a small part of its essential medieval features. Notable features include the late medieval screen and an ornate priest's door, thought to have been brought from Cwmhir Abbey. Its round churchyard has been extended during the present century, but its form together with the dedication implies an early medieval beginning, that is a possible early Welsh monastic settlement

St Paul and the Original St Thekla for whom she was named.

I ought to digress again to talk about the saint after whom she was undoubtedly named. The praise of virginity and chastity, was a running thread in Christianity, especially at this time, when women could almost be traded, or bought and sold, or used for treaties. The author of the tale wrote in the second century,and sets this story about St Thekla into the framework of the Book of Acts, but this text is different from the New Testament portrayal of Paul.Whilst it is not part of the inspired text of the Holy Scripture which the Catholic Church finalised in the third century, this not being written in Apostolic times, it is interesting in explaining the popularity of the cult of St Thekla throughout the church in the known world at the time.
St Paul gave his homilies or teachings in the house of Onesiphorus in Iconium Laodocia, in a series of Beatitudes, by which Thekla, a young noble virgin, listened to Paul's "discourse on chastity" from her window in an adjacent house. She listened, enraptured, without moving for days. Thekla's mother and fiancée, Thamyris, became concerned that Tecla would follow Paul's demand "that one must fear only one God and live in chastity", and he and her mother formed a mob to drag Paul to the governor, who imprisoned the apostle.
Thekla bribed a guard to gain entrance to the prison, and sat at Paul's feet all night listening to his teaching and kissing the ropes which bound him . When her family found her, both she and St Paul were again brought before the governor .At her mother's request, Paul was sentenced to scourging and expulsion, and Thekla to be killed by being burned at the stake,so that "all the women who have been taught by this man may be afraid." Tecla was humiliated by having her clothes pulled off and was put on the fire, but was saved as God sent a miraculous storm to put out the flames.
Reunited, Paul, his disciples and Thekla then travelled to Antioch, where a nobleman named Alexander saw her and offered Paul money for her. Paul refused. He then attempted to carry her off but Tecla fought him off, assaulting him in the process, to the amusement of the crowd in the marketplace. His pride having been stung, Alexander dragged her before the governor for assaulting a nobleman and, despite the protests of the city's women, Tecla was sentenced to be eaten by wild beasts! To ensure that her virtue was intact at her death, Queen Tryphaena, took her into protective custody overnight in case Alexander attempted to take her by force- a problem for many Christian women at the time as our Gwladys of Newport found out
Thekla was tied to a fierce lioness, and paraded through the city. She was then stripped and thrown to beasts provided by Alexander. The women of the city again protested against the injustice. Thekla was protected from death again , first by the lioness who fought off the other beasts, and then by a series of miracles until finally the women of the city and Queen Tryphaena intervened. Thecla was returned to St Paul’s disciples unharmed.
One ending of the story describes Thekla living as a hermit-or small community member in a cave for many years, then travelling to Rome shortly before her death to be buried at st Paul outside the Walls Church, where Paul’s tomb has recently been discovered.
The entry in Wikipedia says that the story of Thekla reflects the influence of the faith and impact of Paul’s teachings , and the experience of persecution in early Christianity, although reflects an oral tradition prone exaggeration of details, however, a local martyr legend, of Tecla, may have inspired this episode, in which she was also connected to Paul of Tarsus. M.R. James, the editor of the Acts of Paul and Tecla in 1924). "It is otherwise difficult to account for the very great popularity of the cult of St. Thekla, which spread over East and West, and made her the most famous of virgin martyrs’

The Cult of Thekla as an inspiration to Christian women

What a tale! So it is easy to see why these great chieftains in Wales named their children for great saints of the time. She may have even chosen this name as an inspiration,a custom we continue in Confirmation to this day where a saints name is taken when the young person has become initiated into the church to inspire them in Christian life. Tewdrig the great King was named for the Bishop and Emperor St Theoderick (died in 526 and acclaimed a saint by the people)and Meurig was named after the Army leader St Maurice (died 582) This shows some considerable knowledge of the Eastern Saints in Celtic Britain at the time even if the stories were not written down for some time The cult of St Margaret of Antioch, who had a shrine at St Tathan’s Church at Caerwent shows a link with the Eastern saints in a Christian Church, still unified with the See of Peter in Rome, where the Welsh saints went on frequent pilgrimages. The frequent travel of Christian missionaries brought news from all over the Christian world to Celtic Britain.

