The Shrine That Never Was: The Anglo-Saxons and the Relics of Gregory I

Miriam Adan Jones is a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Theology, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, studying early medieval church history. She is preparing a thesis on the role ethnic identities played in the Anglo-Saxon church. In 2016, she was awarded the EHS’s Michael Kennedy Prize for her paper on the language of baptism in early Anglo-Saxon England; a revised version of this paper will appear in the 2017 volume of Studies in Church History.

The cult of Pope Gregory I (d. 604) was, in the century or so following his death, nowhere as actively promoted as in Britain. The newly Christianized Anglo-Saxons remembered him as the one responsible for sending, in 596, the missionary party that had initiated their conversion. In doing so, Gregory had become their spiritual father, their teacher, and indeed their very own apostle.

Given the importance attached to Gregory, he would have been an attractive patron for a church or monastery seeking to rise to prominence. But unlike other saints whose presence in a particular place – in life or in death – forged a special connection with the Christian community there, Gregory had never set foot in Britain. One solution for an aspiring centre for Gregorian devotion would have been to acquire his relics. This tactic was successfully employed elsewhere in the early medieval world: for instance, in Ireland Armagh was eager to draw attention to its possession of the relics of their own ‘apostle’, Patrick, in order to support its claims to ecclesiastical primacy.

So what do we know about relics of Gregory in Anglo-Saxon England?

Bede, in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People (III.29), records that Pope Vitalian sent Roman relics to king Oswy of Northumbria in 665. This included relics of a certain Gregory, but at this time Rome was not yet promoting the cult of Pope Gregory I. Even Bede – a great Gregory enthusiast – does not show any special interest in these relics. It seems likely then that the relics gifted by Vitalian belonged to another Gregory. Since all the other relics given on this occasion belonged to Romans martyred during imperial persecutions, it seems likely that this Gregory was also a Roman martyr – Gregory of Spoleto (d. 304) would fit that description.

Traffic between Rome and Anglo-Saxon England went two ways, of course. Many Anglo-Saxons made pilgrimage to Rome, where they visited the shrines of the saints. Since Bede was able to record the epitaph written on Gregory’s tomb in Old St Peter’s (Ecclesiastical History II.1), we may assume these visitors were able to find their way to Gregory’s resting place. While until the middle of the eighth century Rome strictly enforced laws prohibiting the disruption of graves, it may well have been possible for pilgrims to obtain contact relics. Contact relics were objects that had been used by the saint during his lifetime, or substances (oil, water, earth, cloth) that had been infused with his power by contact with his tomb. Yet as far as we know, they did not bring back any such relics from the tomb of Gregory.

The first we hear of relics of Gregory leaving Rome is in the early ninth century, and the relics in question neither left with the pope’s blessing nor went to England. By this time Roman attitudes to bodily relics had relaxed, and partitions and translations were becoming increasingly frequent. In 826 Abbot Hilduin of St Denis successfully organized the translation of relics of Sebastian from his tomb in the Roman catacombs to Soissons. Eager for more Roman relics, his agent Rodoin entered St Peter’s under cover of night and helped himself to the bodily remains of Gregory I. These he brought back to Soissons where they were given a place at the monastery of St Medard.

Gregory’s new shrine in the Frankish heartlands did not grow into a site of Anglo-Saxon pilgrimage (although Thomas Becket visited it in 1166, while in exile in France). It may be that, at least initially, few people knew about the illicit translation. The earliest records of Hilduin’s relic-collecting exploits make no mention of Gregory, and we know of the theft only through the account of Odilo, a monk of St Medard’s writing about a century after the fact.

Yet these stolen relics of Gregory’s may have ended up – at least in part – in Anglo-Saxon hands. This is suggested by document listing the relics that belonged to the monastery of St Mary and St Peter in Exeter. The earliest surviving version was written in Old English at Exeter in the early decades of the eleventh century (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Auct. D.12.16, 8r-14r). The relic collection had reportedly been a gift from King Aethelstan (d. 939) upon the monastery’s foundation, and the list’s preface relates how the king “sent honest, discerning men over the sea, and they travelled as widely as they could travel, and with his treasures they purchased the most precious treasures which might ever be purchased on this earth, which was the greatest of relic-collections, gathered far and wide from every place”. [1]

The list has over a hundred entries, most of them brief. The reference to Gregory reads simply: “[relics] of Saint Gregory” – not an unambiguous description, since there were several saints named Gregory. But, interestingly, a later Latin version of the relic list (London, British Library, MS Royal 6.B.vii, 54v-55r) inserts the phrase “De sancto Medardo” after the entry. Since relics of Medard himself are already recorded earlier in the list, might this have been intended as a note about the provenance of the Gregorian relics: ‘from the monastery of St Medard’?

If relics of Gregory did arrive in Anglo-Saxon England via Francia, it is worth noting that their acquisition was not an attempt to leverage Gregory’s special status as apostle of the English to enhance the prestige of the church that housed them. Although the Exeter relic list does serve to boost the reputation of St Mary and St Peter’s, it does not do so by claiming personal connection with a single high-status saint. Instead, the list embeds the foundation in a far wider array of patrons: the many saints listed, but equally the kings, bishops and abbots whose friendship was betokened by their gifts of precious relics.

This was not because Gregory had lost his appeal as a patron saint. Gregory remained as revered as ever in the late Anglo-Saxon church: poets composed verses in his honour; kings prayed for his protection at their coronations; and scholars diligently studied his writings. But the cult of Gregory in Anglo-Saxon England had long been based on the idea that he was, in the words of the Anglo-Saxon author of the earliest Life of Gregory, “absent in the body yet present in the spirit”. The Anglo-Saxon church had done without relics of its apostolic saint for centuries by the time the Exeter list was drawn up, yet the cult of Gregory had flourished far and wide. If an Anglo-Saxon church had hoped to claim a special connection with Gregory and his cult, the acquisition of the relics of an otherwise unspecified ‘saint Gregory’ in the tenth century was simply too little, too late.



[1] Translation from Patrick W. Conner, Anglo-Saxon Exeter: A Tenth Century Cultural History, Studies in Anglo-Saxon History 4 (Woodbridge: Boydell, 1993), p. 177.

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