About St Mungo
St Mungo was one of the most important characters in the Church in Britain in the 6th and early 7th centuries. He was active in what is now central and southern Scotland, northern England and Wales, founding both Glasgow (he is its patron) and St Asaph’s. He supposedly knew St David of Wales, possibly St Columba and was even supposed to be related to King Arthur, apparently being his great-nephew.
Unfortunately, the surviving written material relating to him dates only from the 12th century, and it is difficult to determine what is fact and what is fiction. There are two Lives, one by a monk called Jocelin of Furness, and an another, possibly earlier, which is anonymous and incomplete; they were written at a time when Saints were expected to perform at least three miracles before breakfast to be entitled to be thus described. There are, however, numerous references to him in early mediaeval arthurian chronicles, as well as in the Welsh Troiads and the Welsh Annals. Moreover, many of the oldest churches in the north-west of England are dedicated to him, indicating his activity in the area.
We are told in the two Lives that he was the son of Tenew (later venerated as St Tenew), daughter of King Llew or Loth, after which Lothian was named. Mungo’s father is variously put either as Owain, son of Urien, the Prince of Rheged, or as Urien himself, who was Loth’s brother. (There is a problem accepting Owain, who later turns up in mediaeval Arthurian literature as a knight, as the father; Mungo, who died a very old man on 13th January 613, must have been born before 550. From the rough dates we can work out about the life of Owain (he died c.593), he was probably born about much the same time as Mungo. Given a choice of fathers, it seems much more logical to accept Urien of Rheged, whose principality covered present-day Cumbria and Dumfriesshire, as the father of Mungo.
According to Jocelin of Furness, Tenew had an affair (he says with her cousin, Owain). When her father found that she was pregnant, he was obliged to follow the law of the times, which was that sex outside marriage was a capital offence, and kill her. (Jocelin says that Loth was pagan. But all the Arthur stories point to Loth being Christian). He decided to throw her off Traprain Law, a large hill outside Edinburgh and which at the time was still used a fortified settlement. However, she survived the fall. That apparently was not enough for Loth or his subjects, who were in two minds as to whether she might be a witch. So she was then caste adrift in a coracle.
The vessel drifted to the coast of Fife, landing at Culross, where St Serf ran a religious establishment. There, on the beach, she gave birth to Mungo, or Kentigern as his proper name is. (Mungo is the nickname given by St Serf, but there is debate as to what it means. Some say “My Hound”, others “my dear heart”. Kentigern means “Chief Lord”.) Needless to say mother and child were discovered by St Serf and housed in his establishment; there Mungo was brought up and educated.
The story is almost certainly some sort of gloss on the fact that Mungo was illegitimate.
The next point in the story is Mungo’s election as a bishop. Jocelin tells us that he was Bishop of the whole of the Kingdom of the North Britons and that he established his See in Glasgow. In fact this did not happen at this point, and Jocelin (who was writing his story at the command of the then Bishop of Glasgow (also called Jocelin) is merely being partisan. Tradition relates that Mungo’s base at this early period was at Hoddom in Dumfriesshire, which was within the principality of Rheged, and where the foundations of a 6th-century stone church was recently discovered during gravel excavations (scandalously, the foundations were demolished). It would seem therefore that Mungo’s first episcopate was to the inhabitants of his father’s/grandfather’s territory. There is nothing unusual in this. It was normal throughout the western Christian world at this period (and for a long time to come) for senior clerics to be part of the ruling establishment. Few, apart from ruling families and those around them, were able to have their children educated (and education was a Church preserve). Many younger offspring and presumably illegitimate offspring inevitably entered its service. Equally inevitably, these were the people who were then chosen as bishops, abbots and abbesses. Columba, for example, was a royal prince. So too were many of the other Celtic saints – and Anglo-Saxon ones as well. What we are seeing in Mungo’s case is the illegitimate son’s reconciliation with his family.
At some point thereafter, Jocelin tells us that a new King, Morken, came to power and that a dispute subsequently arose between Mungo and Morken and that the bishop had to flee. It is known from other sources, however, that Morken, who was either a ruler in the region of Ayr or in the Newcastle area (probably the latter), murdered Urien and then incorporated Rheged into his own lands. Mungo’s flight was probably all too necessary. As a member of the ousted ruling family, his life would have been in danger.
He went south, first into the southern part of Rheged, into what is now Cumbria, where there are many churches dedicated to him, and then to what is now Wales. There, after meeting with St David, he was asked by a ruler in north Wales to act as bishop to his own people. The result was Mungo’s second episcopate. Like most bishops of the period, he set up a religious settlement away from the power centre, where clergy could be trained and others taught. This was at St Asaph’s, one of the Welsh sees. St Asaph was in fact Mungo’s assistant there (and his successor when he left).
