Last year for me, a small pleasure, in that wild west virtual saloon named Twitter, was reading the latest posts from the Reverend Richard Coles. Yes, that one – him that used to sing in the Communards along with Jimmy Somerville. He is now an Anglican Vicar, retired.
Saint Fiacre’s Figs
He had a spate of posting tweets on the feast days of the most obscure saints, along with a few oddball facts about their lives. Of course I dug deeper into the historical debris. For example, Saint Fiacre, patron saint of taxi drivers and haemorrhoids, whose feast day is March 5th. Richard threw in the fact that piles – as in haemorrhoids – have the obscure nickname “Saint Fiacre’s figs”. Lo and behold, I unearthed a titbit that a “fiacre” was a type of Victorian horse-drawn hackney cab. Perhaps hackney cab drivers, ancient and modern, have always had a problem with their nether regions.
Richard also reminded us on 13th November that it’s the feast day of Saint Magloire of Dol, who didn’t cope at all well with abstinence. Conveniently though, and in the nick of time, an angel visited him and gave him a heavenly dispensation to drink wine and beer whenever he wanted. He is the patron saint of abandoned diets.
You may also remember from my last – toothy – post, Saint Apollonia, who is the patron saint of dentists, following her martyrdom caused by the forcible removal of all her teeth. Feast day on 9th February. Richard alerted me to her story.
Here’s a taste of Richard’s tweets…
So, staving off lockdown boredom, I spent a few pleasant wintry afternoons, idly casting my eyes down lists of the many saints who have roamed these isles.
Are you on the guest list?
If they were lucky, and on the ‘approved’ list, they’re still celebrated in the churches named after them. But, although there are many thousands of saints, not all are acknowledged by the church, or have a feast day. The Catholic church instigated fierce levels of proof of miracles, for a contender to be recognised as a saint. Many who failed the test were quietly relegated to the sidelines. The Church of England generally goes along with the same lists as the Catholic church, with a few exceptions.
They’re a very strange bunch, once you get past the usual suspects – the Matthews, Marks, Lukes and Johns, together with the crop of Marys from the New Testament. The more obscure saints are pretty much home-grown. And usefully, the stories of this home grown crop give us insights into the religious history of our islands. So, let’s hunt some saints…
First, back to the history lessons. All cut and dried, yes? The Romans conquered Britain, bringing with them their gods and goddesses, Jupiter, Juno and the like. They abandoned Britain around 400 AD, to return and defend Rome against the barbarians at the gate. The watchful Anglo Saxons, seeing a great carpet-bagging opportunity, sneaked in, bringing along gods -Odin and Thor and their war-like feasting companions.
Following that, these islands remained pagan, until Pope Gregory sent Saint Augustine on a mission to convert the natives to Christianity, in 597 AD.
Aah, but we know that history is seldom black and white, and it’s never simple. The Romans were great collectors of religions. In general, as long as you honoured the emperor and the gods, and you paid your taxes, you could worship as you pleased. (The problems came with the uncompromising attitudes of the Christians, who didn’t want to rub along with anyone else).
So, in Roman Britain, you’d find Christians alongside Celtic Britons who still worshipped the old druidic gods, jostling alongside Roman soldiers with their Mithras cult and the pantheon of Roman gods. Over the next couple of hundred years, attitudes swung between religious tolerance, then persecution and then back again. Gradually, Christianity became dominant in Roman Britain. The empire officially converted to Christianity in 395 AD – only for the Romans to abandon Britain and retreat back to Rome.
We can still see echoes of this historic mash-up today. Take the ruins found in Butt Road, Colchester – a key Roman garrison town. Archaeologists agree at least on the date it was built – around 300 AD. But there the agreement stops. Some argue that it is the oldest Christian church in Britain, others that it evidences the last throes of paganism in the empire.
One faction argues that the building stands on the edge of a large pagan cemetery, so it must be associated with paganism. The Christian faction points out that several of the burials in the so-called pagan cemetery are potentially Christian. This because they are orientated east-west, with the head facing east, a strong indicator of a Christian burial. Yet another school of thought is that the building started out as a temple to the Roman soldiers’ god, Mithras, and was later “repurposed” to Christianity.
What’s can we see today, to link us to these early British Christians? Well, clues are there in our churches, and the saints they’re dedicated to. First up, let’s look at the 50 or so churches in Britain, dedicated to Saint Alban, including the cathedral in the saint’s home town- named Verulamium by the Romans – now of course known as Saint Alban’s, in Hertfordshire.
He was actually the first British Christian martyr. He died during one of those early periods of persecution, around 251AD (the date’s a bit ambiguous), for refusing to give up his new-found faith. Originally a pagan, legend says that he gave shelter to a fugitive Christian priest.
He was so impressed by the priest’s preaching that he immediately converted. The Roman militia swooped in for a surprise search, at which Alban took the priest’s clothes and cloak and presented himself to the soldiers, assuming the priest’s identity. He was taken away and beheaded.
The cathedral in Saint Alban’s, traditionally said to be built on the site of his execution, often holds a yearly pilgrimage in June, enacting his death. Volunteers, with huge papier mâché figures and masks representing the saint and his Roman persecutors, parade through the streets. Alarmingly, the figures include a pair of massive bulging eyeballs, because allegedly, the eyeballs of one the executioners dropped out, at having to witness such an awful sight.
Alban wasn’t the only Romano-British saint. Saints Julius and Aaron also died for their faith, around the 3rd century AD. There aren’t any churches dedicated to this pair, but you can still visit the reputed site of their martyrdoms, the ruins of the old Roman amphitheatre in Caerleon, in South Wales.
Saint Helen, Essex girl?
