The Life of St Giles

Saint_Giles_closeupEarly life and upbringing

The life of St. Giles, known in early writings as Aegidius, is derived from a mixture of legend and history woven together around the deeds of a saint.

He is reputed to have been born in Athens, the son of Theodore and Pelagia, in about 640. When he was twenty-four his parents died, and Giles, stricken by the double loss, and unconsoled by the pleasures of fashionable life, sold all that he had and gave to the poor in order to follow Christ.

Seeking solitude in Gaul

He took to sea and landed on the coast of Provence. On the shore he saw human footsteps, and following these, he found a cave in which an old hermit had lived for years on roots and herbs, and who was content to share his cave, his food and his prayers with the young man. After three days Giles began to fear his friends might find him, so he hailed a passing ship and sailed on further westwards to Marseilles. Still seeking solitude, he crossed the Rhone and travelled towards a rocky promontory above the river Gardon and here, in a cave, the entrance of which was hidden by a thicket, he found another solitary, also a Greek. He stayed only a short time before continuing his journey until, finally, in the depth of a forest near Nimes, he found a hollow of a rock in a green glade by a stream, shaded by four gigantic oaks. There he lived in peace and prayer, his only companion a gentle hind (his emblem), whose milk he drank.

Founding a monastery

Here he was discovered by Flavius (Wamba), king of the VisiGoths.  The king was out hunting and shot an arrow at the hind, missed it, and hit Giles, who was at his devotions. Though wounded, Giles continued at his prayers and refused all compensation for the injury done to his body. This incident made him a great favourite at Court, especially with Wamba, who pressed him to stay. The king would have given him lands for any foundation he chose, but no entreaties would persuade him to desert his life of solitude and prayer.

Abbey Church of St-Gilles-du-Gard

The Abbey Church of St Gilles-du-Gard, near Nimes

Legend goes on to say that Giles consented to be the founder of the monastery near Nimes about 673, which flourished till the Saracen invasion, when it was burned down and he and his monks took refuge with Charles Martel, aiding him by their prayers in his great battle for Christianity in the West. St. Giles’ monastery was restored, and with the words, ” Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace,” he died on September 1st, 720.

The patron saint of the outcast

St. Giles became one of the most popular saints in the West, the patron saint of woodland, of lepers, beggars, cripples, and of those struck by sudden misery, and driven into solitude like the hind, which, according to one tradition, came to St. Giles wounded. He is also the patron saint of over one hundred and fifty churches in the United Kingdom, (though not to be confused with another abbot of the same name, who was in the same province two hundred years earlier). Our church’s original foundation in 1101 fittingly took his patronage, for it was a Leper hospital and chapel named after St Giles, and provided succour for all those alienated from their community. In the Prayer Book he is described as “St. Giles, Abbot and Confessor”, and he is commemorated on September 1st.