Monday 31 March 2014

The Theft of St Dunstan's Relics

In 1508 AD a new shrine was set up in a conspicuous position in the abbey church at Glastonbury, the inauguration attracting a large number of visitors. This shrine was said to have contained the bones of St Dunstan, consequently a long and acrimonious dispute with Canterbury ensued.

A Heavenly Sanctuary on Earth
Glastonbury Abbey was no stranger to controversy when it came to its claims of the saints who rested there; Indract (of Ireland); Gildas (The Wise); David (of Wales); Patrick the Old and Brigid (of Ireland); Guthlac (of Crowland);  Edgar (King of Wessex); and many of Northumbria's most revered saints; Aidan (Lindisfarne); St. Hilda (Whitby); Ceolfrith, and Sigfrid (Wearmouth); Bede (Jarrow); Paulinus (York). Most of whom have better contested burial places elsewhere.

But perhaps the most well known discovery at Glastonbury was the exhumation of King Arthur and his Queen Guinevere in 1191. Later, in the 14th century, claims would emerge that Joseph of Arimathea, a relation of King Arthur through his mother's line, was buried there too.

In the early 12th century William of Malmesbury had been invited by the monks of Glastonbury to write a history of the Abbey with the intention of showing the antiquity of the house and its unbroken history since its inception. By 1126 William, a highly regarded historian of mixed Norman and English descent, had already completed two works, Gesta regum Anglorum (Deeds of the Kings of England) and Gesta pontificum (Deeds of the Bishops) and during the next few years he wrote the Vita sancti Wulfstani (Life of Saint Wulfstan).

William compiled De antiquitate Glastoniensis ecclesiae (Concerning the Antiquity of Glastonbury) between1129-35, in which he wrote that on the site of the Abbey there stood a church constructed of "wattle and daub” which he called "the oldest church in England," a symbol of the ancientness of Glastonbury's Christianity. By William's time the historical origins of the Old Church (vetusta ecclesia) had been lost but legend claimed that it had been built by two early missionaries sent from Rome. William recorded the Glastonbury assertion that during the 2nd century, in response to a plea from King Lucius, Pope Eleutherius dispatched the missionaries, Faganus and Deruvianus (Phagan and Deruvian), to the island of Britain to preach the Gospel.

No original copies of  De Antiquitate have survived but we know of its original text from large sections that had been transcribed into the Gesta Regis Anglorum. The earliest version of the "De Antiquitate" that has come down to us is a 13th century copy heavily interpolated by the Glastonbury monks which adds significant elaboration not present in William's original document. In addition to producing a general history of the Abbey, William also composed the vitae of four its greatest saints, Indract, Patrick, Benignus and Dunstan.

Dunstan the Holy Man of Glastonbury
Dunstan was born near Glastonbury on the estate of his father, Heorstan, a West Saxon noble. Cynethryth, his mother, was miraculously forewarned of the sanctity of the child she carried "would be the minister of eternal light". According to the later 11th century biographer, Osbern of Canterbury, Dunstan was born in "the first year of the reign of King Aethelstan", i.e. 924-5. However, this date has been challenged and many scholars considered his birth to have been earlier in the 10th century.

Dunstan's first biographer known simply as "B" tells us that Dunstan received an excellent education from Irish pilgrims who frequented Glastonbury, learned men who came to the Abbey to worship at the tomb of their blessed Patrick; could the Apostle of the Irish really be buried at Glastonbury?

B also tells us that as  abbot Dunstan enforced the Rule of St. Benedict at Glastonbury as a part of his reform there. He served as an important minister of state to several English kings, as Bishop of Worcester, Bishop of London, and finally Archbishop of Canterbury. Dunstan is remembered for restoring monastic life in England and reforming the English Church. Shortly after his death in 988 he was canonised as a saint and enshrined in the cathedral church at Canterbury.

Furta Sacra
To claim to have rescued relics from dangerous or an unworthy place was a widespread practice in the Middle Ages, the most extreme acts known as “furta sacra”, holy theft; and Glastonbury was a particularly active subscriber.

On 8th September 1011, Canterbury was attacked and besieged by Danish Vikings. After holding out for almost three weeks, the defences were finally overwhelmed on 29th September. Many of the inhabitants were massacred, the city sacked and the cathedral set ablaze. Archbishop Alphege (Ælfheah), who had promoted the cult of St Dunstan at Canterbury, was taken hostage and later martyred at Greenwich in April 1012.

