Make me an island

Images of St Cuthbert

Feast Day (new calendar): 
April 2nd
Feast Day (old calendar): 
March 20th

St Cuthbert turns three waves of the sea into blood in order to prevent his followers from taking his relics out of England. © The Master and Fellows of University College, OxfordSt Cuthbert turns three waves of the sea into blood in order to prevent his followers from taking his relics out of England. © The Master and Fellows of University College, Oxford Cuthbert, Lindisfarne and Durham

Cuthbert is, with little doubt, one of the better-known British saints, his holy sites on the island of Lindisfarne and in Durham have proved remarkably popular pilgrimage destinations both historically and up to the present day. Such popularity can be attributed to a number of factors: to the community gathered round him during his lifetime and the preservation and recording of stories from his life, to the discovery of his incorrupt body after his death, and to the monastic and ecclesial centre built around his relics. The association between his life and the British landscape is, however, equally significant: the Island of Lindisfarne where he spent a period of his life is both beautiful and relatively accessible, feeding into attractive Romantic ideals of Celtic spirituality, whilst the Cathedral at Durham which houses his relics dominates the landscape of the city, its Norman styling constantly reminding passers-by of the long history of Christianity in the region. The holy lives of Cuthbert and the monks which surrounded and succeeded him have come to shape experiences and imaginings of the landscape where they dwelt, and as such have worked their way into the very fabric of the area. 

Lives of Cuthbert

Our main sources for the life of Cuthbert are two lives of the saint—one metrical, one prose—written by Bede, and an earlier, anonymous life of Cuthbert—likely documenting tradition at Lindisfarne—written by a local monk towards the end of the 7th century. In addition to purely written texts, we are also lucky that illustrated editions of the saint’s life were produced and have survived. A manuscript currently in the possession of University College Oxford (Univ MS 165) and another in the possession of the British Library (Yates Thompson 26) both contain full cycles of illustrations to go alongside Bede’s prose. Whilst the British library manuscript is somewhat more elaborate, and can be viewed online, it is the earlier, Univ illustrations which we use in this post. The manuscript was produced in Durham in the late 11th century, possibly as an aid to private devotion. The illustrations alongside the text serve both to illuminate and to interpret the life of the saint, drawing out spiritual meanings and helping the reader (as they will also do here) to contemplate the events of the narrative.

Hermit and Pastor 

Of the habitation which he made for himself in the Island of Farne, when he had expelled the devils. © The Master and Fellows of University College, OxfordOf the habitation which he made for himself in the Island of Farne, when he had expelled the devils. © The Master and Fellows of University College, Oxford

Whilst Cuthbert’s principal goal seems to have been to live a life of solitary devotion to God, this life is often in tension with the demands of, and his service to, those around him, most notably when he somewhat reluctantly accepts the pastoral role of Bishop. His move from Lindisfarne to the more-isolated island of Farne is a physical demonstration of his desire to focus on his own solitary path. 

Univ 165 contains an illustration of Cuthbert’s eremetic life full of depth and symbolism. Magdalena Elizabeth Carrasco explores the rich Christian tradition connecting church, God and individuals with architectural imagery. In this image, the curvature of Cuthbert’s body conforms to the shape of the cell, drawing on long Christian tradition that the cell plays a crucial role in shaping the monk through his devotion to and within such a space. She suggests, at the same time, that the depiction of stones in the image, alongside the close association of an individual stone with the saint, draws on the idea of the church as living stones, representing the saints which, shaped and formed into polished and refined blocks, together form the building blocks of God’s church (see, for example, 1 Peter 2 or Ephesians 2). 

The image in the Oxford Vita Cuthberti… establishes Cuthbert himself as a squared stone, but it also makes clear how that spiritual perfection may be achieved by others who follow his example. Taken by itself, the large square block of stone would serve as a metaphor for Cuthbert’s own spiritual perfection. Yet there is clearly more at stake here than a celebration of Cuthbert’s isolated asceticism. By depicting a building composed of many stones, as well as the process of construction itself, the artist celebrates the life of the Church as it develops through time, both historically and spiritually. 

Interpreted literally, as a straightforward narrative act, the right-hand portion of the illustration is illogical, since the hermitage appears to be complete and there is no open space into which the stone may be inserted. In one sense the saint, the stone, and the hermit’s cell are discrete units, yet Cuthbert holds the stone in a way that suggests their commonality, even identity. He is as large as the cell, and the curvature of his body conforms to its shape, as though the cell has formed him physically as well as spiritually. Both saint and stone overlap the cell to suggest the equivalence of all three elements: the smooth, regular stone conveys the spiritual perfection of the man of God, achieved through the disciplined life of the hermit’s cell. The architectural imagery is neither a (relatively) realistic illustration of medieval building practices, nor an explicit statement of corporate institutional power, as might be the case with other illustrated vitae, but rather a multivalent visual metaphor, encompassing both the nature of Cuthbert’s spiritual perfection and the means by which that perfection might be emulated by others

Of his manner of life in his bishopric. © The Master and Fellows of University College, OxfordOf his manner of life in his bishopric. © The Master and Fellows of University College, Oxford In the illustration of Cuthbert as monk and bishop we see again not just an illustration of an event, but an image with a clear spiritual purpose. Whilst Otto Pächt emphasises the way in which the illustrations of miracles in Univ 165 depict sudden temporal changes by their layering of multiple moments side by side, Carrasco draws attention to the way in which the illustrations often seem to lean in the opposite direction, depicting simultaneity rather than sequential change, thereby emphasising “the saint’s ability to transcend conventional limitations of historical time and partake of the timeless wisdom of God”. 

