The Land of Holy Wells – 3

by Tristan Gray Hulse

My search for memorials of St Meiriadog in Brittany led me next to Noyal-Pontivy, 5 km to the east of Pontivy, in the Morbihan. Noyal-Pontivy is a village at the centre of a rural parish, one of the largest and most ancient in Brittany. I was looking for a stone sarcophagus locally reputed to have been Meiriadog’s coffin. I found this quite easily; but more interestingly I also discovered two important wells dedicated to the parish patron saint, Noyale. Noyale (in Breton, Noaluen; Latin, Noyala; Cornish, Newlina) was another 6th-century Celtic saint: English according to her legend, Irish according to earlier hagiographers, but more likely to have been one of the numerous Welsh settlers who travelled to Brittany – like Meiriadog himself. Indeed, his association with the place, evidenced not only by the tradition of the stone coffin, but also in his medieval Latin Vita, may perhaps suggest (one can do no more than this – she is far too shadowy a figure, historically) that Noyale was one of  his group of  followers. Noyale is a popular saint in Brittany (as noted in part 2 of this series, I found an ancient statue of  her in St Meiriadog’s chapel, in Pluvigner). In Cornwall she is remembered at Newlyn East, where a fig tree growing from the south wall of the church is said to have grown from her staff, while a nearby holy well, in the orchard of Ventonarren farm, is identified as the site of   her martyrdom (cf. J. Meyrick, A Pilgrims Guide to the Holy Wells of Cornwall, Meyrick, Falmouth 1982, p. 110), and a small stone image of her carrying her head was recently unearthed in the churchyard. The saint is discussed by S. Baring-Gould and John Fisher in their Lives of  the British Saints, IV, London 1913, pp. 10-14 (though their speculations as to her ancestry can be safely dismissed out of hand). Rather than attempt my own account of  Noyale and her wells, I give an almost complete translation of  Santez Noaluen, an anonymous booklet in French printed by Noyal-Pontivy parish c. 1970 (translation – TGH). My additional notes appear in square brackets. The legend is told here in two somewhat different versions, but still differs in many small details from earlier tellings, and testifies to the vigour of  the local oral tradition – itself a testimony to living local devotion to the saint. The oral vigour, and the number of still-identified natural phenomena and their associated buildings, make this one of the most interesting of the cephalophore (‘head-carrying’) legends which are associated with so many European martyrs. Not all cephalophore legends are associated with holy wells, but many are. This is one of   the most detailed and interesting (doubly interesting, in its survival to the present as a living tradition), and includes one motif apparently unique to itself. The booklet was given to me by the curé of Noyal-Pontivy, Guy Le Hénanff, and I would here wish to thank Père Le Hénanff for this and much other relevant information.


Santez Noaluen / Saint Noyale

The narratives in that huge book, the Buhe er Sent, are always both edifying and marvellous in character. [The Buhe is the Breton translation of  the vast collection of  lives of  the saints of  Brittany, compiled by the Dominican Albert Le Grand in the early 17th century. No Life of the saint has survived; but given the fact that the Breton legend concurs in so many points with the residual legend found at Newlyn East in Cornwall, it seems likely that one had formerly existed, in the medieval period.] To speak of St Noyale is to go back into the far-off history of Brittany and discover its beautiful popular legends. It is hard to tell where history ends and where legend begins. This much is certain, that the cult of St Noyale has, across the centuries, deeply marked local history and popular piety.

Noaluen was the daughter of the king of Ussig in England, in the 5th century. She received a strongly Christian education, and became a model of piety to her companions. She felt little attraction to the pleasures of the court. Quite the opposite: she dedicated herself to prayer, penance, and mortification. The poor came to her. She wanted to renounce the world totally, to give herself to Christ.

Her father was already dreaming of a fine princely marriage. More surely to avoid this seductive temptation, Noaluen distributed her possessions, and fled with her nurse-companion, not knowing where they were going. Immediately, the king caused her to be sought for, promising a reward to whoever brought them back. But already they had set sail on the sea, turning a deaf ear to the appeals of their pursuers. [According to the legend as depicted on a rood screen at Noyal-Pontivy, destroyed in 1684, Noyale and her nurse sailed to Brittany on a leaf – a hagiographical motif encountered elsewhere. The legend now current has ‘rationalised’ this somewhat, and has them floating across on a branch!]