Fearful for Dunstan's relics, Glastonbury claimed a party of four monks from their Abbey arrived at the abandoned cathedral in Canterbury and “rescued” the bones from neglect. Dunstan's relics were then apparently hidden away at Glastonbury for  some 170 years and not written about until after the fire that devastated the Somerset Abbey in 1184. This is a significant date in the “discovery” of relics at Glastonbury and seemingly the watershed when the major interpolations began to take place in De Antiquitate with William's work completely refashioned by about 1230. A further revision took place later to accommodate the emerging story of Joseph of Arimathea into the Abbey's history.

William of Malmebury tells us that the collection of relics at Glastonbury was so fabulous that it was a “heavenly sanctuary on earth”. But in  his original work he cites relatively few saints at rest there; six are clearly original to William, Indract, Benignus, Brigid, Aidan, Coelfrith and Hild, with two more, Vincent and Apollinaris, may also be from the original text. Later interpolations take the number of holy relics to 39. Two later manuscripts, known as Trinity and Titus, list 300 and near to 450 respectively. Clearly the collection of relics at Glastonbury was a growth industry.

An interpolation into the De Antiquitate explains the reason for the recovery of St Dunstan's relics; on visiting Glastonbury, so the story goes, a (chronologically misplaced) King Edmund described the neglected remains of their former abbot lying in the desolate cathedral at Canterbury and encouraged the abbot of Glastonbury to rescue Dunstan's bones. According to the story the four monks of Glastonbury had accompanied Dunstan to Canterbury and remained there until his death in 988. They apparently laid him in his grave in the cathedral so knew exactly where to find his body, identifying his body by a ring on his finger.

Then followed nearly two hundred years of silence in which Glastonbury never publicly announced its claim to possess the bones; everyone knew St Dunstan rested at Canterbury. The motivation behind the late Glastonbury claims had to be a direct consequence of the need to raise funds for rebuilding work following the devastation of the fire in 1184 and attract more pilgrims to the Abbey.

Significantly, William had made no mention of this story in his own Vita S. Dunstani which was composed to please the monks of Glastonbury, by countering the Canterbury claims of Osbern's Vita. Surely if such a tale was extant at this time William would have included in his Vita. Unless of course William doubted the Glastonbury claims himself and was sympathetic to Cantebury's argument.

Needless to say, Canterbury was not impressed by the Glastonbury claims. The contemporary Eadmer of Canterbury wrote to the monks of Glastonbury soon after 1120, ridiculing the claim, "I was not a little confounded to hear such a foolish and even laughable story," and condemned the act as sacrilege if it were not itself a fraud.

Eadmer's apparent disapproval of the Glastonbury claim is met with a strange twist of irony; he had described in his Vita Wilfridi how Archbishop Oda having found the church at Ripon deserted in 948 after King Eadred had destroyed it took the opportunity to remove Wilfrid's relics and bring them to Canterbury. The same account appears in a foreword written by Oda for Frithegod's 10th century poetic Vita Sancti Wilfrithi. Wilfrid's relics were originally placed in the High Altar at Canterbury but after the fire in 1067 they were moved to their own shrine. However, according to Byrhtferth's Vita Sancti Oswaldi, Oda's nephew, Oswald, Archbishop of York, preserved the relics in a new shrine at Ripon and rebuilt the monastery as a supporting community.

Today, the action of the Glastonbury monks in “rescuing” the bones of St Dunstan seems quite outrageous but during the 9th to 11th centuries it was widely accepted that the remains of a saint might be legitimately removed from their place of rest and appropriated by another church. The theft of holy relics, furta sacra, could only take place with the consent of the saint, approval  being displayed in the subsequent miracles that followed.

Miracles at Canterbury
Less than a hundred years after Dunstan's monastic reforms in the 10th century, the Church of England experienced an even greater upheaval as a result of the Norman Conquest. Within a few short years of the Norman arrival, the Saxon archbishop of Canterbury was replaced by a Norman cleric. Lanfranc of Pavia, an Italian by birth, educated as a Benedictine monk in France who later served as Abbot of St. Étienne, Caen, before being appointed the first post-Conquest Norman Archbishop of Canterbury in 1070.

Shortly after his arrival Lanfranc started the rebuilding of the fire damaged cathedral church at Canterbury. Lanfranc's rebuilding program affected most religious buildings to such an extant that little Anglo-Saxon architecture survives in English cathedrals; within half a century every cathedral church in England had been rebuilt. The changes in architecture also saw changes in personnel with Lanfranc accelerating the process of substituting Normans for Englishmen in all preferment's of importance.

