Two British Saints and Pilgrimages to Canterbury and Purgatory

In a recent blog we described an early printed book from Worcester Cathedral Library containing a copy of the hugely popular Legenda Aurea Sanctorum or Golden Legends of the Saints. The Library is fortunate to own another version of the same work in the shape of an early fourteenth-century manuscript catalogued F.45. The hand-copied manuscript version is much earlier than the printed book, dating perhaps from the early fourteenth century, only 50 to 100 years after the collection had first appeared. The author was Jacob de Voragine, a Dominican friar and Bishop of Genoa in northern Italy and he composed the work around 1260.

In this blog we will look at the entries for two of the very few British saints in the collection: St Thomas à Becket and Saint Patrick. Both men were the objects of long and sometimes arduous pilgrimages: the well-known one to Canterbury to the shrine of Saint Thomas, and the other to a mysterious underground chamber named Saint Patrick’s Purgatory on an island in Lough Derg, County Donegal. Almost everyone has heard about St Thomas, his death at the hands of four armed knights, and his shrine at Canterbury Cathedral, not least through the medium of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. But to us today the idea of visiting the afterlife in Saint Patrick’s Purgatory is a long-forgotten legend, although the place where it was believed to happen in Ireland still exists.


Images copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)


The illustrations above show the Prologues and Indexes from the hand-copied manuscript on the left, and the printed book on the right. The parchment manuscript has a decorated capital U on the first word Universum and much rubrication to highlight the text. The paper printed book is more regular and the initial capital is a woodcut illustration. Notes have been added at the bottom of the page.

The entries for these two saints show a great contrast in their treatments. Thomas has a compelling political content and miracles that are largely believable while Patrick has only a few legends and a long section that is entirely fantasy, reflecting his much earlier date and lack of contemporary evidence for his life and works. The life and death of St Thomas were not so many years before the author of the Golden Legend was born. But both approaches would perhaps have fulfilled the Bishop’s priority which was to circulate materials for rousing Dominican sermons and hence sometimes he could afford to be a little less than exact in scholarship.




Images copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)


The illustrations show the introduction to the life of St Thomas in both manuscript and printed book and both are divided into two parts, each beginning with a capital letter T. The first part covers what the Bishop calls the etymology of his name, a fanciful explanation of what the word ‘Thomas’ really means. It can be translated thus:

The name Thomas means a deep place, double or upright. He was very deep in humility as shown by a hair shirt and by washing the feet of the poor. He fulfilled his office in a double way plainly in both word and deed. He was upright in his suffering.

It is not at all clear where the Bishop has discovered these meanings. ‘Thomas’ does derive from an Aramaic word meaning ‘twin’ – hence ‘double’ can be justified. But the other meanings are very obscure. This is followed by a much longer account of Thomas’s life, his quarrel with King Henry II, his exile in France and eventual assassination in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170 (although the Golden Legend says 1174). Finally there are a few miracles associated with people travelling to Canterbury to pray at his tomb and receiving help and comfort from his relics.



Images copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)


These illustrations show that Saint Patrick only has a single entry in both sources. The initial Latin entry may be translated thus:

Patrick lived in the year of the Lord 380. While he was preaching to the King of Scots about Christ’s passion he leaned against the staff which he held in his hand. He put the point of his staff on the King’s foot and pierced the foot. The King believed the Holy Bishop intended to do this and that he could not receive the faith unless he bore the pain patiently like Christ.

The King is the ruler of Scots in the text as Scotia was the early name for Ireland. There is a discrepancy in the date given for Saint Patrick’s life: the manuscript has CCCLXXX or 380, but the book has CCLXXX or 280. This may well be no more than a copying error, and the later date is nearer the probable time.

After this, God promised Patrick that no snakes should ever live in Ireland. Another time Patrick prayed that a stolen sheep should bleat in the belly of the thief who by now had eaten it. Afterwards the guilty man turned away from his life of crime. The text then describes how the Saint created the place of penance and punishment in order to frighten wicked people into repentance. With his staff he drew a circle on the ground and straightaway a deep pit appeared in it. This became a place of pilgrimage known as St Patrick’s Purgatory.

It was a popular site of pilgrimage in medieval times and it was believed that spending a night in the pit could introduce a sinner to the horrifying pains of Purgatory, and also that sometimes the people that tried it disappeared or were found dead next day. In the story told here a man named Nicholas repented of his many sins and wished to experience the pains of Purgatory in expiation. While in the pit he witnessed frightful visions of souls tormented with fire, red hot blades and hooks, molten metal and a river of fire. Nicholas only escaped by exclaiming as he had been taught: “Jesus Christ son of the living God have mercy on me a sinner!” Finally, he crossed the fiery river on a bridge, came to a green meadow and saw in the distance a beautiful city. Here he was told that although he had just seen Paradise he must now return to his own country before he could enter. After he came out of the pit he lived peacefully for thirty days before dying, happy in the belief that he would soon be in Heaven.

It was a widespread medieval belief in the existence of Purgatory as a place of suffering that was needed to purge the soul of sin after death. It was a doctrine that had little or no scriptural origin, and, while it encouraged prayers for the dead, it also became associated with the sale of indulgences. Indulgences were believed to grant remission of suffering both for the dead and the living, and the practice of selling them could be hugely profitable. The place of St Patrick’s Purgatory still exists on Station Island in Lough Derg, Donegal, although it is now known as St Patrick’s Sanctuary.

Tim O’Mara






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