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Patron Saints of the British Isles

Every country in the British Isles has their own patron saint. Most of you will be familiar with Saint Patrick, or at least the outrageous alcohol-fuelled festivities associated with his date of death. The Scots worship Andrew, a former fisherman, and the Welsh elected David to be their patron saint. George, the English patron saint, might again ring some bells: he appears in the Dutch story of Sint Joris en de Draak. Their backgrounds are as different as the people in their countries, and by the end of this text, you will know all about these remarkable men and their cults.

Andrew of Scotland
Andrew is originally one of Christ’s twelve apostles, and is thus the first of the British patron saints to be documented in writing. He is credited with spreading Christianity in Russia, and to this day plays an enormous role in the Orthodox Church.

However, until the fifth century, there is no connection whatsoever between Scotland and Andrew. There are two important people who form the start of the Scottish St. Andrews cult. One of them is King Oengus, who was promised help by Andrew in a vision: in return he built a church for him at Kinrymont. The other man, a monk, is Regulus, who carries some relics, supposedly of Andrew, to the same church. In the following centuries, the church became a popular shrine and an important destination for pilgrimages. The adjourning town by the name of St Andrews flourished, as a priory and a cathedral are added in the following centuries. All of this culminated in the foundation of the famous St Andrews University in the 1400s.

Andrew himself was made the official patron saint in the late 1300s: his cross was used on a great seal to stamp documents. He became a national symbol of the Scots during the confrontations of the English. The latter used the George’s cross , while the Scottish turned the Andrew’s cross (X-shaped) into their flag. Andrew even survived the tumultuous Reformation, in which many saints were condemned and statues smashed. His survival can be attributed to his popularity: by this time, Andrew and his cross were recognised as a national Scottish symbols.

To this day, Andrew’s cross is used for the Scottish flag, St Andrews University remains a prestigious institute and St Andrew’s day is the official national day.

George of England
George is the next saint to turn up in writing – although his very existence is still a subject of debate. In the third century, he was thought to be a farmer, who became a martyr after his death during the persecution of Christians. Within two centuries, more and more elaborate acts of defiance were attributed to George, such as a stint in the army, multiple resurrections and enduring seven years of torture. The hagiography of George reached Great Britain only in the seventh century, probably through Arculf, a Frankish bishop. The story of George made enough of an impression to be included in Aelfric’s Lives, where his life and death were described in detail. During the ninth and tenth centuries, George’s popularity rose steadily, and he was slowly becoming known all through the realm. The Crusades also increased his cult: English men would wear red George’s cross in honour of their vows.

After the Crusades, the English kings adopted the red cross as a symbol for England: English men had already fought under the red cross. It is during this period, the late twelfth century, in which the popular myth of St George and the Dragon begins to circulate. The image of George as a pious warrior was exploited heavily: he became the monarchs’ favourite saint, his relics were collected and was also invoked as the protector of the Order of the Garter.

During the Reformation, George became outdated, only to be revived by Elizabeth. Like Andrew, George’s roles as a national saint and monarchs’ favourite kept him from being completely forgotten. He continued to be the subject of heated discussion between Puritans and Catholics, but as time has shown, his cult continues today.

Nowadays, George is no longer seen as a martyr, as his roles of dragonslayer and valiant knight have taken precedence. St George’s Day is no longer celebrated in England, and some have argued that another saint (who is actually associated with England) should take George’s place as patron saint.

Patrick of Ireland
The infamous Patrick (Padraig in Gaelic) is the only saint who has written his own works, the Epistola and the Confessions, which also provide most of the known information about him. Contrary to popular belief, Patrick is not Irish himself: he grew up in Britain, and was carried off to Ireland as a slave at fifteen years old.

In his Confessions, Patrick laments his youthful folly and his disregard for religion. During his time as a slave, he is in charge of herding the animals, and in the fields, he turns back to God. At the age of twenty-one, Patrick manages to escape his owner and after a long journey, he manages to reach his English home. For a few years, he spends time with his family, but a dream vision prompts him to return to Ireland as a missionary of the Christian faith.

Patrick was quite successful: he converted princes as well as slaves, ordained several priests and encouraged the monastic life. He played a significant part in the Christianization of Ireland, and within a hundred years of his mission, a cult was beginning to form.

Armagh is the foundation of the St Patrick cult. In the texts produced here, Patrick is shown to convert the mythical King Lóegaire mac Néill of Ireland, he revives some dead sons and he even resurrects the great Cú Chulainn from pagan Irish myths. Patrick’s cult is expanded throughout the years, where he travels throughout all of Ireland, converting all he encounters, yet taking no gifts from them.

Surprisingly, Patrick’s popularity was not diminished by the English conquest. The cult was actively promoted throughout the Reformation as well, and he served as a symbol for both the Catholics and the Protestants during all the conflicts.

Many of the nationalistic characteristics that surround Patrick are quite modern inventions. The shamrock, Patrick’s main symbol, appears on Dublin halfpennies in the late 1600s, inspired by the story that Patrick used the three leaves of the shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity to pagans. Even the current celebration of Saint Patrick’s Day is new. For centuries, it had always been modest: a day off work and an extra church service. Irish immigrants in New York only introduced the parade in the early nineteenth century, and it took two centuries before parades would take place in Ireland itself. The exuberant festivities have only been part of Irish life for the last forty years: before this period, all the pubs would have been closed on St. Paddy’s Day. Patrick continues to be massively popular, not only in Ireland, but all over the world.

David of Wales
The Welsh have chosen David to be their patron, who lived in the latter half of the sixth century. Unlike the other patron saints, few miracles are attributed to his name, but David is unique in another respect: he was born and raised in the country he has been made patron saint of.

David’s father was Sant, king of Ceredigion who raped the nun Non . Several decades before, Sant had received a prophecy that his son would be a saint, and Saint Patrick received a vision, warning him to stay away from Britain. David is baptised by an Irish bishop, and continues to be a successful supporter of monasticism, as he founds no less than twelve monasteries.

David is constantly portrayed as the first and foremost of his generation. Patrick is warned to stay away from Wales, since David will perform his works there, and other prominent priests and bishops are unable to speak in his presence. In the end, he becomes archbishop and presides over many acres of land, establishing a Welsh church, independent from Canterbury.

David’s miracles are less impressive. He is said to have created several wells, and together with three Irish saints, he has been transported to Jerusalem and back. During his trip to Jerusalem, he was made archbishop by the Patriarch. The last miracle also provides us with his symbol: the dove. While David spoke to the Synod of Brefi, he created a hill, and a dove flew to his shoulder.

The cult of David survived the Anglo-Norman conquest, and his supposed relics were discovered in the late thirteenth century. His shrine was unfortunately destroyed during the Reformation, and his person was also suspicious. The Welsh devotion was superstitious popery, but his reforms and resistance against the rules from Rome made David a poster boy for the Protestant reforms.

Unlike Patrick and Andrew, David no longer plays a role in Welsh nationality. The Welsh churches have seceded from one another, leaving little to no place for the worship of David. The people in Wales focus on their language, or their stories, rather than on religion and their patron saint St David.

by Anne Rutten

Curious? Visit the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for more information!