Sunday, September 25, 2022

St. Cadoc the Wise and King Arthur

 Today is the feast of St. Cadoc the Wise, who is one of the Welsh saints whose legends link him to King Arthur. According to the legend, a man named Ligessawc, son of Eliman, killed three soldiers in the army of King Arthur. Arthur, concerned with justice, pursued him relentlessly, and no one would protect him out of fear of Arthur. Eventually, however, Ligessawc came to St. Cadoc, who took pity on him and provided him shelter in the region of Glenllwg. Ligessawc was able to hide there for seven years, but eventually word got back to the king about it, and Arthur came to the river Usk with a large contingent of soldiers. However, he did so to establish a court of law; he did not dare act with violence toward the saint. Therefore St. Cadoc negotiated with Arthur for some of the trial judges to be several saints of Wale, and Arthur appointed some for his own side as well, in equal numbers. The two sides argued their case back-and-forth, vehemently, with the river between them. The judges, after consultation, decided that, on the basis of custom, for each of his men, Arthur should received one hundred cows in reparation. Both sides agreed, but Arthur peremptorily demanded that that the cattle not be of a single color but all be red in front and white in back. They had no idea where they would get three hundred cows with that one pattern, but St. Cadoc instructed young men to bring him three hundred heifers of whatever color and pattern. And when the cows were marched in front of St. Cadoc, they immediately became red in front and white in back.

Having the cows, they had to negotiate the exchange itself. The judges came to the solution that St. Cadoc's side should drive the cows to the middle of the ford, at which point they would become the responsibility of Arthur's side. This they did, with the transition being overseen by Sir Kay and Sir Bedivere. Kay and Bedivere, however, began grabbing cows by the horns to guide them over, but as soon they grabbed a cow's horns, the cow became a giant bundle of ferns. Seeing this, King Arthur apologized to St. Cadoc for the injury Arthur had inflicted on St. Cadoc by demanding that the cows be red before and white behind, and the saint forgave him. King Arthur then consulted with his advisers and granted Ligessawc a reprieve of an additional seven years, seven months, and seven days. And after that, the cows that had been turned into bundles of ferns were found safe and sound in the stalls of their owners.

The legend is often interpreted as an expression of the superiority of ecclesial over temporal authority, but what is noticeable is that King Arthur actually comes out well here. (This is not always the case when he shows up in hagiographical legends.) The distinction between King Arthur and St. Cadoc is not really one of authority; they essentially operate as equals in the trial. (And in any case, despite Arthur's unusual importance and the fact that St. Cadoc had given up his role as war chieftain to found a catechetical school, St. Cadoc is operating here in part as a Welsh prince, and not merely as a random holy man.) Nor is it a case that one is in the right and the other is not. King Arthur's claim is legitimate, and a fair trial determines that he is due reparation. Rather, the difference seems to be that King Arthur is operating entirely on the principle of justice, while St. Cadoc is not. The king arguably makes the strange demand about the cattle in order to make actual reparation impossible and force Ligessawc's protectors to hand Ligessawc over for judgment of law and likely execution. This is the second time in the story that he has not recognized the right of mercy but has tried to force things to conform to his conception of justice: he forced the trial to begin with and now is trying to force the result he wants. Realizing that St. Cadoc is doing miracles, he repents and accepts the claim and superiority of mercy.