Tecla comes south to Dyfed

Returning to our Tecla of Wales, obviously the cult of Tecla and female right to virginity had been known in Wales, possibly even spread by St Brynach who would have heard ot them.Our Tecla, decided like her namesake to be celibate, and not marry as a gift to God, as many nuns before and after her had done. It is interesting that it was Christianity which gave this dignity and right to women, who had just been goods and chattels to men before and appeared to have no rights at all.

Like Blessed Theresa of Calcutta Tecla would have had her band of followers helping her and doing the will of Christ, helping and working with the lepers, finding them food, in accordance with the scriptures- (whatever you do for the least of the brethren, you do for me.) She embodied the true spirit of self giving love. Like her contemporaries, Tudfal, Gwladys and Tegfedd she had her priest, possibly sent by a local chieftain or even her father and she and her nuns would sing the psalms and liturgy of the Church. All the Welsh saints learnt the ‘rules of the Church’ as they were called. We call now them Canon law. For some reason, however,it seems that after establishing herself as a healer, she she embarked on a White Martyrdom and simply set off on foot to see where God would take her.


The fact that there was a religious foundation dedicated to St Tecla at Penybont at Llandegley in Powys (near Llandrindod) seems to suggest she may have called in at Talgarth to see Brychan and Brynach and spent some time there. Timing at this time is very difficult. She travelled to Gwent and arrived at Sedbury right on the South West corner, a beautiful spot right next to the first Severn Bridge . She set up her small foundation as it were on St Tecla’s rock which is below near the site of the first Severn Bridge in the mouth of the River Severn itself.

St Tecla in Chepstow (Ystragwyl)

There was seemingly a small monastery set up by St Cynfarch (Kynemark) north of Chepstow and priests might have been sent from here to sing Mass for the Nuns and administer Confessions and baptisms. Latin was the language of the Church at the time, and most things would have been learnt by rote.

Why did Tecla come to such a remote place?

At that time St Tecla’s Rock may have been a promontory or a much larger island than it is now with sapce for the small community. This place was very small and there is another possibility of course why se set up so far away from human habitation. She may, herself have succumbed to leprosy, but we have no direct evidence of this. She may also have set it up as another leper colony. It does seem strange that a princess would have travelled so far away from her people. It may also have been that she desired to be alone with God on this beautiful island.

My visit

I took a trip there yesterday, driving on the Gloucester side of the Severn Bridge through Sedbury and Beachley and ended up parking the car under the Severn Bridge! It was a warm day.The car parked belonged to the Ferry Inn which a local told me was the subject of a ‘Most Haunted’ episode on TV! Nevertheless I then left the car and bagan walking down the path towards the point. Much of the land there is owned by the MOD with ‘Don’t ye stray from ye path style notices in red everywhere. Any yet what I noticed was the smell of the wild flowers, just about to bloom in Our Lady’s month of May. Was told once, in Walsingham that when spread through the hedgerows in May, with its white blossom showing on the green leaves, it is called ‘Our Lady’s Lace’ which I thought was quite beautiful.

I walked on on my pilgrimage, praying the Joyful Mysteries wit the help of my Ipod, which contains all four mysteries which you can download from the Rosary Armies Podcasts via, though I don’t recommend you doing it while driving-much too relaxing! It was warm and the Severn on my right behind the vegetation a glittering light petrol blue. The birds in the woods on my right were singing and heard a cuckoo! At the end of this path was-an enormous pylon and an electricity sub station and arrived at a country ‘kissing’ gate which I passed through and on down to a grassy beach over mud flaps and then the whole expanse of the Severn opened before me.Amazing! To the right, the M4 motorway in the distance and crossing the confluence of the River Wye. To the front of me was the New Severn Bridge in the distance and to the left of me was St Teclas Rock just as it had been all that time ago. Perhaps the Rock and church tower was all that was left of a much larger promontory or the community lived higher on the bank and the church alone built on the rock. Sadly it was difficult to do a good job on the photograph. It was difficult to get close because of the mudflaps and being on my own it would have been dangerous to attempt but the zoom on my camera was not up to the challenge. I had my lunch sitting there, taking it all in, the sunlight on such an expanse of water almost dazzling me.Then again this was a revered place before the Christian faith came to these Isles. The Severn (Called 'Havren was named after a Druidic goddess Sabrina and I did wonder about the strange sculptures on the beach made from curious bits of twisted wood..... Difficult to know if it was the result of some army training excercise or perhaps something else...... I crossed myself just to be sure of protection...

