Celts to the Crèche: Day 10
c597-January 16, 649 AD
On our 10th day of our pilgrimage with the Celts to the Crèche, we meet St. Fursey (Fursa, Fursei, Furseus) who was the first recorded Irish missionary to Anglo-Saxon England. He arrived in East Anglia in 633 AD with his younger brothers Foillan and Ultan, two years before St. Aidan (see Day 1 of Celts to the Crèche) established his famous monastery on Lindisfarne. This former Irish monk brought a renewed Christianity to East Anglia and established monasteries in both East Anglia and France. He is particularly famous for his horrific and very descriptive visions of Hell that he wrote down and which influenced Dante’s Inferno.
Fursey’s name, “Fursa” in Old Irish means “model of virtue” which seems to agree with The Venerable Bede, the author of the well-known Ecclesiastical History of the English People who described Fursey as, “inspired by the example of his goodness and the effectiveness of his teaching, many unbelievers were drawn to Christ, and those who already believed were drawn to greater love and faith in him.”
You may desire to continue reading more about Fursey or go on to the Meditation towards the end of this post before the footnotes and “Some Resources.”
Meeting St.Fursey: I encountered St. Fursey through researching the life of Queen Hereswith (see day three of Celts to the Creche), the sister of St. Hilda of Whitby. Even with his scary visions of hell, I found his peripatetic life to be intriguing and charming. A true Celtic wanderer who journeyed from Ireland to East Anglia and onto France setting up monasteries along the way. He has become a friend and my second Maine Coon Cat is even named for him. For Christmas 2016, my son commissioned an icon of Fursey for my gift. (I hope the real St. Fursey has a sense of humor and is even honored…well, at least a bit!).
How we know about Fursey: What we know about Fursey mostly comes from an anonymous biography, likely written by someone who knew him and some even propose that it was written for the translation of his body to a permanent shrine in 653.1 Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People quotes from this early penned Life of Fursey which he called, “a little book on his life.” The earliest manuscript we have of this early life is in the British Library, Harley, MS 5041 ff.79-98. It was likely copied in northern France.2 A second life of Fursey was composed in Europe in the 11th or 12th century and there was an Irish version also.3
Early Life: Fursey was born in Ireland to noble parents, probably on an island in Lough Corrib, Co. Galway. He was baptized by St. Brendan the Navigator (his great uncle), (see day 20 of Celts to the Crèche), raised in County Kerry, and studied sacred scripture on the island of Inisquin in Lough Corrib, under the abbot St. Meldan called his ‘soul-friend.’
Fursey’s name, “Fursa” in Old Irish means “model of virtue” which seems to agree with Bede’s description of him, “inspired by the example of his goodness and the effectiveness of his teaching, many unbelievers were drawn to Christ, and those who already believed were drawn to greater love and faith in him.” 4
Fursey’s first monastery was at a place called Rathmat, which is likely Killursa (Fursa’s Church), in the north-west part of county Galway on the banks of Lough Corrib, still considered today as one of the best fishing lakes in Europe. Because of Fursey’s popular and charismatic style of preaching, he was overwhelmed with the crowds of Irish who wanted to follow him.
While in Ireland, Fursey became very ill and had three visions, what we might call “near-death experiences” in which he saw purgatory and hell. He was told by Irishmen that he must return to his earthly life to preach and save humanity from the ravages of sin. When he awoke, he was healed, but his life dramatically changed. He also had three other visions of angels who took him on tours of of the next world.
Mission to East Anglia, England: After establishing the monastery at Rathmat in his home country of Ireland, Fursey set sail with a few companions including his brothers for East Anglia in England in 630.
This little mission band of peregrini were welcomed by the deeply devoted follower of Christ, King Sigibert who gave them the old Roman fortress of Cnobheresburg, thought to be the former shore fort of Burgh Castle near Great Yarmouth. The monastery was established in the northeast corner of the Cnobheresburg fort. This was the first recorded Irish mission to Southern England or may have been the first Irish mission to the entirety of England. While Fursey was in East Anglia he had further visions that became part of oral tradition that Bede records in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People.
Begins his journey to France: About 641/644, St. Fursey left East Anglia to travel to Rome or maybe even Romania and then onto wherever the Spirit led him. In battle in either 635 or 641, King Penda of Mercia in England had killed Fursey’s great East Anglian supporters King Sigibert and Egric (likely Æthelric) who were joint kings. Æthelric was the husband of St. Hereswith (see day 3 of Celts to the Crèche). Fursey’s brother Ultan who had become a hermit in the area and his other brother Foillan and the priests Gobban and Dicull were left in charge of Cnobheresburg in East Anglia as Fursey continued his peregrinatio (voluntary exile for Christ).