In many cases the emphasis is not on sudden change ... but rather on notions of continuity and permanence. Cuthbert’s exceptional virtues enable him to intervene, as God’s agent, in the temporal affairs of men; in Cynthia Hahn’s words, he functions as a “lightening rod for the power of God.” But in addition to showing the effects of Cuthbert’s spiritual grace on the members of his community, the artist is also interested in characterizing the specific attributes of Cuthbert’s spiritual personality. Some of these, such as the gift of prophecy, are unique to Cuthbert as a saint, whereas others constitute a model of behavior accessible to the members of the monastic community entrusted with preserving Cuthbert’s legacy. In both cases, the narrative structures minimize or negate the notion of change over time in favor of portraying that which is permanently valid. This is fully in keeping with the attitude of the Durham monks, for whom Cutherbert’s incorrupt body, as well as the saint’s spiritual ideals, remained a continuous living presence. 

In the case of this image we are therefore shown qualities as applicable to those succeeding Cuthbert as to the saint himself. We are shown that, despite taking on the role of bishop, Cuthbert remains steadfast to his solitary monastic path, the connected arches symbolising the unity he brings to the dual ideals of monk and bishop. He neither becomes so involved in the affairs of the community as to neglect his path of spiritual formation, nor so closed-in on himself as to become unavailable to those around him.

How he entertained an angel, and whilst ministering to him earthly bread, was thought worthy to be rewarded with bread from heaven © The Master and Fellows of University College, OxfordHow he entertained an angel, and whilst ministering to him earthly bread, was thought worthy to be rewarded with bread from heaven © The Master and Fellows of University College, Oxford

How Cuthbert passed the night in the sea, praying; and when he was come out, two animals of the sea did him reverence. © The Master and Fellows of University College, OxfordHow Cuthbert passed the night in the sea, praying; and when he was come out, two animals of the sea did him reverence. © The Master and Fellows of University College, Oxford

How the crows apologized to the man of God for the injury which they did him, and made him a present in compensation. © The Master and Fellows of University College, Oxford How the crows apologized to the man of God for the injury which they did him, and made him a present in compensation. © The Master and Fellows of University College, Oxford

How, at a time of sickness, he restored a dying boy in health to his mother. © The Master and Fellows of University College, Oxford How, at a time of sickness, he restored a dying boy in health to his mother. © The Master and Fellows of University College, Oxford

People, Animals and Angels

Anne Lawrence-Mathers highlights a number of themes in the illustrations of Univ 165: Cuthbert’s contact with angels and animals, his gift of prophecy, his role as healer and protector of his community, and his role as teacher, true monk and scholar. Whilst the lives of Cuthbert are filled with miracles from end to end, these are not arbitrary accounts of the supernatural but, rather, serve to depict specific trajectories and characteristics of Cuthbert’s life as a saint. Mathers, for example, draws attention to the depiction of Cuthbert’s act of hospitality unwittingly offered to an angel, through which he is rewarded with bread from heaven:

The miniature shows St Cuthbert seated companionably beside the angel, holding only the latter’s hand in his bosom [rather than washing his feet]. This had the effect of emphasising St Cuthbert’s equality with the angel, even at the expense of his humility.

Bede’s narrative similarly seems to reconfigure Cuthbert's relationship with animals. As a result of his spiritual gifts and development animals do Cuthbert service and obey him, whilst simultaneously performing roles and comprehending instructions which seem to bring them out of an entirely subordinate animal kingdom and into the realm of personal relationships. Otters attend Cuthbert whilst praying, warming and drying him as he keeps vigil through the night, and Cuthbert honours an eagle who brings him food as an equal, rebuking his companion for not giving the eagle its due share in return for her ministrations. Likewise he has stern words to offer for birds feeding on the crops that he, and not they, has sown. Such things do not belong to the birds unless God had offered them specific permission. On a second occasion, when he rebukes some birds for taking thatching from a hut for their nest, the birds subsequently atone for their offence by making an offering in return.

