(the photo is of a silver reliquary containing relics of St Judicaël – see below)
Three historical ancestors of my family who are celebrated as Christian saints with commemorative feast days on December 17: St Begga of Landen, St Judicaël of Brittany, and St Tydecho of Brittany and Wales.
St Begga of Landen (615-698), generation 44 grandmother
St Begga (aka Bega, Begge, Beggue, Beggule, also Dode) was born and died in what is now Belgium.
Begga’s parents were Saint Itta (Ida, Itte or Iduberga) of Nivelles (592–652) and Blessed Pepin of Landen (580-640). Bl. Pepin (aka Pippin, Pepin the Elder) was Mayor of the Palace of Austrasia, the de facto ruler the Frankish kingdom. He held this most powerful position under Kings Clothaire II (584-629), Dagobert I (c. 603–639), and King Saint Sigebert III (c. 630–c660).
Saint Itta, was the daughter of Arnoldus, Bishop of Metz, niece of St. Modoald, Bishop of Treves (Trier), and sister of St Severa. The sisters’ grandfather was Ansbertus, a famous and powerful Gallo-Roman Senator. Itta founded a double abbey at Nivelles with both convent and monastery under the abbess. Following her husband Bl. Pepin’s death, St Itta became a nun at this convent.
St Itta and Bl Pepin’s children include St Begga, the hermit St Bavo of Ghent (Bavon, Allowin, Bavonius, Baaf, 622–659); Grimoald I; and the famous St Getrude of Nivelles, among others. Gertrude (626-659) refused to marry and became abbess of her mother’s foundation at Nivelles. Gertrude, in turn, passed the office of abbess on to her niece St Wulfetrude, daughter of Grimoald.
St Begga married her first cousin, St Ansegisel (Angise), son of her mother’s brother St. Arnulf, Bishop of Metz, and his wife St Dode (Clotilde) of Metz. (In those days, priests and even bishops were allowed to marry and have children, and most did so). St Ansegisel’s siblings include: St Martin of Metz, St Cloud (Chlodulf) of Metz, and St Basina of Thurgovie.
With the death of St Begga’s father Bl Pepin, her husband St Ansegisel became Mayor of the Palace, and the couple lived as virtual rulers of the kingdom. Begga and Ansegisel’s children include Martin of Loan; Clotilde of Landen, first wife of King Theudoric III; and Pepin II of Heristal (c635-714), regarded as the founder of the Carolingian dynasty.
Through their son Pepin II, St Begga and St Ansegisel were the grandparents of Charles Martel and the great, great grandparents of Emperor Blessed Charlemagne. (I know, who would have thought Charlemagne was canonized as beatified? But he was, together with his wife, Empress Blessed Hildegarde; beatification is one official step below full canonization as saints; some sources list Charlemagne and Hildegarde as fully canonized saints).
After St Ansegisel was killed in 691, either by accident or in a plot by usurpatious enemies at the court, St Begga took the veil and went on a pilgrimage to Rome. Upon her return later the same year, she founded a ring of seven churches near the Meuse River between Huy and Namur, Belgium, in imitation of the seven principal churches in Rome. At the center of these institutions, she established an abbey church and convent at Andenne on the Meuse (Andenne sur Meuse).
This arrangement, and the site of the first church, is said to have been indicated to her by seeing seven small birds grouped around their mother. In portraits of the Saint, these are usually represented as a duck and her ducklings floating on the Meuse River, or by a hen gathering her chicks under her wings. Sometimes a boar or bear is also shown with the saint, as the abbey’s site at it founding was the forested home of such wild animals. Two generations later, Begga’s grandson, Charles Martel killed a wild bear near the abbey.
The first nuns to form the new community came from St Gertrude’s abbey at Nivelles, the convent founded by Gertrude and Begga’s mother St Itta. St Gertrude had been dead for over forty years and St Wulfetrude also was dead. Agnes, the third abbess of Nivelles, took care to see that her nuns helped St Begga’s convent at Andenne begin with all the benefits learned under Sts Gertrude and Wulfetrude. The Nivelles nuns introduced the Irish monastic customs they followed. They also brought with them a piece of St Gertrude’s bed and placed it near the main altar at Andenne, dedicated to St Genovefa (Geneviève of Paris, c420-c512, daughter of a Gallo-Roman nobleman like St Begga’s great-grandfather Ansbertus). Here, the relic worked miraculous cures and was adorned with votive offerings of gold and precious stones.
