Introduction: Christ of the Isles
Behind the altar of the Orthodox church in Felixstowe can be seen a fresco, measuring four feet by five feet, known as ‘Christ of the Isles’.
Surrounding the Risen Christ, in it the four saints long venerated by the four lands and peoples who make up the British Isles are portrayed. They are: to the south-east, St Edmund, King and Martyr for England; to the north-east, St Andrew the Apostle for Scotland; to the north-west, St Patrick for Ireland; to the south-west, St David for Wales. Each saint is portrayed in the colours associated with the four lands: St Edmund in red and white; St Andrew mainly in blue; St Patrick mainly in green; St David mainly in a yellow-ochre. In His hands the Saviour holds His words, as recorded by the holy Apostle and Evangelist Luke (13, 29): And they shall come from the east, and from the west, and from the north, and from the south, and shall sit in the kingdom of God. Who exactly are these saints who lived a long time ago and yet are still present and honoured by being shown together with the Risen Saviour?
St Andrew the Apostle
The Greek-named Andrew was the son of Jonah. He was born in Bethsaida but lived in nearby Capernaum and became a fisherman. Already a disciple of St John the Baptist, he met Christ, saying: ‘Behold the Lamb of God’ (John, 1,36). For this reason he is known as the ‘First-Called’, for he recognised the Saviour and was called by Him before all others, even before his younger brother Simon, known as Peter, whom Andrew later brought to the Lord. In the Gospels he is especially mentioned for helping feed the five thousand and in the episode of the Greeks who wished to meet Christ (John 12, 20-22).
After Christ’s Resurrection and Ascension, the Apostle Andrew preached in many places. Ancient traditions link him with Thrace, where he consecrated Stachys as the first Bishop of the then small town of Byzantium. Then he went on to preach the Gospel in the lands along the Danube and around the Black Sea in the south of what is now the Ukraine, sailing as far as the site of Kiev and perhaps further still. In Kiev he raised up a cross and prophesied a Christian future for those lands. Finally he returned to Epirus and other areas in Greece, where he worked many miracles, ordaining priests and consecrating bishops. Finally in the Year 62, he was arrested, tortured and crucified at Patras in Greece on a saltire or X-shaped cross, commonly called a ‘St Andrew’s cross’. Here he remained on the cross for three days, preaching to the crowds, before he finally gave up the ghost.
By the sixth century St Andrew was revered universally, veneration for him having spread to Western Europe. In England he was especially honoured at Rochester and Hexham. However, even before this, in the fourth century a saint much honoured in Scotland, St Regulus, had been admonished by an angel to take a small portion of St Andrew’s relics from Patras to an unknown destination ‘in the north-west’. St Regulus kept on travelling until he reached Fife in Scotland. Here he built a church to house the relics of the Apostle, which came to be called St Andrews. This became a centre of pilgrimage and evangelisation. The cross on which St Andrew had been crucified soon became Scotland’s national emblem and today, as a white saltire on a deep blue background, it forms the Scottish national flag. He is also much revered as a patron-saint in Greece and Russia. In recent years some of St Andrew’s relics have been returned from Rome to Patras, from where they had been stolen in the Middle Ages. St Andrew’s day is on 30 November.
St Edmund, King and Martyr
Edmund (correctly Eadmund) was born in 841 of devout Christian parents. His name means ‘blessed protection’. As a child he learnt the importance of prayer and knew the psalms by heart.
From 855 Edmund’s movements have been traced by historians. In that year we know for example of his presence in Hunstanton Norfolk at a place now called St Edmund’s Point, where still today may be found St Edmund’s well and the ruins of St Edmund’s chapel. From here his movements have been traced to Attleborough in Norfolk from where he went to Wessex. On 5 November 855 Edmund took part at a great Council of the English nobility in the Wessex capital, Winchester. Here the gathered nobles allied themselves to fight the growing menace of the pagan Danes, the Vikings.
Towards the end of 856 the young prince Edmund was chosen as King of East Anglia at the royal palace at Caistor St Edmund outside Norwich. On Christmas Day 856, aged only fifteen, he was anointed and crowned King of East Anglia at Bures, a strategic crossing-place on the Suffolk-Essex border. The image we have of Edmund is that of a devout and noble King, so dedicated to the defence and well-being of his people that he did not even marry. He was ‘wise and honourable…humble and devout…bountiful to the poor and to widows like a father.., raised up by God to be the defender of his Church’. However, a great storm broke over his peace-loving kingdom in 865 with a full-scale Danish invasion of East Anglia.
Edmund organised resistance as he could to the invasion and was active at Orford, near Framlingham and elsewhere even outside East Anglia in order to defend England from the Danes. Thus in 868 he fought alongside the future King Alfred the Great to deliver Nottingham. In East Anglia he was also active in building or rebuilding a defensive dyke to the east of Cambridge, known still today as ‘St Edmund’s Ditch’ in the area of ‘St Edmund’s Fen’. In 869, however, the Danes returned to East Anglia with a huge army. They sacked many monasteries, including Ely ands Soham. In the late autumn Edmund the King gave battle at Thetford in Norfolk and although inflicting heavy losses, he was forced to retire to Hoxne in north Suffolk.