Cuthbert’s relationships with other people are perhaps most vividly illustrated through depiction of prophecy and of healing. Whilst Cuthbert's prophecies can sometimes provoke surprise and confusion, not always foretelling the most welcome of events, the depictions of healings provide somewhat pleasanter material. The illustration of Cuthbert’s restoration of a dying boy to his mother provides one of the warmest illustrations of the manuscript, and it is clear that Cuthbert, in the scene, provides a welcome presence to those around him, his saintly power serving not to elevate or separate him into a separate realm of detached devotion but to provide precisely the loving and restorative power that the community through which he passes is in need of. He is not simply a passing healer from whom power leaks accidentally but, holding the child in his arms, he adopts a similar pose to the child's mother, as, together, they care for the ailing boy. 

After his Death

His last instructions to the brethren; and how, when he had received the viaticum, he yielded up his soul in prayer. © The Master and Fellows of University College, OxfordHis last instructions to the brethren; and how, when he had received the viaticum, he yielded up his soul in prayer. © The Master and Fellows of University College, Oxford

Cuthbert’s miracles continue after his death, and the healings seem to be of much the same character and power after he has been buried as during his life itself. Indeed, this is one of the characteristics of sainthood, the continued life of the saint in the kingdom of God reflected by a continued relationship with the world in which they once lived. In MS 165 this is reinforced by a continuation of the same mode of illustration both after Cuthbert's death and even further, into supplementary material documenting events beyond the frame of Bede's original narrative. Such continuity seems to be especially evident in the drawing depicting Cuthbert’s last instructions to the brethren and his yielding up of his soul in prayer. Whereas the majority of illustrations throughout the manuscript depict figures in contrasting colours, at this final moment we are offered an illustration of three monks all clothed in blue around his deathbed. Whilst it is far from clear whether all three should be seen as representations of Cuthbert or as different members of the monastic community, this illustration seems to offer a suggestion that Cuthbert’s life is one that is reproducible, offering the saint as an object of emulation whose presence and example continues to flourish within the community of monks.

St Cuthbert's body divides the sea. © The Master and Fellows of University College, OxfordSt Cuthbert's body divides the sea. © The Master and Fellows of University College, Oxford

Cuthbert himself, however, is not the originator of this spiritual line, and Magdalena Carrasco points to a number of illustrations which connect him with the earlier figure of Moses and of Benedict. These connections are drawn out most vividly in the illustration depicting a post-Bedan episode; the division of the sea by Cuthbert’s body as it is carried forth on dry land at high tide as the guardans of his body flee the army of William the Conqueror. The illustration is clearly drawn to resemble the Israelite crossing of the Red Sea, and the similarity of the cask bearing Cuthbert's body to the ark of the covenant reinforces this connection to the long line of saints within which Cuthbert and his community stand. This event bestows upon Cuthbert a great deal of power and status as a saintly worker of miracles, able to achieve the same miracles as a great figure such as Moses. At the same time, however, Cuthbert's saintly status belongs to him not as a new pioneer showing a path previously undiscovered, but in his faithfulness to the continued pattern of saints before and after him. In devoting himself to the tradition which he has inherited he gives this tradition fresh momentum for those who follow in his footsteps. 


While still in your youth, you laid aside all worldly cares, and took up the sweet yoke of Christ, and you were shown forth in truth to be nobly radiant in the grace of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, God established you as a rule of faith and shepherd of His radiant flock, Godly-minded Cuthbert, converser with angels and intercessor for men.

We are grateful to the librarians of University College Oxford, Elizabeth Adams and Emily Green, for their enthusiastic and helpful assistance in viewing Univ MS 165 and for granting permission to reproduce images from the manuscript. All images are copyright © The Master and Fellows of University College, Oxford

Sources for Further Reading:

The Illustrated Lives:
Malcom Baker (1978), Medieval Illustrations of Bede’s Life of St. Cuthbert. Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 41, pp.16–49.

Magdalena Elizabeth Carrasco (2000), The Construction of Sanctity: Pictorial Hagiography and Monastic Reform in the First Illustrated Life of St Cuthbert (Oxford, University College MS 165). Studies in Iconography 21, pp. 47–89

Otto Pächt (1962), The Rise of Pictorial Narrative in Twelfth Century England. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Anne Lawrence-Mathers (2003), ‘Pictorial narrative and the cult of St Cuthbert' in Manuscripts in Northumbria in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries. Woodbridge: Boydell Press.

Barbara Abou-El-Haj (1996), ‘Saint Cuthbert: The Post-Conquest Appropriation of an Anglo-Saxon Cult’ in Paul Szarmach (ed) Holy Men and Holy Women: Old English Prose Saints’ Lives and Their Contexts. Albany: State University of New York Press.

The Lives of St Cuthbert:
Sally Crumplin (2004), Rewriting History in the Cult of St Cuthbert from the Ninth to the Twelfth Centuries. PhD Thesis: University of St Andrews.

Bertram Colgrave (1939), Two Lives of Saint Cuthbert. New York: Greenwood Press.

The Cult of Cuthbert:
Dominic Marner (1963). St Cuthbert: His Life and Cult in Medieval Durham. University of Toronto Press.

Gerlad Bonner, David Rolason, Clare Stancliffe (eds 1989). St Cuthbert, His Cult and His Community to AD 1200. Woodbridge: Boydell Press.

William Aird (1998), St Cuthbert and the Normans: The Church of Durham, 1071–1153. Woodbridge: Boydell Press.

Paul M Collins, Lindisfarne – technology and poetry: the construal of a Celtic destination.

Sigebert of East Anglia

Feast Day (new calendar): 
January 29th
Feast Day (old calendar): 
January 16th

St Sigebert and St FelixSt Sigebert and St Felix Conversion and Abdication

Sigebert converted to Christianity whilst during a period in exile in France; having fled, according to Bede, from the enmity of Rædwald, one of his predecessors. Whilst Rædwald was baptised as a Christian, his identification with the faith is less clear than for later rulers. Alongside Christian worship he also maintained altars dedicated to pagan gods, and it is Sigebert, therefore who, upon his return, is often seen as the first truly Christian king of East Anglia.

Sigebert, however, did not remain as king. After a period in power, he chose to abdicate, taking on the life of a monk. According to Bede:

This king became so great a lover of the heavenly kingdom, that quitting the affairs of his crown, and committing the same to his kinsman, Ecgric, who before held a part of that kingdom, he Went himself into a monastery, which he had built, and having received the tonsure, applied himself rather to gain a heavenly throne

This was a remarkable act, and Barbara Yorke highlights that ‘such voluntary abdications to enter monasteries are very rare in early medieval Europe’. It is therefore important to ask about the reasons for such a decision. Yorke suggests a number of possibilities: his emulation of an enthusiasm for monasticism he had earlier experienced amongst the French nobility; the influence of the preaching of Irish missionaries who emphasised the transience of earthly power, and the need for penance; and the potential that monastic life might not have been such a severe existence. Her most intriguing suggestion, however, is that the ‘short-lived phenomenon of saintly and monkish kings’ may have been a result of the unbalancing of pagan models of kingship as conversion to Christianity begins to take hold. Whilst kings had once maintained both spiritual and temporal power together, they now faced a situation in which such dimensions didn’t necessarily sit so well together, and therefore faced a period of experimentation with different alternative models. We find, in other words, the theological world of Christianity unsettling and upsetting established models of political and spiritual power: no longer do these two sit quite so easily together, but rather there begins to be a crucial tension between the two, and in Sigebert we see the beginnings of this tension being enacted in a particularly decisive way. 

Kingdoms at War

King/Saint Sigbert stands at a point of both spiritual and political tension in Britain. Not only does he stand at a tipping point between paganism and Christianity, but also between the existence of a relatively independent East Anglia (contemporary Norfolk and Suffolk), and its subsequent invasion by the neighbouring kingdom of Mercia. Sigebert occupied a number of different roles throughout his lifetime, and his association with any one place often therefore seems somewhat provisional. A period of exile in France is followed by his return to East Anglia as king, and a subsequent period in a monastery is interrupted by the call of his people to lead them in battle. The twelfth-century Liber Eliensis associates his time as a monk with a place called Betrichesgueorde, later to become Bury St Edmunds, a place where his history (if the identification is accepted) is obscured by the fame of Edmund. 

St FurseySaint Fursey East Anglian Mission

Richard Hoggett (among others) draws attention to the fact that, whilst surviving documents often portray the conversion of a ruler as leading directly to the conversion of their subjects, in reality such events were part of much wider processes of acquaintance, mission and institution or consolidation. Sigebert's conversion did not entail the automatic and immediate conversion of the East Anglians, indeed, such an immediate change would leave us somewhat sceptical that it was anything more than superficial in the first place. During his period in power, Sigebert sought to use his position in order to put mechanisms in place to establish Christianity in East Anglia. In cooperation with such saints as Felix and Fursey, Sigebert established a bishopric at Dommoc, founded a school in order to teach the reading and writing of Latin and assisted in the foundation of a monastery at Cnobheresburg. Through such gestures Christian missionaries were enabled to bring Christianity to the East Angles, the conversion of the king providing important space in which the gospel could flourish.

Refusing to Fight

Regardless of such acts of patronage, however, It is Sigebert’s final act which marks out his Christian conviction most strongly. During an attack by the pagan Mercian king Penda, Sigebert was entreated to join the battle in order to encourage and rally the soldiers, his previous reputation as a commander serving as a potential boost for morale. Despite such entreaties he remained steadfast in his refusal and eventually had to be thrown out of his monastery in order to join the army; and despite his previous experience he refused to carry any weapon into battle except a wand. Having refused to fight, Sigebert was killed in battle, his dedication to his monastic vows and allegiance to a heavenly rather than an earthly kingdom granting him the role of Martyr. More than a simple act of pacifism, this act served as testimony to Sigebert's chosen path. Having been taken out of the monastery where discipline might oblige him to follow his vows, he maintained his conviction even in the face of imminent death. His true identity rested not with the power struggles and claims for territory, but rather in devotion, obedience and service to the way of Christ.  