Sometime afterwards, the double abbey of Andenne was converted into a collegiate church of 32 canonesses of noble families, with 10 canons to officiate at the altar. The Lateran Canons Regular continue to commemorate St. Begga as belonging to their Order. Having built the ring of seven churches and established her monastic house, Begga lived out the last seven years of her life as abbess. She is buried in Saint Begga’s Collegiate Church in Andenne, which still preserves her remains.
She is invoked for the cure of hernias and of infants’ diseases. She is the patron saint of Andenne, one of the patrons of Belgium, and from the 14th century, the chosen patron of the Beguines.
St Begga and the Beguine Movement
Although Begga is venerated by the Beguines of Belgium as their patroness, the once-common assumption that she founded this lay-order is a mistake, based on the similarity of the names. The term beguinae (original meaning unknown), first encountered about the year 1200, was originally a term of reproach used by detractors, perhaps the Albigenses. In later centuries, it came to be believed even among Beguines themselves, that St Begga had founded their community.
This unofficial, semi-monastic lay movement, first noted in the 12th century, consisted of cloistered women, both contemplative and active, sharing a common residential communal life, usually in urban centers. Though they did not renounce their private ownership of property, and lived under no formal vows, these unmarried and widowed woman agreed to forgo marriage, leading celibate lives for as long as they resided within their shared communities, but were free to re-enter conventional life at any time, taking up marriage if they so desired.
The church in the beguinage of Lier, Belgium, has a statue of St. Begga standing above the inscription: “St. Begga, our foundress.” However, the Lier beguinage seems to date from the 13th century, and the Beguines seem to derive their name from some other, uncertain source. However, St Begga was indeed venerated within the movement, originally as an historical exemplar and patron saint, rather than as its historical founder.
“A few béguinages persisted until the early 20th century in parts of Belgium, including those of Bruges, Lier, Mechelin, Leuven and Ghent, which last numbered nearly a thousand members in 1905.
“Marcella Pattyn, the last traditional Beguine, died on 14 April 2013 in Kortrijk at the age of 92. Born in the Belgian Congo in 1920, she was accepted into the Béguinage of St Elisabeth at Sint-Amandsberg, Ghent in 1941 and moved to the Béguinage of St Elisabeth at Kortrijk in 1960, where she became one of a community of nine.
“The community of the Amsterdam Begijnhof (Beguine House), credited with having considerably influenced the development of what was the city’s southern edge in the late Middle Ages, survived the Protestant Reformation staunchly Catholic. Their parish church was confiscated and given over to exiled English Puritans. The last Amsterdam Beguine died in 1971, but the Begijnhof remains one of the city’s best-known landmarks” (wikipedia). Today communities in several countries are reviving the Beguine order.
St Begga, one of my ancestral saintly grandmothers and family patrons, is commemorated also on her other feast day, September 6.
King Saint Judicaël (c. 590 – 16 or 17 December 658), generation 46 grandfather
St Judicaël was the son of King Hoel III (Judhaël) and himself became high king of the Bretons (the Celtic peoples of Northwest France who had immigrated from Cornwall and Wales). This dynastic line descends directly from two sisters of St Patrick, Sts Darerca and Tigridia, and contains many saints within its family. After founding numerous abbeys, and surviving numerous political turns, Judicaël retired to the monastery of his mentor and friend St Meën, where he lived as a humble monk. At one point he was called back to take the throne again, but eventually retired a second time, ending his life as a monk. At least some of his years as a monk were spent as a solitary hermit. He was succeeded as king temporarily by his younger brother Saint Judoc (Josse) who also had retired to a monastery and returned there after serving briefly as king. Eventually, St Judicaël’s son, Alain II ascended the throne. St Judicaël’s third generation uncle-cousin, St Tydecho, is also celebrated on this date.
Saint Tydecho (exact dates unknown, 6th c.), generation 49 uncle
St Tydecho is said to be the brother or half-brother of the more famous St Cadfan; both brothers were were sons of Princess St Gwen Teirbron by either her first husband St Fragan, or by her second husband Eneas Ledewig. St Gwen was a daughter of King Budic II; her Celtic Briton family ruled variously at different times parts of northern England, Wales and Cornwall and then Brittany. Their line of descent is traced to St Patrick’s sisters, Sts Darerca and Tigridia, whose uncle or great uncle was St Martin of Tours. There were a very large number saints within their immediate and somewhat extended family.
St Tydecho, like his brother St Cadfan, was a priest and a Benedictine monk, and seems to have founded several churches in both Wales and Brittany, some of which still bear his name.