Saints of the Day – Samson (Sampson) of Brittany

detail of an icon of Saint Samson of York; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsArticle

Born in Glamorgan, Wales, c.485; died at Dol, Brittany, France, July 28, c.565. The existing vita of Saint Samson may be the earliest biography of a British Celtic saint, but scholarly opinion is divided on whether it was written in the 7th century (within 50 years of his death) or the 9th. The earliest manuscripts date only from the 11th century.

He was one of the greatest missionaries ever to come from Britain. His parents – Ammon, a lord of Glamorgan, and Anna of Gwent – dedicated him to the service of God because he was a “child of promise” after his parents prolonged period of childlessness. According to his biography he was raised in the abbey of Llanwit Major in Glamorgan, which at that time was ruled by Saint Illtyd, who ordained him deacon and priest.

After Samson’s ordination an attempt was made on his life by two nephews of Saint Illtyd, who were jealous of his ordination. So Samson left the community and lived for a time under Piro on the island of Caldey (Ynys Byr) off the coast of Pembrokeshire, where he served as cellarer. His father and his uncle, Umbrafel, joined him there after his father had recovered from a serious illness during which he received the last rites from his son. When Piro died, Samson succeeded him as abbot of Caldey Abbey, but he resigned after a preaching tour to Ireland.

He returned to Wales, where he lived as a hermit with his father and two others in a retreat near the mouth of the Severn River. Then he sojourned to Cornwall, where he was consecrated bishop of Saint Dyfrig (Dubricius), bishop of Caerleon, and appointed abbot of its monastery. Samson travelled throughout Cornwall where he worked as a missionary, founded monasteries and churches at Padstow, Saint Kew, Southill, and Golant, probably visited the Scilly Islands, and gathered to himself disciples, such as Saints Austell, Mewan, and Winnoc (which doesn’t make sense because Winnoc died in 717).

Finally, Samson crossed the Channel to Armorica, where he landed at the mouth of the Guyoult, to continue his missionary activities in Brittany. Privatus, a Gallo-Roman, gave him a stretch of land nearby on which to build a monastery c.525, and this became the site of the future town of Dol.

Under his leadership, Dol became the spiritual center of Brittany. A vigorous organizer and a zealous preacher, Saint Samson established numerous other abbeys, including Pental in Normandy, and spread the word of God far and wide. It appears that he exercised episcopal jurisdiction at Dol, although it was not a regular see until much later. He is probably the ‘Samson peccator episcopus’ who signed the acts of the Council of Paris (557).

His concern for justice, as well as the temporal importance of his position as bishop and abbot, often involved him in political affairs. When Conomor (Conmor) murdered the king of Domnonia and usurped the throne that rightly belonged to the Breton ruler Judwal (Judual), Saint Samson journeyed to Paris where, with the support of Saint Germain the bishop of Paris, he enlisted the help of the Frankish King Childebert. On his return he travelled down the Seine and founded an establishment for penitents at Vernier.

On a second visit to Paris he was granted lands in the region of Rennes and was also given jurisdiction over the Channel Islands – and indeed it was from the Isle of Guernsey, where one town bears his name, that he and Judwal embarked on their campaign to depose the usurper Conomor. After three battles, Judwal won back his kingdom and Samson returned to his bishopric and monastery at Dol.

Towards the end of his life, when he felt that his end was near, he undertook an extensive journey throughout the whole of Neustria, a journey of which the Breton bards have left us a moving account. Accompanied by seven monks, seven disciples and seven escorts, he travelled slowly from parish to parish, often stopping to preach or to celebrate the Divine Office, bringing his mission to an end only with his death.

Many miraculous deed were attributed to Saint Samson, to which his anonymous biographer gives ample space. Recent research seems to demonstrate that Samson was the leading churchman of the colonists from Britain who founded Brittany, and a primary figure in the history of the evangelization of Cornwall and the Channel Islands.

Some of his relics, including an arm and a crozier, were acquired by King Athelstan of Wessex (924-939), for his monastery at Milton Abbas in Dorset, which is why Samson’s feast is kept in many places in England. In addition, there are six ancient dedications there to him, as well as others in Cornwall and Brittany. Samson’s name is still revered throughout Brittany and Wales. Usuard entered his name into the Roman Martyrology (Attwater, Benedictines, Delaney, Encyclopedia, Farmer, Taylor).

In art, Samson is depicted with a cross or staff together with a dove and book (Farmer).

MLA Citation

  • Katherine I Rabenstein. Saints of the Day, 1998. CatholicSaints.Info. 21 July 2020. Web. 8 May 2021. <>