St Andrew‘s appeal in Britain is one of those stories of meandering coincidences that are common in development of the veneration of saints. After all, Andrew is mainly venerated in the East. His missionary work occurred in Asia Minor where he was martyred. He is the patron saint of Greece, Russia, Sicily, Romania, Malta, Prussia, and Scotland. How Andrew became the patron saint of Scotland is one of those curious East-West connections in a time when Britain is supposedly so isolated.
Here is where only the kind of melding that can take place on Sicily comes into play. Although the church of Rome tends to play down this period in Sicilian history, the island was taken by Justinian I in 535 and remained under the rule of Byzantium until it was taken by the Arabs in the mid-ninth century. Throughout this period, Sicily turned back to its ancestral orientation toward Greece and the East, including in the church. To this day, most of the people of Sicily are genetically closest to Greeks with a veneer of each invader (including the Romans). Although Rome ruled Sicily for six centuries they never heavily settled it or tried to Romanize its Greek culture.
Anyway, Gregory the Great came from a high ranking Roman family with vast Sicilian estates. His mother Silvia may have been Sicilian. It is likely that Gregory spent much of his youth in Sicily. We know that Gregory himself is said to have founded six monasteries on Sicily and one in Rome, in his former home, dedicated to St. Andrew. His knowledge of Eastern customs from Sicily, by then under the rule of Byzantium for nearly 50 years, made Gregory the ideal representative from Rome to Constaninople before he became Pope in 590. It was from his monastery of St. Andrew that Gregory chose his former prior Augustine to send to Britain. The reluctant missionary Augustine brought with him dedication to St. Andrew and founded a church in Rochester in his honor.
Northern veneration of St Andrew can also be tied to Gregory the Great’s mission to Britain. When Paulinus of York fled from York back to Kent, he was made bishop of Rochester, seated at the Church of St. Andrew. Bishop Wilfrid of York in particular looked to St Andrew (and perhaps Paulinus of York) as a role model. I wonder if the young Wilfrid visited Rochester where the legends of Paulinus and King Edwin were kept during his year in Kent waiting to go to Rome for the first time? When Wilfrid goes to Rome the first time as a teenager he seeks out the oratory of St Andrew where he kneels before the four gospel books and prays for the skills to preach to the nations. Archdeacon Boniface of the oratory of St Andrew takes him in and teaches his Roman law. Could the “Oratory of St Andrews” have been associated with Gregory the Great’s monastery in Rome? And, could Archdeacon Boniface have taken particular interest in Wilfrid because of common interest in Gregory’s mission to Britain? I don’t know.
William Trent Foley has suggested that Wilfrid’s mediation between King Ecgfrith and Queen Æthelthryth (Audrey) was influenced by legends of St Andrew’s similar intervention between a husband and wife that led to his martyrdom. Andrew counsels the wife to maintain her desired abstinence from marital relations. There is no claim that the wife was a virgin but the similarity between Andrew’s legend and Ecgfrith, Æthelthryth, Bishop Wilfrid triangle is uncanny. Wilfrid’s imprisonment and other abuse at the hands of Ecgfrith are similar to the torture Andrew endures before his martyrdom. Makes me wonder if Wilfrid wasn’t looking for martyrdom like his mentor ‘Bishop Dalphinus’ whom he had wanted to die with according to Stephan of Ripon. Wilfrid dedicated his church at Hexham (on land given to him by Audrey) to St. Andrew. This was his second major church, after St Peter’s at Ripon. The dedication to St. Andrew on land gained after his mediation between king and queen could be seen as support for Foley’s assertion that Wilfrid is intentionally following an Andrew life script. He believes that Stephan is portraying Wilfrid’s exile as a type of martyrdom. Yet, I’m getting the sense that Stephan is particularly good at showing Wilfrid escape from martyrdom opportunities, but perhaps that will be a post for another day.
After Wilfrid’s death, Hexham is inherited by his personal priest Acca, who succeeds him as Bishop of Hexham. Acca had long studied at Wilfrid’s knee but unlike his mentor his efforts had to be restricted to the see of Hexham, a minor fraction of Wilfrid’s vast domain. Bede credited Acca with greatly expanding and enhancing the Church of St Andrew at Hexham. After 21 years as bishop, Acca did follow his mentor in being exiled. Where Acca went for the rest of his life is a mystery. There has been speculation that he went to Galloway where there was a new see forming around Whithorn, but I think Bishop Pehthelm of Whithorn was removed or died about the same time. The first action of new Archbishop Egbert of York in 735 was to place new bishops, Frithuberht and Frithuwold, at Hexham and Whithorn. The Continuer of Bede’s summary (in later editions of the History) lists Egbert’s elevation and the consecration of the two new bishops all in one entry. Bishop Frithuberht of Hexham and Archbishop Egbert both retained their sees until their deaths in 766. Chronicles date Acca’s death to about 740, so he had 9 years in exile. There has been much speculation that he went north to King Oengus of Pictland. His predecessor King Nechtan had contacted Wearmouth-Jarrow in the diocese of Hexham for help in modernizing and adopting Roman rites and customs during Acca’s tenure as Bishop of Hexham. King Oengus of Pictland founded the cult of St Andrews in Scotland. Acca would have been keenly interested in turning the Pictish kingdom away from Iona and veneration of St Columba, and may have been actively involved in King Nechtan’s consultations with Abbot Coelfrith. As the kings of Pictland continued to build and favor St. Andrews, he eventually displaced St. Columba and became patron saint of Scotland.
The last but not least piece of evidence that links Hexham to St. Andrews in Scotland is circumstantial. Since the time that St Andrew became the patron saint of Constantinople, the legends of St Andrew and Constantine the Great became associated. When Wilfrid, Acca and others went to Rome and did research on St. Andrew they likely would have come across legends of Constantine the Great. It has been observed in a variety of places that Hexham’s version of the events at Heavenfield in Bede’s History (III.2) resemble accounts of Constantine at Milvan Bridge. I have never been convinced of this as much as others, but it is certainly told with Roman/Imperial language. The Pictish foundation legend of St. Andrews in Scotland is a far stronger comparison to the Constantine legend that the Heavenfield account. King Fergus of Pictland sees the X shaped Cross of St Andrew in the sky, just as Constantine sees the cross at Milvan Bridge. Fergus promises that he will make Andrew the patron saint of his kingdom Scotland/Pictland if he is victorious in the coming battle, just as Constantine does. St Oswald certainly does not give God or a saint such a challenge! A detraction to the Pictish story is that it is preserved so late that the Constantine imagery could have come at a much later date.
Andrew’s tale in Britain is a thin, long winding story but, ultimately, it leads back to Gregory the Great and his monastery in Rome. As large as Gregory the Great may loom over early Britain, it is clear that Wilfrid looms equally large over the interest in St. Andrew (and his little brother St Peter).
For further reading:
Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People. McClure and Collins, eds. Oxford UP, 1994
William Trent Foley. (1989) “Imitatio Apostoli: St Wilfrid of York and the Andrew Script” American Benedictine Review 40(1): 13-31.
Ursula Hall. (1994) St Andrew and Scotland. St Andrew’s University Library.