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From Brigands to Saints

The Story of Saints Gladys and Woolos

By: Woodeene Koenig-Bricker

From Brigands to Saints: The Story of Saints Gladys and Woolos by Woodeene Koenig-Bricker

A few individual saints, like Francis of Assisi and Ignatius of Loyola, led colorful and even sinful lives before turning their hearts to God.

But only one married saint couple is as well known for their violent past as for their eventual sanctity.

They are the sixth-century Welsh saints Gwladys, or Gladys, and her husband, Gwynllyw Farfog (the Bearded), occasionally known as Woolos the Warrior. They started out living a life of plundering and pillaging, but ended up sharing a life of prayer and sacrifice. Along the way, their story wanders into the realm of romance novels and Arthurian legend before finally taking an unexpected turn to Christianity through the influence of one of the great saints of Wales—who just happens to be their son.

A Mixed Tale. According to the Life of St. Cadoc (1100 AD), Gladys was the eldest daughter of King Brychan of Wales. A stunningly beautiful young lady, she caught the attention of one of her father’s rivals, the robber chieftain Woolos. When her father refused to give his privileged daughter in marriage to a rough and uncouth warrior, Woolos did what any pagan brigand would do—he gathered up a force of three hundred men, headed to Brychan’s fortress, and abducted Gladys.

After Woolos threw Gladys over his horse and rode off into the sunset, so to speak, her father set out to rescue his daughter. Legend has it that King Arthur spied the hapless maiden and was so smitten that he fancied her for himself. As the story goes, Arthur’s foster brother, Sir Kay, then convinced Arthur to let Woolos marry Gladys; in turn, Arthur persuaded Brychan to bless the union.

Since King Arthur himself is an amalgam of legend and mangled truth, his involvement in St. Gladys’s life is undoubtedly fanciful. In fact, another source, the Life of St. Gwynllyw, says that the marriage was conducted peacefully and, presumably, happily. Nevertheless, this addition to the tale is intriguing: It is the earliest reference to Arthur in any saint’s life, and it indicates that the story of Gladys and Woolos had a place in the great Gaelic and British tradition of bards and ballads.

However their marriage came about, Gladys seems to have been quite content with her warrior husband and his rough ways. But their early life together wasn’t exactly what you would expect of future saints. Biographers described it as “violent” and “on the run,” even punctuated by occasional forays into piracy. The couple might have never become saints if it hadn’t been for the birth of their first son, Cadoc.

Cadoc and the Cow. Cadoc was not a chip off the old block, perhaps because of his nature or perhaps because he was raised by the Irish monk, St. Tatheus. It’s not because his parents had a soft spot for monastic life or even because they had a burning desire to give their son a Christian education that Cadoc ended up in the monk’s care. The reason is that when Cadoc was born, Woolos went on a cattle-stealing raid to celebrate the event. One of the stolen cows belonged to Tatheus, and when the monk demanded his cow’s return, Woolos gave him his son. (No one knows what happened to the cow.)

When Cadoc came of age, he turned down his father’s offer to take over the family business and began evangelizing instead. Two of his first converts were apparently his mother and father. Gladys, who had probably been baptized as a child, seems to have returned to the faith first; she undoubtedly had a hand in convincing Woolos to adopt Christianity. But all the accounts say it was through Cadoc’s prompting, prayers, and example that both his parents became good and just monarchs. Abandoning their raids on neighboring kingdoms, they devoted themselves to works of charity, church-building, and peacemaking.

After several years of benevolent rule, Woolos had an epiphany, perhaps a vision. In response, he gave up the kingship and moved into a small wooden retreat house that he built at what is now Newport, South Wales (where St. Woolos Cathedral stands today).

Gladys went too—an unusual development, given that early medieval piety strongly suggested that married couples seeking holiness should separate to avoid “carnal sin.” Woolos and Gladys bucked convention, moved to the hermitage together, and entered into a semi-hermitic life as a couple—a strong witness to the importance they placed on their marital vows. As part of their regime, they ate a vegetarian diet and performed severe penance, such as bathing in an icy river, for their past misdeeds.

