Re: Re: reorganisation and destruction of irish catholic churches

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The Celtic Saints of Glastonbury


Why so many Irish saints figure in the Glastonbury calendars is a vexed question, one which has not been completely resolved even by the the most sophisticated techniques of modern scholarship. Certainly there was an Irish influence in the South West as early as the seventh century when St Aldhelm berated one Heahfrith for succumbing to the allurements of Irish learning. Under the year 891 the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle refers to an Irish presence in England as the result of the travels of Irish pilgrims: ‘Three Gaels came to King Alfred in a boat without any oars from Ireland, which they had left secretly, because they wished for the love of God to be in foreign lands, they cared not where.’ Around 1000 ‘B’, the author of the Life of St Dunstan, refers specifically to an Irish community at Glastonbury.

Irish peregrini, as well as other flocks of the faithful, sought this aforementioned place called Glastonbury with great veneration, especially because of the renown of the younger [or older, depending on the manuscript] St Patrick, who is said to lie buried in that church.

In his late eleventh-century Life of St Dunstan, Osbern of Canterbury, who had visited Glastonbury and who was not himself particularly sympathetic to the aspirations of the monastery, takes up the same point:

Many distinguished scholars, eminent both in sacred and profane learning, who quitted Ireland to embrace a life of voluntary exile in England, chose Glastonbury for their habitation, as being a retired but convenient spot, and one famous for its cult – a point of special attraction, this, for the exiles – of Patrick, who is said to have come after a lifetime of miracleworking and preaching the gospel, and to have ended his days there in the Lord.

That there was an Irish community at Glastonbury before the Conquest, then, seems virtually certain. What is not clear, however, is whether the first Irish pilgrims came to Glastonbury because they had heard stories linking St Patrick with Glastonbury or whether their presence itself accounted for the formation of the legends.

Relatively recently, in the 1920s, a fragment from a Glastonbury manuscript of the late thirteenth century turned up at West Pennard, where it was functioning as the cover for a late sixteenth-century book of accounts. This fragment contains an Anglo-Norman verse rendering of the famous Glastonbury charter of St Patrick and gives a succinct account of the fully developed St Patrick legend at Glastonbury:

I [Patrick] was sent on a mission into a region
That is called Ireland, a very wild land,
By the Pope Celestine who caused me so to do
To preach to that folk our belief.
[Afterwards] I departed thence doing harm to none
And returned straightway into Britain
I came into an isle that had to name Ynswitrin,
So was it called of old time in the British tongue,
In the which I found a place delectable
There found I several brethren well indoctrinate
And well instructed in the Catholic faith
They came there after those saints
Whom saints Phagan and Deruvian had left there
And, because I found them humble and peaceable,
I made choice rather to be with them, though I should be feeble,
Than to dwell in a royal court in vigorous life
But, because we all had one heart
We chose to dwell together
And to eat and drink in one house
And in one place sleep under a rule.
So, though I liked it not, they chose me chief
And by fraternal force made me their guardian…

Another section of the charter tells us that St Patrick I climbed the Tor and found a ruined oratory with an anc volume containing the ‘Acts of St Phagan and St Deruvian’, so-called second-century missionaries. Patrick then appoii two Irish monks, Arnulf and Ogmar, to remain and admin at the chapel on the Tor. The charter also gives the name the twelve hermits whom St Patrick found living on the when he arrived at Glastonbury: Brumban, Hyregaan, Bren Wencreth, Bantommeweng, Adelwalred, Lothor, Wellias, Breden, Swelwes, Hinloernus and another Hin. The names puzzling: at first glance they seem neither Irish, Welsh, English nor Norman. In his researches into the history of Glastonbury Abbey, however, Dom Aelred Watkin made a compariso these names with William of Malmesbury’s account of names engraved on the larger of the two ancient pyramids which stood so prominently in the old cemetery.

The similarities are remarkable. What probably happened was that the person who first assembled the material for St Patrick’s charter looked at the pyramid with its images and weathered names and decided that he had found a memorial commemorating the names of the hermits. It is not, then, a question of blatant forgery but of over-ingenious detective work. Modern historians might not agree with the solution of the mystery, but the method cannot be dismissed out of hand.

