St Justinian The Holy Man and Martyr

By Terry John St Justinians Lifeboat Station

On the coast not far from St Davids is the little cove of St Justinian’s, dominated by its lifeboat station. Close to the top of the steps leading down to the beach are the ruins of the 16th century chapel of St Justinian, though earlier chapels are known to have existed on the site. On the opposite side of the narrow road is the holy well dedicated to the saint.

So exactly who was St Justinian? Although little remembered today beyond Pembrokeshire, in past centuries he was recognised as a man of great piety and a close friend of St David.

Justinian, or Stinan, the Latin form of his name, was born in Brittany in the 6th century. At some point in his life he made his way to Wales, where he settled on Ramsey Island. The island was already associated with saints, for its earlier names were Ynys Dewi, or Dewi’s Island, or Ynys Tyfanog, St Dyfanog’s Island. There was already a holy man called Honarius in residence, living there with his sister and her maid. Justinian demanded that the women be sent to the mainland and Honarius seems to have accepted this ruling amicably enough.

Justinian soon became close friends with St David and visited him often in the monastery where the cathedral now stands. He was less impressed however by the lax behaviour of some of the monks, and decided to isolate himself on Ramsey. According to legend, he took an axe and chopped up the land bridge that linked the island and the mainland. As he worked, the axe became blunter and the lumps of rock remaining became larger and larger. They are still visible today in Ramsey Sound, where the waters foam over them at high tide. Long feared as a hazard to shipping, they are known as ‘The Bitches’ and the largest piece of all is known as The Axe.
Ramsey Island

St Justinian’s  reputation for piety attracted a number of followers, who lived and worked on the island with him. His insistence on the most extreme forms of asceticism soon turned them against him and they beheaded him. A spring of water gushed up from the ground where his head fell and this became a famous healing well. Writing in the 14th century, John of Tynemouth says of its waters ‘quaffed by sick folk, conveys health of body to all’. A man suffering from a swelling in his stomach drank from the well, became sick and vomited up a large frog, enjoying good health from that moment on.

The story of Justinian’s execution goes on to relate another, even more remarkable miracle. To the astonishment of his killers, the saint picked up his head and walked across the sea to the mainland, and where he set his head down, another spring of water issued forth. This is the one enclosed today by a stone canopy.

Justinian was buried where the chapel now stands. Within its walls are some stone footings, which may mark his original grave site. His body was removed to the cathedral, probably at some time before the end of the 15th century, when William Worcester describes the saint as lying ‘in a chapel in the church of St David…under, or below his tomb.
St Davids Cathedral Graveyard

The murderers of St Justinian were punished by contracting leprosy and spent the rest of their days isolated on a rocky crag known as Leper’s Rock. During the early medieval period two chapels were built on Ramsey. One was dedicated to St Tyfanog; the other to St Justinian. There is no trace of either building today, though their sites are known.

St Justinian is celebrated twice a year, on 5th December and 23rd August. Two churches in Pembrokeshire are dedicated to him, at Llanstinan near Fishguard and at Freystrop, south of Haverfordwest.

Categories:History, Pembrokeshire

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