Medieval miracle worker: how St Columba transformed Christianity in Britain
In the sixth century, an Irish holy man set foot on a tiny Scottish isle and changed the course of Christianity. On the 1500th anniversary of his birth, Sarah Foot chronicles the life and legacy of St Columba
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Fifteen hundred years ago, a young woman in north-west Ireland had a vision. An angel of God appeared before her and prophesied that the infant in her womb would grow into “a son of such flower that he shall be reckoned as one of the prophets. He is destined by God to lead innumerable souls to the heavenly kingdom.” Throughout 2021, we have been commemorating the anniversary of the birth of that child: St Columba.
That Columba was a titan of the early Irish and British church is beyond argument. Medieval Scots hailed him as “spes Scotorum” – “hope of Scots”. The Irish were so in awe of him that they made him one of their three patron saints. Powerful English kings sought spiritual support from his immediate successors. Columba is remembered as a missionary, miracle-worker, king-maker and, above all, as the founder of an enormously influential monastery on Iona.
The religious community that he forged on this western Scottish isle helped make him one of the most powerful religious figures in sixth-century Scotland and Ireland. Yet today his reputation endures far beyond the confines of north-western Europe. Over the past 15 centuries, Columba has been celebrated in poetry and prose, in manuscript art, sculpture and folkloric tales everywhere from Scandinavia to the United States. Churches throughout the Christian world claim him as their patron saint. When pilgrims descend upon Iona to pray and pay homage to his remarkable life and legacy, they do so from destinations across the globe.
But why? What is it about this holy man from early medieval times – whose historical feats are shrouded in a fog of fantasy and conjecture – that resonates with so many people from so many backgrounds, and so long after his death?
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The answer lies, in part, in the figure of a chronicler who never met Columba, but who followed in his footsteps. In AD 697, Adomnán, the ninth abbot of Iona, was asked by his monks to write a Life of Columba to mark the centenary of his death. It was a challenge that he clearly enjoyed. In Adomnán’s hands, the austere saint was transformed into a miracle-worker who conversed with angels regularly, spread Christianity among the pagan Picts, and engaged in spiritual battle with their druids.
Adomnán drew on three sources when compiling his Life of Columba: on his own experience of the saint’s miracles, on personal testimony from reliable witnesses, and on written accounts compiled by his predecessors, the abbots Ségéne (died AD 652) and Cumméne (died 669). The result was an unashamedly flattering account of Columba’s life, one that would ensure that his reputation would take flight and eclipse all other holy men of his age.
The “dove of the church”
The life that Adomnán describes is traditionally believed to have begun on 7 December AD 521. (However December 520 has also been advanced as a possible birth date and it is for this reason that celebrations in Ireland have run across the year, from December 2020 to December 2021.) Adomnán tells us that Eithne, the young noblewoman who received the aforementioned vision from an angel of God, did, as predicted, give birth to a son – in a location traditionally identified as Gartan in County Donegal. Eithne and her husband, Fedelmid, son of Fergus (who was also of noble stock), named their child Colum Cille, meaning “the dove of the church”. In Latin, his name was Columba.
Columba’s parents were probably Christian and may have raised their son for a life in the church, giving him up to be educated by a foster father, a priest called Cruithnechán. According to Adomnán, the young Columba kept “his body chaste and mind pure and showed himself, though placed on Earth, fit for the life of heaven”.
Our sources are mostly silent about his activities after his ordination to the priesthood, but he seems to have founded several monasteries in his native Ireland, including one at Derry, on the banks of the river Foyle, and perhaps the great religious house in Kells in north-eastern Ireland.
The defining moment of Columba’s career came in AD 563, when he was 41. He had left Ireland in the aftermath of the battle of Cúl Drebene, which, according to one version of events, came about when a disagreement over Columba copying a manuscript escalated into a clan war. Columba sailed to Britain, having chosen “to be a pilgrim for Christ”, and he spent the rest of his life there working as an “island soldier”, always engaged in praying, reading, writing, or some other task.
Exactly why Columba chose to leave Ireland is uncertain. Adomnán’s account of the battle of Cúl Drebene, and his description of Columba being (wrongly) excommunicated at an Irish synod, has led to speculation that this exile might not have been entirely voluntary. Others have posited that the move may have had a political motive, such as formalising an alliance between two rulers: Columba’s cousin, overking of the powerful Irish dynasty the Uí Néill; and his new patron, the ruler of Dál Riata (the kingdom that straddled western Scotland and the north-east corner of Ireland).
Whatever his motives for crossing the Irish Sea, Columba went first to the stronghold of the Scots king, Conall mac Comgaill, at Dunadd. And it was from Conall – Adomnán and the early Irish annals report – that Columba was bequeathed Iona. The Venerable Bede (writing in AD 731) offers a different interpretation of how the saint came to inherit Iona, declaring that he had “come from Ireland to Britain to preach the word of God in the provinces of the northern Picts”, and that the Pictish king had given Iona to the saint after his conversion. It would, no doubt, have been in Pictish interests to promulgate this latter version, but the former appears more plausible.
The inhabitants of the community that Columba established in Iona built a church and the dwellings they needed for the monastic life within an enclosure on the empty island. But this was never a monastery cut off from the outside world. Adomnán describes a steady stream of monks, pilgrims, penitents and other visitors at the abbey, all seeking Columba’s spiritual teaching. Once, so Adomnán tells us, an exhausted heron, blown off course, landed on Iona and was treated as a pilgrim until it recovered its strength sufficiently to return to Ireland. So busy was the monastery that Columba often had to withdraw to a wilder part of the island to find a place to pray alone.
