Return to opening page


This last week marked St Andrew’s Day – such was marked by the SNP’s blueprint ‘New Constitution for Scotland’ and the Scottish Executives release of their article ‘Saint Andrew: Provenance of a Patron Saint’.

Both articles appear to me to suffer a tinge of hyperbole – and for example I compare below the Scottish Executive’s article alongside perhaps a more factual rendition of St Andrew’s life.

Thereafter – not to feel ill done by I enclose a brief summary of the other British Isles Patron Saints.

Feast Day
Andrew 30th November
David 1 March Wales
George: 23 April England
Patrick 17 March Ireland

Origination of the term ‘Saint’

In its earliest usage in the New Testament, the term 'saint' referred to all those set apart for God, all the members of the early church who had received the gospel message and who as a result had rejected sin to live in a state of sanctity. Gradually the word began to be applied to those who had died as Christians, who were therefore in heaven and able to intercede with God on behalf of the living, and finally to individuals as a mark of particular honour and veneration among the local inhabitants or members of the same religious order. During the Roman persecutions of the Church in the early centuries AD many martyrs were canonized by popular acclaim as examples of fortitude and faith to the suffering faithful. The anniversary of their death was commemorated more in celebration than in mourning; they had assured their place in heaven by their death and could now help those who still lived. As the process of canonization (the inclusion in a list or 'canon') developed and grew, it became desirable to invoke the highest authority and so the approval of the Pope was more frequently sought. Under Pope Gregory IX in the 13th century papal approval became the only legitimate means of conferring sainthood. The initial impetus remained the development of a local cult, but the process of investigation gradually became more intensive.

To fulfil the conditions for sainthood within the Catholic church, an individual must now satisfy an extensive inquiry into their life and death which seeks to establish whether the subject has performed a heroic service of virtue or piety. Often this will be one outstanding deed, such as the foundation at a holy order or martyrdom, the sterling test of sanctity. In other cases it may be an unremarkable death but a life of exemplary conduct and humility. Claims of miracles will be thoroughly researched to determine whether they are in fact the confirmation of holiness. It is probable that many traditionally revered as saints, canonized in less demanding times, would have failed modern investigations into their suitability. In some cases such saints have had their feasts reduced, such as St Valentine, St Christopher and St Nicholas.

To compile an exhaustive list of all the men and women who have been venerated as saints by the Church throughout its history is a massive and maybe impossible task. The most comprehensive work so far attempted on the subject fills 12 volumes. There are many surviving calendars which give a name, a classification (e.g. martyr, virgin or bishop) and feast-day for many thousands of saints, but for the majority there is no further information. Where a legend exists, the details are often so fanciful, and written so long after the event, that the facts remain at best shadowy. Often a saint's influence on succeeding generations is out of all proportion to the reliability of his or her legend. 

Hagiography, or the study of saints' lives, is complicated by the fact that most civilizations before ours have seen history as primarily a didactic exercise: more important than bald facts was the presentation of an inspiring, exemplary construct. Many cults of widely-venerated saints have grown from purely or mostly fictive accounts, not historically but morally 'true' since they illustrate the profound spiritual principles by which the world of the pious operated. So although we may reject as unhistorical many of the details of saints' lives recorded in ‘Jacobus de Voragine's famous Golden Legend’, we can acknowledge the instruction and inspiration they seek to convey. Other accounts which are based more securely on fact appear to have undergone radical change as the devout oral tradition exaggerated the anecdotes, miracles and teachings associated with the saint. Many legends borrow freely from each other or from popular myth, and most reveal as much about the subsequent generations of devout worshippers as about the original subject, but this synthesis is part of the richness and interest of the hagiographic tradition. It should be noted too that the notion of writing saints' Lives, practised notably by that patriarch of historians the Venerable Bede, was the beginning of the tradition of biography which developed especially in the 17th century to become the major genre it remains today. The most interesting and personal accounts of saints reveal them as fully human individuals, with failings and foibles of their own, who were nevertheless heroically engaged in their fight for personal holiness.

Where appropriate, there is a guide to the saint's attributes, patronage and a list of the particular situations in which he or she is invoked. It would be impractical and unhelpful to exhaustively cover all the attested variations; instead are included the most common or influential instances which might be of interest. The field of ecclesiastical art is a vast and complex one, and the symbolism of the saints and their attributes an entire field of study in its own right. The most common attributes include the palm leaves and crowns of martyrdom, the Episcopal robes, mitre and crosier of the bishop, the appropriate habit for any member of a religious order, and the hermit's staff. Many individuals have their own idiosyncratic attributes however, such as the otters associated with St Cuthbert or the lion which usually accompanies St Jerome, and a few, such as the Blessed Virgin Mary and St Paul, are unmistakeable by their face alone. Although the patronage claimed for a saint is often logical, or at least deductible, from the legend, in many cases the cult develops in unexpected directions to give startling results, such as St Agatha's well-attested patronage of bell-founders yet often the exact reasons for the changes can only be guessed at.

