Religion is increasingly a minority interest in the UK. Early information from the 2021 census shows less than 50% of people in England and Wales identifying as Christian. Despite this, religion still impacts our culture. We have already seen its impact on language, and food is affected more than you may think (what would life be without Easter eggs and hot cross buns?).
In spite of the declining interest in Christianity, patron saints have quite a large presence in modern consciousness.
What are patron saints?
Patron saints emerged with the early Christian church, where it was believed that certain individuals who had lived exemplary lives and had been martyred for their faith could intercede with God on behalf of people who prayed to them. People visited the tombs of the martyrs to seek their intercession in prayer.
Over time, certain saints became associated with particular causes or professions. For example, Saint Catherine of Alexandria became the patron saint of scholars and Saint Matthew is the patron saint of accountants. The process continues in modern times, with Pope John Paul II nominating Saint Isidore of Seville as the patron saint of the internet in 1997.
The practice became more widespread during the Middle Ages, when people began to choose a particular saint as their personal patron, believing that the saint would protect them and intercede for them with God. This led to the development of a city, region or country adopting a specific saint as a patron because of an actual or perceived connection between the saint and the place.
A brief look around the British Isles
Saint Andrew, patron saint of Scotland, was one of the twelve apostles of Jesus and brother of Saint Peter. He is believed to have travelled widely, preaching, before being crucified.
In the 8th Century, an Irish monk, Saint Regulus, was instructed in a vision to take a portion of Andrew’s bones to the furthest part of the world he could travel to, which he interpreted as Scotland. He went to the place now known as St Andrews and founded a church in honour of Saint Andrew there.
Saint Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland. Best known for spreading Christianity through Ireland in the 5th Century, he is credited with converting many Irish people to the faith.
Patrick became a devout Christian as a young man and later travelled throughout Ireland, preaching the Gospel and establishing churches and monasteries. He is said to have used the shamrock, a three-leaved clover, to explain the concept of the Holy Trinity to the Irish people.
Saint David, known as Dewi Sant in Welsh, is the patron saint of Wales.
Born in southwest Wales, David became Archbishop of Wales in the 6th Century. Known for his asceticism and his devotion to the Christian faith, his preaching and healing abilities were also celebrated. He travelled widely through Wales founding many monasteries and churches, including a monastery which is now Saint David’s Cathedral.
Then we come to Saint George, patron saint of England. Born in the 3rd Century in what is now modern-day Turkey, George was a Roman soldier, presumably doing soldierly things like killing people. To be fair, he was also Christian and refused to renounce his faith. He was martyred for his beliefs, tortured and beheaded by the emperor Diocletian.
A cult developed around him throughout the Christian world, and he became associated with various legendary tales, including the slaying of a dragon – in Libya! George became patron saint of England during the reign of Edward III in the 14th Century because of his reputation as a soldier; the Crusades were a popular religious pastime of the period.
But, frankly, does he really compare with the others? What’s more, whisper it, he wasn’t very local was he?
Any North West alternatives?
In the spirit of Brexit, can’t the English do better and find a local person up to the job? Might anyone from North West England make the shortlist?
What historic religious sites does the region have with which such figures were associated? After all, the North East has Lindisfarne, Jarrow, Durham Cathedral, Fountains Abbey, Rievaulx Abbey and York Cathedral, all of which have international, let alone national, renown.
Chester Cathedral perhaps? Located within the city walls, it was originally a Benedictine monastery possibly founded by King Æthelred of Mercia, uncle of Saint Werburgh, and has been rebuilt and renovated over the centuries.
Then there’s Furness Abbey, a ruined Cistercian monastery near Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria. This abbey was founded in the 12th Century and was once one of the wealthiest and most powerful monasteries in England.
Whalley Abbey? Located in Lancashire, Whalley Abbey was founded in the 14th Century by Cistercian monks. It was dissolved during the English Reformation and is now a popular tourist attraction. My apologies to all its fans, but I had not heard of the place until I researched this article!
The Liverpool cathedrals – nice architecture but no history. Manchester, Lancaster, Carlisle – pretty anonymous in the familiarity stakes.
With the exception of Werburgh, none of the places above shout out an association with any historic religious figure of any great renown. Werburgh is actually also the patron saint of Chester. It’s time to pay some more attention to the lady.
A medieval Christian saint of the Anglo-Saxon period, Werburgh was born around 650CE in Staffordshire. She was the daughter of King Wulfhere of Mercia and his wife St Ermenilda, also venerated as a saint. Raised in a devout Christian household, she was known for her piety from an early age, as well as being a princess.
As she grew older, Werburgh felt a calling to enter the religious life, became a nun and was eventually appointed as the abbess of a double monastery – housing both men and women – in Hanbury, again in what is now Staffordshire. She was known for her strict rule and wise governance of the monastery, and she was revered as a spiritual leader and counsellor.
Werburgh died in 699CE, and her tomb in Hanbury became a site of pilgrimage. Her relics were later translated to Chester, where the church which later became the cathedral, was dedicated to her.
As a model of Christian virtue, she was said to have performed numerous miracles. Her legacy is primarily one of spiritual inspiration and devotion. She is said to have served as an inspiration to many people throughout the centuries who seek to live a life of piety, humility and compassion.
Casting our net slightly wider, we could consider Saint Beuno (also known as Saint Bono – what an association!). The most important saint from north Wales, Beuno was born in the 6th Century into the royal family of the Kingdom of Powys. Back then the kingdom extended over parts of modern Cheshire.
Educated in Ireland, Beuno became a priest and returned to Wales and established a monastery at Clynnog Fawr on the Llŷn Peninsula, which became a centre of Christian learning and spirituality. He was known for his austere lifestyle, spending many hours in prayer and contemplation, and for his compassion and generosity towards the poor and needy.
One of the most famous stories about Saint Beuno is to do with his niece Gwenfrewi, Winefride in English. A local chieftain, Caradoc, tried to seduce her but she fled towards her uncle’s church, which was nearby. Caradoc chased after her and cut off her head. Beuno emerged from the church, placed the severed head back on the body and prayed, restoring Gwenfrewi to life. A spring of water emerged at the spot, now known as St Winefride’s Well at Holywell, Flintshire.
Perhaps the most important aspect of Beuno’s legacy, however, was his deep commitment to serving others. He was known for his compassion, generosity, and his tireless efforts to promote peace and reconciliation. He worked to ease the suffering of the poor and the sick, and he encouraged people to work together for the common good. His example of selfless service and devotion to God continues to inspire many today.
Beuno died on 21 April, 640CE, and his feast day is traditionally celebrated on that date. This is conveniently close to St George’s day, so adopting St Beuno would have little practical impact on celebrations in that regard.
Two strong CVs. Which would you vote for?
You could go for the female candidate, with the possible bonus of annoying the French. After all, they already have a female patron saint, Joan of Arc, and would hate the English copying them. Or the Welsh man, who has the bonus of not being English thus keeping to the tradition of appointing an outsider.
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