A-Z of Saints: Kilian

‘K’ saints are fewer and further between than many, but there are some, and one of them offers the tantalising prospect of being patron saint of gout, rheumatism and whitewashers. This is his story.

Kilian (or Cilline, Chilianus or Killena, among others) is believed to have been born to a noble family in Ireland (or possibly Scotland) around 640AD. In his youth, as many other saints before him (except rebels such as Francis), he was known for his studiousness and piety.

In early years after his decision to become a monk, he is believed to have dwelled at Hy – better known as Iona – and may even have become the abbot there. In accordance with Irish custom, he later became a traveling bishop, before setting out with 11 companions across what are now France and Germany. It is as an apostle to Franconia – a historic region of Germany now part of Bavaria, and centred on Wurzburg, that he is now chiefly remembered. In 686, Kilian visited Pope Conan, who had recently succeeded John V, and was given licence as a missionary to Franconia.

At Wurzburg, Kilian met the pagan, Frankish ruler Duke Gozbert, whom he converted around 687. Gozbert was at the time married to Geilana, his brother’s widow – an arrangement not acceptable for a Christian at the time, which Kilian of course pointed out. It seems that Gozbert was compliant, but Geilana reacted with the fury of a woman scorned, and plotted against the bishop.

In a story worthy of Elizabethan drama, while the Duke was away on business, Geilana hired a murderer to despatch not just Kilian, but his two assistants, Colman and Totnan (both saints now, too), apparently on 8 July 689, the date now commemorating Kilian, who is also remembered as patron of Bavaria. In a thorough cover-up, they were buried at the crime scene along with all their vessels, vestments and writings – perhaps why he has become patron of whitewashers…

On Gozbert’s return, the Lady Macbeth-like Geilana disavowed all knowledge of the murders, but the assassin was burdened by guilt, went mad, confessed, and died in misery. Geilana herself also later succumbed to madness.

The martyrs were not silenced by death, however, and miracles were soon attributed to the site of their deaths, and their remains recovered and reburied in a vault of what became Wurzburg cathedral in 752, and are believed to remain there to this day. Kilian’s copy of the New Testament was also recovered and held there until 1803, when it moved to Wurzburg University library.

Other ‘K’ saints:

  • St Kevin was an irish abbot of the early sixth century, who founded the monastery at Glendalough – he also met St Columba. The churches he founded remain a site of pilgrimage, and his feast day is celebrated on 3 June. He is said to have lived to the age of 120, and is a patron of blackbirds and Ireland.
  • St Kenneth (or Kenny, or Canice) was born (also in Ireland) around 515, son of a royal bard, and died in 600. Tradition holds that he founded a monastery in Kilkenny, and legend says that he chased away all the mice on the island of Inish Ubdain. When he was a hermit, a stag is believed to have held his bible open for him on its antlers. His memorial is 11 October.