One of Lanfranc's first actions was to rescue various sets of holy bones from the ruins of the old cathedral church at Canterbury that had burned down in 1067 and move them to safety, although he did not rescue the relics of Anglo-Saxon saints so that they might form a spiritual focus for new cathedral, yet Dunstan and Ælfheah seemed to have received preferential treatment. Osbern describes how the the bones were moved to an oratory dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, together with the body of St Dunstan whose reliquary-cofin had been exhumed. Eadmer recalls that the bodies of the saints in the eastern part of the church were moved to the western end, where after a three day fast the most precious bodies of the bishops of Christ, Dunstan and Ælfheah, were elevated. They were then translated to their place of burial.

Lanfranc opened Dunstan's tomb in 1070 and found a body dressed as a bishop. The solution according to Glastonbury was simple, they had substituted Dunstan's remains with the corpse of a deceased former abbot of Glastonbury thereby concealing the holy theft.

Osbern reports miracles occurring at the shrine of St Dunstan at Cantebury that he personally witnessed, a shrine which Eadmer tells us was surmounted by a pyramis, meaning simply a raised monument, suggesting it was visible to all and not secluded in a crypt. When Dunstan cured Lanfranc, after the doctors had feared for his life, the archbishop told the monks to lock themselves in the cathedral and offer up thanks for his cure at the saint's monument. The act must have been influential in Lanfranc's gradual acceptance of the cults of English saints.

The controversy concerning ownership of Dunstan's relics continued in to the early 16th century when the Archbishop of Canterbury Warham wrote to the Abbot Beere in 1508, after Glastonbury had erected a new shrine to Dunstan. Warham's letter explained that Canterbury's shrine to St. Dunstan had recently been opened and found to contain a complete skeleton of a man in full archiepiscopal dress, described on a lead sheet therein as "Sanctus Dunstanu Archiepiscopus".

Bere's response was that he was unwilling to prevent the pious from venerating St Dunstan at Glastonbury. However, he was willing to concede that the Glastonbury shrine might not contain all the saint's bones as some smaller ones may have been taken back to Canterbury where Warham may have seen them. Furthermore, he would counsel Canterbury not to publicise their so-called relics until they could be certain they were not counterfeits. Warham demanded Bere to appear before him with the so-called Glastonbury relics. Bere ignored the archbishop's demands.

Regardless of the protestations from Canterbury, the Glastonbury shrine to Dunstan continued to occupy a prominent place and turned out to be the last important monument to be erected at the Abbey relating to the cult of saints. Thirty years later the commissioners of Henry VIII had begun their destruction of the medieval shrines of England and any remains at Glastonbury purportedly belonging to St Dunstan were scattered to the four winds.

Copyright © 2014 Edward Watson

Notes & References
James P Carley, Glastonbury Abbey: The Holy House at the Head of the Moors Adventurous, Revised Edition, Gothic Image, 1996.
James P Carley & Martin Howley, Relics at Glastonbury in the Fourteenth Century, pp.569-616, in James P Carley, ed. Glastonbury Abbey and the Arthurian Tradition, DS Brewer, 2001.
John Crook, English Medieval Shrines, Boydell Press, 2011.
Richard Sharpe, Eadmer's Letter to the Monks of Glastonbury Concerning St Dunstan's Disputed Remains pp. 205-16, in Lesley Abrams & James P Carley, eds,The Archaeology and History of Glastonbury Abbey: Essays in Honour of the Ninetieth Birthday of CA Ralegh Radford, Boydell Press, 1991.

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Monday 17 March 2014

Saint Patrick

Today is the celebration of St Patrick, patron Saint of Ireland. The day is a principal holy day in the liturgical calendar, a holy day of obligation and has become a celebration of Ireland itself. Yet the origins of the man who became the most important Saint in Ireland are as enigmatic as his burial place.

Today 17th March is the feast day of Saint Patrick, Apostle of Ireland, who died on this day at Downpatrick, in 493 AD. In modern times St Patrick's Day has become an international celebration of Ireland. Patrick is said to have used the shamrock in his preaching as a representation of the Holy Trinity. The shamrock has become the symbol of St Patrick's Day.

Most of what we know of Patrick is based on the accounts from hagiographies from the seventh century or later in which we enter the realm of legend. Patrick is said to have banished all snakes from Ireland, chasing them into the sea after they attacked him during a forty-day fast. He is to have carried with him a walking stick or staff made from ash wood. Legend claims that when he pushed this stick into the ground it took root; this place came to be known as Aspatria (ash of Patrick). This is a trick typical in many saint's Lives, such as Joseph of Arimathea's staff and the tale of the Holy Thorn at Weary-all Hill, Glastonbury.

Little is known of Patrick's early life, though it is celebrated that he was born in the late fourth century, towards the ending of Roman Britain, into a wealthy Romano-British family. Patrick provides no dates in his writings that have survived, although they have been interpreted as suggesting that his ecclesiastical conversion did not take place before the early 5th century. Two Latin letters, the Confessio and the Epistola, have been authenticated as being written by Patrick.

In the Confessio Patrick provides a brief account of his early life, writing that he was born in Roman Britain at`Bannavem Taberniae', and that his father was a deacon and his grandfather a priest: "I had as my father the deacon Calpornius, son of the late Potitus, a priest, who belonged to the small town of Bannavem Taberniae; he had a small estate nearby, and it was there I was taken captive". In his Letter to Coroticus, Patrick claims his father was a decurion, a town councillor.

At the age of 16 he was captured by Irish raiders and taken as a slave to Ireland, remaining a captive for six years where he worked as a herdsman. He escaped by sea to an undisclosed land, eventually returning to his home in Britain. He began his studies for the priesthood and said to have been ordained by St. Germanus, the Bishop of Auxerre, whom he had studied under for years. Following his episcopal ordination he was sent to take the Gospel to Ireland. He returned to Ireland in 432 and credited with founding Ireland's first Christian church at Armagh.. Patrick preached and converted all of Ireland for 40 years.

`Bannavem Taberniae' is improbable Latin and is usually amended to Bannaventa Berniae, an unknown location, which has been identified as being near in the north of Britain, east of Carlisle, possibly near to the Roman Fort 'Banna', now known as Birdoswald, towards the western end of Hadrian's Wall. Others locate the place of Patrick's birth at Ravenglass in Cumbria; the similarity of the Roman name 'Glannaventa' needing no further explanation. However, these suggestions do not stand up to scrutiny; the western coasts of southern Scotland and northern England would offer little attraction to a raider seeking quick access to loot and slaves. Furthermore, there was a Roman town called 'Bannaventa', one mile northeast of the village of Norton in Northamptonshire, situated on the Roman road of Watling Street, but this is considered an unlikely target for seaborne raiders as it is deep in land.

Bannaventa Berniae appears to be a Latinisation of a Celtic placename where 'Banna' is Latin for spur or promontory of rock, with 'venta' being the name used by the Romans as a prefix for three civitas capitals: Venta Icenorum (Caistor St. Edmund, Norfolk);Venta Belgarum (Winchester); Venta Silurum (Caerwent, Gwent). Venta has a disputed meaning, it is argued that its is derived from the Brittonic *uentā,meaning something like ‘field’ or ‘market’. The Latin word 'Vendo' means 'to sell', as in the modern word vendor (seller) and the late Latin word 'vendito' means 'market sale' possess the same root. Therefore, it is usually accepted that Venta means a 'market place, or meeting place'. Thus, the names of the three civitas capitals mean the market towns of the the Iceni, the Belgae and the Silures respectively. However, Patrick could have been taken from anywhere on the west coast of Britain subject to raids by Irish pirates; from the south west of England to the Western Isles of Scotland.

South Wales or the south western peninsula of England has been argued for the location of Bannavem Taberniae as these areas were subject to incursions by Irish raiders in Patrick's time. Somerset was highly Romanised, offering a plausible location for Patrick's family estate, unlike some of the more remote locations suggested above. An alternative candidate for Patrick's home town is the late Roman settlement near the village of Banwell, five miles east of Weston-super-Mare, on the North Somerset Levels.

It seems we will never know for certain Patrick's birthplace as controversy continues to surround the chronology of his life and his achievements. The typical, and most popular, view is that Patrick was the only apostle of Ireland who converted the whole country to Christianity single-handedly. He was certainly active in Ireland during the second half of the fifth century. The Irish annals record Patrick's arrival in Ireland at 432, but this date may be confused with the arrival of Palladius in 431. The matter is confused further by the Book of Armagh which says Palladius was known to have also been called Patrick.

Palladius may have accompanied St Germanus of Auxerre to Britain in 429 in response to the Pelagian heresy. After returning to Rome he was despatched by Pope Celestine to Ireland shortly after. He appears to have landed and mainly worked in Wicklow, where three places (Tigroney, Donard, Dunlavin) claim to have churches founded by Palladius. His apostolate does not seem to have lasted long and he moved on to Scotland where he is said to have ended his days at Forddun, Aberdeenshire. It seems fairly certain Palladius was the first bishop of Ireland, but after he moved to Scotland, Patrick seems to have replaced him. However, recent research disputes the traditional dates, suggesting Patrick may have lived a generation or so later.