And, still in the Roman period, what about the 50 or so churches in Britain, dedicated to Saint Helen? The jury’s out as to whether she actually was a Briton, but there’s no argument about it in Colchester, Essex, where according to legend, she was born. In a way, it doesn’t matter whether the tale is factual or not, it’s a cracking good story.
It goes something like this… Helen was the daughter of the local king of Colchester and its surroundings – King Coel, who gave his name to the town. You may have of course heard of him in that old nursery rhyme:
“Old king Cole was a merry old soul, and a merry old soul was he…”
Helen, apparently born with itchy feet, fetched up in the Byzantium city of Constantinople. There she attracted the eye of one of the city’s rulers, Flavius Constantinus. They married, and in due course had a son, Constantine. He became the famed Roman Emperor who converted himself and the entire empire to Christianity around 312 AD.
Constantine was born, according to some versions of the legend, in his mother’s home city of Colchester. Presumably on mum’s trip home to visit his merry grandfather.
Fact or myth?
Although some doubt its British origins, the rest of the story is true, according to the records. Constantine did indeed visit Britain when he was emperor. Helen, as mother of the emperor, commanded respect. When an old lady, her still-itchy feet took her on pilgrimage to the Holy Lands. There, she supervised the retrieval of the “True Cross” upon which Christ was crucified. Whether it was the real thing or not, believers still venerate fragments of those pieces as holy relics, in grand churches across Europe.
But what of the Colchester legend? Well, the chapel of Saint Helen’s in the town is Saxon in origin, but it was built upon the site of a well-preserved Roman theatre (another nice case of “repurposing”). Perhaps those early East Saxons, newly converted to Christianity, were drawing on local legends of Helen’s origins. It’s a lovely story, anyway, and perfectly demonstrates how facts and legends can happily mix together.
Woden it be nice?
Back to the history lesson: as the Romans withdrew from Britain, the pagan Saxons moved in, bringing their own gods. Again, history isn’t black and white. Britain didn’t suddenly convert to the worship of Woden, Thor and Freya, abandoning Christianity overnight. Most historians believe that the two religions coexisted – maybe uneasily, and with paganism in the ascendant.
Besides, Christianity continued to thrive in the Celtic fringes of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Northumberland – the lands beyond the Anglo Saxons domains. You can see the evidence in the saintly dedications of the churches in those regions.
For example, Saint Petroc, who was born in Wales. He set up churches across Devon and Cornwall in the 500s AD. Considered by some to be the patron saint of Cornwall, although others give that honour to Saint Piran, the patron saint of tin miners. There are half a dozen churches in the county, dedicated to the two saints. And of course, like Alban, their names also live on in the places where they ministered. Padstow was originally Petroc’s stow: Petroc’s place. Peranporth of course was originally the port of Saint Piran.
By the 500s AD matters escalated when the pope in Rome, Gregory I made a decision. The pagan Anglo-Saxons in England needed to embrace the one true religion. Legend has it that he spotted some blond-haired children in the Roman slave market, and learned that they were Angles, from Britain. He then reputedly replied,
“non Angli, sed angeli” – “not Angles, but angels”.
The jury’s again out as to whether that really happened. The records mention the event, but it might of course be simply a great piece of church propaganda. In any event, Gregory sent a host of missionaries to convert the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. And we history hunters can see the evidence today, in the crop of churches named after those missionaries.
Canterbury or Hippo ?
You’ll have heard of the head of the mission sent by Gregory to convert the heathen English – Saint Augustine. He landed in Kent, because the Kentish king, Aethelbert, was considered a likely candidate, ripe for conversion: his queen, Bertha, was already a believer – and so it proved. Augustine became the very first Archbishop of Canterbury, in around 598AD.
You’ll find many churches dedicated to Augustine throughout England. But beware: some commemorate a completely different person, born many years earlier – Saint Augustine of Hippo, in North Africa. That particular Augustine was rather a lively character, whose most famous quote was,
“Grant me chastity, oh Lord – but not yet”.
Once the missionary movement started, it gained momentum. A quick trawl of English church names uncovers the many saints of the Celtic fringes, sent to bring the English into the church fold. From the holy island of Lindisfarne, Northumberland, the monks Dunstan, Aidan, Cuthbert, Cedd and many others travelled south to the Saxon kingdoms. You can find churches in their name all around those old Saxon kingdoms of Mercia, Kent, Wessex and Essex.
“Saint Peter’s on the wall”
Cedd travelled south to convert the pagan Essex king Sighebert the Good, who wavered between the new and old religions, hedging his bets. He finally got his man, and Sighebert allowed Cedd to build a chapel dedicated to Saint Peter. It was on the site of Othona, an old Roman fort on the sea wall on the remote Essex coast. The building is still there, thought to be the earliest intact Christian church in England, built around 654 AD.
In a lovely case of repurposing, you can see layers of Roman brick from the old fort in the church walls, and for many years a local farmer used it as a barn, before it was reconsecrated. Well worth a visit, you keep heading east on the Essex Dengie peninsula until you meet the sea. You can feel the history in the silence.
Hiding in plain sight
This humble blog can only offer a taste of the hundreds, if not thousands of churches, chapels, cathedrals and other sites which tell our history through their saints. Just look beyond the usual suspects, and you’ll find the saints that shaped the religious history of this country.
You’ll find evidence of the turbulence on these islands, when people painfully moved from paganism to Christianity. Saint Osyth for example, a Saxon princess who founded a priory on the Essex coast, and who lost her head to heathen pirates.
Or of Saint Boltoph: King Anna of East Anglia granted him marshland to build a church. Legend says he cleared the marsh of devils. Historians surmise that he drained the marshes, eliminating the noxious marsh gases that are often luminous, rather than fight any devils.
So, if you come across a church or chapel dedicated to a saint with an out-of-the-ordinary name, do a bit of digging – chances are you’ll unearth a nugget of history.