Meanwhile, back in the north of Britain, Morken was overthrown by Redderech, who was either the ruler of Dumbarton or had had a claim to the throne of Dumbarton. In taking over Morken’s realm, he created a new and powerful kingdom, known subsequently as the Kingdom of Strathclyde, which stretched from the top of Loch Lomond to the borders of present-day Cheshire. Redderech asked Mungo to return. This he did, first going back to Hoddom, but then further north to the real seat of power, Dumbarton. This was his third episcopate.
However, although Dumbarton was the official capital, peace meant that royal residences could operate outside the confines of an armed camp. Redderech and his wife Queen Languoreth (who may well have been the model for the Gwenevere of the mediaeval Arthurian writers) had palaces at Govan and at Rutherglen, now both parts of Glasgow. As bishop, Mungo was given his own estate in which to establish a religious and educational community. This was done on the site of what is now Glasgow Cathedral. As such, this makes Mungo founder of Glasgow. When Mungo died, he was buried in his own community, making the site one of pilgrimage and importance. Around it arose a township, and by the 12th century it was a cathedral city. Through the centuries, it continued to grow, in importance, in wealth, in status and in population. But it all started because of a religious settlement, and both the city’s coat of arms and his motto relate directly to the founding father, whose remains are still buried in the crypt of the Cathedral. The motto is now “Let Glasgow flourish” but it used to be “Let Glasgow flourish by the preaching of the Word” an expression that is ascribed to Mungo himself.
The city’s coat of arms, which was the same as that of the old pre-reformation diocese (for the simple reason that the bishop was the civil power in the city until the 17th century), shows the saint at the top and, like the mediaeval seal at the head of this Web page, contains elements linked directly to Mungo. There is his bell. The bird and the salmon with a ring refer to two of his miracles. The bird, a robin, had been a pet of St Serf, but some fellow classmates, jealous of Mungo, killed it, hoping to pin the blame on him. Mungo restored it to life.
The salmon and the ring relat to Queen Longuoreth’s adultery with a young soldier and Mungo’s saving of the Queen. She had presented her lover with a ring which given to her by Redderech. However, a servant informed the king of the affair. Although Redderech did not want to believe the tale, the sight of ring on the young soldier’s hand convinced him. He then laid a plot to denounce his wife publicly. He invited the soldier to go hunting with him and then, when the young man fel asleep (Redderech presumably got him drunk), he slipped up the ring off his finger and threw it into the Clyde. He then went back and demanded that his wife show him the ring. She, of course, could not get it back from her lover because it was now lost. As a result she was then denounced and thrown into prison to await execution, despite the efforts of the courtiers to have her pardoned. (There is much in this story that relates to those of Gwenevere and Lancelot).
In prison, she sends a messenger to Mungo asking for forgiveness and aid. When the messenger arrives, he is immediately told by the bishop to go fishing in the Clyde and to bring back straightway the first fish he catches. This is a salmon, which, on being cut open, is seen to contain the ring. This is then taken to the queen who presents it to the King, who, understandably, cannot understand what has happened but nonetheless forgives her. Jocelin cannot desist in informing his readers that she then berates Redderech for doubting her in the first place, but that nonethelessshe forgives him. Jocelin also tells us that she made sure that there was no repetition of such behaviour on her part and that she never revealed the truth of what happened until after her husband’s death. One could therefore say that Mungo’s participated in a major deception, but it all came right in the end.
Despite what Jocelin says elsewhere, Mungo should not be seen as a missionary saint. He was brought up and lived his entire life in a predominantly Christian milieu. Lothian, Rheged, Wales, Strathclyde had been Christian long before he was born. At Govan, where Redderech and Languoreth lived, there has been a church since the 6th century, dedicated to St Constantine (not the Roman emperor) who had been a ruler in the area in the early 6th century. Dumbarton had had a Christian ruler, one Corotech, at the time of St Patrick, a good century earlier; (Patrick wrote to him, denouncing him for capturing and enslaving Irish Christians whom he had baptised, the inference being that this was not acceptable practice for a Christian.)
Exactly what gave Mungo his reputation will not be known this side of the grave. Suffice it to say that there was clearly something in the man – maybe it was great holiness – that made the memory of him endure through the centuries.
He died on 13th January, 613, and there is a final interesting point in Jocelin’s Life. Jocelin admits that he used earlier written sources but that he edited them because he found some of the stories incomprehensible. He tells us however, that on the Octave of the Feast of the Epiphany (13th January), Mungo entered a vessel filled with warm water and then, encircled by his brethren, “yielded up his spirit”. It has been suggested that Jocelin was unaware that he was distorting a more credible story involving an a mass Epiphany baptism. The suggestion is that at Epiphany Mungo conducted such a baptism, which at the time was still done by complete immersion. In early January it is still rather cold in Glasgow, and even today it is customary in the locality to warm up water for baptism. The thesis is that Mungo went into warmed up water to administer baptism but then caught a cold and died a week later. The date of his death is kept as his feast day.