The biographical sketches of the saints contained here within, demonstrate the democratic nature of sanctity, for they are drawn from all levels of society and backgrounds, from convicts to kings, murderers to child martyrs. The saints even embraced widely different doctrines and ideologies within the Catholic faith. The one characteristic common to virtually all of them is their single-minded devotion, to the God they served and whose interest they placed above the demands of self, family and often even the established Church. In many cases this fierce devotion manifests itself in ways which now seem extreme, such as the ascetic life of the Desert Fathers, the uncompromising and belligerent stance of many theologians, and the self-mortification of the 'pillar-saints' who spent most of their lives alone aloft their tall pillars, stretching to heaven. Nevertheless, a sensitive study of the saints and their cults will reward one with more than simply an interesting historical insight: their stories are alive with human interest and through them we can glimpse something more, an inspirational spark of the divine touching history.

This article forms a Press Release from the Scottish Executive
Saint Andrew: Provenance of a Patron Saint

Saint Andrew is the Patron Saint of Scotland, and St Andrew's Day is celebrated by Scots around the world on November 30 each year.

The original Andrew was a fisherman in the Holy Land, one of the 12 disciples of Jesus helping to spread the Christian faith. He is believed to have been martyred at a place called Patras in Greece, crucified by a Roman governor on an X-shaped cross that was to become the inspiration for the cross that forms the Saltire, Scotland's national flag.

His bones were entombed until, 300 years later; the Emperor Constantine the Great decreed they should be moved to his new capital city of Constantinople, modern day Istanbul in Turkey. Legend has it that before Constantine's orders could be carried out a monk, who was either Greek or Irish and called St Rule or St Regulus, was warned in a dream. An angel told him to take what bones he could to the "ends of the earth" for safe-keeping. The monk obeyed. He removed a tooth, an arm bone, a kneecap and some fingers from Saint Andrew's tomb and set out on an epic journey that ended when he was shipwrecked off the east coast of Scotland and washed ashore with his precious cargo. He found himself at a Pictish settlement that was soon to become known as St Andrews.

Another version of the story is that Acca, Bishop of Hexham, who was a renowned collector of relics, brought the relics to St Andrews in the seventh century. There certainly seems to have been a religious centre at St Andrews at that time, either founded by St Rule 100 years before or by a Pictish King. Whatever the truth, the relics were placed in a specially constructed chapel that was on the same site as the Cathedral of St Andrews which was built in the eleventh century. At that time St Andrews was the religious capital of Scotland and a great centre for Medieval pilgrims who came to view the relics.

St Rules Tower stands today among the ruins of St Andrews Cathedral. It is not known what happened to the relics of St. Andrew which were stored in St Andrews Cathedral, although it is most likely that these were destroyed during the Scottish Reformation when many churches were ransacked and treasures destroyed.  The larger part of St Andrew's remains were stolen from Constantinople in 1210 and are now to be found in the town Amalfi in Southern Italy. In 1879 the Archbishop of Amalfi sent a small piece of the Saint's shoulder blade to the re-established Roman Catholic community in Scotland. During his visit in 1969, Pope Paul VI gave further relics of St Andrew to Scotland with the words "Saint Peter gives you his brother" and these are now displayed in a reliquary in St. Mary's Roman Catholic Cathedral in Edinburgh.

The chivalric Order of Saint Andrew, also known as the Most Ancient Order of the Thistle, was created by James VII in 1687 and is an order of Knighthood restricted to the King or Queen and 16 others.

St Andrew is also the patron saint of Russia. It is said he can best be invoked against gout and a stiff neck. A more academic rendition

Saint Andrew: Feast Day 30th November
Born Bethsaida — Died Patras c.60

First disciple and first missionary of Christ

One of Jesus’ closest friends, his personality is often obscured by his more outspoken brother, Simon (Peter), but his cult has always inspired devotion.

A native of Bethsaida, by Lake Genesareth in Galilee, Andrew was born into a family of fishermen. His father Jona and brother Simon worked on the lake with him, but it appears that by the time of Jesus’ ministry the brothers were living in Capernaum, since Jesus stayed in their house while visiting the town. Andrew was an early follower of John the Baptist; he and another disciple heard their leader acclaim Jesus as ‘the Lamb of God' and left John to follow him. Hence he is known in Greek as protoclete, the first-called. Andrew also proved the first missionary; he brought his brother Simon to Jesus, who then renamed him, Peter. After baptizing both Andrew and Simon Peter in the Jordan, Jesus called them from their nets to full-time discipleship with the famous words 'Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.' Andrew is also mentioned at the feeding of the five thousand, and in the Upper Room at Pentecost.

Legends and cult
Little is known for certain of Andrew's subsequent career. Various authorities attribute to him various preaching destinations, but most agree that he was crucified at Patras in Achaia. One famous tradition claims that he founded a church at Byzantium, appointing Stachys as its first bishop, but this is based on a late medieval forgery, later supported by the translation of his supposed relics from Patras. It was an attempt to give the influential church at Constantinople the same weight of apostolic authority as that of Rome, with its sturdier claim to enjoy the relics and patronage of both Peter and Paul. Andrew's status as patron saint of Russia, then, is almost certainly based on a fiction.

The claim of Scotland is also dubious; it rests on the legend that St Rule carried his relics from Patras in the fourth century and was divinely directed to modern St Andrews in Fife, where he built a church and evangelized the neighbouring Scots for the next 30years. It is more likely that the relics were indeed taken to Constantinople, stolen at its overthrow in the Crusades in 1204 and removed to Amalfi, Italy.

Representation in art
The distinctive saltire (X-shaped) cross associated with Andrew and used in the Scottish flag was an innovation of the 10th century, not common until the 14th; ancient art depicts him bound to a regular cross from which he is said to have preached for two days before dying. He is also frequently depicted with a fishing net, obvious symbol of his occupation as both fisherman and evangelist.

Feast day 30 November
Patron saint of Scotland, Russia, Achaia, fishermen and old maids, invoked against gout and sore throats

David of Wales: Feast-day 1 March
Born c.520 Pembrokeshire — Died Menevia (St. David’s) c.589

Known as ‘The Waterman’ for his abstinence and austerity, David's missionary activity formed the basis of Welsh monasticism.

Little is known of the historical David, a from Pembrokeshire. Most of our information comes from the earliest Life of David (circa 1090) written by Rhygyvarch, the son of Julien, bishop of St David's, which is more concerned with vindicating the claim of his father’s bishopric to independence from Norman authority of Canterbury than with presenting an accurate biography. Rhygyvarch  informs us that David was the son of a chief of Cardigan, Sant, his mother was St Son, and he was educated first at Hen Vynyw then for 10 years as a pupil of the scribe Paulinus (whose sight he is reputed to have restored after it was lost with weeping) studying scripture on an island.

Monastery and mission
He then embarked on a lifetime of missionary work, founding about 12 monasteries including Glastonbury and Menevia (later St David’s) where the regime of the monks, the Egyptian monastic model, was especially strict. They performed harsh austerities and hard manual labour, keeping no cattle to help them plough, in addition to much studying and living mainly in silence on a frugal diet of vegetables, bread and water. David gained the nickname 'Waterman', from the reputation for abstinence which soon attached to his community. It may also refer to his penchant for immersing himself entirely in cold water as a means of subduing the flesh. St Gildas strongly criticized David's rule as being more ascetic than Christian.
His fame spread until he was summoned to speak at the Synod of Brefi in c.550, where he so impressed the assembly by his preaching that he was unanimously elected archbishop, with authority over the whole of Wales. This detail is almost certainly a fabrication designed to invest Julien's see with metropolitan status. Equally fictitious are the legends that he was consecrated archbishop while on pilgrimage in Jerusalem, and that he established a formal Welsh church with himself as primate.

Death and cult
David died an old man at his monastery in Menevia. His cult was approved by Pope Callistus II in c.1120, and the relics translated to a shrine in the cathedral at St David's in 1131 and again in 1275 at the rebuilding of the cathedral which was largely financed by offerings at the shrine.

There are many dedications in South Wales and several throughout south-west England, and through the monks who visited Menevia he is said to have had a great influence on Irish monasticism also. The conventional nickname for a Welshman, Taffy, comes from the alternative spelling 'Dafydd', but the well-attested custom of wearing a leek or daffodil on his feast-day, 'begun upon an honourable request' according to Shakespeare's Flewellyn in Henry V, has never been convincingly explained.

Feast-day 1 March
Patron saint of Wales

George: Feast-day 23 April
died Nicomedia c.303 or Lydda c.250

The archetype of Christian chivalry

His popularity in England especially is astonishing, but his legend has little to do with his life.