Noaluen and her nurse landed in the region around Vannes, afterwards making their way to the interior of the country, to live in solitude. At that time there was scant population in the regions in the Argoëd [the interior, lit. ‘by the woodland’] beyond the Arvor [the coastal plain, lit. ‘by the sea’], covered for the most part by forests. It was easy to build themselves a peaceful hermitage. [This, it has been suggested, was in Noyal-Pontivy, at Ste-Noyale.]

One day a local lord met this young immigrant. Immediately he wished to seduce this beautiful young woman, and lure her to his palace. Noyale abruptly refused: ‘I have consecrated my virginity to God, and will have no other spouse than Jesus Christ. I do not fear the death of the body, I fear nothing except the death of the soul. Do with me what you will: I am willing to endure every torment rather than break the vow which I have made to God. I will receive from my divine spouse the courage necessary to undergo the most cruel death. What happiness, to receive the martyr’s crown!’

Noaluen and her maid-servant attempted to escape. But the tyrant found them again near the chapel of Bézo, [in Bignan about 30 km south of Noyal-Pontivy]. Again, he tried to conquer Noyale’s resistance. To make her afraid of him, he made the blade of the sword, which would serve him to cut off her head if she remained obstinate in her refusal, glitter before her eyes. Noyale gave way neither to his propositions nor to his threats. In his anger, the tyrant Nizan beheaded Noyale and her maid.

The narrative develops from the edifying to the marvellous: Noaluen took her bloodied head into her hands and began to walk. [According to the older version of the legend, formerly depicted on the rood screen, and now reproduced in the windows of the parish church, Noyale’s nurse survived the attack and, led by an angel, guided the cephalophore saint back home towards Noyal-Pontivy. By the time the windows were installed (late-19th century), the angel had dropped out of the legend. The account being given here is derived from Le Grand, who worked far from Noyal-Pontivy, at Morlaix. In the absence of a written Vita, Le Grand may have had only the barest outline of the Noyale legend to work on. The pious waffle given above, recording Noyale’s speech to Nizan, which could be paralled from dozens of saints’ Lives, is a sure indication that Le Grand was busily ‘padding’ his exiguous source as best he could. In these circumstances, his omission of details found in other, local, tellings of the legend, is not only explicable, but to be expected.] Passing through the territory of Nizan, at Himbor, she heard a girl replying coarsely to her mother: she was scandalised at this and went on. [Another hagiographic commonplace. It is paralleled, for instance, in the legend of the Welsh saint Eiliwedd/Almedha.] Next she arrived at the edge of the forest of Branguily [a spot approximately 1 km south of Noyal-Pontivy]. Here for the first time she stopped, to pray. She stuck her staff into the earth, where it became a tree. Three drops of blood fell upon the grass, and three fountains immediately sprang up. [The earlier versions of the legend, as recorded on the screen, and reproduced in the windows, do not specify that the wells appeared upon Noyale’s arrival. The screen inscriptions (given by Baring-Gould & Fisher, op. cit., p. 11) say merely that she ‘rested’ by the fountain (on a stone ‘seat’, afterwards bearing her name), before ‘planting’ her staff (which became a tree), and then kneeling to pray on another stone, which is still said to bear the marks of her knees. It is impossible to say for sure whether the screen simply omitted the well-creation episode (an omission which seems unlikely, given the near-ubiquity of this hagiographic motif), or whether the motif of the well-creation was added to the legend in, say, the last three centuries (? by Le Grand himself – his great familiarity with legends of well-creation associated with so many other Breton saints might have led him to assume it here: but then, how would this literary creation have fed back so strongly into the local oral tradition?), to account for the presence of sacred wells at the place most intimately connected with the cephalophoria.] The martyr continued on her way, seeking a desert place wherein to die. There today is found the village of Ste-Noyale, [2 km north of Noyal-Pontivy: possibly the site of Noyale’s original hermitage].

Les Trois Fontaines

Nowadays one reaches them easily along a country road. They are situated 1 km from the town, close to a stream, in a small well-watered valley. In summer, it is a picturesque and agreeable spot, with its coolness, and its huge trees near an abandoned quarry. It was there that St Noyale had stopped, before going further on to die.