In the Annales Laubienses, it recounts Fursey’s journey to France and to the later arrival of his brothers in 649. It is thought that about 641, Fursey likely landed first in Brittany where he preached in Mayoc. Then he continued his pilgrimage at Mézerolles near the Sommes estuary where he was invited to stay by Duke Haimor of Ponthieu. The Duke’s son became ill very quickly and Fursey was able to save the young man. Erchinoald, the Merovingian mayor of the royal palace in Péronne heard about this miracle and invited Fursey to come to Péronne. Fursey declined the mayor’s invitation to stay at Péronne, but left some relics of St. Patrick and St. Meldan that he had brought with him from Ireland.
Monasteries Fursey Established: St. Fursey not only established a monastery in Ireland called Rathmat, but also founded another one in East Anglia at Burgh Castle. He also established Irish style monasteries in France including Lagny east of Paris; Péronne; Mézerolles in the Somme; and likely another monastery at Fontanelle. Fursey’s influence was felt at the Fosses Monastery in Belgium founded by his brother Foillan. According to the Vita Fursei Abbatis Latiniacensis, the Duke of Ponthieu and Erchinoald of Péronne vied for Fursey to set up a monastery on their lands and even tried to give Fursey lands and money to get him to settle in their territory. The monastery at Péronne did grow up there very quickly, likely built up around the influence of Fursey and those relics of St. Patrick and St. Meldan. Fursey even prophesied that his own body would someday be buried there in Péronne.
Lagny and Fontanelle Monasteries: Erchinoald along with King Clovis II and his wife, a former slave brought over from England, Queen Bathilde (see day 19 of Celts to the Creche), gave the land for the Lagny Monastery.
The monastery at Lagny was east of Paris on the Marne River, not far from Queen Bathilde’s later monastery at Chelles and also not far from the monastery of St. Burgundafara at Faremoutiers (see day 21 of Celts to the Crèche). Lagny was also near modern-day EuroDisney. Lagny was originally a Roman place called Latiniacum. According to legend, when Fursey chose Latiniacum, he drove his staff into the ground and a great spring bubbled out which not only furnished water to the monastery, but also served as a place of healing for all types of illness. Fursey also set up a small monastery at Mézerolles in the Somme region.
Erchinoald also gave the lands of Wandregisel to Fursey, where he established another monastery, Fontanelle. It is an interesting note that Erchinoald had purchased Bathilde from the slave market and desired her to be his wife, but she declined by hiding so he could not find her, later marrying King Clovis II. Erchinoald thought so highly of Fursey that he asked him to be his son’s godfather.
Fursey’s Place of Resurrection Decided by a Pair of Oxen: The Annals of Ulster record that in 649 that Fursey died. His death likely occurring following a trip to visit some Irish monks to his monastery of Mézerolles. It is recorded when St. Fursey died, that the Duke of Ponthieu and Erchinoald each claimed Fursey’s body for burial. To solve this peacefully, a pair of oxen was attached to his casket and sent wandering off to determine God’s will as to where Fursey’s burial place would be. The oxen took the road to Péronne and that is why Fursey is often depicted with oxen at his feet. Just as he prophesied, Fursey was buried at Péronne at the chapel on the land of Erchinaold and his wife Leutsinda.
Some say that St. Eligius (Eloi), who was not only the Bishop of Noyon and advisor to Queen Bathilde (See day 19 of Celts to the Crèche), but also an important metalworker, painstakingly designed and built the reliquary of St. Fursey. It is likely that the shrine was probably a large version of the Celtic house-shaped reliquaries. The text known as the Virtues Sancti Furseii describes his reliquary as a “little house” (domuncula). Eligius also designed the sepulchers of of St. Martin of Tours and the mausoleum of St. Denis of Paris. His sepulcher may have been larger than we expect for “a little house” and may have had a large, tall roof on it.
Fursey’s shrine became a place of pilgrimage because his body was found to be incorrupt each time his casket was moved and it was said that it looked like he had just left his body. Irish pilgrims on the way to Rome flocked to St. Fursey’s shrine in Péronne to pray. Péronne’s abbey was sold and then demolished during the French Revolution and part of that sacred site is now covered by the Palais de Justice.
Fursey’s Brothers and Their Influence: Upon Fursey’s death in about 649, his brothers Foillan and Ultan left East Anglia and travelled (more likely escaped) to France. After King Penda of Mercia destroyed East Anglia, the two brothers salvaged all the treasured, handwritten manuscripts they could carry with them and crossed over the channel between England and France.
Fursey’s brothers were received by King Clovis II of France and then they went on their way to preach in the lower Rhineland and Belgium where they founded a monastery at Fosses on land given to them by St. Itta (Ida, Iduberga). Itta was the widow of Pepin of Landen, who had been the the mayor of the palace of Austrasia under the Merovingian kings Dagobert I and later Sigibert III. Pepin was the founder of the dynasty that would later become known as the Carolingian dynasty. Not only was Itta influential in establishing the Fosses Monastery, but she also founded the great double monastery of Nivelles and assigned her daughter Gertrude (later known as as St. Gertrude of Nivelles) (see Day 38 of Celts to the Crèche) as the first abbess. It is said that Nivelles was a “peculiarly” Irish monastery.At first, Ultan was the chaplain at Nivelles where some believe he taught the monks to chant. Later, Ultan became the first abbot of the monastery at Saint-Quentin and then succeeded Foillan at Péronne.
As Foillan and three companions were returning from visiting Ultan in 655, the four were attacked and killed by bandits in the forest of Sneffe (Seneffe), where their bodies were hidden by the perpetrators. Ultan learned of his brother Foillan’s violent death by receiving a vision of a dove flying with blood-stained wings toward heaven. The Abbess Gertrude of Nivelles went to the place where Foillan was murdered and she retrieved his incorrupt body and returned with his remains to Nivelles. As a former Irishman, Foillan had a fondness for the earlier St. Bridget and introduced her to Belgium. There is a stained glass window in Aachen Cathedral with the Foillan and Bridget together. Ultan died a natural death at the monastery in Péronne in 686, but was buried at Fosses Monastery.
Fursey’s Continued Influence: The Vikings destroyed much of Lagny in the 880’s. Lagny was rebuilt over the years and during the French Revolution, a vast amount of Lagny’s art objects were stolen or destroyed including Fursey’s bust-reliquary which was melted down. It’s contents and part of Fursey’s head were salvaged and along with some relics from Péronne are now kept in the St. John the Baptist Church in Lagny in a bronze, neo-Gothic reliquary from 1902.
There are numerous churches and also holy wells with healing powers across France and Belgium named after St. Fursey. Throughout French history, there have been claims that St. Fursey protected them during times of war including King Louis IX who attributed his victory over English invaders in 1256.
Bede’s quite graphic account of Fursey’s visions of the musical angels of heaven and the devils of hell were mesmerizing to the medieval mind. Some scholars contend that Dante’s Inferno was influenced by Fursey’s accounts of the fires of hell. Fursey is also attributed with many miracles during his lifetime and even posthumously.
Each October (except in 2020 with the COVID-19 pandemic), the Fursey Pilgrims gather at Burgh Castle for a pilgrimage to Fursey’s East Anglia monastic site and each January, they sponsor a lecture on some aspect of Fursey and his times.
Feast Day January 16
The Lorica of St. Fursey (prayer attributed to St. Fursey)
Let us pray this beautiful Celtic prayer of St. Fursey as we pilgrimage together to that place of new life, the creche at Bethlehem.
The arms of God be around my shoulders,
the touch of the Holy Spirit upon my head,
the sign of Christ’s cross upon my forehead,
the sound of the Holy Spirit in my ears,
the fragrance of the Holy Spirit in my nostrils,
the vision of heaven’s company in my eyes,
the conversation of heaven’s company on my lips,
the work of God’s church in my hands, the service of God and the neighbor in my feet,
a home for God in my heart, and to God, the father of all, my entire being. Amen.
The Fursey Lorica from: Fursey Pilgrims.co.uk
The British Library reference to the original text of the Lorica is: Add MS 30512 folio.35v
This Lorica translation is quoted by John Ó Ríordáin in his book: The Music of What Happens. 1996. pp.46-47. The Columba Press. Dublin.
1 Brown, Michelle, “The Life of St. Fursey, Foreword,” in Rackham. Transitus Beati, Fursei,” p. iii.
2 Brown. The Life of St. Fursey, p. 16.
3 Brown. “The Life of St. Fursey”, Foreword. Rackham, p. iv.
4 Bede, III.19.
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