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Saturday, 17 March 2012

Saint Patrick of Glastonbury?

As with all the early saints, there are a lot of legends about Saint Patrick and a scarcity of facts. One of the few certain things is that he wasn’t Irish! He couldn’t have been, since he was a Christian, and the Irish he converted were all pagans!

There are plenty of legends connecting St Patrick with Glastonbury in Somerset. Some people even think he was born there! According to one well-established legend, the Pope sent him to Ireland as a missionary in the year 425. After converting the Irish to Christianity, he returned to Glastonbury Abbey in 433, where he became Abbot and eventually died in 472. He is reputed to have been buried alongside the altar.

[This isn't something I'm claiming to be true... I'm simply recounting a legend that people used to  believe  in the past. I'm not making it up -- see the display from the Museum of Somerset shown above!]

Nowadays, Glastonbury is a magnet for hippies, neo-pagans and New Agers, and it seems paradoxical to associate it with a Christian saint. Glastonbury’s shops are filled with books on religion—Buddhism, Witchcraft, Goddess Worship, Sacred Sexuality—but you won’t find many Bibles! While the ruined Abbey is a big tourist attraction, it's more often described as ‘mystical’, ‘mysterious’ or ‘magical’ than as a place of Christian worship. The Abbey was destroyed by King Henry VIII when he abolished the monasteries in the 1530s, but before that time it was the most magnificent building in the country. If you picture Chartres Cathedral transplanted into the Somerset Levels, you wouldn’t be far wrong.

During the Middle Ages, Glastonbury was the religious heart of Britain -- a place of pilgrimage comparable to Rome or Jerusalem. What was important in those days wasn’t what was true, but what people believed. And people believed a lot when it came to Glastonbury. Not only Saint Patrick, but countless other saints were supposed to have been buried there. According to the 12th century chronicler William of Malmesbury, "...nor is there any space in the building that is free of their ashes. So much so that the stone pavement, and indeed the sides of the altar itself, above and below, is crammed with the multitude of the relics. Rightly, therefore, it is called the heavenly sanctuary on earth, of so large a number of saints it is the repository."

Besides St Patrick, Glastonbury is associated with his successor St Benignus, and the presence of their shrines (or supposed shrines) made the Abbey a popular destination for Irish pilgrims for centuries. Around the year 710, a group of them led by St Indract were massacred by local soldiers, and their remains were added to those already interred in the Abbey.

One of the reasons Henry VIII broke with the Church of Rome was that he believed the British church was older and more valid! According to a widely believed legend, the Apostle Philip sent a group of twelve missionaries to Britain in 63 AD. The leader of the twelve was none other than Joseph of Arimathea—the man who, according to the Gospels, had allowed the body of Jesus to be interred in his own tomb. The twelve proto-monks were drawn towards Glastonbury, where a heavenly vision led them to found the Abbey!

10 comments:

PoissonPete said...

St Patrick not Irish?!
Next, you'll be telling us that Hitler wasn't born a German and that Jesus wasn't a Christian!

Andrew said...

... just added two more items to my list of ideas for future blog posts...

Historian said...

Where did history go in this tale? St. Patrick is thought to be more likely of French origin. The name is most popular in Ireland - and France! The monastery system in Britain was founded by the Irish Saint Columba and Glastonbury Abbey didn't exist until the late 7th or early 8th Centuries.

Andrew said...

Sorry, you're absolutely right that the post is nonsense from a historical point of view (have you read any of my other posts? I specialize in nonsense!). I was just pointing out that, in the Middle Ages, people had a very hazy idea of history and the things they felt strongly about and that completely ruled their lives were often completely wrong. The Irish pilgrims who went to Glastonbury firmly believed Patrick was buried there, even though of course you and I know he wasn't. William of Malmesbury, and other people of his time, genuinely believed that Glastonbury Abbey was full to overflowing with the bones of saints from five or six hundred years earlier. Glastonbury has that effect on people -- there are people who live there today whose lives revolve around beliefs that are totally ludicrous in the eyes of a serious historian!

Andrew said...

In light of the above comments, I've edited the post a bit to make it clearer that I'm talking about other people's beliefs, not mine. I know religion is a touchy subject, and I really didn't mean to offend anyone. I've added a question mark at the end of the title, and a photograph from a museum display to show that I'm not making this up!

Historian said...

Didn't realise your tongue was in your cheek, you're forgiven! Yes, it's a powerful place full of mythology - but it's growing at an exponential rate recently. The Irish believe St. Patrick is buried in Armagh but it's not certain. May the wind be at your back............

ciderman said...

As an interested Irishman it is now generally held belief that Patrick was kidnapped from where Wales is now, important thing to remember is that, at the time, most of what we know of as England and Wales spoke a form of welsh!
He was taken by Irish slavers to Ireland where he was set to work before escaping some years later and returning home.
There he " got the call", as they say, and became a religious man inspired to return, once again, to Ireland where he set himself up as a bishop, these titles being more "fluid" and self-appointed than the Christian church of more recent times.
There are many place a where he is alleged to be buried as all, but Armagh is indeed the one pilgrims imagine he his now.
His mission was, indeed, to convert the irish pagans to Christianity, unfortunately the natives already had an advanced social structure place called the Brehon Laws, sorry to see them go! Give them a Google!

Andrew May said...

Thanks for some very interesting comments - I will certainly do some more Googling! I think maybe there was a "Saint Patrick" buried at Glastonbury, but a different one. You make a very good point about the inhabitants of what is now Somerset being culturally and linguistically "Welsh" at that time. So arguing (as an earlier poster did) that "Patrick is not a common name in England" is anachronistic. "England" and "English" come from the Anglo-Saxon culture, which only arrived in Somerset circa 700 AD when the area was invaded by King Ine of Wessex. He referred to the people he drove out (westwards) as "Welsh"!

So prior to 700, the people of Somerset would have been closer linguistically and culturally to the Irish than to the Anglo-Saxons or "English". Another point that people tend to forget today, is that in the days of horses and sailing ships, it was quicker and easier to get from the coast of Somerset or Wales to Ireland than it was to get to, say, London.

Ego Ronanus said...

The theory that there was more than one St Patrick in Ireland was put forward by TF O'Rahilly, a noted Irish scholar. Modern research does not obviate the possibility that Patrick came to Glastonbury. He is said to have found hermits there and formed them into a community. There is some uncertainty in Ireland about Patrick's burial place. The whole question, because of its complexity, cannot be resolved in a short comment. Patrick was most likely an Ancient Briton. A scholarly work that should be consulted is "The Problem of St Patrick" published by the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies.

Andrew May said...

Thanks Ronan - very interesting. In the days when travel by sea was often easier than overland, Somerset and Ireland were "closer" than many people realize. My book "Bloody British History: Somerset" contains several references to Ireland. St Patrick was one (or rather, that a group of Irish pilgrims on their way to St Patrick's shrine in Glastonbury were massacred by the locals back in Saxon times). Another was the sad story of Bishop Atherton, who was born in Somerset and hanged in Ireland. I seem to remember you once wrote about that case in Fortean Times.