White Martyrdom, Saint Michael's Way, the Celtic Sites

Oft him ānhaȝa                   āre ȝebīdeð,                         Often the solitary one experiences grace,
Metudes miltse, þēah þe he mōdceariȝ the Lord's mercy, though he, sad at heart,
ȝeond laȝulāde lonȝe sceolde must for a long time along the paths of ocean
hreran mid hondum hrīmcealde sǣ, stir with oars the ice-cold sea,
wadan wræclāstas. Wyrd bið ful ārǣd! tread paths of exile. Wyrd is fixed fast!
Swā cwæð eardstapa, earfeþa ȝemyndiȝ, Thus spake the wanderer, mindful of hardships,
wrāþra wælsleahta, winemǣȝa hryre. Of fierce slaughters, the fall of comrades.

The opening lines of The Wanderer serve to encapsulate the frigid solitariness of white martyrdom and to highlight the fearful loneliness and valiant courage of the peregrini pro amore Dei. Many similar passages could be cited from other Old English elegies in the tenth-century Exeter Book, such as The Seafarer or The Husband’s Message, but these lines are particularly pregnant with significance for discussion of white martyrdom.

The eponymous, world-weary wanderer is on a solitary spiritual journey in search of a new comitatus, a lord who will care for him and take him to his bosom, and the goal is consolation and a resolution of the age-old contrast between the things of this world and the hoped-for joys of the next. The freezing waters act as an objective correlative for the spiritual torment of the exile seeking resolution of the conflicting and contradictory gnomes of lines 1 and 5; on the one hand, the wanderer is afforded glimpses of the grace and mercy of the Lord, but on the other can be certain only that Wyrd is immutable. Exile and wintry seafaring are metaphors of the spiritual quest undertaken by the eardstapa, the one who traverses the earth so heavy of heart.

The third word, ānhaȝa, is the key that unlocks the meaning of the poem, for it is patient of more than one etymological interpretation. The ān is unambiguous, signifying ‘one, alone, solitary,’ but haȝa is a play on words. In the sense of hæȝ, ‘a hedge,’ the wanderer is a soldier without the chieftain and comrades of his comitatus by his side to help form the battle-hedge of shields and spears, so he is a ‘one-hedger,’ a single sad and frightened warrior alone in a dark, cold, and cruel universe. A second sense derives ānhaȝa from hoȝian, ‘to think,’ so the wanderer is an ‘individual thinker’ pondering in isolation the nature of good and evil in the universe; line 111 of the poem says, Swā cwæð snottor on mōde, ȝesæt him sundor æt rūne, ‘Thus spake the man wise of mind as he sat apart in solitary counsel.’ If the two aspects of the play on words are put together, we have the white martyrdom of a resolute but heavy-hearted thinker making his solitary way ‘down the vast edges drear and naked shingles of the world,’ in Arnold's phrase, seeking to sublimate our troubled temporal life into the joys of the heavenly kingdom.

Celtic white martyrdom contains elements absent from the Anglo-Saxon picture, however, largely because it is much earlier and characterized by convicted Christianity. There was the sense of the journey as a pilgrimage involving veneration of saints and martyrs, worship of the divine, penance, asceticism, quest for absolution, desire for indulgences, pardon for sins, mortification of the flesh, and spreading of the Word to the pagans. Celtic white martyrs went afield deliberately, quitting home and clan and hearth to head out into the unknown on foot with only faith as a staff, trusting fully in Divine Providence. And the results of this ascetic religious practice led to the spreading of the Gospel and the foundation of great abbeys and schools among the pagan populations of Britain and the European Continent.

In St Jerome's fifth-century Biblia Sacra Vulgata, the text of Hebrews 11. 13 is expressed rather grandly:

Iuxta fidem defuncti sunt omnes isti non acceptis repromissionibus sed a longe eas aspicientes et salutantes et confitentes quia peregrini et hospites sunt supra terram

These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. [King James Version]

The Celtic peregrini et hospites traversed their world alone, on foot and in all weathers as an ascetic act of faith and pilgrimage, spreading the Gospel by word and deed to the pagans. Wikipedia lists 192 Irish mediaeval saints, 48 Breton saints, and 49 Scottish saints, but inevitably their peregrinations can lead to saints appearing in more than one category. Some of them are well known, others quite obscure, but all hearts burned with the same ascetic and evangelistic zeal. Evidence of the results of their travels can be seen in the list of Scottish saints, which includes Abel of Reims, Cathróe of Metz, and Gilbert de Moravia. The list of Irish monastic foundations in Continental Europe includes Bobbio Abbey; Faremoutiers Abbey; Ferrières Abbey; Lure, Haute-Saône; Luxeuil Abbey; Marmoutier Abbey (Alsace); Abbey of Saint Gall; St Trudpert's Abbey; Schottenstift, Vienna; Schuttern Abbey; Scots Monastery, Regensburg; St Kilian's Abbey, Würzburg; Tholey Abbey; and Weltenburg Abbey.[1]

The Goidelic/ Q-Celtic WanderersEdit

Perhaps the most famous wanderer was St Patrick, the ‘Apostle to the Irish,’ whose fifth-century mission established churches and monastic civitates throughout Ireland. The dreadful, extreme weather in 535-536 and the severe plague of 548-549 contributed to the spread of Christianity and monasticism in Ireland, where St Finian of Clonard trained the Twelve Apostles of Ireland at Clonard Abbey. One of these Apostles was St Brendan (Bréanainn) of Clonfert (c. 484-c. 577), known as ‘Brendan the Navigator’ because of his quest to find St Brendan's Island, the ‘Isle of the Blessed.’

