Britain’s medieval identity crisis

Clare Downham considers how a set of saints' lives written by a 13th‑century monk in Cumbria helps us understand how national allegiances were perceived in medieval Britain

A hand-coloured lithograph showing St Patrick, national apostle of Ireland.  (VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images)

This article was first published in the March 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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At first, the ruins of Furness Abbey may seem most notable for their setting in the intriguingly named Vale of the Nightshade. Today, its location seems peripheral, at the base of a peninsula stretching south from the Cumbrian fells. But in the Middle Ages, it was a hub of communication between the emerging nations of the British Isles – Furness was a medieval frontier zone, with a central strategic position in the Irish Sea, and close to the borders. It was here that the varied regional identities of medieval Britain came face to face. And it was here that a 13th‑century monk, Jocelin of Furness, produced writings which show that identity in the past could be just as complex an issue as it is in today’s multicultural world.

Four substantial works composed by Jocelin have survived through the centuries. This marks him out as a prolific medieval author. Nevertheless, until recently, Jocelin’s writings have been largely overlooked by historians. A statement in the Victoria County History of Lancashire (1908) is illustrative: “Furness… left no great monument of learning or piety, and trained no great men.”

This prejudice may have arisen because all of Jocelin’s writings were saints’ lives. These holy biographies are rarely regarded as accurate – they abound in wonders and miracles. Jocelin’s tales include a corpse revived by a demon “which, swarming with worms, struck horror and stench into those who saw it,” and a royal ring, miraculously recovered from the guts of a fish, which saved the life of an adulterous queen.

Other bizarre occurrences reveal God’s power over his creatures, including the yoking of a stag and a wolf to plough a field, and a poisonous spider which drops into a chalice of wine before mass, but causes no ill effects (the spider later emerges unharmed from the finger of a priest).

These events are not historical. Yet recent scholarship recognises the value of saints’ lives for what they tell us about the times in which they were written, rather than as fantastic tales of long dead holy people.

Jocelin wrote about saints who symbolised the national identities of Ireland, Scotland and Wales: St Patrick (patron saint of Ireland), St Kentigern (patron saint of Glasgow), St Waltheof (abbot of Melrose), and St Helena of Britain (a Welsh princess). Jocelin worked under the patronage of prominent ecclesiastical and secular leaders, including John de Courcy, Norman conqueror and self-styled ‘prince’ of Ulster, and Jocelin, bishop of Glasgow. His works were dedicated to high-profile leaders including William the Lion, King of Scotland. There is little doubt that Jocelin’s works were considered significant in their day.

Though Jocelin belonged to an abbey rooted in Norman tradition, his writings looked beyond England’s borders.

His abbey, Furness, had close contacts with neighbouring lands, through daughter houses in Ireland and on the Isle of Man, and a network of links with Cistercian houses in southern Scotland. These networks drew Furness into a wider world of ecclesiastical politics and interests that transcended national boundaries. As a result, Jocelin’s writings seem curiously unsympathetic to English royal interests.

Northern frontiers

The monks of Furness lived in a culturally complex world. Charters from the 12th and 13th centuries demonstrate that the inhabitants of the Furness area were diverse. They sported English, Norse, Brittonic, Gaelic and Norman names.

The northern frontiers of England were an ethnic cross-roads. Cumbria had come under Anglo-Saxon influence from the seventh century, as represented by the magnificent carved stone cross that still stands in the churchyard of Bewcastle near Carlisle.

However, the northern part intermittently belonged to a Brittonic kingdom of Strathclyde which was dissolved in the 11th century. Vikings from the Hebrides and Ireland settled the Lake District in the 10th century, and their place-names still dominate the landscape. A runic inscription at Pennington indicates that Norse-speech may have persisted in the Furness peninsula until the 12th century. Finally, the Norman invasion brought a new French-speaking elite to the region.

With this level of ethnic diversity, and given Furness’s distance from the centres of English royal power, one might ask how far local people aligned themselves with a sense of English nationhood. To what extent did they share the interests of their neighbours?

The 12th century has been dubbed by historians as the era of England’s first empire, when her rulers overtly expressed their wish to dominate their Celtic-speaking neighbours. These ambitions were accompanied by a rhetoric that championed England’s moral superiority over her neighbours and that portrayed the Celtic-speaking peoples as barbaric and in need of moral reform.

Jocelin shows that writers in England did not consistently adhere to these stereotypes. Where Jocelin is intolerant of people in his writings, it is because they lacked Christian piety or learning, rather than ethnicity.

Jocelin shows that identities at the edges of medieval Britain were far from simple. Poor communications exaggerated regional differences – and Furness lay at the end of an arduous journey from London. His writings suggest that the monks of Furness sought to get along with their near neighbours by land or sea and win patrons. This network of allegiances could trump English royal interests from time to time. In narratives on the formation of the English nation-state, the resilience of such local identities risks being overlooked.


Jocelin’s lives

Jocelin wrote about the lives of four saints. So what do these biographies tell us about his national sympathies?

St Waltheof: Jocelin denounces Norman aggression

St Waltheof, abbot of Melrose (d1159), was a leading monastic reformer in northern England and a stepson of the Scottish king David I, descended from the Anglo-Saxon royal house. Jocelin’s ‘Life’ describes a holy figure whom the royal line of Scotland might celebrate as a kinsman and patron. Jocelin is critical of the Normans who conquered England and he promoted the idea of Scotland as a place where people of English descent (like Waltheof) might preserve their culture beyond the reach of Norman kings.

St Patrick: Jocelin defends the Irish church

Jocelin’s ‘Life of St Patrick’ was composed for John de Courcy, Archbishop Tomaltach of Armagh and Bishop Malachy of Down.

To help establish himself in the newly conquered lands of Ulster, de Courcy ‘discovered’ the bodies of Ireland’s patrons, St Patrick, St Bridget and St Columba at Downpatrick in 1185. The event demonstrates the close links that were drawn between political conquest and spiritual hegemony in the Middle Ages.

John won support from some local ecclesiastical leaders and founded Inch Abbey (County Down) as a daughter house of Furness.

Jocelin’s ‘Life of Patrick’ defended the independence of the church of Armagh against the claims of the English archbishop of Dublin. Jocelin also defended some practices of the Irish church that were criticised by contemporaries, such as the multiplicity of bishoprics and ecclesiastical families (Jocelin claimed that no less than 17 of Patrick’s nephews succeeded to bishoprics!).

At the same time, Jocelin favoured ecclesiastical reform, by promoting clerical celibacy and condemning the influence of secular patrons in appointing their own relatives to church posts. Within the ‘Life of Patrick’, Jocelin therefore balances the interests and concerns of different patrons involved in his work.

St Helena: A veiled attack on King John?

In the ‘Life of St Helena’, Jocelin stressed her Brittonic origins. He presents a positive image of the queen as a holy woman and dominant figure in late Roman politics.

The patrons of this work are unidentified, but they were evidently a religious community dedicated to the saint.

It has recently been argued that Jocelin wrote the biography while England was under a papal interdict between 1208 and 1214 when King John had fallen out with the pope. In 1210 John demanded a large sum (around 25,000 marks) from the Cistercian houses in England. Jocelin’s outspoken criticism of kings who do not respect the authority of the church can be construed as a thinly veiled attack on the English monarch.

St Kentigern: Jocelin shows his support for Scotland

St Kentigern in Jocelin’s ‘Life’ is identified as the founder of the church of Glasgow whose episcopal authority ran throughout the ancient kingdom of Strathclyde. Jocelin describes how the local king transferred his sovereign power to St Kentigern as the first bishop of Glasgow. He establishes legendary precedent for Glasgow’s recently acquired status as ‘special daughter of Rome’ and in doing so supports the independence of the Scottish church from claims of English suzerainty. In both the lives of Waltheof and Kentigern, Jocelin shows more sympathy to Scottish royal interests than he does English kings.


The riches of Furness

Furness Abbey was founded in 1127 as a Savignac monastery under the patronage of Stephen, Count of Boulogne and Mortain (later King of England). The abbey was later absorbed into the more powerful Cistercian order.

The Cistercians advocated labour and enterprise as well as prayers and chants and the monastery soon amassed significant riches. This wealth is reflected in the magnificent abbey complex whose red sandstone ruins dominate the Vale of the Nightshade.

As the site evolved over centuries, the designs and intricate carvings of the buildings provide a potted history of medieval English architecture. The abbey held extensive estates in northern England and profited from a range of activities including sheep farming, iron mining, agriculture, forestry, fisheries and even smuggling.

In the 14th century, the riches of Furness acted as a magnet for Scottish invaders and the abbot felt obliged to pay off Robert the Bruce to try and

avoid further raids. Other notable events include the arrival of the royal pretender Lambert Simnel at the abbey’s harbour on Piel Island in 1487 with a force of German mercenaries.

In 1537 the abbey (then the second wealthiest Cistercian house in England) was dissolved and its lands passed into the hands of Henry VIII’s famous minister Thomas Cromwell.

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Clare Downham is a lecturer at the University of Liverpool. Her book Viking Kings of Britain and Ireland was published in 2007. She is working on a project, sponsored by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, to make Jocelin’s writings available to a wider audience and to explore the cross-cultural dimensions to his work