The old legend of the Isle of Ys and the Sunken Cathedral, retold.
|The Legend of the Isle of Ys
One thousand five hundred years ago, in the northwestern sea off the coast of Brittany, there was an island of beauty unlike any other: her shores pebbly, her hills green enough to rival emerald Ireland, and her forests thick and teeming with life. Her name was Ys, island of the Bretons.
The God-fearing Bretons lived peaceably in their quiet paradise, free from the concerns of those on the mainland, which had been ravaged by internal strife and conflict; conflict so ancient that the elders could not recall when it began. They told stories of the old country, war-torn and desperate. The people longed for somewhere else to call home, some haven out of reach of the murderous rival kings in their homeland.
Led by a local priest, Saint Winwaloe, the Bretons fled to the sea, where the ravages of war had not yet encroached upon the shores. Once they reached the coast, Saint Winwaloe went down upon his knees and prayed fervently to God for his people, that they would be allowed to prosper, and live in peace. Suddenly, the ground shook around them, and the terrified Bretons cried out in fear. But Saint Winwaloe shouted: “Be not afraid! Look to the sea! The Lord has heard our cries! We are delivered!” And all at once, out from the boiling and rumbling sea came an island, already ripe with vegetation and teeming with animal life.
The Bretons, skilled woodworkers, took it upon themselves to fashion boats from their old homes, and guided by their fervor and wonder at the miracle wrought for them, completed the task in three weeks' time. The people took their belongings, and under the protection of Almighty God, rowed out to the island to establish a new kingdom, free from strife.
The elders maintained that God had allowed them the chance to escape by raising the island out of the sea. As long as His children lived peaceably and maintained the land, they had a right to its soil. And so, year after year the Bretons kept the land, harvesting for their needs alone, and thanked God for his provision.
King Gradlon, ruler of the Bretons, took it upon himself to raise a cathedral for the people, so that they could honor and worship God in remembrance of His provision for them. Gathering the twelve elders of the people of Breton, he consulted with them about how best to fashion the cathedral out of the resources available to them. Each elder spoke to his section of the kingdom, and instructed them to bring the finest resources from their land and personal effects they would offer up to God. The people gladly did so, and so began the construction of the mighty cathedral.
The masons struck the ancient stones from the shoreline, broke them, and brought them to the site where the foundation was to be laid. The foresters cut down the lumber which rivaled that of the cedars of Lebanon. The women gave up of their jewelry: fine jade from the east, diamond from the African lands, gold from heirlooms passed down through the generations, all to fashion ornate doorways, gates, and to decorate the cathedral. The people took care to seek all that they had to build the cathedral, and when it was finished, King Gradlon called his people to the palace.
“Blessing be upon you and all your posterity, my people! You have shown God your undying love for Him and the purity of your hearts by your actions! Let this cathedral be a monument to our memory of His miracle for us, and may our descendants thrive in this land forevermore!”
The raucous crowd shouted out in joy, and fifes and drums played well into the night. For years the people would work their land, attend mass at the cathedral, and live in peace and harmony.
Twenty years later, King Gradlon was growing old and had no son as his heir. His new Queen was young and beautiful, but barren, through no fault of her own. King Gradlon sought the advice of Saint Winwaloe on what he could do to get an heir, for his time was growing short, and his wife, devastated by her barren womb, could not be moved to love him for fear she would disappoint him again, and herself as well.
“Do not be afraid, your majesty,” said Winwaloe. He carried a white flower with five petals, beautiful but fragile. “For this very night, your wife shall conceive. It is the will of God that your kingdom should continue throughout the ages. Give your queen this flower tonight. Place it in her drink during supper. She will be moved by your kindness and lay with you tonight. By morning, she will have improved, her heart full of joy, and you soon will have an heir.”
The King did as instructed, and had his men prepare a grand feast for himself and his Queen. They dined well into the night, and for the first time in months, the Queen seemed joyful. King Gradlon then gave her the flower, and instructed her to crush it into her drink, to improve her health. She took the flower and was overwhelmed by its beauty.
“So precious and beautiful a flower mustn’t be wasted as a herb, my love. Let me wear it in my hair, so that I may enjoy its beauty.” The King, not wanting to upset his Queen, agreed to let her wear it, and so put it in her hair. Her face shone brightly, and for the first time in months, she smiled. And he loved her even more that day than ever before. They laid together that night, and in the morning, the Queen indeed woke up more joyful than ever before. The King was pleased.
Later that day the King called upon Saint Winwaloe to tell him of the success of the night’s task. Saint Winwaloe was overjoyed to hear of the Queen's recovery, and joined his King in making praises to God. But when the Queen passed by the court, he saw the flower in her hair, now with only two petals remaining, and realized his instructions had not been followed. “My Lord,” said the saint, “you did not follow the advice I gave you.”
The King objected, “Why, I gave her the flower, as you did tell me to last night. Can you not see she is well and happy once again, and may have even conceived an heir?”
“Oh, yes, my Lord, she is happy, and well she should be, for she is with child! But the Lord instructed you to have her drink the flower’s magic, not to let her be moved by its beauty. For that, you will indeed have an heir, but he will grow to rebel against you, wanting that which he cannot have! Oh, my Lord, that you would have listened to the word of God!”