The Three Fountains [holy wells] are found within a stone-built enclosure. The ground is paved with flagstones. The architecture is classical and sober in style. A large stone in the pediment of the south entrance carries the date 1600. Above each of the two wells on the south side of the enclosure there is a niche, each of them with two statues of polychromed wood: a seated Virgin with the Child Jesus, St Noyale carrying her head, St John the Evangelist, and St Paul. [These two wells on the south side rise under rounded arches which are incorporated into a substantial wall topped with a Gothic crocketted pediment surmounted by a cross. Each niche houses two statues, supported on brackets.]

The little building over the third well, on the east side, is undecorated, and appears to be older. [This is a smaller pedimented structure, with the water rising beneath a flattened arch.]

On the north side, an open porch carries an interesting inscription, noting that the wells had been restored in 1818. About 50 metres to the rear of the Three Fountains, one can see a stone which was once the seat of St Noyale.

Recently, two huge stones said to have been the bed and the prie-dieu of St Noyale have been moved here and placed in front of the small calvary. Note the prints of her knees and feet! [Last century, these were explained as the marks of her ‘elbows and knees’ (Baring-Gould & Fisher, op. cit., p. 12). It is not uncommon for the interpretations of such indistinct marks on stones associated with historical or legendary personages to shift with the passage of years – sometimes even the personages themselves are changed. Similar marks on stones are found associated with many other holy wells.]

On the day of the Pardon, at the beginning of July, people come in crowds to pray and sing to St Noyale, in this evocative and peaceful place.


It was to the village of Ste-Noyale, in a hollow 2 km from the town, that Noaluen came to die. This place is indicated by a kind of sacred enclosure comprising a chapel, an oratory, two calvaries and a holy well. A brook, a meadow and some poplars give peace and coolness to this classified site [as we would say, a ‘scheduled ancient monument’].

The chapel is, overall, a construction of the 15th century. A stone in the porch bears the date 1423. The massive square tower shelters a doorway, the columns and scrolled gable of which are admirable. The curious baroque slated roof recalls somewhat a multi-storied Japanese pagoda, with its small turrets.

Near to the chapel stands a classified granite cross, in the naive and primitive style of the old Breton calvaries. By its side is the oratory of St John, which, because of its removable shutters, can also function as a setting for the outdoor services on the day of the Pardon.

This Pardon, on the Sunday following 24 June, still attracts many pilgrims from all around Noyal-Pontivy, but nowadays tractors and cars have replaced horses in the procession.

[The Well of St Noyale is found just outside the enclos (the church enclosure), on the banks of a brook in a meadow. It is a beautiful and elegant small well-shrine in a rustic Renaissance style, the water rising in a square tank under a round arch which is surmounted by a pediment – see illustration. Beneath the arch, an elaborate niche shelters a crude but effective statue of St Noyale carrying her head in front of her. It is brightly painted, the saint wearing a violet dress over a green under-robe, with vivid trickles of blood running from her neck. If the assumption that Ste-Noyale represents the original dwelling of the saint is correct, then the well was presumably the water-source of the little monastic community.]

The Parish Church

For a long time, Noyal has been one of the largest parishes in the diocese of Vannes. It required a parochial centre capable of reflecting this size. The tower is visible from a great distance. A sharp-pointed pyramidal spire rests upon a square, squat base. The whole edifice is beautifully built in grey stone. The south porch is one of the best examples of Breton Flamboyant architecture.

Outside, opposite the porch, one can see a kind of sarcophagus carved from a single block of granite, which is called the tomb of St Mériadec, and which dates from the 14th century. [The sarcophagus is now located near the north wall of the sanctuary. It is not known how or why it came to be associated with St Meiriadog, but as information supplied by Père Le Hénanff records, ‘les bonnes gens de la région lui demandèrent pourtant longtemps des guérisons en appliquant les mains sur la pierre de cercueil’. In Noyal-Pontivy I was told that people formerly used the rain-water collecting in the sarcophagus, dipping their hands in it, and wiping it over the afflicted parts of their bodies.]

The chancel is very large. The four small and the single large stained-glass windows summarise very well the life story of St Noyale. [These windows reproduce, in ten sections, the legend of the saint more or less as it had been depicted on the former rood screen. The windows are described by Baring-Gould and Fisher (op. cit., pp. 11-12), though they make no attempt to describe the delicate beauty of the glass-painting. The church contains many other treasures, and on the north side of the nave is the altar of St Noyale, above which stands her image, a wonderful piece of modern sculpture (and a faithful reproduction of the earlier one illustrated by B-G & Fisher – see illustration), strongly painted and gilded.] Essentially a building of the 15th century, the church has been frequently modified. But the dominant note remains that of Flamboyant Gothic.

