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Decuman holy man

Denys (d. c. 250)


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(6th century),

Welsh hermit who settled near Hartland (N. Devon), where he was killed by robbers. The fullest surviving Life from the 12th century in the Gotha manuscript, says that he was the eldest and most illustrious of the twenty-four children of Brychan. Already a monk, he sailed from South Wales to N. Devon, followed by his many relatives. He settled in the dense forests which provided him with solitude. His family would meet him at his hermitage on the last day of each year. After several years spent in solitude in a beautiful but remote valley, provided with a spring, he helped a swineherd find his pigs and was later rewarded with a present of two cows from his master. These, however, were soon stolen by thieves. Nectan found them, remonstrated with them, took the opportunity to attempt to convert them to the Christian faith, but was rewarded for his pains by being beheaded. According to the same authority, after his death he carried his head for half a mile to the spring by his hut. This legend made Nectan comparable with Denys and Decuman.

The medieval cult was considerable in the West Country. Lyfing, bishop of Crediton 1021–46, who had at first refused to translate Nectan's body, approved of it as an accomplished fact and provided treasures for the church at Hartland which included bells, lead for the roof, and a sculptured reliquary. Nectan's staff was decorated with gold, silver, and jewels; the church was also endowed with manors to strengthen it against pirates from the Viking settlements in Ireland. Benefactors to Hartland are said to have included King Harthacnut, Earl Godwin, and his wife. In the early 12th century the Austin Canons restored the church and shrine at Hartland which remained in their care until the Reformation. Five churches are dedicated to Nectan in Devon and Cornwall and possibly two Breton place-names may be connected with him. William Worcestre asserts that Nectan was the most important of the children of Brychan in Devon and Cornwall, which may well be correct. His feast was kept at Launceston, Exeter, Wells, and elsewhere, usually on 17 June, the day of his death. Roscarrock gives 18 May, but the Gotha text gives 4 December as his translation day. The fair in his honour at St Winnoc was, however, on 14 February, which Wilson's Martyrology (1640) gives as his feast.

G. H. Doble, The Saints of Cornwall, v (1970), 59–79; P. Grosjean, ‘Vie de S. Nectan’, Anal. Boll., lxxi (1953), 359–414; F. Wormald, ‘The seal of St Nectan’, Jnl. of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, ii (1938), 70–1.

Subjects: Christianity.

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