The True History of Illtud of the Arthurian Legends

A few people from the Arthurian legends can be identified as historical figures of Post-Roman Britain. One clear example is Illtud. What do we know about him?

Nov 15, 2023By Caleb Howells, BA Doctrines and Methodology of Education
illtud true history arthurian legends
King Arthur’s knights, gathered at the Round Table to celebrate Pentecost, via Gallica BnF

 

The early Post-Roman era of Britain has long been viewed in almost apocalyptic terms. In some ways, this is not too much of an exaggeration. But in terms of education, the truth is very different from what many people imagine. The early Dark Age Britons were not illiterate, nor were they deprived of all education. In fact, there were several prominent educators who were well remembered even in later medieval times. One such figure is Illtud. He is known among Catholics as a saint and he also appears in the Arthurian legends. What do we know about him historically?

 

Who Was Illtud? Figure From Arthurian Legend

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Medieval inscription of Illtud’s name, St Illtyd’s Church, Llantwit Major, Wales. Author’s own collection

 

Illtud was a religious leader and educator. We do not have any contemporary records that present his life story in detail, so we cannot be completely certain about much beyond this. However, he features in numerous later records, which likely contain at least some accurate traditions about him. The earliest record entirely devoted to telling the story of Illtud is the Life of St Illtud, written in the twelfth century. While useful, its late date means that we do well to compare it with earlier records when possible. For example, a record known as the Life of St Samson dates from the seventh or eighth centuries and refers to Illtud many times.

 

According to his own Life, Illtud was born in Brittany to a Breton prince named Bicanus. Illtud’s mother was a British princess, Reingulid, the daughter of a famous though shadowy king named Amlawdd. A much later source makes Reingulid the daughter of King Tewdrig instead.

 

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Replica of King Arthur’s Round Table, 13th century, Winchester, England, via historic-uk.com

 

Illtud grew up in Brittany and was primarily a soldier, although he had been trained in literature as a child. After becoming a famous soldier, Illtud is then said to have heard about the magnificence of his cousin. The cousin in question was none other than King Arthur. Illtud arrived at the king’s royal court and spent some time there, before moving on to the court of a certain King Poulentus. He impressed this second king so much that Illtud was appointed the master of the soldiers. None of this information can be confirmed by the Life of Samson, which makes no mention of Illtud ever having lived anywhere other than Britain. Yet, it does not contradict this information either.

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What all sources agree on is the fact that Illtud was extremely intelligent. He was said to have been able to remember anything that he had read. The Life of St Samson says that he was the most learned of all the Britons, not just in religious matters but in philosophy too. In fact, this same record goes so far as to claim that Illtud was able to see the future.

 

Founding the Monastery of Llanilltud Fawr

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St Illtyd’s Church, Llantwit Major, Wales, the National Church Trust

 

Simply being an intelligent person was not the most important thing about Illtud. The most significant contribution that he made to Britain in his time was the establishment of a school. This was known as the Llanilltud Fawr. Even today, there is a church standing on the original site of this school. It was not primarily for monks but for royalty. The records are clear — and this is something that we can be sure about — Illtud educated many important figures from Dark Age Britain.

 

One of Illtud’s most prominent students was Samson of Dol, the most famous religious figure from sixth-century Brittany. Another disciple was allegedly Gildas, the religious figure who wrote the only sixth-century work from Britain that still survives to this day. A third notable disciple was David, who later became the patron saint of Wales. Various other kings and princes were also educated at Llanilltud Fawr.

 

The Educator of Maelgwn?

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Illustration of Maelgwn Gwynedd from Brut Y Brenhinedd, 15th century, Wales, via Wikimedia Commons

 

One of the most powerful kings of sixth century Britain was Maelgwn Gwynedd. He features in the Arthurian legends as a contemporary and ally of King Arthur. His kingdom, Gwynedd, encompassed the majority of the northwest corner of Wales. The contemporary writer Gildas describes the fact that at one point during his reign, Maelgwn abdicated and became a monk. He also mentions that Maelgwn had been instructed by a person whom Gildas calls “the refined educator of almost all of Britain.” It was possibly while he became a monk that he received such instruction. In any case, there is some debate over who “the most refined educator of almost all of Britain” was. However, most scholars agree that Gildas was referring to Illtud. This would fit with other information we have about Illtud, such as the claims that he was extremely intelligent. It also fits with the fact that he was famous for having many students from all over Britain attend his school.