Met drest pep tra doh er péhed,

Santez Noaluen, hun goarantet,

Eit ne vankou, o Patromez,

Hanni a Noal ér Baradouiz.

[These are the last four lines of an old rhymed prayer in Breton, still in use in the Morbihan. Translated, they read:

O blessed St Noyale

Preserve us, especially from sin,

So that not one of your children here

May be missing, O our Patroness, from paradise.]

The Pardons

The Pardon of St Noyale’s chapel, in the village of Ste-Noyale, takes place on Sunday 24 June (the feast of St John Baptist, patron of the decapitated), or on the Sunday following 24 June. It comprises: an early Mass at 7 a.m., High Mass at 11 a.m., the blessing of cars and tractors at midday, and Vespers in the afternoon at 3.30, followed by the bonfire (feu de joie) and the descent of the angel. [A traditional practice formerly widespread in Brittany. The ceremonial bonfire is lit by an ‘angel’, an image carrying a flame which is flown down a wire stretched from the church tower to the bonfire.]

The feast of St Noyale is observed in the parish church on 6 July.

The Pardon of the parish and of the Three Fountains occurs on Sunday 6 July, or on the Sunday following 6 July. Masses in the parish church at 7, 9, and 11 a.m. Vespers at the Three Fountains at 3 p.m. Afterwards, the procession along the road back to the town, and the feu de joie. At this procession is carried the statue, carved in mahogany by M. Pascal Jubin in 1966.

My Grandmother’s Tale

When I was very young, my grandmother told me of the marvellous events of the life of St Noyale.

Listen carefully, little one – she would say to me – Once upon a time…One evening as the sun sank to the horizon, St Noyale was looking for a place to rest in the little valley of the Grand Ménec.

Beheaded, she had been, the poor thing, a few days before in the countryside in Bignan, near to Bézo, by the dreadful Nizan. By the grace of God, she walked a long way, and, her head between her hands, she arrived here.

In a peaceful place where the nightingale sang, near to a limpid steam, she sat down. And to her faithful companion she said: ‘Here I finish my earthly pilgrimage. It is in the country of the Moutons Blancs that I will rest.’ From her long fingers fell three drops of blood, and the green grass became all red. O Wonder! At once from the earth three springs welled up. Since that day, pure fresh water has flowed from the Three Fountains. Even in the hottest summers it never dries up, and it gives health to the soul and body. And more wondrous still (according to Fetinieu):

‘Anyone who has a heart pure and good

Can see the three drops in the depths of the wells.’

[This motif appears to be unique to Noyal-Pontivy and the Trois Fontaines. Possibly it is a local variant of the common legend in which wells appear where a martyr’s blood is shed. Often, such wells are actually chalybeate springs, the ‘redness’ of the water being attributed to the original blood-shedding: but here, where no iron colours the water, the bloody evidence can only be seen by the ‘pure and good’.]

Seeing Noyale, pallid, and ready for death, her companion begged her to leave that deserted spot, and go to the village…but St Noyale could no longer hear…her soul had flown to Jesus, the divine spouse of virgins.

(Tell me more, granny, tell me more…)

Several years later, the people of Noyal conscientiously undertook to build a chapel to their saint [this is now the chapel and well complex at Ste-Noyale]. But the tyrant Nizan, his heart still full of hatred, was travelling through the land. He saw the carpenters on the roof-frame. At once it entered his mind to build a dam on the Signan brook below the chapel, to drown the sacred place. After several days of hard work, the water began to flood all the neighbouring meadows; and, full of pride, Nizan, perched on his horse, boasted about his barrage. When the water had reached the chapel threshold, he cried out, in a voice more unpleasant than ever:

Noluennig, Noluennig,

E ha en deur en hou potig.

(Into your sabot, Noyale, my dear,

Dashes the seething waters.)

A sinister cracking sound answered him. The dam had broken, and the angry waters swept horse and rider away.

One can still see, in the stream at Ste-Noyale, below the fine chapel, the Gouffre du Tyran, the Tyrant’s Whirlpool.

Text & Illustrations © Tristan Gray Hulse (1995)

Webpage Designed & Maintained by Richard L. Pederick (© 1999) | Created 15/11/99

%d bloggers like this: