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  • Writer's pictureChristine Dorman

Tryphine and the Celtic Bluebeard

The Celtic legend of Tryphine is believed to be the basis for the story of serial wife-killer, Bluebeard.
The Celtic legend of Tryphine is believed to be the basis for the story of serial wife-killer, Bluebeard.

Welcome to October! It’s my favorite month. The weather is cooling. Leaves are turning. Autumn decorations are being put up. Best of all, it ends with one of my favorite holidays: Halloween. So today’s post is my version of a ghost story from Celtic Brittany. It is a legend said to be inspired by the lives of three historical people.

The villain of the piece is believed to be based on Conomar, King of Dumonia, a region that includes present-day Devon, England as well as parts of Somerset and Cornwall. He also was the Prince of Poher, a medieval principality in west-central Brittany, now a portion of France. The historic Conomar married at least twice and is said to have been violently abusive. Both of his wives died under suspicious circumstances. The protagonist is Tryphine, a young woman forced into marrying him, and later canonized by the Catholic Church. Tryphine is the patroness of expectant mothers and childbirth. Her feast day is next Friday, November 5th. The third historical figure is Gildas, a hermit who later was named a saint. He encourages Tryphine to be obedient and submit to her father’s will. Judge for yourself, after reading the story, just how helpful that advice was. Here’s the story:

In sixth-century Brittany lived a prince named Conomar. As a young man, he extended his lands and increased his wealth through force, warring on his neighbors and annexing their territories to his. But, as time went on, he realized there was an easier, more pleasant way to acquire land and riches: through marrying advantageously. Accordingly, he chose a beautiful wife who would bring wealth and property to the marriage. To all appearances, he treated her with kindness and respect. She became pregnant and gave him a son. All seemed to be going well for the couple but, shortly after the baby was born, he disappeared, stolen by the faeries, some said. Then Conomar’s wife died of a sudden, mysterious illness. The prince made a show of grief in public but as soon as a respectable time had passed, he married again.

The Prince's second wife was a beautiful heiress who died young, just like Conomar's first wife.  And like his third, fourth and fifth wives..
The Prince's second wife was a beautiful heiress who died young, just like Conomar's first wife. And like his third, fourth and fifth wives..

The prince’s second wife was an attractive young heiress. Again, the couple seemed happy and the marriage appeared harmonious, but she too died, giving birth to their first child. Shortly thereafter, the newborn died as well. Some said the poor prince must be cursed, but then he married, in quick succession, a third, fourth, and fifth wife, all of whom died soon after giving birth. Each of the babies died too and whispers arose. But because of the prince’s riches, power, and war-like nature, people dared not speak out against him.

What the people didn’t know was that, just before his first marriage, an old crone had appeared to Conomar and prophesied he would be killed by his son.

Looking for a sixth wife, Conomar turned his eye to Tryphine, the only child of Waroch, Count of Vannetais. Having heard the rumours about Conomar, neither Tryphine nor her father wanted her to marry the sinister Prince. Her father responded to Conomar’s proposal as diplomatically as he could, saying that Tryphine was too young to be wed. But she was of marriageable age and everyone knew it. Infuriated by the rejection, Conomar threatened Waroch with war, saying he would raze Vannetais to the ground.

Waroch found himself torn between protecting his daughter and protecting the people of Vennetais. He turned to the holy hermit, Gildas, for counsel. The hermit told him to accept the match for the good of the people. God, he assured the Count, would surely protect the innocent, pious young woman. .

When Waroch told his daughter what the hermit said, she cried out in distress, saying she could not marry a wife-killer. Her father pleaded with her and told her to trust in God’s will for her. She begged him not to force her into this marriage but her father called on her to sacrifice herself for the good of Vannetias. This match would ensure peace and safety for its people.

The hermit, Gildas, promised Tryphine, if she married Conomar, she would return alive to her father.
The hermit, Gildas, promised Tryphine, if she married Conomar, she would return alive to her father.

Distressed, Tryphine ran to Gildas. But he promised her, if she married Conomar, she would return alive to her father. Then he took a silver ring off his hand and gave it to her, saying, “Wear this ring. If your husband intends to do you harm, it will turn black. This will be a sign to you and will give you time to flee.”

With this, Tryphine finally agreed to the marriage. Preparations were made and the ritual was performed. Gildas himself blessed the union. Celebrations were held in Vennetais for several days following the wedding, then Conomar took his new bride back to his castle.