Sources for further reading:
Bede, Eccliastical History of the English people,

Richard Hoggett (2010), The Archaeology of the East Anglian Conversion, Woodbridge: Boydell Press

Richard Hoggett (2010), ‘The Early Christian Landscape of East Anglia’ in Nick Higham and Martin Ryan (ed) The Landscape Archaeology of Anglo-Saxon England, Boydell & Brewer

Barbara Yorke (1990), Kings and Kingdoms of Early Anglo-Saxon England, London: Routledge

Barbara Yorke (2003), ‘The Adaptation of the Anglo-Saxon Royal Courts to Christianity’ in Martin Carver (ed) The Cross Goes North: Processes of Conversion in Northern Europe, AD 300–1300, Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer

Francis Young, ‘St Sigebert: East Anglia’s first martyr king’

Edburga of Minster-in-Thanet

Feast Day (new calendar): 
December 25th
Feast Day (old calendar): 
December 12th

A learned Abbess

Saint EdburgaSaint Edburga St Edburga was a Saxon princess who became a nun and abbess of the Minster in Thanet in Kent. She (like Thecla) supported the mission of St Boniface, sending him money and presents, including raiment and an altar-cloth. Their correspondence is well preserved among Boniface's letters, being a fascinating source for the historical life of the saint. In one letter he thanks Edburga for sending him books, in another he commissions her to make him a copy of the Epistle of St. Peter in letters of gold. From this correspondence Edburga appears to be well-educated and involved in the exchange of books and writings. Boniface characterises her as one 'who continues with increasing perseverance in her study of the Scriptures'.

It is clear that Edburga supplied Boniface with necessary literature for missionary and educational purposes in Germany. He frames this as follows:

May the Eternal Rewarder of good works give joy on high among the choirs of angels to my dearest sister, who has brought light and consolation to an exile in Germany by sending him gifts of spiritual books. For no man can shed light on these gloomy lurking-places of the German people and take heed of the snares that beset his path unless he have the Word of God as a lamp to guide his feet and a light to shine on his way.

The endeavour of sending books was not always successful. In a letter Edburga complains about her failure to get a book for Boniface:

Know also that I have been unable to obtain a copy of The Sufferings of the Martyrs which you asked me to send you, but I shall send it to you as soon as I can. And you, my best beloved, comfort me in my weakness by sending me some select passages of Holy Scripture in fulfilment of the promise made in your last letter.

Edburga's correspondence on the whole is remarkably warm, and, alongside the exchange of gifts, is characterised by encouragement and requests for prayer. Boniface, for example requests prayers both for his own struggles: ‘Trusting in your affection, I earnestly beg you to pray for me because, for my sins, I am tossed by the tempests of a perilous sea.’ and asks her to intercede for the people around him who he is hoping to convert to the fulness of the faith of the church. Lul makes similar requests, asking both for her prayers and offering his own services in return. He also sends to her a silver style, incense and cinnamon ‘that you might know from these little things how grateful I am for the gifts of your greeting’ and requests in return that she ‘not refuse to send letters of [her] sweetness’ to him. By such exchanges they both encouraged one another in their spiritual lives and demonstrated their devotion and affection towards each-other in Christ.

Map showing the Isle of ThanetMap showing the Isle of Thanet

The Abbess of the Isle

The monastery Minster-in-Thanet was built on the Isle of Thanet in the 7th century, which at that point was a large island, cut off from the Kentish mainland by a wide Wantsum channel. Thanet has, however, since ceased to be an island and lies at the most easterly point of Kent. The story of the Minster's foundation attributes it to the royal family of Mercia – Queen Ermenburga came there with her two daughters, Mildred being one of them. Later, Ermenburga took vows under the name Domna Eva or Domneva and became the first abbess. Her daughter Mildred joined the community, too, and in 690 took over the leadership from Ermenburga. 

Edburga also came to the Minster-in-Thanet from a royal background. She became a disciple of St Mildred and succeded her in as the Minster's third Abbess in 716. Edburga took care of her spiritual mother after her death – she built a new monastic buildings and a new church and moved Mildred's body into it. Later in 759, St. Edburga was buried there herself. Both women's relics were then translated to the chapel of St. Gregory's Hospital in Canterbury.

Having followed in the footsteps of Mildred, it is equally clear that Edburga serves as just one link in a longer line of women and, alongside them, men constantly in the process of passing on her faith and skills to those around her. Leoba writes of the guidance she has received from Edburga in constructing poetry, using this artistry to send on to Boniface some verses she has composed in invocation of the Trinity. Meanwhile it is clear from his writing that Lul holds her in great respect, expressing openness to her command alongside a desire to advance in Christ. Edburga’s influence within a longer line of women is a crucial part of her service to the church from which both women and men serve to benefit.

Angels and Demons on the Ladder of Divine AscentAngels and Demons on the Ladder of Divine Ascent

Edburga's Request 

You have asked me, my dear sister, to describe to you in writing the marvelous visions of the man who recently died and came to life again in the convent of the Abbess Milburga

One of the longest letters in Edburga’s correspondence is a letter from Boniface, recounting the story of a vision given to a monk who died and came back to life. Edburga, having heard of this monk, asks Boniface for an account of the vision and he, having investigated in person, recounts in great detail. Whilst it is possible that her request was made party out of curiosity, it is likely that it was also motivated by a desire to obtain material that would spur her on in her chosen path and vocation. Indeed, this seems to be a large part of the intention of the vision, directed to help those remaining alive reform their lives and pursue repentance and holiness.

The vision stands in a long stream of Christian and pre-Christian visionary and apocalyptic literature, and depicts a scenes of struggle and contestation, in which angels and demons contend for the merits and sins of souls as they find their destiny with God or in torment:

He said also that there was a crowd of evil spirits and a glorious choir of the higher angels. And he said that the wretched spirits and the holy angels had a violent dispute concerning the souls that had come forth from their bodies, the demons bringing charges against them and aggravating the burden of their sins, the angels lightening the burden and making excuses for them.

Whilst it is clear in the vision that God and the angels are ultimately more powerful and able to overcome, it is equally clear that this is not automatic, and that an individual needs to take advantage of the opportunities offered them in order to pursue a virtuous life and avoid misdoing. The vision is, at points, remarkably specific, recalling individual acts and attitudes of individuals during their lives, and displaying a very immediate connection between judgment and their daily conduct:

He heard all his own sins, which he had committed from his youth on and had failed to confess or had forgotten or had not recognized as sins, crying out against him, each in its own voice, and accusing him grievously. Each vice came forward as if in person, one saying: "I am your greed, by which you have most often desired things unlawful and contrary to the commands of God.”[…] Another: "I am the wandering thoughts and useless notions in which you have indulged too much both in church and elsewhere." Another: "I am drowsiness, by which you were overcome so that you were late to make your confession to God. […] "On the other hand," he said, "the poor little virtues which I had displayed unworthily and imperfectly spoke -out in my defense." One said: 'I am obedience, which he has shown to his spiritual superiors.' And one: 'I am fasting, whereby he has chastened his body against carnal desire.' Another: 'I am true prayer, which he has uttered in the sight of God.’[…] And so each virtue cried out for me in excuse for the corresponding sin. And those angelic spirits in their boundless love defended and supported me, while the virtues, greatly magnified as they were, seemed to me far greater and more excellent than could ever have been practiced by my own strength.”

Boniface closes the letter with a commendation: ‘Farewell, and may you live the life of angelic virginity, and reign forever with good report in heaven’. Edburga, having sought out the narrative, no doubt made use of it to further her pursuit of such goals. Meanwhile the account, documented at her request, has been passed down so that those following in her footsteps can do the same.


O holy Abbesses, Mothers Ethelburgh, Hilda, Ebbe, Mildred, Mildgyth, Milburgh, Werburgh, Ermenburgh, Enfleda, Elfleda, Cuthburgh and Edburgh, hav‌ing acquired the gifts of abstinence and humility, wisdom, faith and perfect love, ye attained the Kingdom that knoweth no evening.


Sources for further reading:
David Farmer (2011). Oxford Dictionary of Saints. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Edburga’s correspondence:

Minster in Thanet:
Stephanie Hollis (1998). The Minster-in-Thanet foundation story. Anglo-Saxon England, 27, pp 41-64 
Ericka Swensson (2013). St Mildred of Thanet: Biography of a Cult. PhD thesis. Los Angeles: University of Southern California.

Justinian of Ramsey Island

Feast Day (new calendar): 
December 18th
Feast Day (old calendar): 
December 5th

Ramsey IslandRamsey Island Tradition reports that the priest Justinian set up his hermitage on the island of Ramsey, or Ynys Dewi, off the western coast of Wales as early as the 6th century, after receiving a revelation from God that he should leave his home in Bretagne. His name appears very early in Welsh calendars. 

Friends, Separation and Conflict

His choice to renounce the world through an eremetic existence did not mean, for Justinian, rejecting friendship. We know that on the island he met a hermit, Honorius, who had already established himself on Ramsey and became friends in Christ with him. He is also said to have had a community of monks who followed him to the island to live under his spiritual guidance. His other connection is with the archbishop, saint David who was impressed by Justinian's holy life and chose him to be his confessor and spiritual father. It is interesting that the connection between the two saints can be traced also in the name of the island which is called in Welsh Ynys Dewi after David. At the same time Justinian was not always  friendly and easy-going. He came into conflict with the monks in St David's community, prompting him to move further away, to the hermitage of Ramsey island and, once there, he persuaded Honorius to send his sister and the female part of the monastic community away from the island. According to one version of the legend he was even murdered by his own monks who were outraged by the strict regime he imposed on them.