In his chronicle John of Glastonbury supplies us with a variety of other details he ‘discovered’ about St Patrick’s mission to Glastonbury. St Patrick, John tells us, was born in Britain in 361 and was a nephew of St Martin of Tours. At the age of 16 he was abducted by Irish pirates and spent six years as a slave to a cruel Irish chieftain called Milchu. Miraculously he was directed to a piece of gold hidden under some turf and was thus able to redeem himself from slavery. After serving as a disciple to St Germanus of Auxerre, he travelled to the Roman curia. He was then sent back to Ireland in 425 by Pope Celestine I. Having converted the Irish he returned to Britain on a floating wooden altar and landed at Padstow in Cornwall. He arrived at Glastonbury in 433 and remained there as abbot until his death in 472. He was then buried in a beautiful shrine and remained there until the fire of 1184. After this catastrophe his bones were dug up and placed in a new shrine covered in gold and silver where they continued to be venerated for the rest of the life of the monastery.

Throughout the middle ages and even after William of Malmesbury, at the time considered a thoroughly dependable authority, gave his imprimatur to some of Glastonbury’s claims in his now lost Life of St Patrick, there continued to be unresolved doubts about the Glastonbury cult of St Patrick elsewhere in England and Ireland. To begin with, the Irish themselves had an early hagiographical tradition that there had been more than one Patrick. In the eighth century, for example, a hymn was composed which stated that ‘When Patrick departed this life, he went first to the other Patrick: together they ascended to Jesus the Son of Mary.’ The Patricius Senior, so some scholars now suggest, might have been Palladius, the Roman deacon who was sent to Ireland in 431 by Pope Celestine. If there were two Patricks, the question inevitably arises concerning the identity of the one commemorated at Glastonbury. Interestingly, when the Kalendar now found in the Leofric Missal was composed c.970, both saints appear: the feast of Patrick the bishop is found under 17 March and Patrick Senior is found with a very high rating under 24 August. This may suggest that the earlier tradition at Glastonbury concerned Palladius/Patrick, but it was later transformed when the monks realized that they might actually possess the relics of the greater and more prestigious saint.

Nor does the matter stop here. In the fourteenth century John of Glastonbury’s fellow historian and arch-rival Ranulf Higden, a monk of Chester, noted in his Polychronicon that there was a third Patrick, an Irish bishop who died in 863. Here, Higden postulated, lay the solution to the conflicting traditions. The saint of the Irish was, as the Irish generally claimed, buried at Down and it was the much later bishop who ended his days at Glastonbury. Needless to say, John was not impressed by Higden’s reasoning.

In the later middle ages, then, as conflicting accounts circulated more and more widely about the number of Patricks, their dates, and their final resting places, so too did doubts arise in the minds of the Glastonbury monks concerning the identity of their Patrick. The solution to these doubts came in a miraculous manner. A certain monk, who had long been pondering the matter, was vouchsafed a dream-vision in which it was confirmed that the Patrick buried at Glastonbury was, indeed, the apostle of the Irish and no lesser individual. This form of proof satisfied the community and provided the last word on the topic at the time, but it is, of course, somewhat less convincing to modern scholars. What, then, are the facts? How did Glastonbury come to appropriate Patrick so firmly into its roster of saints? H P R Finberg, who made detailed studies of early charters from south-west England, has suggested that patricius is a title as well as a name and that in the early English kingdoms it was applied to members of the royal family who served as under-kings. When the Irish peregrini came to Glastonbury, Finberg speculates, they might well have found an ancient monument with this title engraved on it. What, in this case, would be more natural than to assume that the term applied to their own national apostle, about whose burial place there was some confusion even in Ireland? Other scholars, however, feel the association is even more intimate. R P C Hanson, for example, observes that even if St Patrick was not buried at Glastonbury there is no reason why he could not have been born there and Hanson locates the place of his birth on the banks of the Brue. In The Two Patricks T F O’Rahilly goes further and suggests that St Patrick, apostle to the Irish, might have returned to Glastonbury after his missionary activities, a point which the Irish medievalist, James Carney, is also willing to consider: ‘There seems to be at least a possibility that Patrick, tired and ill at the end of his arduous mission, felt released from his vow not to leave Ireland, returned to Britain, and died at the monastery from which he had come, which, if this be so, may perhaps be identified as the monastery of Glastonbury.’ As tempting as these speculations may be, they ultimately seem to have no basis in recorded historical fact. St Patrick’s own words, moreover, must ring in our ears and stand as a stumbling block to a convinced belief that he really did end his days as Glastonbury’s abbot: ‘even if I wished to go to Britain I am bound by the Spirit, who gives evidence against me if I do this, telling me that I shall be guilty; and I am afraid of losing the labour which I have begun – nay, not I, but Christ the Lord who bade me come here and stay with them [the Irish] for the rest of my life.’