The chronicle tradition claims that Patrick died in 461. Yet, historians still can't make up their minds about Patrick and the latest wisdom declares that he died on 17 March 493. Several sites claim to be his final resting place, Glastonbury a notable alternative. However, the people of Ireland claim their patron Saint is buried at Down Cathedral in Downpatrick, County Down, alongside St. Brigid and St. Columba.

It is said that on the day Saint Patrick died  the sun did not set, but shone for twelve consecutive days and nights. His body was wrapped in a shroud and placed on a cart, drawn by two unrestrained white oxen. The oxen wandered to Downpatrick where it is claimed he is buried. A granite boulder marked with a cross and simply inscribed 'PATRIC' marks his grave.

Notes & References
Harry Jelley, Saint Patrick's Somerset Birthplace: A Serious Study into the Birthplace of
Saint Patrick in the Fifth Century, Cary Valley Historical Publications, 1998.
David Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Fifth Revised Edition, Oxford University Press, 2011.
David N. Dumville et al, Saint Patrick, Boydell Press, New Edition, 1999.
Thomas F. O'Rahilly, The Two Patricks: Lecture on the History of Christianity in Fifth-century Ireland, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1981.

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Friday 7 March 2014

Vikings: life and legend exhibition

6 March – 22 June 2014
Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery, British Museum, Great Russell Street, London, WC1B 3DG

This major exhibition enters the world of warriors, seafarers and conquerors and shows the many fascinating aspects of a history that is both strangely alien yet remarkably familiar; swords and axes, coins and jewellery, hoards, amulets and religious images show how Vikings created an international network connecting cultures over four continents.

  • The first major exhibition on Vikings at the British Museum for over 30 years.
  • Features many new archaeological discoveries and objects never seen before in the UK alongside important Viking Age artefacts from the British Museum’s own collection and elsewhere in Britain and Ireland.
  • New interpretations place warfare and warrior identity at the centre of what it meant to be a Viking; cultural contact was often violent, and the transportation of looted goods and slaves reflects the role of Vikings as both raiders and traders.
  • This exhibition will be the first in The Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery, part of the new World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre that opens later in 2014. The Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery is the British Museum’s first purpose built space for temporary exhibitions.

The Viking Age began on 8th June 793 AD with a raid by heathen men bringing plunder and slaughter on the island monastery at Lindisfarne. The raid off the coast of northern England was the start of a period of major change across Europe. The extraordinary Viking expansion from the Scandinavian homelands  to create an international network connecting cultures over four continents during this era, creating a cultural network with contacts from the Caspian Sea to the North Atlantic, and from the Arctic Circle to the Mediterranean. Famous for their seaborne adventures, appropriately at the heart of the exhibition will be a 37-metre-long warship, known as Roskilde 6, excavated from the banks of Roskilde fjord in Denmark during the course of work undertaken to develop the Roskilde Viking Ship Museum in 1997. Dating to around 1025, powered by 40 pairs of oars, it is the longest Viking ship ever discovered.

Many other new discoveries, including recently excavated skeletons from a mass grave of executed Vikings near Weymouth in Dorset, providing a close-up encounter with ‘real’ Vikings, warriors that filed their teeth,  and illustrate what happened when things went wrong for Viking warriors on British soil. The display will include the latest research on the skeletons showing how our understanding of the Vikings is still being changed by new excavations and recent research. A grim reminder that the Vikings were not always the invincible warriors depicted in legend.

The Lewis Chessmen form a remarkable group of iconic objects within the world collection of the British Museum. Thought to have been made in Norway, about AD 1150- 1200, the chessmen were found buried in the Western Isles of Scotland, probably for safe keeping on route to be traded in Ireland. Of the 93 pieces known to us today, 11 pieces are in Edinburgh at the National Museum of Scotland, and 82 are held in the British Museum. The chess pieces are made from walrus ivory and whales' teeth worked in the forms of seated kings and queens, bishops, mounted knights and pawns in the shape of obelisks.

The Vale of York Hoard, consisting of 617 coins, 6 arm rings and a quantity of bullion and hack-silver, will be shown in its entirety at the British Museum for the first time since it was discovered by metal detectorists near Harrogate in 2007 and jointly acquired by the British Museum and York Museums Trust.

All this and not a horned helmet in sight!

Organised by the British Museum, the National Museum of Denmark, and the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin and Supported by BP.

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