In Anglo-Saxon Europe noble lineage rather than heroic qualities alone often dictated whether a candidate was deemed worthy of sainthood. To mark All Saints' Day Sandra Meisel traces the history of the British-born saints who spread the word of God in their native isles Saims are other faces of Christ extending him in time and space. Because we get the saints we need, the particular kinds of saints that emerge over the centuries reflect conditions in the societies that produced them.
Cultural circumstances also affect who gets recognised as saintly, for not every holy person is "raised to the altar". Martyrs, of course, are the earliest and most obvious category of saints. However, during the first Christian millennium, When canonisation came via local acclamation, social status often determined who attained the title of "saint". More people noticed holiness in members of the elite classes than in commoners. Similarly, clerics and religious vastly outnumber lay-people in the calendar of the saints. Although these imbalances have shifted slightly since the papacy established a monopoly on canonisation in 1170, nearly all saints of the British Isles have been martyrs or prelates, monastics or royals.
Celtic and Anglo-Saxon saints were numerous in the Dark Ages but after the Norman Conquest the production of saints plummeted. Except for an upsurge of martyrs following the Reformation, scarcely any persons connected with the British Isles have been recognised as saints in modem times, although some causes are being promoted at present. Nevertheless, be they many or few, the stories of local saints trace the history of the Church in this part of the world.
According to legend, Joseph of Arimathea brought Christianity to Britain in the Apostolic Age and built a church in honour of the Blessed Virgin at Glastonbury. But history says that Christianity gradually filtered into Roman Britain via parties unknown. Sometime in the third century, the province produced its first saint—Alban, a soldier martyred at Verulamium for having sheltered a priest. Two other soldiers, Julius and Aaron, suffered death for their faith at Caerleon during Diocletian's persecution. Late in the fourth century, the first female saint emerged. She was Helen (Elen), pious Welsh widow of the would-be Roman emperor Magnus Maximus. The withdrawal of Rome's legions early in the fifth century exposed Britain to invasion by Angles, Saxons, Jutes and the Irish:fide.% of paganism rolled over the island but one Romano-British youth captured by Irish raiders was Patrick. Escaping after six years of slavery in Ireland, he returned there around 435 as a bishop and missionary. Their were already a few Christians in Ireland, including monks, but an earlier mission sent by the pope had failed. Evangelising with courage and humility, Patrick succeeded in turning the island irrevocably toward Christ.
The conversion of Ireland unleashed an explosion of sanctity that scattered monasteries across the land. In these dwelt Brigid and ha, Kieran of Clonnaacnoise, Comgall, Finnian, Kevin. and long lists of others, many known by name alone. (For example, 120 saints are called "Colman") Early Irish monastic saints were almost always high-born (Brigid was an exception), practised harsh penances on the Eastern model and loved animals. Their austere communities fostered learning and illumin' ated gorgeous manuscripts.
No sooner was Ireland Christianised than she sent forth missionaries and travellers such as Brendan the Navigator who sailed the Atlantic. Columba — prince, bard, and abbot of Iona — evangelised in Scotland, while Columbanus founded important monasteries in the Frankish kingdoms and northern Italy. Even farther afield, the patron saints of Wurzburg and Salzburg are the Irish missionary bishops Killian and Virgil.
Meanwhile, Celtic regions exchanged evangelists. Romano-British survivors such as Deiniol and Gildas were spreading the faith in Wales while Ninian and Kentigem (Mungo) did the same in Scotland. Legend says that the 12 sons and daughters of Irish-Welsh tribal king Brychan of Brecon founded churches in South Wales, Devon, Cornwall, Brittany, and Ireland. Illtud, possibly of Breton origin, established a noted monastic school at Llanwit Major in Wales.
Two great medieval pilgrimage sites also celebrated native Welsh saints: St David's and Holywell. The former refers to David, patron saint of Wales, a bishop who founded 10 monasteries so austere that the monks dressed in animal hides and drank only water. The latter honours Winifrid/ Gwenfrewi, niece of abbot Beuno who resurrected her after her beheading by a disappointed suitor.
Elsewhere, the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons commenced in 597 with the arrival of Roman monks led by Augustine, future founder of the See of Canterbury who converted Ethelbert, King of Kent. Irish monks, notably Aidan, first abbot and bishop of Lindisfarne, were at work elsewhere in England. Anglo-Saxons such as Aidan's successor Cuthbert also evangelised their own. Differences between Roman and Irish methods for calculating the date of Easter were resolved in favour of Rome's customs at the Synod of Whitby in 664. Hostess for the meeting was Hilda, founding abbess of the double monastery at Whitby and discoverer of the poet Caedmon.
Hilda, in common with so many Anglo-Saxon saints, came of royal blood. Mildred and Etheldreda (Audrey) were representative of the princesses and widowed queens who flocked to convents during this time. Numerous rulers, including the martyred kings Edmund, Edward, and Oswald also won haloes. With as many as seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms generating royalty, Dark Ages England produced more royal saints than any other nation.
Saints also took part in the cultural flowering of Anglo-Saxon England in the seventh century. Benedict Bisoop, founding abbot of Wearrnouth, imported books; Coelfrith, abbot of Jarrow, commissioned them. Among the latter's monks was the great historian and scholar Bede.
Anglo-Saxon saints were bold missionaries in Europe, notably in the eighth century, with Willibrod in Frisia and Boniface in Germany. Boniface's friends abbots Winnibald and Willibald, plus abbesses Tecla, Lioba, and Walpurga, ruled German monasteries as centres of Christianisation. Even in the 12th century, thanks to their example, the martyred Apostle of Finland was an English bishop named Henry.
Viking raids and a Danish invasion devastated the British Isles in the ninth and 10th centuries and Ireland would never again be the Island of Saints and Scholars. Afterwards, England saw a revival of monasticism under Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury and a master craftsman. A further Danish invasion, however, cost the life of Alphege, another Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1012.
Anglo-Saxon Christianity climaxed in the reign of mild and generous King Edward the Confessor. He died in 1066, the year the Normans came. Henceforth, there would be no further royal saints in the British Isles except for Scotland's Queen Margaret and her son King David, themselves carriers of Anglo-Saxon blood. Three saints of thel2th century were ethnic Anglo-Saxons: Cistercian abbot Allred of Rievaulx; Christina of Mraykate, a prioress who had boldly escaped a forced marriage, and hermit Goderic of Finchale, author of the earliest surviving song in English.
Otherwise, the British Isles produced few saints in the High Middle Ages, although foreignborn bishops Anselm (Italian) and Hugh of Lincoln (Burgundian) distinguished themselves in England. The most famous native was Thomas a Becket martyred in his cathedral. Otherwise, there was Gilbert of Sempringham, the sole Englishman to found a religious order, and a handful of churchmen. Reforming bishops Laurence O'Toole and Malachy were Ireland's only local saints after the English conquest in the 12th century.
The Reformation produced the richest harvest of papally acknowledged saints in Britain's history. More than 40 men and women from England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland have been formally canonised and more than 200 beatified as martyrs. Persecution began in 1535 with the execution of four monks under He-ray VIII, quickly followed by the beheading of the great hurnanist Thomas More and the reforming bishop John Fisher. With Catholicism outlawed under Elizabeth I, 190 other martyrs perished, including Jesuits Edmund Campion, Robert Southwell and Nicholas Owen, housewife Margaret Clitherow, priests' housekeeper Anne Line, servant Margaret Ward, schoolmaster Richard Gwyn, nobleman Philip Howard and priests by the score. Another 58 died under the Stuarts, including the only Scot in the group, Jesuit John Ogilvie in 1615. Executions ended with that of the Irish bishop Oliver Plunkett in 1681.
Ironically, since toleration returned to the British Isles, recognition of new local saints has virtually ceased. One exception is the Irish-born Columba Mannion, who headed a Belgian abbey. But holiness still happens in modern times. Worthy foundresses Mother Catherine McCauley and Mother Kevin Kearney, reformed alcoholic labourer Matt Talbott, lay missionary Ede] Quinn, factory worker turned nun Margaret Sinclair, and scholarly John Henry Cardinal Newman may yet attain haloes. Look for them in a future calendar of the saints.
Suggested reading: The Oxford Dictionary of Saints. ed. David Fanner. 5th ed. Oxford ( 2004) gives ample coverage to saints of the British Isles, including many obscure ones