Gwenn – by legend triple-breasted - was a daughter of King Budic II of Brittany, and was born around AD499. She was twice married. To her first husband, Fracan, cousin to King Cado of Dumnonia, she bore three children, all of whom became saints -Wethnoc, Iacob and Winwaloe. This was the reason for the legend of her having three breasts, one assumes. Her icon depicts her cradling these three children.
To escape grave pestilence around Dumnonia (the Celtic West of England), Gwenn settled at PlouFracan in Domnonee (France) where she later bore Fracan a daughter, Chreirbia.
After Fracan died, Gwenn married a Breton, Eneas Ledewig, to whom she bore another son, St Cadfan. Twice, however, Gwen was kidnapped by Anglo-Saxon pirates and carried off to England, but on both occasions she escaped, walking across the Channel back to Brittany.
Towards the end of her life, she settled in the Marshwood Vale in Dorset at Whitchurch Canonicorum, then in Eastern Dumnonia. She lived there for many years in her small hermitage, until, in the mid-6th century, the Saxons wreaked their revenge, ransacking her home and slaughtering her.
This makes St Gwenn an extremely probable contender for the identity of the mysterious female saint whose bones lie in the shrine at the parish church of Whitchurch Canonicorum. The shrine within the church has for centuries been a focus of healing miracles. The church there bears the dedication St Candida and Holy Cross. It is also traditionally known as the Church of St Witta or St Wite – which may or may not mean “white” in Early English. But Gwenn is certainly Welsh for white, as is Candida white in Latin.
O holy Martyr Gwenn, you praised Christ in your saint-bearing life, and in your death you were glorified.
Miracles continue through your prayers. Intercede for all who call upon you in faith, O Holy Mother Gwenn, to Christ our God that He may make us whole.
Historical notes based on David Ford Nash’s Early British Kingdoms.