 

Possibly Educated by Germanus of Auxerre

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Sculpture of St Germanus of Auxerre, 15th century, Church of Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois, Paris, France, via Wikimedia Commons

 

One of the most reliable pieces of information about Illtud, from the Life of St Samson, is that Illtud had been a disciple of Germanus. But the question is, which Germanus was this? It is often assumed that this was the famous Germanus of Auxerre. He was a Gallic prelate who went on two important trips to Britain. The first was in about 429 or just after. The second was in either the 430s or the 440s. In this latter decade, Germanus died.

 

If this was the Germanus who instructed Illtud, then Illtud obviously must have been born in the 430s at the latest. This is inconsistent with the other information about him. For example, the Life of St Illtud makes Illtud outlive Samson of Dol. This latter figure did not die until after 560. This would make Illtud impossibly old if he had been educated by Germanus of Auxerre.

 

An easy solution to this matter is to conclude that Illtud was educated by a different Germanus. Various scholars, including the renowned David Dumville, have suggested that there was a separate “saint” of Welsh tradition who became confused with Germanus of Auxerre. This separate figure evidently lived several decades later.

 

Settling a Dispute with King Arthur

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St Cadoc’s Church, Llancarfan, Wales, via the National Church Trust

 

The eleventh-century Life of St Cadoc relates how Illtud helped to arbitrate a dispute between King Arthur and another prominent religious figure named Cadoc. Allegedly, three of Arthur’s soldiers were killed by a man named Llyngesog. Arthur pursued him, but he took refuge in Cadoc’s monastery. Cadoc kept him there for seven years without Arthur knowing. Eventually, the king discovered what Cadoc was doing, which angered him. During the ensuing dispute, Cadoc got several other prominent men to serve as arbitrators. Six men were chosen in all, and Illtud was one of them. Interestingly, the account calls these men the “principle nobles” of Britain. This, again, highlights Illtud’s prominence.

 

At the end of the account, Arthur receives nine heifers as compensation. But after he received them, they turned into ferns. The obviously legendary nature of this account makes it difficult to use for historical purposes. Nonetheless, it does highlight two things. Firstly, it highlights Illtud’s prominence. Secondly, it shows that Illtud features in some of the Arthurian legends, albeit obscure ones.

 

Illtud in the Arthurian Legends

dante gabriel rossetti holy grail arthurian legends
The Damsel of the Sanct Grael, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1874, via Wikimedia Commons

 

A more recognizable Arthurian legend which features Illtud comes from the Welsh Triads. According to Butler’s Lives of the Saints, one version of the Welsh Triads contains the tradition that Illtud was part of a special group of knights. These knights served King Arthur and were given the privilege of being responsible for the Holy Grail. The other two knights in this special group were Cadoc and Peredur. The latter appears in the Arthurian legends as Percival. He famously engaged in a quest to find the Holy Grail. But in later legend, he was replaced by the character Galahad, the son of Sir Lancelot. He was said to have been an extremely holy and virtuous man. Of course, any figure associated with the Holy Grail would have to fit such a description.

 

On the basis of this association with the Holy Grail, some researchers have suggested that Illtud was the historical figure behind Galahad. Others have suggested that he was the figure behind Lancelot since they were both knights who came from what is now France and served Arthur.

 

The Importance of Illtud and the Arthurian Legends

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Plaque on St Illtyd’s Church, Llantwit Major, Wales, via llantwitmajorhistorysociety.co.uk

 

It is clear that Illtud was a very important religious figure in early Dark Age Britain. He was famous for his intelligence, and he shared that with others by setting up a school. He was responsible for educating many of the men who later went on to become some of the most prominent and influential figures of Britain and even Brittany. He was definitely the teacher of Samson of Dol, and he was probably also the teacher of Gildas, David, and Maelgwn Gwynedd. What is less clear is his family background. Although supposedly from Brittany, this cannot be confirmed. His being the disciple of Germanus is likely reliable, although this was probably not Germanus of Auxerre, for chronological reasons. It seems that Illtud was born at the end of the fifth century or the beginning of the sixth, and he died some time after 560.

 

Illtud left such a mark that he also features in the Arthurian legends. Fittingly for such a famously wise and religious person, he came to be remembered as one of the only knights to guard the legendary Holy Grail.

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By Caleb HowellsBA Doctrines and Methodology of EducationCaleb is a published history author with a strong interest in ancient Britain and the Mediterranean world. He holds a BA in the Doctrines and Methodology of Education from USILACS. He enjoys learning about history in general, but he especially loves investigating myths and legends and seeing how they might be explained by historical events and individuals.