Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

St Pancras

Today is the feast of, amongst others, St Pancras.

Of course to most people in Britain St Pancras means a great Victorian railway station - now restored and re designated St Pancras International. The station opened in 1868, the great station hotel front being completed to the designs of Sir George Gilbert Scott in 1873.


In the 1960s there were plans to demolish it, as had happened to the Euston Arch. Campaigners, led by Sir John Betjeman, succeeded here in saving this stupendous piece of Victorian exhuberance, and now, in the restored station, Sir John is commorated by a statue. That is a recognition of how far we have come from those years when anything old was considered fair game for destruction - buildings, institutions, liturgies...

Which last brings me neatly to the saint himself. St Pancras of Rome (d. circa 304, supposedly) is a Roman martyr of the Via Aurelia. Pope St. Symmachus (498-514) erected a basilica over his grave in the cemetery of Octavilla. This was rebuilt by Pope Honorius I (625-38), who added a confessio and placed the altar directly over Pancras' tomb.

In the sixth or early seventh century Pancras received a legendary Passio that made him a wealthy orphan from Phrygia born in the time of Valerian and Gallienus (254-60) and brought to Rome by his uncle and, at the age of fourteen, martyred by beheading under the Emperor Diocletian ( 284-305; started his persecution in 303). His corpse was left for the dogs to eat, but a Christian woman secretly buried it in the nearby catacombs.

Gregory of Tours records that Pancras was considered especially vigilant in punishing those who had broken their word and that oaths were therefore often taken at his tomb. His basilica is included in the seventh-century pilgrim itineraries for Rome; it was rebuilt in the late eighth and early ninth centuries and again in the seventeenth century. Pancras' cult spread widely across Europe. Probably because he has the same feast day as SS. Nereus and Achilleus, he too came to be considered a military saint. There are numerous castle chapel dedications to him from the twelfth century onward. In the later Middle Ages he was one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers.

He is depicted as a youthful knight in stained glass of 1245-60 in the west choir of Naumburg cathedral in Saxony-Anhalt. In this picture he is the figure on the left.


Incidentally Naumburg is yet another of those wonderful German romanesque and gothic cathedrals and churches with marvellous treasures of which we seem so little aware in this country.

In England the cult of St Pancras appears to have begun with the Roman mission of 597 - that is just as his Passio was being written and disseminated. St Augustine dedicated in his honour the first church he erected in Canterbury - later incorporated in what became St Augustine's Abbey. Fifty years later Pope St Vitalian (657-672 ) sent to King Oswy of Northumbria (d.670), in addition to filings from St Peter's Chains, a portion of the martyr's relics, the distribution of which seems to have propagated his cult in England.

Relics of St Pancras that ended up at Waltham Cross could well be those in the portable shrine Harold Godwinson is depicted as swearing on in the Bayeux Tapestry. Pancras as one who punished oath-breakers would clearly fit very well into such an account from the Norman standpoint.

In 1077 William de Warenne established the first Cluniac priory in England at Lewes in Sussex, and dediacted it to St Pancras. Given the relative proximity to Hastings this may reflect an awareness of gratitude to the saint for his intercession in 1066. If that is so, maybe we should take St Pancras more seriously in England than as just the name of a railway terminus.

The priory church, modelled on the great new church of Cluny itself, was larger than Chichester cathedral. The history and remains of the priory can be studied on the excellent and well researched website Lewes Priory.

There was alas no sixteenth century Betjeman to save Lewes Priory from the destructive urges of the sixteenth century, nor to protect its remains from further damage in the nineteenth century when the railway came to the town and cut through the site. Writing this I am beginning to think that in England at least one of the attributes of St Pancras should be a railway engine.

Today, apart from his eponymous parish in London, for which a late Roman origin has been suggested - and if so than the a dedication may point to an early renovation in the years around 604 when the diocese of London was restablished - probably the most famous English church under his patronage is that at Widecome-in-the-Moor in Devon.


Stephanie A. Mann said...

Thank you for such a great post! I did not find St. Pancras listed among the 14 holy helpers on the site I found online--is he referred to by a different name?

Once I Was A Clever Boy said...

Maybe he is - I must admit I took the account of his life from a source without checking.