Conomar treated Tryphine with such gentle affection that, after a time, her fears trickled away. The horrid tales about him, she concluded, must be nothing more than malicious gossip. As the months went by, she developed a great fondness for her husband and let go of all of her doubts. When, one day, he announced he had to go to Rennes for a conference with other rulers of Brittany, Tryphine felt genuine sadness at the thought of losing his company, even if only for a short while.

During the time he was away, she discovered she was pregnant. Overjoyed, she and her maids began sewing clothes for the baby. When Conomar returned, she ran to tell him the news. His face darkened and he turned away, claiming was tired after his long journey and needed to rest. Typhine was disappointed in his lack of excitement but she attributed it to his weariness and told herself they could celebrate once he had recovered from his trip. But when she picked up her sewing, she caught sight of the ring Gildas had given her. It had gone completely black.

Tryphine knew there was one place Conomar never went: into the crypt where his wives were buried.
Tryphine knew there was one place Conomar never went: into the crypt where his wives were buried.

Terrified, she ran towards the chapel to pray for assistance. Then she realized Conomar, who knew of her piety, surely would look for her there. Then she remembered, there was one place in the castle Conomar never went: the crypt where his wives lay buried.

With her mind and heart racing, Tryphine descended the stairs to the crypt. It was cold and dark, lit by a single wall torch. By the flickering light, Tryphine saw six tombs, five for each of Conomar’s previous wives and one that was empty, awaiting a new corpse. She sank to her knees, trembling. Burying her face in her hands, Tryphine silently prayed for God’s help.

A rattling noise made her look up. The slabs covering the wives’ tombs moved aside and the misty ghosts of these murdered women arose from their graves. Urgently, they warned, “You must get up! You must flee or Conomar will kill you as he killed us.”

“But how can I escape?” the petrified young woman asked. “How can I scale the castle wall? Even if I could, the dogs guarding the gate would surely bark, revealing where I am.”

“Take this rope,” said Conomar’s second wife, handing it to Tryphine. “My husband strangled me with it. Now use it to escape over the wall.”

His first wife offered her a small vial. “Take this poison with which my husband murdered me and use it to silence the dogs.”

Wife number three gave her a torch so Typhine could find her way in the darkness. Conomar’s fourth wife gave her a staff to help her on her journey.

“Conomar killed me,” his fifth wife said, “by dragging me behind a white horse. You will find that same horse waiting by the forest to carry you on your way.”

Tryphine thanked the Conomar’s ghostly wives and implemented their plan. She succeeded in escaping into the forest. When the terrain turned rugged, though, she had compassion on the horse and set it free. Using the staff giving to her by Conomar’s fifth wife, she walked until she came in sight of her father’s lands.

Exhausted and dismayed, Tryphine sank to her knees.
Exhausted and dismayed, Tryphine sank to her knees.

One obstacle still stood between her and home: a river deep and wide. Exhausted and dismayed, Tryphine fell to her knees. I cannot swim, she thought. How can I get across? Looking up to heaven for help, she saw her father’s falcon circling overhead.

“Thank you,” she whispered and called to the bird. She put Gildas’ blackened ring on one of the bird’s legs and sent it back to her father in the hope he would understand she was in danger.

Just then she heard footsteps behind her. Turning, she saw Conomar walking towards her.

“”Dear wife,” he said in a voice full of affection, “I’ve been searching for you everywhere.”

With nowhere to run, Tryphine stood to face him.

Smiling, Conomar took out his sword and swiftly cut her head off.

Led by the falcon, Gildas and Tryphine’s father found her body. The Count collapsed to ground in grief but then turned on the hermit in fury. “You said she would be protected!”

“Have faith,” said the holy man, “and she shall be returned to you. In the Name of the Lord, Jesus Christ,” he said to Tryphine’s body, “I order you to rise!”

The decapitated body stirred then sat up. Reaching for her head, Tryphine placed it on her neck and was made whole. After praising God, the trio returned to Tryphine’s father’s palace.

She gave birth to a healthy boy whom she named Tremeur then Tryphine entered a convent to devote the rest of her life to God.

When Tremeur had grown to adulthood, he rode to Conomar’s castle to confront him. Seated atop his horse in the prince’s courtyard, his sword at hand, Tremeur called his father to repentance and demanded he come out to face justice for Tryphine’s death.

The Prince stuck his head out of a window and spoke to Tremeur with contempt. He denied all guilt and claimed that Tryphine was a foolish girl who had fled into the woods and been killed by bandits.

At this, a great rumbling arose and the castle crumbled into dust, crushing the unrepentant prince to his death.

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Slan go foil!

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