According to Irish tradition, St Patrick gave the name Benignus (Benén) to a certain man whom he baptized: at this time he also predicted that Benignus would be the heir to his kingdom. At some point in the very late tenth or early eleventh century Benignus’ name entered Glastonbury house-tradition, so it seems, through the following piece of mistaken etymology. The name Beonna was relatively common in England and appears in a variety of Anglo-Saxon records. In particular, it seems that a holy man called Beonna was commemorated in a monument at Meare. When the Irish pilgrims saw the memorial, they assumed the reference was to their own St Benignus who would, it seemed quite logical, have followed St Patrick into exile.

Over the years a number of local stories about this saint developed and in 1091 his relics were translated with great pomp from Meare to the main church at Glastonbury and placed in a beautiful reliquary which had been given to the abbot Aethelweard by King Harthacnut. The translation was accompanied by a variety of miracles which took place at a location about halfway between the monastery and the river from Meare. To commemorate the event, a church was built at the site and dedicated to the saint. It was replaced by the present church, now called St Benedict’s, at the turn of the sixteenth century. The relics themselves were placed in a shrine before the High Altar at St Mary’s, close to those of St Benignus’ fellow countrymen, St Patrick and St Indract.

By the time when William of Malmesbury visited Glastonbury in the 1120s, a fully fledged cult of St Benignus had developed which William recorded in a now lost Life; traces of this survive in John of Glastonbury’s chronicle. Here we learn that after seven years as bishop in Ireland Benignus took a vow to go on a pilgrimage; he arrived at Glastonbury in 462 [sic]. St Patrick, who had preceded him by almost thirty years, told him that he must continue on his pilgrimage until his staff put out branches and flowered; then he would know that he had’ arrived at the appointed place for his habitation. Accompanied by a boy, Pincius, he trudged through deep forests and boggy salt marshes until he came to a little solitary island: here, at Meare, the staff suddenly took root and soon grew into a tree, a tree which continued to thrive for many centuries as a testimony to the miracle. When Benignus settled at Meare the place lacked one major prerequisite for human settlement: there was no drinking water. Poor Pincius, therefore, had to walk almost three miles each day, often assailed by evil spirits, to fetch fresh water for himself and his master. Fortunately, Benignus soon had a divine vision and gave Pincius his staff – presumably a new one – and directed him to a bed of rushes nearby. At this place, so he ordered, Pincius was to strike a blow with the staff. The boy obeyed the instructions and a spring burst forth: ever afterwards, the water was clear and plentiful – as were fish and other delicacies, a fact which would prompt subsequent abbots to establish a fishery at Meare.

After St Patrick died, the monks insisted that Benignus become abbot, which he agreed to do only on condition that he be permitted to spend much of his time in his hermitage at Meare. On one of his evening visits to the brothers at Glastonbury he met and was tempted by the devil whom he, in turn, attacked with his trusty staff and pushed into a nearby ditch which, ever afterwards, emitted a foul-smelling slime. Slightly later, when the river overflowed and his path to Glastonbury was flooded, Benignus became ill and could no longer leave his cell. After enduring great agony and dreadful struggles he died in a state of blissful grace and was buried in the oratory at Meare, to await his later glorious translation. During the later middle ages the festival of his death was celebrated at Glastonbury on 3 November, and all his relics, including his miracle-working staff, were catalogued in the relic lists. In 1323 the church at Meare was consecrated in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary, All Saints and especially St Benignus and even as late as the sixteenth century it seems to have carried a dedication to St ‘Bennynge’.

When he visited Glastonbury William of Malmesbury discovered enough information about St Indract’s local cult to warrant a Life of this saint. Like William’s other Irish! Glastonbury Lives, this one has been lost and our information on Indract at Glastonbury comes from an anonymous Latin passio, based on a now lost Old English Life, and from the brief account given by John of Glastonbury in his chronicle, which he in turn based on William’s version.