King Gradlon was furious, and had the saint jailed for his condemnation. Saint Winwaloe was locked underneath the palace in the dungeon. The Queen soon after had a son, but died from childbirth. King Gradlon named his son Dahut, meaning “man of sorrow,” for though he was glad to finally have a son, his heart would never heal from the loss of his Queen. King Gradlon descended into the dungeon to release Saint Winwaloe, and to beg forgiveness for his anger and hatred toward the saint, but when he finally came to release him, he found the cell empty, and no one knew what had happened to the saint.
Eighteen years later, Prince Dahut grew to be a strong, mighty, and powerful ruler who was wise beyond his years. His father the King gave him many responsibilities and trusted him with his entire kingdom. The people revered Dahut as they revered his father. And for many years, the land prospered under their reign. But Dahut was never satisfied, and always seemed to long for more.
King Gradlon arranged that the maidens of the land come to the palace so that he could find a suitable Queen for his son. The women from all over the island came, dressed in the finest silks and materials the land could offer, but still, Dahut was not satisfied. He looked out from his window in the palace and saw a far off ship, sailing towards the southeast, where his people had come from.
King Gradlon encouraged his son to enjoy all that the island had to offer, and bade him not return to the mainland in search of a wife and prosperity, for the people there were wicked and sought only after their own gain. He warned him of his mother’s fate due to the King’s own selfish actions, and begged him to not repeat his mistakes.
The Prince would have none of it. Seeking adventure and wishing for more than he already had, he took it upon himself to take a ship and some of his loyal menservants to journey to the mainland, in search of adventure and a suitable Queen. Before he took off, an old man in rags approached him on the shores of the island, imploring him not to journey away from the island on such a night, for it had become stormy, and the sea was raging.
“Who are you to instruct me in what I should or should not do?” he asked the old man. “I am the Prince, and I am well versed in the manners of seamanship. I do not fear the harmless sea.”
“Oh, your highness,” said the old man, “but you go against the wishes of your father, the King, if you leave this island.”
The Prince was perplexed. “How did you know my father bade me not to leave the island?” The old man remained silent, for fear of revealing himself, for he was Saint Winwaloe, in disguise. He did not know the Prince never knew who he was.
“Answer me, you fool!” shouted the Prince as he struck the saint to the ground. The saint still said nothing. The Prince, infuriated, called for his men to set sail. Off they went into the storm, and the saint lifted his hands toward heaven, pleading with God to have mercy on the Prince.
News came to the King that the Prince had left during the night against his wishes. He called for his best sailors and scouts to follow after Prince Dahut and to bring him back. But when his sailors were halfway to the mainland, what they saw terrified them. The Prince’s ship was in flames, and his men were strewn about in the water, dead. The ship had been attacked, and in the distance, they saw three ships, which had not so soon left the battle. The men returned to Ys and told the King of what they saw, and he ripped his clothes in agony, letting out a great shout that shook the entire palace. The people went into mourning for the Prince, and for a month, no one played any music, no one made any festivities. Even the cathedral went unoccupied.
After the period of mourning, the people once again began to attend the cathedral, for the fortieth year of their salvation was at hand. The King, though still marred by the loss of his son, made arrangements for this year to be the grandest celebration of all. Every year since their liberation from the mainland, the Bretons celebrated the anniversary of their salvation. This year was to be the most extravagant yet.
But it was not to be, for the scouts who kept watch upon the island and sailed its perimeter saw a mass of ships in the distance, battle ready and fitted for invasion. The mainlanders knew of the Bretons' wealth due to the ruins of the Prince’s ship, and were coming to plunder the island. The scouts ran to the King to tell him of the news, and the King, overwhelmed, did not know what to do to save his people.
The King ran out to the sea where his son had taken off from the shore, and cried out to God. “My Lord, I have sinned! My enemies have come for my people and my land, and I am powerless to save them! Oh Lord, have mercy on your servants!” As soon as he had said this, he spotted an old man approaching him on the shore.
“The Lord has heard your pleas and has forgiven your sins, Majesty!” said the old man. King Gradlon immediately recognized the old man as Saint Winwaloe, and fell prostrate before the saint, begging for forgiveness. The saint lifted him up and kissed his head. “Your majesty, do not bow before me, I am nothing. I have been sent by God to help you save your people. Though you had done wrong to me, your wife, and God, he has been merciful, and will save you again. Go to the town and gather the people, and have them all run to the cathedral, for the Lord will smash the enemy and sink the riches of the island into the sea, but you and your people will be spared for eternity.”
The King did as he was instructed and gathered the people into the cathedral, and rang the bells until everyone had gone inside.
The enemy ships drew near, and the sound of cannon fire could be heard across the sea. The people grew mortified in the cathedral, and were afraid. But the King said to them: “Fear not, for this day the Lord shall deliver us again!”
Saint Winwaloe walked out into the sea towards the enemy ships, raised his hands to God, and silently began to pray. As he did, the sea grew unsteady, and a great storm made its way over the island. The wind blew hard and fast, and the sea grew tumultuous. Lighting from the sky struck the enemy ships, some crashed into each other, and one by one the enemy ships sank to the bottom of the sea. The saint became engulfed by the sea, and slowly, the isle of Ys sank into the depths of the ocean, and neither were seen ever again.
Saint Winwaloe did not die that night, but traded his soul for the people of Ys, so that they would live eternally. God accepted his request. For one day every 100 years, the cathedral of the Isle of Ys is said to rise from the depths of the ocean, to shine in all its glory from sunrise to sunset for one day. Some still hear the bells of the cathedral out on the ocean to this day, and if you listen closely enough, you can hear the monks chanting as well.