People must have brought the community food and clothing, although they spent their days helping the poor and sick and the that healthy sea air must have done them good. . St Tecla’s rock had also been inhabited at another time by St Brioc, saint of St Braivals and of course saint Brieux in Brittany as it was an ideal place of prayer.The Liturgy of the Hours was said at various times of the day in accordance with Roman practice.

How did they pray?

Just as we do.The prayer would consist of the psalms from the Old Testament, generally learnt off by heart by the novice monks and nuns , of Canticles , or important verses from Scripture. Now these were verses such as the Nunc Dimittis rom the Song of Simeon when he saw the infant Jesus ‘Now Lord lettest though thy servant depart in Peace according to thy word’. This prayer formed part of the evening prayer known as Vespers or Compline. A prayer to Our Lady-usually the ‘Salve Regina’ or ‘Hail Holy Queen’; would have followed before bed.This is from the account in the book of Revelations where Mary is crowned with stars.
The Magnificat ‘My soul proclaims the greatness of God’ would be sung in the morning at Lauds. This is the song Mary sang to Elizabeth, where she proclaims ‘for behold from henceforth all generations shall call be blessed’.

The Mass at that time as now consisted of the Jewish service of the reading of Scripture followed by the Eucharistic sacrifice in which the whole liturgy is a vision of the Book of Revelation. The host (sacrifice from the Latin Hostias) is consecrated and becomes the body and blood of Christ which will remain until the end of time.There were no diversions among Peter’s church on this topics, but Just as disciples wandered off when Jesus announced it in John 6, his disciples and Peter apostles remained with him. ’Master you have the words of Eternal Life’.Tecla lived a life of great sanctity for many years.The Mass was a lot longer then and included a longer Gospel at the end of Mass, but was essentially the same as now, though usually offered weekly on Sundays-the day dedicated to the Lord's Resurrection.

Saxons or Vikings

Sadly one day, the community saw a ship rowing up the Severn on an exploratory mission. They sounded the alarm as the ship came in to land and many of the community scattered. They knew what would happen. The small church and house on the rock was quickly obtained. It was Tela's custom to grant hospitality and friendship to passing ships who might part with something they could sell or even donate something to the little community as they left.

These attackers may have even been Vikings or perhaps Saxons and Tecla,praying in her church and obviously by then not in the first flush of youth was dragged out and foully murdered by these men. Even I can’t fathom just why they were driven to destroy everything, although Tecla’s royal birth probably meant there was some gold around in the church to pay for necessities. The dismay felt when the ruins of church and the murdered community were discovered can only be imagined. Tecla, heroine of the lepers and the poor followed our Lord as a martyr.

These women were brave pioneers, driven to act out their vocation no matter what. They stood their ground and met death bravely. Their solitude and vulnerability as women left them open to attack. Queen Materiana of Gwent/Boscastle,Saint, Goleu, the Mother of St Beuno and Queen Gwladys of Gwent were superb mothers. They were devout Christian women who clearly saw to it that their children, Ceidio, Beuno, Cynydir were taught the sacrificial nature of Christ’s death, the teaching and rules of the church and well versed in Scripture and the Psalms and Latin. In some ways they very very modern.It is worth stating that Christianity was the first religion which offered women the freedom to choose their path in the world, although politically it would be a battle which lasted a long time.

And what does the Bible say about Martyrs and the End Times, the time of Judgement?

In Revelations six when the fifth seal is broken, St John Writes:

When the Lamb (that’s Jesus) broke the fifth seal I saw underneath the altar the Martyrs, all those who had been killed on account of the Word of God for witnessing to it.They shouted in a loud voice ‘Holy True Master how much longer will you wait before you pass sentence and take vengeance for our death on behalf of the inhabitants of the earth?’ Each of them was given a white robe and they were told to be patient a little longer until the roll was completed of their fellow martyrs and brothers who were still to be killed as they had been ‘. There follows in Chapter Seven the reward of the saints and martyrs,

Hail the blood of the Martyrs!.

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