A ‘Cult of Saints’ Meant Plentiful Sainthoods For Celtic Aristocracy

Dark Age Britain was apparently full of “saints”…well, at least hundreds of people gained membership into the ‘cult of saints’ at that time. Up to 3-4 percent of aristocrats may have been awarded sainthood during Celtic Britain’s Dark Age in the 5th and 6th centuries, according to new archaeological research.

The notion that the cult of saints was widespread in Dark Age British  Celtic Christianity  has been floating around for some time. The  Cult of Saints Project  describes the cult of saints and explains its appeal, which started in the fourth century:

“Christians came to believe that the saints in heaven  could help them on earth , and that they might respond to appeals for aid with matters – both momentous, such as preventing war and famine, and purely personal, like ensuring fertility, or even curing a headache. Furthermore, this saintly power was believed to be concentrated around their dead bodies, or in objects that had come in close contact with them, whether in life or after death. The full apparatus of the cult of saints burgeoned: churches were built over their graves; pilgrims flocked to the major shrines, many of them seeking a specific remedy; saints’ relics were assiduously collected and distributed; their  lives and miracle stories were written; altars, chapels and churches were dedicated to them; communities adopted them as their special protectors.”

Before now the assumption that Dark Age British Celtic Christianity had a widespread cult of saints was primarily based on legends, place names, and church dedications. Professor Ken Dark, an archaeologist at the University of Reading in the UK, has now provided archaeological support for the claims after studying a series of inscriptions on stone monuments dating to the  Dark Ages.

Saint Columba making the sign of the cross at the gate of Bridei, son of Maelchon, King of Fortriu. (Public Domain)

Saint Columba making the sign of the cross at the gate of Bridei, son of Maelchon, King of Fortriu. ( Public Domain )

Dark Age Britain was Full of “Saints”

The results of Professor Dark’s analysis show that at least some of the stone monuments were made to honor individuals given a title suggesting their membership in the  cult of saints  and status as  martyrs, holy men, pious members who followed famous saints, or spiritual sages. In some cases, the inscriptions showed that the human remains buried near the marker were even considered  sacred relics,  The Independent reports.

The professor also noted three of the individuals who had stone monuments created for them were royals, though he believes most were monks or other members of the Church. 16 of the newly identified Dark Age saints were women, and the professor also found that some of the saints were children.

Line illustration of a Saint's bones unearthed. (Wellcome Images/CC BY 4.0) The cult of saints was popular in Britain in the 5th and 6th centuries.

Line illustration of a Saint’s bones unearthed. (Wellcome Images/ CC BY 4.0 ) The cult of saints was popular in Britain in the 5th and 6th centuries.

Independent reports that before now scholars have identified at least 860 Dark Age  Celtic saints  through their associations with locations, legends, and dedications that were made to them in medieval churches. However, many of these members of the abundant cult of saints were not mentioned until 500 or more years had passed from the time they were said to have lived.

This means that Professor Dark’s research has increased the list of Celtic saints from the Dark Ages by almost 30 percent and it provides the first “hard historical evidence for the phenomenon,” according to Independent.

Depiction of 6th and 7th century Irish saint Máedóc aka Mogue and Aidan, in St. Aidan's Cathedral, Enniscorthy, County Wexford, Ireland. (Andreas F. Borchert/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Depiction of 6th and 7th century Irish saint Máedóc aka Mogue and  Aidan, in St. Aidan’s Cathedral, Enniscorthy, County Wexford, Ireland. (Andreas F. Borchert/ CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Radical New Conclusions Re-Write the Story of 240 Stone Monuments

Professor Dark examined 240 stone monuments with inscriptions written in Latin and  the Irish Ogham script  dating to the Dark Ages in Britain. Here’s the breakdown of the general locations for the monuments on the professor’s list:

  • 150 stone monuments in Wales (most notably in Pembrokeshire, the Swansea area, Anglesey, Snowdonia, and the Brecon region)
  • 40 in Cornwall
  • 20 in southern Scotland and near Hadrian’s Wall
  • 30 monuments located in other locations in western England

It’s interesting to note that many of the sites correspond with regions where there is mention of other Dark Age saints in legends, church dedications, and place names.

Professor Dark’s analysis of the inscriptions on the Dark Age stone monuments has provided other surprising results. Before this report, researchers generally believed that the monuments were created as grave markers for  warrior heroes  or other important members of secular society. However Professor Dark writes, “By studying the inscribed stones in great detail, it has now been possible to reach radical new conclusions as to who the commemorated individuals were” in a new paper published in the  Journal of Ecclesiastical History.

Ogham writing on an old Celtic cross, Gallarus, Ireland. (nyiragongo /Adobe Stock)

Ogham writing on an old Celtic cross, Gallarus, Ireland. ( nyiragongo /Adobe Stock)

The “radical new conclusions” assert that the stone monuments “were almost certainly public monuments commemorating local saints (mostly revered monks or priests) and that they had probably been erected immediately after each individual had died,” according to  Independent.

Why were Aristocrats Included in the Cult of Saints?

This new research provides hard evidence that the cult of saints was widespread in  Britain during the Dark Ages.  As noted above, the cult of saints was popular because people wanted saints to help them intercede with God and provide them with solutions to big and small problems.

Professor Dark’s study also reveals that many of the people who were added to the sainthood came from the upper echelons of society at the time. This phenomenon likely served two main purposes –  consolidating Christianity in the region and increasing the respect and admiration of local elites.

Aristocrats were busy establishing new monasteries and convents in the 5th and 6th centuries in western and northern Britain and they populated these monastic communities with their children. Independent reports that “The monasteries became the ‘upper class at prayer’ – and saintly status helped  popularise both Christianity  and its noble and royal patrons.”

People may have also wanted the number of saints to grow to add to their list of people to turn to for protection and help. Creating stone monuments along the sides of roads or other popular locations would just make it easier to reach out to their saints.

Professor Dark’s new study is published in the  Journal of Ecclesiastical History .

Top Image: It’s not clear when the first high crosses associated with Celtic Christianity arose, but the cult of saints was popular in the 5th and 6th centuries AD. Source:  littleny /Adobe Stock

By Alicia McDermott


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