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.

Tuesday 6 February 2024

St Thurstan

Today should be, it would appear, be the feast day of St Thurstan, Archbishop of York 1114-1140, who, having just resigned his see, died on this day in 1140. Thurstan is usually, and rightly, remembered as a great Archbishop but not as a saint. That may be about to change.

Thurstan was born about 1070 in Bayeux and came to England early in the reign of King Henry I. Promoted from being a royal clerk to the Archbishopric of York at the King’s behest in 1114 it was not until 1119, after a dispute with the Archbishop of Canterbury over their respective rights, and in consequence falling out of the King’s favour, that he occupied the see of York. There he proved himself a conscientios leader in both ecclesiastical and secular matters. This is set out in the Wikipedia biography at Thurstan 

In addition to the extensive bibliography attached to that there is a useful 1960s biography of the Archbishop by Donald Nicoll.

As a young man Thurstan had vowed to become a Cluniac monk when that extended commune as at the height of its influence. Finally in old age he felt able to relinquish his responsibilities as Archbishop and entered the Clunic house at Pontefract, one of the two priories of the Order in his diocese. 

Towards the end of the year 1139 the aged Archbishop Thurstan, who in his youth had made a vow that he would ally himself to the Cluniac order of monks, decided to fulfil his vow. In extreme old age he bade solemn farewell to the clergy at York, and entered Pontefract Priory, taking the monastic vows there on 25 January 1140. He did not, however, long outlive this step. On 5 February he died. Just before his death he recited the office of the dead, and chanted the Dies irae, and then, 'whilst the rest were kneeling and praying around him, he passed away to await in the land of silence the coming of that Day of Wrath, so terrible to all, of which he had just spoken.' When, some years afterwards, his grave was opened, the archbishop's remains were said [ by John of Hexham ]to be found 'sweet-smelling and undecayed.

Thurstan was buried in a place of honour before the high altar of the priory church.

Last week the Guardian reported that a fifteenth century calendar from Pontefract Priory now at King’s College Cambridge listed  today as Thurstan’s feast day as a saint. The account of the discovery can be read at ‘Unambiguous proof’: medieval archbishop revealed as lost English saint

The Mail Online and the Daily Telegraph also have shorter and very similar accounts of the volume at New evidence shows 12th century archbishop did achieve sainthood

The last recognised non-Papal canonisation was in 1153, and in the privilege of declaring saints was in 1170 reserved by the great canonist Pope Alexander III to the Holy See. Popular devotion of course led to others being esteemed as saints and led to not a few medieval pilgrimages but this was not of itself the formal approbation of a cultus. 

That said it is perhaps surprising that the cult of St Thurstan did not spread beyond the priory which held his bones. The troubles of the Ansrchy might account for that but the return of political stability in 1154 might have provided a suitable context for its dissemination. Indeed the evidence we have at present does rather suggest it did not extend beyond the priory and perhaps the churches in its patronage.

The priory buildings at Pontefract were damaged in the fighting during the Anarchy and in 1153 many of the community appear to have been based at Broughton near Skipton. However by 1159 the priory was again occupied and was consecrated by Thurstan’s successor but two, Archbishop Roger of Pont l’Evêque.

Thurstan’s tomb may well have remained in situ but the entire presbytery was to be rebuilt twice around it - once apparently in the later twelfth century and again in the fourteenth century. There is no tradition of a shrine or pilgrimages for St Thurstan; such a feature did not appear at Pontefract until the spectacular rise of the cult of St Thomas of Lancaster at the priory after 1322.

The excavations of the monastic site from 1957 onwards until the 1970s did not, so far as I am aware, identify the Archbishop’s grave.

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