In the sixth and seventh centuries, the Irish monks extended their efforts to what is now Scotland, where they established monastic institutions. Saint Fursey (Fursa, Fursy, Forseus, Furseus, d. 650) was active in the British Isles, especially in East Anglia. Another of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland was St Columba (Colum Cille, ‘Dove of the Church,’ Old Norse name Kolbjørn or Kolban, 521-597) who brought Christianity to the Picts of Alba, making Iona his base after he was granted the island in 563. The abbots of Iona were Adomnán (or Eunan), Baithéne mac Brénaind, Séon Carsuel, Columba, Conamail mac Faílbi, Cumméne Find, Diarmait of Iona, Dúnchad mac Cinn Fáelad, Fáilbe mac Pípáin, Fergno Britt mac Faílbi, Lasrén mac Feradaig, Ségéne mac Fiachnaí, and Suibne moccu Fir Thrí.[2] Columba is, consequently, as much a Scottish saint as an Irish one, perhaps even more so, but it is usually reckoned that Ireland has three patron saints: Parick, Columba, and Brigid.[3] Saint Brigid (Bridget, Bride, Irish Naomh Bríd, c. 451-525) was an abbess and founder of several abbeys, especially Kildare Abbey by Cill-Dara, ‘the church of the oak’; she was buried at Downpatrick with Patrick and Columba, but her skull was taken by three Irish noblemen to Igreja de São João Baptista (Lumiar) in Lisbon, Portugal, where it remains. Her cult was brought to Europe by Irish missionaries, such as Foillan, in the centuries after her death. In Belgium there is a chapel (seventh–tenth century) dedicated to Sainte-Brigide at Fosses-la-Ville and Saint Brigid is the patron saint of the Dutch city of Ommen.[4]

Other Irish monks worked in Gaul, such as Columbanus at Bobbio. The Irish St Aidan (Áedán, ‘the fiery one,’ d. 651) was trained in Iona, then worked among the Scots of Dál Riata and in 635 began the restoration of Northumbria to Christianity with the foundation of Lindisfarne, near Bamburgh. The Celtic Church thus came into contact and some conflict with the Roman Church in England founded by St Augustine, and such matters as the question of the date of Easter had to be resolved in a series of synods such as the famous one at Whitby in 644. In 2008 Aidan was proposed as a possible patron saint for all of the United Kingdom. St Cuthbert (c. 634-687) came from Brythonic Scotland, possibly Dunbar, became a monk at Old Melrose, did missionary work throughout southern Scotland and Northumbria, and ended up as bishop of Lindisfarne in 684. He lies in Durham Cathedral.

Those whose faces are turned always to the sun's rising
See the living light on its path approaching
As over the glittering sea where in tide's rising and falling
The sea-beasts bask, on the Isles of Farne
Aidan and Cuthbert saw God's feet walking
Each day towards all who on world's shores await his coming.
That we too, hand in hand, have received the unending morning. [Kathleen Raine][5]

The Scottish patron saint, Andrew, was not Celtic—he came from the Holy Land—but Scotland can still field a plethora of Celtic saints, some well known, others so obscure that their very existence can be deduced only from place names. St Ninian is known as ‘the Apostle to the Southern Picts,’ and also worked in the Scottish Lowlands and Northumbria; his alternative Scottish name is ‘Ringan’ and his Northumbrian one ‘Trynnian’; Ninian is best known in connection with the Candida Casa at Whithorn, in Galloway, which is now his major shrine. St Kentigern (late sixth century, Cantigernus in Latin, Cyndeyrn Garthwys in Welsh, meaning ‘chief prince’) was the apostle to Strathclyde, founder and patron saint of Glasgow, and also was active in the Northern Brythonic area of Cumbria; he was given the pet name Mungo (Brythonic my-nghu, Gaelic mo-chohe, ‘dear one’) by his foster-father St Serf. St Serf (or Servanus, c. 500-583) supposedly travelled to Rome and Gaul before coming to western Fife, the Pictish kingdom of Fib; Adomnán, Abbot of Iona, granted him an island in Loch Leven, which came to be called St Serf's Inch, and there Serf founded his St Serf's Inch Priory whence he proselytized in the Kingdom of Fife and centred his activity in Cuilenross (modern Culross).

Less well known is the Pictish saint from Tullich, near Ballater, Aberdeenshire, St Nathalan (or Nachlan, Nauchlan, d. 678). An agricultural expert, Nathalan lost his temper with God over failure of one season's crops, in penance bound his hand and arm to his side with chains, and threw the key into the River Dee before going to Rome in search of forgiveness; he bought a fish from a little boy in the market and found his key in its belly. Scottish saints known only from place-names include St Eurit (Urit), whose name is found on the northern bank of the South Esk, near Brechin Castle, Forfarshire, and St Braoch, known from the island of St Braoch, now Inchbrayock, in the middle of the South Esk near Montrose.

In Eastern Scotland, and especially in Angus, Perthshire, and Fife, there are to be found large cross slabs from the late seventh and early eighth centuries. These sculpted stones and obelisks are Pictish in the main, but with Christian elements that suggest the close relationship of Pictish kingship and Christianity at the time of conversion. St Bean's Church and Stone are at Fowlis Wester, NE of Crieff, in Central Scotland, and then there is the Tobar Oran early Christian sculpted stone near the deserted village of Ruisg Buidhe on the NE coast of Colonsay. Sueno's Stone near Forres, Grampian Region is a little later, c. 1000. After the Class II Pictish Stone known as Aberlemno II: Kirkyard Stone at Dunnichen, whose west face is inscribed with a Celtic Cross and whose east face has a battle scene, supposedly the Pictish-Northumbrian confrontation at Nechtansmere in 685, but which has no connection with any saint, the next most important stone is St Orland's Stone or the Cossans Stone. This Christian sculpted obelisk has Class II Pictish symbols too; on one side is the Celtic cross and on the other men and fabulous animals, including the only known Pictish carving of men rowing a boat. This early eighth-century Stone of St Orland (St Arland) is at Ardnaquere near to Mains of Ballindarg close to Cossans in Forfarshire (now Tayside) and near to the ancient Pictish religious centre of Glamis. Further than this dedication, nothing is known about this obscure Celtic saint or the significance of the St Brendan-like boat.

An early site being excavated is at Portmahomack in Easter Ross where many Pictish sculptured stones are found. Portmahomack means ‘the port of Colman,’ but one cannot be certain who founded this Pictish monastery or whence he/they came. Archaeologists have also recently uncovered an early Celtic settlement associated with St Ethernan on the Isle of May off the Fife coast. The spread of Christianity throughout Scotland by the Goidelic Celtic saints was a unifying factor in the later emergence of Scotland as a political unit.[6]

Where, west of the sun, our loved remembered home?
Columba's Eire from Iona's strand
Land-under-wave beyond last dwindling speck
That drops from sight the parting ship
As mourners watch wave after wave break.
Sight follows on its golden wake
A dream returning to its timeless source, the heart
Where all remains that we have loved and known. [Kathleen Raine][7]

The Brythonic/P-Celtic WanderersEdit

When attention is turned from the Q-Celtic saints to the P-Celtic ones of Wales, Cornwall, the Isle of Man, Brittany, and the Continent, a few famous names clamour for mention while others are so local and obscure that their interest is confined to particular spots and they are unlikely to be recognized by the Catholic Church in Rome. The wanderings and foundations of the early period were succeeded by an increasingly ascetic withdrawal to remote and lonely cells. There was, furthermore, so much movement of the earlier, non-eremetical figures between Wales, Cornwall, and Brittany, for instance, that more than one locale may claim the same saint.

Wales has its native patron saint David (Welsh Dewi or Degui Sant, c. 500-589), who was educated at Caerworgorn (Llanilltud Fawr or Llantwit Major) in Glamorganshire under St Illtud and then at Whitland, Carmarthenshire under St Paulinus of Wales (Pawl Hen) and baptized at Porth Clais by St Ailbe (St Elvis of Munster). David founded monasteries and churches in Wales, Cornwall, and Brittany (possibly including Glastonbury Abbey), and went on pilgrimages to Jerusalem and Rome. Before David's time there was St Dyfrig (or Dubricius, c. 425-505) who may have been a disciple of Germanus of Auxerre and became bishop at Ariconium in the kingdom of Auxerre. Less obscure is the next leader of Welsh Christianity, St Illtud (or Illtyd, Hildutus, d. mid-sixth century), possibly a Breton, possibly another pupil of Germanus of Auxerre; in his monastic school of Cor Tewdws his students included SS Paul Aurelian, Samson of Dol, David, Maglorius, and Gildas.

Most renowned for learning and monasticism was St Gildas (c. 497/516-c. 570). Born in Alt Clut (Strathclyde), he studied with St Illtud and afterwards in Ireland. He preached among the P-Celts in southern Scotland and Northern England, made a bell for St Brigid of Kildare, preached in Armagh, restored church order for Ainmuire mac Sétnai (High King of Ireland, 566-569), journeyed to Rome and Ravenna, and finally settled to a solitary and then monastic life and death in Brittany on the bank of the River Blavet at Rhuys. Apart from his Rule, he is known for the tripartite sermon De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (The Ruin and Conquest of Britain).[8] Caradoc of Llancarfan offers an alternative picture in which Gildas was educated in Gaul and buried in Glastonbury, perhaps suggesting the possibility of there having been two SS Gildas.[9]

Cornwall (Kernow) has since early times had as its patron saint the Archangel Michael himself, then follow minor figures known from place-name evidence and from later dedications: Breaca, Brioc, Budoc, Carantoc, Erc, Gerren, Nectan, Petroc, Piran, Ronan, Winwaloe.[10] Best known of these is St Petroc (Welsh Pedrog, Latin Petrocus, French Perreux, d. 564) who was born in Wales, studied in Ireland where he later taught St Kevin, had a mission to Cornwall, went on pilgrimage to Rome via Brittany, then served in Devon on his return. St Piran (Perran, fl. early sixth century), supposedly of Irish origin, later became identified with the Irish St Ciarán who founded a monastery at Seir-Kieran (Saighir) in County Offaly; Piran is credited with the ‘rediscovery’ of tin-smelting, which had flourished up to the third century centred on the port of Ictis (St Michael's Mount), and he, St Michael, and St Petric are the patrons of Cornwall.[11]

Devon has a Brythonic or P-Celtic name (Welsh Dyfnaint, Cornish Dewnans, Breton Devnent) as has the city of Exeter (Caer Uisc, from the River Esk, Isca, ‘flowing water’). The Cathedral is dedicated to St Peter, but Devon has its local and obscure saints, too: St Nectan, St Brannock, St Budoc, and the virgin saints Urith and Sidwell.[12] To illustrate the close relations, if not confusion, of the Cornish and Devon saints, Wikipedia notes:

Many Cornish saints are commemorated also in Devon in legends, churches and placenames. Saint Petroc is said to have passed through Devon, where ancient dedications to him are even more numerous than in Cornwall: a probable seventeen (plus Timberscombe just over the border in Somerset), compared to Cornwall's five. The position of churches bearing his name, including one within the old Roman walls of Exeter (Karesk), are nearly always near the coast reminding us that in those days travelling was done mainly by sea. The Devonian villages of Petrockstowe and Newton St Petroc are also named after Saint Petroc and the flag of Devon is dedicated to him.[13]

As the foregoing shows, there is every likelihood that there was a Brythonic, P-Celtic kingdom or loose federation named Dumnonia by the Romans and comprising Devon, Cornwall, Somerset, and pieces of Dorset that shared Celtic saints from Wales or Ireland or Scotland, with a few home-grown personages thrown in. In the fifth and sixth centuries, following the fall of Rome, the Dumonii expanded onto the Continental north Atlantic coast into a sister kingdom also called Domnonia (French: Domnonée) in what is now Brittany (Breton Breizh, French Bretagne, ‘Britain’). They took with them their saints:

While Christianization may have occurred during Roman occupation, the first recorded Christian missionaries came to the region from Wales and are known as the ‘Seven founder saints.’ They are:
  • St Pol Aurelian, at Saint-Pol-de-Léon (Breton: Kastell-Paol),
  • St Tudual (sant Tudwal), at Tréguier (Breton: Landreger),
  • St Brieuc, at Saint-Brieuc (Breton: Sant-Brieg, Gallo: Saent-Berioec),
  • St Malo, at Saint-Malo (Breton: Sant-Maloù, Gallo: Saent-Malô),
  • St Samson of Dol, at Dol-de-Bretagne (Breton: Dol, Gallo: Dóu),
  • St Patern, at Vannes (Breton: Gwened),
  • St Corentin (sant Kaourintin), at Quimper (Breton: Kemper).

Other notable early evangelizers are Gildas and the Irish saint Columbanus. With more than 300 ‘saints’ (only a few recognised by the Catholic Church), the region is strongly Catholic.[14]

Throughout the Celtic lands there is to be half-seen through the mists of time the ascetic monastic communities of the Culdees (Irish Céli Dé, ‘Companions of God’). The view that they preserved Christianity pure and Celtic before contact with the Roman Church may be seen in Thomas Campbell's poem ‘Reullura’ (Gaelic ‘Beautiful Star’):

Star of the morn and eve,
          Reullura shone like thee,
And well for her might Aodh grieve,
          The dark-attired Culdee.
Peace to their shades! the pure Culdees
          Were Albyn’s earliest priests of God,
Ere yet an island of her seas
          By foot of Saxon monk was trod...
But, Aodh, the roof lies low,
          And the thistle-down waves bleaching,
And the bat flits to and fro
          Where the Gael once heard thy preaching;
And fallen is each column'd aisle
          Where the chiefs and the people knelt.[15]

A variant view has the Culdees as the leaders of the monks of Iona, while another holds that they succeeded the Celtic monks in the ninth to twelfth centuries, in places such as Armagh, Clonmacnoise, Clones, Sligo, Devenish, and Iona.[16] It has been suggested that Culdee monks brought the Rule of Chrodegang of Metz (d. 766) to Ireland from the monasteries of NE Gaul.

A final figure remains for mention although he was not Celtic but is part of the Celtic picture nonetheless—St Joseph of Arimathea. The rich disciple is mentioned in all four Gospels, where he is credited with asking Pontius Pilate for the body of Jesus and providing the tomb in which Christ awaited his resurrection. The rest of his story is later legend. The apocryphal Acti Pilati recounting the supposed conversion of Pilate has attached to it the fourth-century so-called Evangelium Nicodemi, The Gospel of Nicodemus or The Narrative of Joseph, found in several Latin, Old English, and Middle English versions (but not any of the Greek manuscripts).[17] In Corpus 41, the fourth homily is based on the Descensus ad Inferos or ‘Harrowing of Hell’ episode in this apocryphal life of Christ, which recounts that between the crucifixion and the resurrection Jesus descended into hell and led thence the Old Testament patriarchs to heaven. Since this homily is in Corpus 41 in close collocation with the St Michael panegyric, it merits some attention.[18]

The story of the Harrowing of Hell is a prime example of patristic logical reasoning. Biblical descriptions of the events following the Crucifixion vary in their details but agree that Christ lay two or three days in the tomb before his resurrection. The church fathers enquired earnestly what he was doing those days, and decided that he descended into hell to harrow it, to lead out of hell the patriarchs and the prophets who had been patiently awaiting the Messiah's rescue of them in faith and prayer. The logic is plain: the NT tells of the redemption to eternal life of those who live truly Christian lives, so what of all the people in the OT who lived truly Christian lives in all but name? The writer to the Hebrews gives a list of such exemplary people and their lives, which prefigure that of Christ—surely they deserve better treatment than condemnation to hell simply because they lived before the death of Christ. Logically, then, Christ the conqueror of death and the Saviour of all mankind descends from the tomb to hell and leads out to heaven all the Old Testament patriarchs and prophets, all who lived Christian lives before there was a Christ. Here is how the theme from the Gospel of Nicodemus is treated in the Exeter Book's The Harrowing of Hell (translation should suffice):

Onward he advanced, Lord of all the people, the multitudes' Bestower of glory. The exiles came crowding, trying which of them might see the victorious Son—Adam and Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, many a dauntless man, Moses and David, Isaiah and Zacharias, many patriarchs, likewise too a concourse of men, a host of prophets, a throng of women and many virgins, a numberless tally of people.[19]

Christ then leads the multitude of the newly redeemed to heaven. The OE poem The Dream of the Rood takes up the tale:

May the Lord be a friend to me, who here on earth once suffered on the gallows-tree for the sins of mankind. He redeemed us and gave us life, and a heavenly home. Hope was renewed with dignity and with happiness for those who had once suffered burning. The Son was victorious in that undertaking, powerful and successful, when he came with a multitude, the company of souls, into God's kingdom, the one almighty Ruler, to the delight of the angels and of all the saints who had previously dwelt in glory in the heavens, when their Ruler, almighty God, came where his home was.[20]

In the text following Homily 4, the St Michael text, we find Michael as psychopompus in [14], [27] and [28]. Here is [14] again (lines 87-90):

Þis is se halȝa heahenȝel Sancte Michael se ðe anra ȝehƿilces soðfæstes mannes saule ȝelædeð þurh þa ȝatu þæs ecan lifes to hefena rice.

This is the holy archangel St Michael who leads the soul of each and every true man through the gates of eternal life into the kingdom of heaven.

Later legend has Joseph of Arimathea come to Britain to found the first church, in AD 37 (Gildas' date) or AD 65, and Glastonbury Abbey claims to be ‘the oldest above-ground Christian church in the world.’ Joseph's Church of St Mary was built near the holy pool at the foot of the precipitous rock of Glastonbury Tor, atop which the ruins of the (later) St Michael's Church may still be seen. Writing in the ninth century, Rabanus Maurus has Joseph sail from Asia to Marseilles accompanied by twelve persons among whom are numbered Mary and Martha, Lazarus, and Mary of Magdala.[21] Writing c. 1129-39, William of Malmesbury has Joseph at the instigation of St Phillip come to Britain with eleven companions and be given the place then known by the Celtic name of Ineswitrin or Ynys Vitrin, i.e., Glastonbury, in Somerset; William reports that Glastonbury, first recorded in the seventh to early eighth century as Glestingaburg, was named for a Celt named Glast, descendant of Cunedda.[22] In 433 St Patrick arrived from Ireland and was straightway appointed abbot of Glastonbury Abbey.

Later popular legends assert that the source of Joseph's wealth was the Cornish tin trade. Certainly, Cornwall was famous for tin before and after the birth of Christ, for Phoenician traders linked Cornish mines with the Mediterranean before Julius Caesar's interest in Cornwall in 55 and 54 BC. Joseph can be tracked through Provence, Aquitaine, Brittany, and into Cornwall, but his only stopping place, the term of his journey, according to legend, is Glastonbury. His route, up from Marseilles, along the Rhône to Limoges, and on to Brittany and Cornwall, is precisely that of the tin trade. A ninteenth-century children's lullaby insisted, ‘Joseph was a tin merchant, a tin merchant, a tin merchant. Joseph was a tin merchant and the miners loved him well.’

The argument has Joseph and his ships in Cornwall during Christ's lifetime, but does not stop there; the legends hold that Joseph was Jesus' uncle or great-uncle and brought the young Jesus to Cornwall with him to learn the tin business as well as his father's carpentry. In the ninteenth century, the people of Priddy, a tin mining village just north of Glastonbury, had a saying, ‘As sure as our Lord was in Priddy,’ and Victorian metalworkers would say for luck, ‘Joseph was in the tin trade.’ Asked to explain, one foreman replied, ‘We workers in metal are a very old fraternity, and like other handicrafts we have our traditions amongst us. One of these... is that Joseph of Arimathea, the rich man of the Gospels, made his money in the tin trade with Cornwall. We have also a story that he made voyages to Cornwall in his own ships, and that on one occasion he brought with him the Child Christ and His Mother and landed them at St Michael's Mount.’[23] So local legend maintains that during the ‘lost’ years of Christ, Jesus came as a boy with Joseph to Cornwall and that Joseph taught Jesus how to extract the tin and to purge it of its wolfram. William Blake was to ask:

And did those feet in ancient time
      Walk upon England's mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
      On England's pleasant pastures seen?
And did the Countenance Divine
      Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
      Among those dark Satanic mills?[24]

Setting aside for the nonce these tales of Joseph of Arimathea and postponing discussion of his supposed connections with the Holy Grail and Arthurian legends, it is still credible that Christianity came to Britain with the Brythonic Celts long before the coming of the Roman Church. And Glastonbury remains a logical first site—an early trading centre, situated conveniently, of easy access to the Bristol Channel and sufficiently inland to deter sea raiders. Cornwall is P-Celtic, and Glastonbury is not too far from Ireland. In the sixth century, c. 540-547, St Gildas wrote:

Interea glaciali figore rigenti insulae et velut longiore terrarum secessu soli visibili non proximae verus ille non de firmamento solum temporali sed de summa etiam caelorum arce tempora cuncta excedente universo orbi praefulgidum sui coruscum ostendens, tempore, ut scimus, summo Tiberii Caesaris, quo absque ullo impedimento delatoribus militum eiusdem, radios suos primum indulget, id est sua praecepta, Christus.

Meanwhile these islands, stiff with cold and frost, and in a distant region of the world, remote from the visible sun, received the beams of light, that is, the holy precepts of Christ, the true Sun, showing to the whole world his splendour, not only from the temporal firmament, but from the height of heaven, which surpasses every thing temporal, at the latter part, as we know, of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, by whom his religion was propagated without impediment, and death threatened to those who interfered with its professors.[25]

Tiberius died in AD 37, so if Christianity was in England by then it was not the Romans who brought it, but the Celts, who already had a bishop, Irenaeus of Lyons, of the line of St John, and one may assume much interchange between Gaul and Britain. The early Celtic Saints are very close to the apostolic pattern, for a direct connection can be traced from Jesus to St John of Ephesus, the author of the fourth Gospel, through St Polycarp of Smyrna who knew John personally, to one of the first missionaries to the Celts, St Irenaeus, who worked in the Gaulish town of Lyons. Another Gaulish or Gallic Bishop was St Martin of Tours, whose monastic community Ninian visited on the return journey from Rome that took him to Whithorn. Many Irish monks came to Whithorn, including Finnian of Moville who later influenced Columba; and from Iona came Aidan who was in turn the inspiration of Cuthbert. And so the tale goes on.

The P- and Q-Celtic white martyrs had in common their apostolic succession, their simple and steadfast faith, their ascetic and monastic leanings, their own date for Easter, their non-Roman, Eastern doctrinal and apocryphal roots (what Rudolph Willard calls ‘ecclesiastical science fiction’),[26] and their special, unique form of the cross. To the usual Roman cross there is added a distinctive circle round the intersection of the upright and the cross-beam, on whose significance there is much dispute—a sunburst, the crown of thorns, a halo, wholeness, a combination of all these ideas? Celtic crosses ranged from the huge standing stone crosses such as the Ruthwell and Bewcastle Crosses that were brightly-coloured preaching crosses set up at crossroads, to the vast collections of stone memorial crosses at Iona, Clonmacnoise, Glendalough, or Cashel, to pectoral crosses, to crosses mounted atop croziers and staffs. These crosses could be illustrated with knotwork, interlacing, pictures of animals and plants, pictures of saints, or scenes from the Bible, like the flight into Egypt or Jesus feeding the hungry people. Bede tells of St Columba repulsing the Loch Ness monster with his large cross, and St Columba went to Glasgow and swapped staffs or croziers with St Mungo to make peace between their two parts of Scotland.

In all weathers, usually foul rather than fair by the frigid Atlantic shores, the Celtic white martyrs trod the machair armed with their crosses and their steadfast faith alone. Arthur O'Shaughnessy puts these words on their lips:

We are the music-makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams.
World-losers and world-forsakers,
Upon whom the pale moon gleams;
Yet we are the movers and shakers,
Of the world forever, it seems.

Sir Kenneth Clark stresses how, thanks to these solitary Celtic wanderers, the lights of European civilisation and learning were not totally extinguished, but survived ‘by the skin of our teeth’:

In a miraculously short time—about fifty years—the classical world was overrun. Only its bleached bones stood out against the Mediterranean sky. The old source of civilisation was sealed off, and if a new civilisation was to be born it would have to face the Atlantic...Quite apart from discomforts and privations, there was no escape from it. Very restricted company, no books, no light after dark, no hope. On one side the sea battering away, on the other infinite stretches of bog and forest. A most melancholy existence...The first Christians who came to the West came originally from the eastern Mediterranean, the first home of monasticism. Some of them settled at Marseilles and Tours; then when life became too dangerous they struggled on in search of the most inaccessible fringes of Cornwall, Ireland or the Hebrides...Looking back from the great civilisations of twelfth-century France or seventeenth-century Rome, it is hard to believe that for quite a long time—almost a hundred years—western Christianity survived by clinging on to places like Skellig Michael, a pinnacle of rock eighteen miles from the Irish coast, rising seven hundred feet out of the sea.[27]

Much earlier tribute was paid the white martyrs by King Alfred the Great in his prose preface to his translation of St Gregory the Great's Cura Pastoralis or Pastoral Care:

Ure ieldran, ða ðe ðas stowa ær hioldon, hie lufodon wisdom, ond ðurh ðone hie begeaton welan, ond us læfdon. Her mon mæg giet gesion hiora swæð, ac we him ne cunnon æfter spyrigean.[28]

Our ancestors, who previously held this place, they loved wisdom, and through it they obtained riches, and left them for us. Here one may still see their track, but we do not know how to follow after them.

Pilgrimage and St Michael's WayEdit

Pope Gregory I wrote his Cura Pastoralis/LiberRegulae Pastoralis on the responsibilities of the clergy c. 590, and the work was taken to England by Augustine of Canterbury in 597. King Alfred the Great translated it into Old English in the ninth century, some time before 896, so his comments about the decline of learning applied to the Roman Church more immediately than to the Celtic Church, but scholars should remember that Alfred was King of Wessex, in the heart of the English Celtic world where it was Celtic wanderers and monks who had established the churches, monasteries, pilgrimage routes, and a high level of education that had lapsed under later generations of the Roman Church. King Alfred's remark about riches is apropos in the present context because, like any latter-day tourist trade, pilgrimages proved lucrative for hospices and monasteries on the major routes such as St Michael's Way and the Way of St James.

That the people of St Michael to this day consider themselves a pilgrim people can be seen from the mission statements of many of the churches dedicated to him.[29]


  1. Wikipedia, s.v. ‘Celtic Christianity,’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Celtic_Christianity. Much of the discussion of Celtic saints which follows owes a considerable debt to both Wikipedia and The Catholic Encyclopedia.
  2. Wikipedia, loc. cit.
  3. On Irish Celtic saints, see further JM (Joseph Mary) Flood. Ireland, its Saints and Scholars. (Dublin: The Talbot Press Ltd; London, TF Urwin Ltd, 1917); John O'Hanlon. Lives of the Irish Saints: with Special Festivals, and the Commemorations of Holy Persons, 9 vols. (Dublin: J Duffy, 1875?); Whitley Stokes. Lives of Saints, from the Book of Lismore. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1890).
  4. Wikipedia, s.v. ‘Brigid of Kildare,’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brigid_of_Kildare.
  5. In Christopher Bamford and William Parker Marsh. Celtic Christianity: Ecology and Holiness. (Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne Press, 1987), p. 139.
  6. On Scottish Celtic saints, see further Michael Barrett. A Calendar of Scottish Saints. (Fort Augustus: Abbey Press, 1919) and Alan MacQuarrie. The Saints of Scotland: Essays in Scottish Church History, AD 450-1093. (Edinburgh: John Donald Ltd, 1997).
  7. In Christopher Bamford and William Parker Marsh. Celtic Christianity: Ecology and Holiness. (Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne Press, 1987), p. 139.
  8. Gildas. De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (The Ruin and Conquest of Britain)—vide note 25 infra.
  9. On Welsh Celtic saints, see S (Sabine) Baring-Gould. The lives of the British Saints: the Saints of Wales and Cornwall and such Irish Saints as have Dedications in Britain, 4 vols. (London: For the honourable Society of Cymmrodorion by CJ Clark, 1907) and EG Bowen. The Settlements of the Celtic Saints in Wales. (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1954).
  10. Wikipedia, s.v. ‘Cornish Saints,’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Cornish_saints.
  11. On Cornish Celtic saints, see PB Ellis. The Cornish Saints. (Penryn: Tor Mark Press, 1992) and Nicholas Orme. The Saints of Cornwall. (Oxford University Press, 2000).
  12. On Devon Celtic saints, see Nicholas Orme. English Church Dedications, with a Survey of Cornwall and Devon. (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1996).
  13. Wikipedia, s.v. ‘Devon,’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Devon.
  14. Wikipedia, s.v. ‘Brittany,’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brittany.
  15. Thomas Campbell. The Complete Poetical Works of Thomas Campbell. (New York: D Appleton & Co., 1857), p. 134.
  16. Hector Boece. Historia Gentis Scotorum (History of the Scottish People). (1527).
  17. On the Old English versions, see William H Hulme. ‘The Old English Version of the Gospel of Nicodemus.’ Modern Language Association of America 13, no. 4 (1898), pp. 457 ff., and James E Cross, ed. Two Old English Apocrypha and their Manuscript Sources: ‘The Gospel of Nicodemus’ and ‘The Avenging of the Saviour.’ Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England 19 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996). The principal Old English MSS are CUL, Ii. 2. 11; London, BL Cotton Vitellius A. xv, part 1, ff. 60-86; London, BL Cotton Vespasian D xiv.
  18. For the Corpus 41 version of this homily for Easter on pages 295-301, see William H Hulme, ed. ‘The Old English Gospel of Nicodemus.’ Modern Philology 1, no. 4 (Apr., 1904), pp. 579-614/32-6 (610-14).
  19. SAJ Bradley, trans. and ed. Anglo-Saxon Poetry. An Anthology of Old English Poems in Prose Translation. (London: JM Dent, 1982, latest reprint 2004), p. 393.
  20. Bradley, loc. cit., p. 163.
  21. Rabanus Maurus (766-856), Archbishop of Mayence. Life of Mary Magdalene. MS Bodleian Library, Laud 108. See Wikipedia, s.v. ‘Joseph of Arimathea.’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Joseph_of_Arimathea.
  22. William of Malmesbury (c. 1080/1095-c. 1143), Gesta regum Anglorum, c. 1120 and 1127, and De Antiquitate Glastonie Ecclesie, c. 1129-39. See also RAB Mynors, RM Thomson, and M Winterbottom, eds. and trans. William of Malmesbury: Gesta regum Anglorum (Deeds of the English Kings). 2 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998 and 2002); and Rev John Sharpe and JA Giles, eds. and trans. William of Malmesbury, Chronicle of the Kings of England. (London: George Bell and Sons, 1904), p. 21.
  23. Quoted from Rev Lionel Smithett Lewis. St Joseph Of Arimathea At Glastonbury. (1953) at http://www.icons.org.uk/theicons/collection/jerusalem/features/and-did-those-feet.
  24. William Blake. Preface to Milton: a Poem. (1804, printed c. 1808), set to music as the Hymn ‘Jerusalem’ by Sir Hubert H Parry in 1916. Revelation 3: 12 and 21: 2 is the source of the idea of the Second Coming in which Christ establishes a new Jerusalem, a Heaven on earth.
  25. Gildas. Liber Querulus de Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (The Ruin and Conquest of Britain). (c. 540-547), from John Allen Giles, trans. Six Old English Chronicles. (London: Henry G Bohn, 1848), sec. 8. See also Michael Winterbottom, ed. and trans. Gildas: The Ruin of Britain and Other Works. (Chichester: Phillimore & Co., 1978).
  26. Rudolph Willard, ed. ‘Two Apocrypha in Old English Homilies.’ Beiträge zur Englischen Philologie 30 (Leipzig, 1935), pp. 3-6, reprinted separately New York: Johnson Reprint Co., 1970.
  27. Sir Kenneth Clark. ‘The Skin of our Teeth.’ Civilisation: A Personal View. (New York: Harper and Row, 1969).
  28. From MS Oxford, Bodleian, Hatton 20 (s. ix ex), Henry Sweet, ed. King Alfred's West-Saxon Version of Gregory's Pastoral Care. Early English Text Society, Old Series 45, 50 (London: Oxford University Press, 1871, repr. 1958).
  29. The following random example comes from the Anglo-Catholic parish of St Michael and All Angels, Abban Street, Inverness: We are a pilgrim people who share a vision for unity and truth as we proclaim the faith handed down from Christ by the apostles, the faith of St Ninian, St Columba and all the saints of Scotland, the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic faith of the historic mainstream of traditional Anglican Christians. (http://www.angelforce.co.uk/stmichael).


Bamford, Christopher, and William Parker Marsh. Celtic Christianity: Ecology and Holiness. (Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne Press, 1987).

Baring-Gould, S (Sabine). The lives of the British Saints: the Saints of Wales and Cornwall and such Irish Saints as have Dedications in Britain, 4 vols. (London: For the honourable Society of Cymmrodorion by CJ Clark, 1907).

Barrett, Michael. A Calendar of Scottish Saints. (Fort Augustus: Abbey Press, 1919).

Boece, Hector. Historia Gentis Scotorum (History of the Scottish People). (1527).

Bowen, EG. The Settlements of the Celtic Saints in Wales. (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1954).

Bradley, S(idney) AJ, trans. and ed. Anglo-Saxon Poetry. An Anthology of Old English Poems in Prose Translation. (London: JM Dent, 1982, latest reprint 2004).

Campbell, Thomas. The Complete Poetical Works of Thomas Campbell. (New York: D Appleton & Co., 1857).

Clark, Sir Kenneth. Civilisation: A Personal View. (New York: Harper and Row, 1969).

Cross, James E, ed. Two Old English Apocrypha and their Manuscript Sources: ‘The Gospel of Nicodemus’ and ‘The Avenging of the Saviour.’ Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England 19. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

Ellis, PB. The Cornish Saints. (Penryn: Tor Mark Press, 1992).

Flood, JM (Joseph Mary). Ireland, its Saints and Scholars. (Dublin: The Talbot Press Ltd; London, TF Urwin Ltd, 1917).

Gildas, Liber Querulus de Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (The Ruin and Conquest of Britain). (c. 540-547).

Giles, John Allen, trans. Six Old English Chronicles. (London: Henry G Bohn, 1848).

Hulme, William H. ‘The Old English Version of the Gospel of Nicodemus.’ Modern Language Association of America 13, no. 4 (1898), pp. 457 ff.

--------------------, ed. ‘The Old English Gospel of Nicodemus.’ Modern Philology 1, no. 4 (Apr., 1904), pp. 579-614/32-6 (610-14).

Lewis, Rev Lionel Smithett. St Joseph Of Arimathea At Glastonbury. (1953).

Mynors, RAB, RM Thomson and M Winterbottom, eds. and trans. William of Malmesbury: Gesta regum Anglorum (Deeds of the English Kings). 2 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998 [vol. 1] and 2002 [vol. 2]).

O'Hanlon, John. Lives of the Irish Saints: with Special Festivals, and the Commemorations of Holy Persons. 9 vols. (Dublin: J Duffy, 1875?).

Orme, Nicholas. The Saints of Cornwall. (Oxford University Press, 2000).

------------------. English Church Dedications, with a Survey of Cornwall and Devon. (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1996).

MacQuarrie, Alan. The Saints of Scotland: Essays in Scottish Church History, A.D. 450-1093. (Edinburgh: John Donald Ltd, 1997).

Rabanus Maurus. Life of Mary Magdalene. MS Bodleian Library, Laud 108.

Sharpe, Rev John, and John Allen Giles, eds. and trans. William of Malmesbury, Chronicle of the Kings of England. (London: George Bell and Sons, 1904).

Stokes, Whitley. Lives of Saints, from the Book of Lismore. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1890).

Sweet, Henry, ed. King Alfred's West-Saxon Version of Gregory's Pastoral Care. Early English Text Society, Old Series 45, 50. (London: Oxford University Press, 1871, repr. 1958).

Willard, Rudolph, ed. ‘Two Apocrypha in Old English Homilies.’ Beiträge zur Englischen Philologie 30 (Leipzig, 1935), pp. 3-6, reprinted separately c. 1970.

William of Malmesbury. De Antiquitate Glastonie Ecclesie. (c. 1129-39).

---------------------------. Gesta regum Anglorum, 2nd ed. (c. 1120 and 1127).

Winterbottom, Michael, ed. and trans. Gildas: The Ruin of Britain and Other Works. (Chichester: Phillimore & Co., 1978).