Here he refused Danish offers of peace at a price and remained faithful to Christianity, saying: ‘It is needful that I alone should die for my people, that the whole nation should not perish’. Edmund was seized by the Danes, refusing to defend himself, though he had defended others. The Danes insulted him and beat him. Refusing to renounce his faith, Edmund said: ‘Living or dead, nothing shall separate me from the love of Christ’. Then Edmund was tied to an oak-tree, whipped and had arrows fired at him. Calling on the name of the Saviour to the end, Edmund was finally beheaded. It was Monday 20 November 869. The Danes then left the area, flinging Edmund’s head into thick brambles nearby. Later people who came searching for the head of the Martyr, were alerted to its presence by the howling of a wolfhound.
Edmund was buried at a chapel at Hoxne and miracles soon followed. The most extraordinary of these was that within a generation the Danes who had martyred him had accepted Christianity and were themselves venerating their victim, Edmund, as a saint. At the beginning of the tenth century Edmund’s body was moved to the monastic town of Bedricsworth which then became known as Bury St Edmunds. In the centuries to come, this became a great shrine and one of the finest and largest monasteries in all England. All the more so since for some five centuries Edmund the noble champion was to become not only the patron-saint of East Anglia but also the patron-saint of all England. Edmund was indeed a national hero, the light from the East, a ‘blessed protection’ for East Anglia and all England.
St Patrick, Apostle of Ireland
Patrick was a Romano-Briton by birth. He was probably born in 390 on what is now the north-west coast of England at an unidentified place called Bannavem Taburniae. The son of a town councillor, his grandfather had been a priest. Bearing the Roman name ‘Patricius’, meaning ‘noble’, he was brought up to speak Latin but paid no attention to the teachings of Christianity.
When he was about fifteen years old, he was kidnapped by Irish pirates and reduced to slavery to tend herds for six years. As a shepherd boy, he often came to pray and so know God. After these six years, he was told in a dream that he was to return to his own land. He either escaped or was freed and eventually managed to return to his family. Here he received training for the priesthood and travelled to monasteries in Gaul, where he stayed for some time. They may have included the monastery of Lerins in the south of France, where there was a famous monastery founded under the influence of the great Egyptian monks like St Antony the Great.
In about 435, Patrick returned to Ireland from Gaul as a Bishop. He set up his See in the north of Ireland at Armagh and encouraged the monastic life there. He also set up a school in Armagh and from there made many missionary journeys, preaching, teaching, baptising and building churches and monasteries. Bishop Patrick has left us writings that have survived to this day. There exists his Confession, or autobiography, a letter condemning slavery and also his remarkable ‘Breastplate’, in which he confesses his utter faith in Christ. It is clear that Patrick was extremely humble and devoted to Christ, he was an extraordinary shepherd of souls. Tradition relates that he expelled demons (‘snakes’) from Ireland and also taught of the mystery of the Oneness and Threeness of the Holy Trinity using shamrock. Much revered, he reposed in about 461.
Today St Patrick is the patron-saint of Ireland. He is the most popular of all the Irish saints as he is considered to be responsible for the successful introduction of Christianity to Ireland. Several places are connected with him in Ireland, such as Armagh, Downpatrick, Croagh Patrick and Saul. There was also much devotion to him on the south-west coast of Wales and the north-west coast of England, for example at Heysham. St Patrick’s Day is on 17 March.
St David, Archbishop of Wales
David was born in the sixth century in Wales. As a young man he became a monk and studied for many years as a priest. According to one tradition he was consecrated Bishop by the Patriarch of Jerusalem, when David went on pilgrimage there. He worked extensively to spread Christianity in Wales, especially in south-west Wales in what is now Pembrokeshire. Here he founded a monastery at Mynyw, now St David’s, and he is honoured as the first Bishop of St Davids.
David and his monks followed a very austere rule, drinking only water and eating only bread and vegetables. Emulating the customs of the monks of the Egyptian desert with a regime of manual labour and study, his monastery became a nursery of saints. Personally, David was a most merciful man and practised frequent genuflexions. As a favourite ascetic act would often immerse himself in cold water while repeating the Psalms by heart. We know that he attended the Church Council of Brevi in c. 545 and here by common consent it is said that he was made Archbishop and his monastery proclaimed the Mother-Church of all Wales. He is said to have founded at least ten monasteries, one of which may have been at Glastonbury in Somerset. St David worked many miracles even during his lifetime. After his repose in about 600, he came to be widely venerated in south Wales, but he was also revered in Ireland, Cornwall and Brittany. Indeed some believe that he actually travelled to Cornwall and Brittany and founded monasteries there too.
St David’s relics survive to this day and are enshrined in his cathedral at St Davids. St David is associated with the daffodil, perhaps on account of the similarity of the flower name with his own, which in Welsh is Dafydd. St David’s Day, the Welsh national day, falls on 1 March.