Most of the details commonly associated with George are based on medieval fictions. All that is known for certain is that he was martyred either at Lydda in Palestine or Nicomedia, and that he was probably a soldier in the emperor's army. His cult is an ancient and popular one; he was called megalomaryros ('the great martyr') in the East and features in the western martyrology of Jerome. These antedate the sixth-century Acts of Pasicrates. From this point on much mythical material attached itself to the figure of this Palestinian soldier: the fullest and most popularized form of the legend is found in the 13th-century Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine, translated into English by Caxton.

The legend
According to Voragine's story, George was a warrior from Cappadocia. Passing through Sylene in Libya, he found the town terrorized by a dragon which demanded human flesh to satisfy its appetite. The victims were chosen by lot, and on the day George arrived it was the turn of the king's own daughter. She had been chained to a rock outside the city, dressed as a bride to await her death. George seized his lance and marched forth to meet the beast; he conquered it and led it tamely back to the town, drawn by the princess's girdle. He then told the townsfolk that he would kill the dragon if they were to confess Christianity, naturally they were quick to comply and 15,000 men were baptized. The legend also includes more historically based material chronicling George's suffering and death in the persecutions of Diocletian and Maximinus.

Although known in England from about the seventh century, George's popularity increased dramatically during the Crusades. It was said that the victory over the Saracens at Antioch was due to a vision of Saints George and Demetrius which heartened the men. Edward III named George patron of his newly-founded Order of the Garter in circa 1344, and Henry's famous invocation at Agincourt, immortalized in Shakespeare's play Henry V, made his name a rallying-call for nationalistic pride. He gradually overtook even Edward the Confessor as the favourite saint of the English.

George appears as a popular figure in several early mumming plays in England, some of which unashamedly proclaim English nationality for him, and countless ancient and modem churches have been dedicated to him. He was once regarded as patron of several European states, and as one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers in Germany, but it was in England that devotion to him remained the highest The 'St George's Arms', a red cross on a white background, formed the basis of every British soldier's and sailor's uniform, and it is included as the sign of England in the Union Jack.

Feast-day 23 April
Patron saint of England, Portugal, soldiers, armourers and archers, invoked against plague, leprosy and syphilis

Born c.389 — Died Saul, Co Down c.461

Patrick has become a potent figure of myth and legend in Irish folklore.

Patrick's exact birthplace is unclear; it is thought to have been somewhere between the mouths of the Severn and the Clyde, but some claim that he was born in Boulogne-sur-Mer or at Kilpatrick, near Dumbarton. His rather Calpurnius was a Romano-British official and deacon and his grandfather was a Christian priest. Patrick was carried off to slavery in Ireland by a raiding party when only 16. Sold to a chief of Antrim named Milchu, Patrick served his master by looking after his beasts for six years, during which time he became a man of prayer and sincere religion. At the end of this time he escaped, after being informed in a dream that he would soon go to his own country, and persuaded the crew of a ship to take him with them to the Continent. He soon returned to Britain, having faced danger and near-starvation during his adventures abroad, and began his clerical training. He went back to France, perhaps to study at the monasteries of Tours and Lerins, before becoming a disciple of St Germanus at Auxerre. He was consecrated as a bishop, and in 432 (the date is disputed) was appointed successor to Palladius as missionary bishop of Ireland by Pope Celestine I.

Mission in Ireland
On his return lo Ireland Patrick travelled throughout the island, evangelizing tirelessly and organizing the churches and monasteries. Palladius's evangelism had been largely ineffective, and concentrated mainly in the south-east, so Patrick faced an enormous talk. He had much success in converting Irish chiefss, including his old master Milchu, and secured the attention of the Irish king Laoghaire at Tara, Co Meath, by miraculously overcoming the Druids. In about 454 he established his Episcopal seal at Armagh, which became the centre for Christianity in Ireland, and began organizing the nascent Irish church along the traditional lines of territorial dioceses. Although he encouraged monasticism, it is likely that the characteristically monastic Irish church was a later development. Despite his own basic education, he encouraged scholarship and the study of Latin.

Works and cult
His surviving authentic writings, his Confession and a letter to Coroticus, reveal him as an ill-educated but passionately sincere man, convinced of his divine mission and angered by the opposition of those he believed should have helped him. He was fearless in pursuit of his aim, to destroy paganism, and always retained a sense of dependency on God born of his early days as a slave and exile.

Later legends had Patrick expelling snakes from Ireland, and explaining the doctrine of the Trinity by reference to a shamrock, and these have become his emblems. He is often credited with single-handedly converting Ireland, but while his contribution was outstanding, this work took many more yean than these legends allow. Irish immigration lo America propagated his cult there and New York's main cathedral is dedicated to him.

Feast Day 17th March
Patron Saint of Ireland