Constantine (Briton) Explained

Constantine was a minor king in 6th-century sub-Roman Britain, who was remembered in later British tradition as a legendary King of Britain. The only contemporary information about him comes from Gildas, who calls him king of Damnonia (probably Dumnonia) and castigates him for his various sins, including the murder of two "royal youths" inside a church. Much later, Geoffrey of Monmouth included the figure in his pseudohistorical chronicle Historia Regum Britanniae, adding fictional details to Gildas' account and making Constantine the successor to King Arthur as King of Britain. Under the influence of Geoffrey, derivative figures appeared in a number of later works.

Additionally, several churches and chapels in Southwestern Britain and elsewhere were dedicated to a "Saint Constantine", who was generally held to have been a king. While these do not all necessarily refer to the same person, at least some of them appear to reflect back to Gildas' Constantine.

History

Gildas mentions Constantine in chapters 28 and 29 of his 6th-century work De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae.[1] [2] He is one of five Brythonic kings whom the author rebukes and compares to Biblical beasts. Constantine is called the "tyrannical whelp of the unclean lioness of Damnonia", a reference to books of Daniel and the Revelation, and apparently also a slur directed at his mother. This Damnonia is generally associated with the kingdom of Dumnonia, a Brythonic kingdom in Southwestern Britain.[3] However, it is possible that Gildas was instead referring to the territory of the Damnonii in what was later known as the Hen Ogledd or "Old North".

Gildas says that despite swearing an oath against deceit and tyranny, Constantine disguised himself in an abbot's robes and attacked two "royal youths" praying before a church altar, killing them and their companions. Gildas is clear that Constantine's sins were manifold even before this, as he had committed "many adulteries" after casting off his lawfully wedded wife. Gildas encourages Constantine, whom he knows to still be alive at the time, to repent his sins lest he be damned.[1] [4]

Saint Constantine

See main article: Constantine (British saint). The historical Constantine of Dumnonia may have influenced later traditions, known in Southwestern Britain as well as in Wales, Ireland, and Scotland, about a Saint Constantine who is usually said to have been a king who gave up his crown to become a monk. The Cornish and Welsh traditions especially may have been influenced by Gildas' screed, in particular his adjuration for Constantine to repent; the belief may have been that the reproach eventually worked.[5]

The two major centers for the cult of Saint Constantine were the church in Constantine Parish and the Chapel of Saint Constantine in St Merryn Parish (now Constantine Bay), both in Cornwall.[5] The former may once have supported a clerical community, but eventually became a local parish church. It was established by at least the 11th century, as it is mentioned in Rhygyfarch's 11th-century Life of Saint David; at this time it may have supported a clerical community, but in later centuries it became simply a parish church. The Chapel at Constantine Bay had a holy well, and was the center of its own sub-parish.[5]

The Annales Cambriae (Welsh Annals) and the Annals of Ulster record the conversion of a certain Constantine; these may be a reference to the Cornish saint and therefore to the historical figure.[5] A number of subsequent texts refer to Constantine, generally associating him with Cornwall, often specifically as its king. The Life of Saint David says that Constantine, King of Cornwall gave up his crown and joined Saint David's monastery at Menevia. The Vitae Petroci includes an episode in which Saint Petroc protects a stag being hunted by a wealthy man named Constantine, who eventually converts and becomes a monk. Here Constantine is not said to be king, but a 12th-century text referring to this story, the Miracula, specifically names him as such, further adding that he gave Petroc an ivory horn upon his conversion which became one of the saint's chief relics.[6] These references are only a few to the various shadowy saints and kings named Constantine attested across Britain, and suggests a confusion and conflation of various figures.[7]

Other sites in Southwestern Britain associated with Constantine or others of that name include the church of Milton Abbot, Devon; a chapel in nearby Dunterton, Devon, and another chapel in Illogan, Cornwall. The two Devon sites may have been dedicated instead to Constantine the Great, as the church in nearby Abbotsham was, like Milton Abbot, subject to Tavistock Abbey, dedicated to Helena of Constantinople, Constantine the Great's mother.[5] In Wales, two churches were dedicated to Constantine: Llangystennin (in Conwy and Welsh Bicknor (now in Herefordshire, England).[5] The church in Govan in present-day Scotland was also dedicated to a Saint Constantine.[8]

Later traditions

Geoffrey of Monmouth includes Constantine in a section of his Historia Regum Britanniae adapted from Gildas, in which the reproved kings are made successors, rather than contemporaries as in De Excidio. Here, Constantine is the son of King Arthur's kinsman Cador, Duke of Cornwall, and is made king following Arthur's death at the Battle of Camlann. Geoffrey identifies Gildas' "royal youths" with the two sons of Mordred, who, along with their Saxon allies, continue their father's insurrection after his death. After "many battles" Constantine routs the rebels, and Mordred's sons flee to London and Winchester, where they hide in a church and a friary, respectively. Constantine hunts them down and executes them before the altars of their sanctuaries. Divine retribution for this transgression comes three years later when he is killed by his nephew Aurelius Conanus (Gildas' Aurelius Caninus), precipitating a civil war. He is buried at Stonehenge alongside other kings of Britain.[9]

A figure named Custennin Gorneu (Constantine of Cornwall) appears in the genealogies of the kings of Dumnonia. The hero Geraint of Dumnonia is said to be the grandson of Custennin in the Bonedd y Saint, the prose romance Geraint and Enid, and after emendation, the genealogies in Jesus College MS 20.[10] [11] Geoffrey evidently knew the Dumnonian genealogy in essentially this form, though he is the first to identify Gildas' Constantine as a son of Cador, known in Welsh tradition as Cadwy mab Geraint.[10]

Geoffrey's version of Constantine was included in the various later adaptations of the Historia, which were widely regarded as authentic in the Middle Ages. These include Wace's Anglo-Norman Roman de Brut and the Welsh Brut y Brenhinedd. He does not figure strongly in the romance traditions, though he does appear as Arthur's successor in the 14th-century English alliterative poem known as the Alliterative Morte Arthure, as well as Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, in sections adapted from the Alliterative Morte. He also features in some modern treatments of the legend, such as the 1990 computer game Spirit of Excalibur, in which he is the chief protagonist.

References

. Rachel Bromwich. Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Triads of the Island of Britain. University Of Wales Press. 2006. 0-7083-1386-8.

. A History of Wales from the Earliest Times to the Edwardian Conquest. John Edward Lloyd. 1912. Longmans, Green, and Co.. January 6, 2010.

Notes and References

  1. [s:The Ruin of Britain#28|''De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae'', ch. 28–29]
  2. Giles, pp. 24–26.
  3. Lloyd, pp. 131–132.
  4. Giles, pp. 24–26.
  5. Orme, pp. 95–96.
  6. Jankulak, p. 17.
  7. Bromwich, pp. 318–319, discusses the confusion of some of these various Constantines. Notable in the context of "Saint" Constantine is Custennin Vendigeit (The Blessed), the name for the historical usurper Constantine III in the Welsh Triads.
  8. Clarkson 1999.
  9. [s:History of the Kings of Britain/Book 11|''Historia Regum Britanniae'', ch. 2–4.]
  10. Bromwich, pp. 318–319; 356–360.
  11. [s:The Mabinogion/Geraint the Son of Erbin|''Geraint and Enid'']