Ascetic Struggle

Justinian’s story shows clearly the nature of the ascetic path as a struggle against temptation, and against the different forms that this can take in the world around. The story of Honorius’ sister is one instance of Justinian's attempt to pursue such a struggle. Another story tells of how, later in his life, five men come to Justinian, telling him that his good friend saint David is very ill and wants him to visit. Justinian leaves the island and begins the journey to David in a boat before realising that the men are actually demons who, following his chanting of psalm 69 (70 in Hebrew numbering)—which likely he knew by heart through habit of reciting the psalms in prayer—reveal their true nature and fly away in the form of crows. Similar stories are common within ascetic narratives, and we find similar tales of temptation as far back as the desert fathers. Temptation for the ascetic, is firstly a matter of internal struggle, and a battle with thoughts within, but this often spills out into the world around, sometimes becoming associated with demons, or often with other people - not only women, but family members. It is a particular danger for the monk when he is tempted away from his cell and his chosen existence into the world around him, momentarily stepping away from his single-minded path. Often the form of the temptation seems a worthy one, and the monk will seem foolish or arrogant for turning away from it—as might be the case in either of the stories above, however often the wisdom of his decision and the potential dangers of abandoning it are made clear. The choice to remain steadfast to his choice despite the normal patterns and expectations of the world is part of what sets the ascetic existence apart as a distinct pathway that conforms to an alternative order and worldview.

Relic casket at St David's cathedralRelic casket at St David's cathedral Supernatural Events

Justinian’s life is not one that is full of miracles, but nevertheless we find within it, at key moments, supernatural elements. In addition to the story of his temptation, the story of his death contains events in which the boundaries between the natural world and the supernatural are, if not always completely broken, at least substantially blurred. From the place where he was killed, a well is said to have sprung up to cure the sick, his killers were struck with leprosy, and his body is said to have picked up his severed head and walked with it to the place where he wished to be buried. The sources of his story are late, and it is possible, even reasonable and tempting, to write such elements off as late embellishments, particularly as they strike against many of our expectations of what such events should, ideally, look like. This, however, is precisely part of their challenge to us - they testify to an understanding of the world in which God and created reality intersect and interact in ways that are foreign to us. They remind us that there are other ways of conceiving this relationship that can speak to us of profoundly different ways of living and cut across our expectations to ask whether there are indeed other possible ways that God and the world might interact. 

Beyond Death

Even though under more-rationalist modes of thought the details of the saint's death would best be considered as simply a stereotypical medieval legend, there are are nevertheless a couple of observations worth making. The death of the saint is the day of his celebration in the church calendar because it is regarded as the most important event of his life, the final transcendence of the soul from the ascetic struggles to the Heavenly Kingdom of God – the ultimate goal of every Christian saint. Whereas for the saint this is the beginning of new life, for people it also marks the establishment of the saint's cult. The narrative about Justinian shows through miracles how the saint himself contributes to this: he chose the place of his burial which gave people the opportunity to build a church dedicated to the saint in Llastinan, near Fishguard. There the saint's body continued to serve people even after his death through miracles. David, Justinian's friend took care of the body, arranging a new tomb in his own church, now St David's cathedral in St Davids, Wales. The authenticity of relics always presents questions and challenges. The earliest of the remnants held in the casket in the Holy Trinity Chapel have been carbon-dated to the 12th century. Nevertheless, within the story the honouring of the relics is not simply a tale of an obscure medieval cult but is shown instead as a personal expression of love to the friend passed away and a testimony to Justinian's care towards the people living nearby his island and pilgrims. The holiness of the saint's soul, ensured by his relationship with God, extends to his body. This embodiment of Christian love in the cult of relics at the same time points towards the notion, in the eastern theological tradition, of sainthood as theosis, that the saints become God by divine grace.  


Doing battle with temptation, Holy Justinian, you followed in the narrow way of Christ.
Through your example you showed this path to others
and through your song, demons were scattered and Satan’s plans destroyed
Through your obedience you have won a place in the heavenly kingdom
Therefore we ask: Pray for the world, and for the salvation of our souls


Further Reading:

David Farmer (2011) Oxford Dictionary of Saints. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sabine Baring-Gould and John Fisher (1911) The lives of the British saints (Vol III). London: The Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion.

John of Tynemouth. Nova Legenda Anglie

J Wyn Evans and Jonathan M Wooding (2007) St David of Wales: Cult, Church and Nation. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press.