Source of inspiration
Such was the lure of this ecclesiastical outpost that it soon inspired others on the surrounding islands and the mainland of Dál Riata, each modelled on the Ionan way of life. Some were governed by Columba’s relatives – for example his uncle Ernán became prior of the monastery on Hinba (a Scottish island of uncertain location). But Iona retained primacy over all its dependent churches in Scotland and Ireland, and, later, among the English.
As Iona’s influence expanded, so did the range of Columba’s travels. He sailed from island to island, visited communities the length and breadth of mainland Dál Riata and even crossed the Druim Alban (the central Scottish mountain chain) to be among the Picts.
Wherever Columba went, he shared his mystical insights and spiritual visions, introduced the good news of the gospel to pagans and offered pastoral counselling. According to Adomnán, he performed miracles too: healing the sick; killing a boar of amazing size merely by commanding it to “die where you are”; drawing water from a stone to baptise an infant; and tussling successfully with pagan wizards. Once, the saint was accompanied by a bright column of fiery light – like the pillar of fire that preceded the Israelites in the Book of Exodus – and, if that wasn’t protection enough, he could call upon the support of holy angels.
Yet this miracle-worker was a man of contradictions, writes Adomnán. A tall figure of powerful build and considerable presence, Columba was quick to anger, leading to his reputation in Irish legend as the bad-tempered saint. But he showed compassion to penitents, cared for his monks, and would relax his strict fast to entertain visitors to Iona. These contradictions in his character are conveyed by the contrast between his Latin name (“the dove”) and his Gaelic nickname, Crimthann (“the fox”).
Whether fox or dove, by the second half of the sixth century, Columba’s status as a pre-eminent holy man, scholar and monastic leader had made him a political and religious heavyweight – someone who could shape the destinies of rulers across Scotland and Ireland. In his relationship with kings, Columba appeared in Adomnán’s account like the biblical prophet Samuel in the way that he interceded with the Almighty: “Some kings were conquered in the terrifying crash of battle and others emerged victorious according to what Columba asked of God by the power of prayer. He remained a triumphant champion of kings in death as in life.”
Columba gave support to rulers of Ireland’s powerful Uí Néill dynasty and other lesser rulers in Ireland, and to the Dál Riata and neighbouring Strathclyde in Scotland. He made at least one visit to Bridei, the king of the Picts, and preached among that people with the aid of an interpreter. Although Bede exaggerated his role as missionary to the Picts, the saint undoubtedly paved the way for later missions.
Converting the pagans
Adomnán claimed that Columba ordained Áedán mac Gabrán as king of Dál Riata in c574 AD. This may be a little fanciful, but it’s plausible that the new king sought the blessing of this holy man at the start of his reign. In fact, such was Columba’s status, he was able to influence events beyond the grave and across the border into England. After his death, we’re told, the saint appeared in a vision to the powerful Anglo-Saxon king Oswald of Northumbria, promising him victory in battle and successful rule over his people. Once Oswald had achieved these objectives, he turned to Iona for monks to convert his pagan people, and gave the island of Lindisfarne to the Irish monk Aidan so that he could establish a monastery there in AD 635.
By then, Columba was long dead, breathing his last on Iona on 9 June AD 597, aged around 75. He collapsed part way through copying a psalter (a book containing the Psalms) and died in the church in the company of his monks. He was buried in a simple grave on Iona, marked by the stone that he had used as a pillow.
Of course, that was far from the end of the story. Fanned by Adomnán’s writings, Columba’s status soared further still. The Northumbrians cultivated his memory, while the Irish honoured him as a poet as well as a spiritual leader. And, in what is arguably the most impressive of all tributes, the “great gospel of Colum Cille” – better known as the Book of Kells – was created c800 AD, perhaps in Iona or Kells, possibly to mark the bicentenary of the saint’s death.
By the time Robert the Bruce paraded the saint’s relics before his army at the battle of Bannockburn in 1314, Columba’s lofty position in the popular imagination was secure. In the 1930s, a Church of Scotland minister, George MacLeod, founded the modern ecumenical community of Iona, so lending Columba’s legend fresh currency.
Fifteen hundred years after his birth, Columba remains one of Ireland’s best-known and best-loved sons, but he belongs to the whole world.
HOW COLUMBA TAMED THE LOCH NESS MONSTER
The Scottish beast was no match for the Irish saint
If Columba’s seventh-century biographer Adomnán is to be believed, the saint was a prolific worker of miracles, raising the dead, calming wind and storm, and using a white stone from a riverbed to effect incredible cures. In terms of sheer drama, few of the miraculous feats credited to him can match his encounter with the Loch Ness monster.
One day, Adomnán wrote, while Columba was among the Picts, he had to cross the river Ness. As he arrived at the bank, he saw some locals burying a man who had been mauled in the water by a great beast. Immediately Columba ordered one of his companions to swim across the river and bring back a dingy from the opposite bank.
The young man, Luigne moccu Min, obediently stripped off his tunic and dived into the water; as he swam in the middle of the stream, the beast came to the surface and rushed, open mouthed, towards him. Everyone was terrified, apart from the saint, who calmly raised his hand. Making the sign of the cross and invoking the Almighty, he commanded the beast: “Go no further, do not touch the man. Go back at once.”
At the sound of Columba’s voice, the beast fled so fast that the bystanders thought he was being pulled back by ropes.
Luigne returned with the dingy unscathed, and everyone rejoiced. As Adomnán reports: “Even the heathen natives who were present at the time were so moved by the greatness of the miracle they had witnessed that they too magnified the God of the Christians.”
Many scholars have dismissed this story as pure make-believe. Others have speculated that it was inspired by the sighting of a walrus or similarly unfamiliar sea creature far up-river. Whatever the truth, Columba’s taming of the Loch Ness monster is an intriguing addition to Scotland’s enduring legend.
Sarah Foot is Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical History at the University of Oxford
This article first appeared in the Christmas 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine