Oh When The Saints!
It’s that time of the year when flag manufacturers rub their hands. Early spring is a busy period for national days. Hard on the heels of St David’s Day on March 1 comes St Patrick’s Day on March 17 and St George’s Day on April 23. Bucking the trend somewhat, St Andrew’s Day then follows later in the year on November 30.
So what do we know about the four men who went on to become the patron saints of Wales, Ireland, England and Scotland? Given the fact that all of them died at least 1400 years ago, their tales are naturally shrouded in a good deal of legend and conjecture. But that, of course, doesn’t make the stories any less interesting.
Born: sometime between 462 AD to 512 AD
Died: 1 March 589 AD
Buffeted by the winds and waves of Cardigan Bay, the now-ruined little clifftop chapel of Saint Non remains an evocative spot to visit. It’s also held by many to be the birthplace of Saint David, and the man himself grew up with appropriately broad horizons. As a monk-turned-missionary, his sea-faring travels took him to Cornwall, Brittany and as far as Jerusalem.
Much of the story connected to David is based on a biography written some 500 years after his death, but facts and folklores abound. It’s said he was a teetotal vegetarian and had a habit of standing neck-deep in cold water as a form of penitence. Various miracles are also attributed to him, the most significant being an occasion on which, with a white dove on his shoulder, he conjured a hill out of flat grassland in order to address a crowd.
He died in 589, and his last words were said to be: “Do the little things, the small things you’ve seen me doing.”
Oddly enough: One tale states that David once advised Welsh soldiers to wear leeks in their hats in a battle against Saxon invaders, so they might recognise each other.
Born: circa 387 AD
Died: circa 461 AD (or as late as 493 AD)
For all his connotations with the Emerald Isle, Saint Patrick was most likely born in either England and Wales and enjoyed a relatively privileged childhood in what was then Roman Britain. Things altered dramatically when, as a teenager, he was kidnapped by Irish raiders and spent years forced to work as a livestock-herder, most probably in County Antrim. It’s said to be here that his faith grew. After escaping back to the British mainland, he began dedicating his life to converting others.
He returned to Ireland for precisely this reason (later chasing all snakes out of the country, according to myth), and went on to be named the second bishop of Ireland, taking over from the first, Saint Palladius. Believers of the “Two Patricks” theory believe that the life stories of the two bishops have been conflated over the years, and that some acts now attributed to Patrick were in fact those of Palladius. What’s known is that Patrick set up a centre of Christian learning in Armagh, which remains Ireland’s ecclesiastical capital.
Oddly enough: Ireland – and St Patrick’s Day – might be synonymous with all things green, but the saint was originally associated with the colour blue. Several early artworks show him in blue vestments.
Born: sometime between 275 AD and 281 AD
Died: 23 April 303 AD
It’s a well-worn fact that Saint George had very little, if anything at all, to do with England. A Turkish-born Christian soldier later martyred in Palestine, he clearly lived a life of some influence: his patronage also extends to places as diverse as Moscow, Malta and Georgia.
As a young man he rose through the ranks of the Roman army, before falling out of favour with the emperor of the day, Diocletian, who took exception to his religious ardour. Asked to partake in the persecution of Christians, George apparently refused, gave away all he owned to the poor and was beheaded in Nicodemia.
And the dragon-slaying? Those countless depictions of George plunging a spear into a mythical creature date back as far as the medieval era, and the legend was perhaps brought back to England by Crusaders. The most common explanation is that the dragon represents the devil.
Oddly enough: April 23, the day of Saint George’s death and now England’s national day, marks another notable occurrence: the death of William Shakespeare.
Born: early 1st century AD
Died: late 1st century AD
As with George’s links to England, Andrew’s connections to Scotland are fairly tenuous. His religious credentials, however, are anything but. Said to have originally been a fisherman in Galilee, Andrew became one of the Twelve Apostles when Jesus spotted him at work and asked him to act instead as a “fisher of men”. He was the brother of another disciple, Simon Peter.
He later travelled to Greece as a preacher but came to an unpleasant end, being crucified on an X-shaped cross in the Peloponnese city of Patras. The story runs that centuries later in Scotland, King Angus of the Picts saw a blinding vision of a diagonal cross before going into battle. The Saltire, Saint Andrew’s Cross, has since been an integral part of the Scottish identity.
Some of Andrew’s body relics now reside in the Catholic cathedral in Edinburgh. Others are in Greece, Italy, Germany and Poland.
Oddly enough: Andrew has his saintly duties spread wide – his patronage also encompasses gout and sore throats. So now you know who to entreat when your glands are up.