Saints and Islands

Battling the elements

Let us, however, speak also of the churches as islands. Moreover, Scripture says in another place: ‘Many islands are converted to me.’ Would you know that churches are called islands? The prophet Isaia says in the name of the Lord: ‘Speak to the inhabitants of this isle.’ ‘Let the many isle be glad.’ Even as islands have been set in the midst of the sea, churches have been established in the midst of this world, and they are beaten and buffeted by different waves of persecution. Truly these islands are lashed by waves every day, but they are not submerged. They are in the midst of the sea, to be sure, but they have Christ as their firm foundation, Christ who cannot be moved

Jerome, Homilies on the Psalms 24 (Psalm 96)

Hitda Codex - Christ and Apostles on the Sea of GalileeHitda Codex - Christ and Apostles on the Sea of Galilee Islands, according to Jerome, are not easy places to live. Undergoing a constant battle with the forces surrounding them, they stand out over and against the blows of the world, yet never being completely overcome. This image provides one means by which to picture the Christian life, providing a way of understanding the struggle towards God whilst being assailed by conflicting thoughts, desires, worries—in the language of the fathers, the passions. ’Spiritually interpreted’ writes Jennifer O’Reilly ‘the islands may refer not only to all churches, set in the turbulent sea of this world, but to individual souls which are battered daily by various thoughts and temptations. These islands cannot be broken. Rather, they break the advancing waves. Their foundation is Christ : ‘behold, the isles stand fixed, and at last the sea is calmed’.

Whilst the early ascetics in the Christian East went to the desert, for the British saints one of the most natural places in which to engage in this battle was on an island. Indeed, Britain's status as an island has clearly had a great deal of meaning and significance for Christians and Christian writers reflecting on their faith and vocation. O’Reilly, in her exploration of the Venerable Bede suggests that, in the story of the church in Britain, islands act as spiritual symbols. Cuthbert, for example, subdues an island, transforming it from a hostile environment unsuited for human habitation into a place of both spiritual and agricultural fruitfulness. Meanwhile the features of Farne, separated from the world, become a symbol for the saint who, in his pursuit of the solitary life of the fathers, sets up a dwelling place so as to be able to see nothing but the heavens from inside.

Offshore and inland

The Venerable BedeThe Venerable Bede

Ely is in the province of the East Angles, a country of about six hundred families, in the nature of an island, enclosed, as has been said, either with marshes or waters, and therefore it has its name from the great plenty of eels taken in those marches; there the aforesaid servant of Christ desired to have a monastery

Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People

It is not just offshore landmasses which are capable of acting as islands of holiness, however. O’Reilly points out the way in which, for Bede, inland sites surrounded by trees or rivers are able to serve the same function: ‘Britain is thus portrayed as a multitude of isles. Topographically very different from each other, these ‘islands’ of diverse monastic communities and eremitical individuals, men and women, of various dates, of both Irish and Anglo-Saxon origin, of Columban or Roman formation, scattered from north to south of the island of Britain, are all distinguished by their purity of life and detachment from the carnal preoccupations of this world. All are geographically remote from Rome and Jerusalem but close to heaven.’ Britain is a holy archipelago of saints and monks seeking out God from their scattered dwelling places. Whilst some may venture out to sea in order to pursue a life of holiness, this is something which is equally possible from other locations, if they are approached in the same manner.

May Britain exult in the profession of his faith; and may many islands be glad, and sing praises in honor of his holiness 

Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People

The limits of geography

O’Reilly draws out another sense in which Britain’s island nature is significant, however, and that is it’s position as an island ‘at the end of the earth’. Drawing on imagery found within the Old Testament, islands are places distant from the temple in Jerusalem, they are places associated with the gentiles, peoples enslaved to idols. Prophecies speak of the way in which God will one day reach out even to these distant islands, and they will hear his voice. This is picked up by later commentators as an image of the way in which the gospel spreads outwards from Jerusalem, as the apostles and their successors fulfil Christ’s command to take the gospel to the very ends of the earth. The kingdom of Christ is universal, and through the gospel a wonderful quote from Jerome suggests that ‘Access to the courts of heaven is as easy from Britain as it is from Jerusalem, for “the kingdom of God is within you”’. Bede’s narrative is one in which the people of Britain, as an island nation enslaved to idols, are freed from this bondage, converting to Christianity or, where they are at odds with other parts of the church, converting to the fullness of the apostolic faith.

The association between islands and saints, then, is not merely an accident of geography, but provides a means to symbolically grasp a great many aspects of faith and spirituality. As in Bede's narrative, islands are both many and diverse, reflecting the diverse circumstances and paths of the individuals that found themselves there, sometimes through circumstance, but often through individual choice. As in Jerome, they represent the distinction to be made between the Church and the world, enclosed by the sea but not simply collapsing into it. They never, however, symbolise pure isolation, and—despite Bede's concern for authority—the rich tapestry described within his narrative demonstrates in many ways a decentralised picture of the Church; an archipelago of self-sufficient communities, which are nevertheless engaged in a constant proces of contact and exchange.



Jennifer O’Reilly (2005) 'Islands and Idols at the ends of the earth : Exegesis and Conversion in Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica' in Stéphane Lebecq, Michel Perrin et Olivier Szerwiniak, Bède le Vénérable, Villeneuve d'Ascq, IRHiS-Institut de Recherches Historiques du Septentrion

Bede's ‘Ecclesiastical History of the English People’

The Homilies of St Jerome Volume I