John places Indract’s martyrdom in the reign of King Ine (688-726) and tells the following story. Indract, the son of an Irish king, vows to make a pilgrimage to Rome. This accomplished, he decides to return to Ireland following a route which will take him to Glastonbury where he can venerate the relics of St Patrick. After a short stay in Glastonbury he and his seven loyal companions (nine according to the passio) set out for the coast, but decide to spend the first night at Shapwick (‘Hwisc’ in the passio). King Ine, as it happens, is staying at South Petherton and the members of his entourage have been billeted elsewhere in the vicinity. Among Ine’s retainers are certain wicked men who are overcome by greed when they see the Irish pilgrims arrive at Shapwick with stuffed purses and staves with shiny tips. (Little do the villains guess that the staves’ have brass tips and that the purses are stuffed not with gold but with the seed of a local celery which the pilgrims have picked to take home for its medicinal value.) The bandits, led by one Huna, craftily invite the Irishmen to be their guests, then murder them in their sleep and snatch up the supposed plunder. When they discover their mistake they mutilate the bodies in enraged frustration and leave them strewn about in wild disarray.

Meanwhile, King Ine, who has gone out to admire the clear evening sky, sees a pillar of bright light rising in the distance. On the two following nights the same phenomenon occurs in the sky and so me decides to investigate the spot whence the light originates. There he comes upon the foul carnage and, equally horrible, the criminals have been overcome with madness and are attempting to devour each other’s flesh like crazed beasts. King Ine, appalled by the spectacle, brings the bodies of Indract and his companions back to Glastonbury with great solemnity and has Indract laid in a shrine on the left side of the altar and his fellow martyrs placed under the floor of the basilica.

The anonymous Latin writer adds a variety of other details about Indract’s cult which do not appear in John’s version and which presumably were absent from William of Malmesbury as well. In particular, he describes a number of miracles associated with the saint. For example, he tells of a rich man and his wife who came to pray at Indract’s shrine and brought their little son called Guthlac with them. While the parents, tired from their long journey, dozed in the church, the saint appeared to the boy and instructed him how to read and sing psalms. When they awoke the parents were amazed by this miracle and pledged the boy to a life of religion, leaving him to be instructed by the local clergy. As might be expected after such an auspicious start, Guthlac showed himself to be a dedicated scholar and holy individual, and ultimately became abbot of the monastery.

The early Glastonbury liturgical kalendars do not list Indract’s name and he first turns up in the Glastonbury context in a text dating from the second quarter of the eleventh century. The actual name Indractus is almost certainly a latinized form of the relatively common Irish name Indrechtach. Irish texts record, moreover, that on 12 March 854 one Indrechtach, abbot of Iona, was martyred among the English while on a trip to Rome. It is quite possible that the martyrdom did occur near Glastonbury, in which case an oral tradition of the catastrophe may have persisted at Glastonbury until the tenth century when a local hagiographer must have set about trying to reconstruct a suitable Life. Having only the vaguest of stories he created his own mise en scène and chose the reign of King Ine as the historical framework simply because he knew that me was a great benefactor to Glastonbury.

St Brigit’s name appears under 1 February in the two tenth-century liturgical calendars with Glastonbury associations. By the time William of Malmesbury visited the community St Brigit’s cult was well established and William accepted unquestioningly the house-tradition that she had made a pilgrimage to Glastonbury in 488, that she stayed for some time on the nearby island of Beckery and that she left various objects behind when she ultimately returned to Ireland: a wallet, a collar, a bell and assorted weaving implements.

Glastonbury’s own records state that there had been a church at Beckery dedicated to St Mary Magdalene previous to St Brigit’s visit, and this was later rededicated to Brigit. The chapel had a small opening on the south side and it was rumoured that anyone who squeezed through this opening would be forgiven his sins. King Arthur himself, so some romances relate, had a strange adventure at this chapel. On one occasion when he was staying with a group of nuns at Wearyall, Arthur had a recurring dream admonishing him to arise and go to the Chapel of St Mary Magdalene. The third night Arthur’s squire also dreamt about the chapel, which he thought he entered and from which he stole a rich and ornate candlestick. As he was leaving the chapel he received a mortal blow in revenge for the theft. At this point the squire awoke, screaming in pain, and discovered amazingly that both the wound and the candlestick were real. The squire died and the candlestick was given to either St Paul’s or Westminster in memory of the strange event. Arthur himself understood this as a sign that he should visit the chapel alone, which he then did, although with some trepidation. There he witnessed a literal re-enactment of the miracle of the mass, in which the Virgin herself offered up her Infant Son to the priest for the sacrifice. After the completion of the Office the Virgin presented King Arthur with a crystal cross in commemoration of the adventure. The king, in turn, changed his arms in token of the adventure and made them green with a silver cross; on the right arm of the cross he placed an image of the Mother and Child. Ultimately, the same arms were adopted by Glastonbury Abbey itself.

