Saint Lide, who is also known by variants such as Elid or Elidius, was a Cornish hermit who made his residence on what is now known as St Helens in the Isles of Scilly. Whilst relatively little is known about him, it seems clear that he played an important role in establishing the Island as a site of Christian devotion. This tradition continues to the present day with the annual pilgrimage to the island in 2014 being joined by around a hundred people including a local bishop.
St Lide and Olaf Tryggvason
A hermit living on the Scilly islands is mentioned in Heimskringla, a collection of sagas about Old Norse kings written by Snorri Sturluson in the 13th century. One of the sagas tells a story about king Olaf's gradual conversion to Christianity. The episode that interests us runs as follows: The Norwegian king Olaf Tryggvason was going on a long-term visit (985-988) to the British Isles and, after visiting Scotland and Ireland, he “came to the islands called the Scilly Isles, lying westward from England in the ocean”. There he met a hermit who in the holy spirit foretold to him about his future kingdom. After the prophecy was fulfilled Olaf returned to the holy man and asked him about his wisdom."The hermit replied, that the Christian God himself let him know all that he desired; and he brought before Olaf many great proofs of the power of the Almighty. In consequence of this encouragement Olaf agreed to let himself be baptized, and he and all his followers were baptized forthwith. He remained here a long time, took the true faith, and got with him priests and other learned men."
So was Saint Lide the hermit who conferred with Olaf? The reconstructions involve a lot of guesswork. The story of a saint predicting a kingdom to a future king is a typical legendary pattern and some scholars suggest that it was taken from Pope Gregory's story about the conversion of the Gothic king Totila after meeting St. Benedict. An earlier saga by Oddr Snorrason, a 12th century Icelandic monk, also reports that Olaf was baptised on the Scilly Islands in 993. However, the legend may go back to the 11th century since among the sources for Heimskringla were scaldic poems belonging to a long-lived oral tradition. In any case, the account in the Norwegian sagas may reflect the existence of a Christian community on the Scilly Islands that was famous for its spiritual toils and gifts.
Cults of saints in Cornwall
Although the early history of Christianity in Cornwall is somewhat murky, there is evidence from an account of the life of St Samson of Dol that it was probably well-established prior to his arrival in the 6th Century. It thus goes back well before that time, possibly even to the early centuries after Christ. Whilst Lide’s shrine can be singled out for its continued ability to draw distant pilgrims through until the later middle ages, Lide stands within a rich and multi-faceted Cornish tradition of veneration. Nicholas Orme suggests that, whilst the presence of saint cults in Cornwall was not necessarily particularly unusual, what is unusual about Cornwall is its possession of a great number of distinctive local saints in addition to its veneration of more-international figures. Evidence for these can still be found dotted around the cornish countryside in the forms of place names and buildings named after particular figures. The names of St Austell or St Ives, for example will be familiar to any tourist.
Hermits and islands
Helen O’Neil suggests that the Isles of Scilly ‘were the type of site which attracted the early Celtic Christians’, noting the large number of Celtic monastic sites that were founded in the 5th and 6th centuries. A remote site such as this clearly provides an attractive location for the solitary aspects of life as a monk or hermit. Even today islands around Britain remain important pilgrimage sites, the islands of Iona and Lindisfarne being popular examples. Evidence for a cult on St Helen’s comes from a number of sources. Pope Pius II, writing in 1461 speaks of ‘The faithful who go in great numbers to the chapel of St Elidius’, granting indulgences to those who visit as a result of the site’s need for repair following raids from pirates (whom he excommunicates). Likewise the poet and antiquary John Leland, writing in the 16th Century mentions ‘Saynct Lide’s Isle, where in tymes past at her sepulchre was gret superstition’. The island houses the remains of a number of buildings, the earliest being a round hermit’s hut and oratory probably belonging to the founder. The earliest pottery dates back to the 11th century suggesting this as the period around which the island began to be inhabited. By the early 12th century O’Neil suggests that ‘the original hermit must have become a figure of veneration, as St Ilid, and have been commemorated by the erection of a chapel to mark the site of his grave’. Three rectangular huts, all enclosed by a precinct wall indicate the expansion of the site to house multiple hermits following in Lide’s footsteps.
Why did St Lide choose a remote uninhabitated island to live and to serve God? The tradition of Christian asceticism, which goes back to the Egyptian monks of the 4th century, supposes that one may save his soul and approach God only by renouncing the world's pleasures and by taking on an ongoing fight with one's own sinful passions. Christian hermits of past ages were determined to leave their ordinary life behind and to explore completely new places in order to start their new life in Christ there. Perhaps, a small island, being naturally isolated, seemed to St Lide a perfect place for praising God, thanking Him for the beauty of His creation and contemplating his own inner spiritual life.
A troparion in the Eastern Orthodox tradition is a short hymn in honor of a saint or a holiday. It summarises in one stanza the key points of the saints' life and deeds or the main events of the holiday, usually in a poetic way. E.g. the troparion of Christmas:
Your birth, O Christ our God, dawned the light of knowledge upon the earth. For by Your birth those who adored stars were taught by a star to worship You, the Sun of Justice, and to know You, Orient from on High. O Lord, glory to You.
The troparion is usually sung to one of 8 tones but can be also said without music. Not all saints have their troparia written. In cases where a saint doesn't have a troparion yet, we shall compose it ourselves based on the main principles of this liturgical genre.
O honorable father, adornment of the Scilly islands! You have disdained all wordly glory and fleeing from inhabitated places you have reached a deserted island to find the eternal beauty in a hermit's cell.
And thus the glory of your name reached the far lands over the seas and people still gather around your holy grave praising the God and singing:
Saint Lide, pray to Christ our Lord for us.
Image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/r36ariadne/3938123241
For further discussion of Olaf's conversion and its historical context see Sverre Bagge (2006) 'The Making of a Missionary King: The Medieval Accounts of Olaf Tryggvason and the Conversion of Norway' In: The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 105.4 , pp. 473-513.
Other sources for further reading include:
Nicholas Orme (2000) The Saints of Cornwall. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Helen O'Neil (1964) 'Excavation of a Celtic Hermitage on St Helen's, Scilly, 1956-58'. In: Archaeological Journal 121.
David Farmer (2011) Oxford Dictionary of Saints. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
King Olaf Trygvason's Saga http://omacl.org/Heimskringla/