And so they continued to the end—Woolos dying first, and then Gladys, at another hermitage (near Capel Wladus in Gelligaer), where she is buried. Both their names are recorded in the Welsh King lists, as well as in the Lives of the Saints.

A Couple for Christ. While the life of St. Gladys and St. Woolos makes for good storytelling, it contains some important lessons for us as well.

First, a great deal of emphasis has been placed on the beatification of the parents of St. Thérèse of Lisieux as an example of a happily married couple who achieved sanctity together. But a thousand years before Zélie and Louis Martin, British troubadours were celebrating the romantic love of Gladys and Woolos.

The couple never entered a monastery and convent, as was typical for people of their time who were seeking holiness. After their conversions, they continued to live together for virtually all of their lives, growing in their faith through mutual support. It was only late in life that the couple maintained separate residences. Since we know that St. Cadoc was with his father at his death, it may be that Woolos moved into his son’s abbey shortly before a final illness, with Gladys established in her own hermitage close by.

All this makes Mr. and Mrs. Farfog stand out as one of our earliest examples of a husband-and-wife saint team. They even share the same feast day: March 29.

Hope for Change. Second, we talk a great deal about the importance of educating children in the faith and setting a good example for them. But example can go the other way as well, from children to parents. It’s doubtful that Gladys and Woolos would be saints today if it weren’t for their son, Cadoc. (Incidentally, his four brothers and sisters are also saints because of his influence!)

Even though Cadoc grew up away from home, his parents obviously remained in contact with him—close enough so that when Cadoc was an adult, he was comfortable sharing his faith with them. Additionally, his example of giving up his father’s title and lands for the sake of the gospel must have been a powerful witness to his entire family. His example—a saintly son influencing his parents, as well as his siblings—can give great hope to people who are the only practicing Catholics in their families. It shows that faith can bisect and even backtrack generations.

Toward a New Future. Third, the life of St. Gladys and her husband demonstrates that your past or even your present is not predictive of your future. Odds are that if you had told Brother Tatheus he was dealing with future saints when his cow was stolen, he would have been doubtful, to say the least. But Gladys and Woolos embraced the opportunity for change when it came to them. Their example tells us that we can too.

Time and again, God gives us opportunities to do something different, to make a new and better choice, even the choice to become a saint. We, too, can receive the courage to change old bad habits and behaviors and put on Christ in a new way of living, no matter what we might have done or been in our past.

The Power of Prayer. Finally, we can never underestimate the power of prayer. Although the chronicles don’t say so specifically, it’s safe to assume that St. Cadoc prayed long and hard for his parents. Gladys, whose conversion came first, undoubtedly prayed for her husband as he prepared for Baptism. And he, in turn, became a prayerful man.

Because they changed their lives from rulers to ascetics as a couple, we can comfortably assume that Gladys and Woolos prayed together and discerned God’s will for their lives as husband and wife. Although it’s not likely that today’s married couples would come to the same decision about how to live out their faith, Gladys and Woolos offer a powerful example of how two people, bound together in marriage, can seek and find God’s will, both as individuals and as a couple, through prayer.

Millions of Saints. In the two thousand years of Church history, millions of men and women have found their way to heaven. Looking at the lives of some of those whom history has virtually forgotten reminds us that holiness transcends time and culture. Every country and every generation has given rise to saintly men and women.

And that’s the real lesson we can gain from this medieval family. Each of us has the opportunity to be a saint—not by becoming a world-famous missionary like Mother Teresa or an erudite theologian like Pope John Paul II or a martyr like Edith Stein, but by simply being the best version of ourselves that we can be. By living the calling God has given us; by loving our husbands and wives, our children and parents and friends; by doing our jobs to the best of our ability—which is exactly what made Gladys and Woolos into saints!

Woodeene Koenig-Bricker is the author of numerous books, including Listening to God with Mother Teresa and 365 Saints.