Excavations do, in fact, confirm that a chapel did exist at Beckery in the Middle Ages: there was an outer building dating from the fourteenth century, enclosing a similar chapel of late Saxon or early medieval date, which may even have been built by St Dunstan. Charters indicate that by the tenth century, that is by the time of St Dunstan, the accepted etymology for Beckery was Becc Eriu = Parua Hibernia (ie., Little Ireland), although modern scholars think that the real derivation is from ‘beocere’ = beekeeper and ‘ieg’ = island.3′ Interestingly, Brigit’s bell (made specifically for her by St Gildas, according to some accounts) resurfaced briefly in the twentieth century, when it appeared among the collections of Miss Alice Buckton, the owner of Chalice Well. Like Arthur’s sword, however, it seems to have disappeared beneath the waters with the passing of its custodian. Two stone carvings illustrating Brigit in her traditional role as milkmaid survive at Glastonbury, one in the doorway of St Mary’s Church and the other on the tower of St Michael’s on the Tor.

One last early Irish saint completes the Irish roster in the Glastonbury kalendar: St Columba, or as the Irish call him, Colum Cille. St Columba (521-597) was born in Ireland, but left with twelve companions in 563 to establish a foundation at lona, which would become a major centre for future missionary activity. By William of Malmesbury’s reckoning Columba came to Glastonbury during the course of his wanderings, attracted by its fame as the former dwelling place of his compatriots Patrick and Brigit and arrived in 504 – an impossible date since it anticipates his birth by almost 20 years.

In the Life of St David, written by the Welsh scholar Rhygyfarch around 1090, it is stated that Glastonbury was the first of twelve monasteries to be founded by St David (d.589 or 601). From the Glastonbury point of view, this account – flattering though it may have been in other respects – contained one serious flaw. St David, it is clear, could not have founded a church at Glastonbury in the sixth century when there had already been a Christian foundation there for many generations before his birth. William of Malmesbury pointed out this problem and suggested what amounted to a compromise position: St David must have originally come to Glastonbury to rededicate the Old Church, which had fallen into collapse during the dark days of the early sixth century. The night before the rededication ceremony David was vouchsafed a vision: Our Lord appeared to him and told him that He himself had long ago dedicated the Old Church and that it would be a profanity to repeat the act. As a sign Our Lord pierced the saint’s hand, a wound which miraculously healed itself during the consecration of the mass on the following day. After this divine intervention St David decided to build a second smaller chapel which would function as a kind of a chancel at the eastern end of the Old Church. The point of connection of these two chapels, according to later Glastonbury tradition, had some sort of arcane significance: ‘in order that it might always be known where the chapels were joined together, a pyramid on the exterior to the north, a raised step inside, and the southern end divide them along a line; on this line, according to certain of the ancients, St Joseph lies buried with a great multitude of saints.’

In Welsh hagiographical tradition it was recounted that St David had received a wonderful altar stone, commonly called ‘the sapphire’, from the Patriarch of Jerusalem and that he brought it back to Wales with him. The Glastonbury community, on the other hand, claimed that St David had presented this jewel to them, that it was later hidden during the unsettled early Saxon times, and that in the twelfth century the shrewd Abbot Henry of Blois discovered it during the course of renovations. In the fourteenth century Abbot Walter de Monington had the stone richly decorated and it was then hung aloft in the church where it remained until the depredations of Henry VIII’s agents: ‘Item, delyvered more unto his maiestie … a Super altare, garnished with silver and gilte and parte golde, called, the greate Saphire of Glasconberye.’

In the later middle ages Glastonbury Abbey also laid claim to the majority of St David’s physical remains. It could hardly be disputed, the Glastonbury writers pointed out, that the whole of the Ross Valley including the church at St Davids had been devastated by English invasions during the tenth century. At this time of chaos a noble matron, called Aelswitha, acquired the relics and brought them to Glastonbury for safekeeping, where they ever afterwards formed part of the Glastonbury collection. The Welsh, of course, were not convinced that the bones of their patron saint had deserted them. They continued to display their own collection of relics at St Davids Cathedral as the genuine remains: these were so widely venerated that Pope Calixtus 11 decreed in 1120 that two journeys to St David’s shrine in Menevia should be regarded as the equivalent to one to Rome.

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