I’ve always been fascinated by the legend of a mysterious British King, St Lucius, who supposedly wrote to Pope St Eleutherius (above) in the late 17os to request baptism. Missionaries were dutifully sent and the King subsequently founded several churches, including a ‘Cathedral’ in London on the site of St Peter-upon-Cornhill.
St Bede writes: ‘while the holy Eleutherius ruled the Roman Church, Lucius, a British King, sent him a letter, asking to be made a Christian by his direction. This pious request was quickly granted, and the Britons received the Faith and held it peacefully in all its purity and fullness until the time of the Emperor Diocletian.’ The King later abdicated and travelled to Switzerland as a missionary, where he won a martyr’s crown. His shrine can still be found at Chur.
Thus states the legend. In 1904 the story was ‘deconstructed’ by the German historian Carl Gustav Adolph von Harnack, who suggested that St Lucius had been mixed up with Lucius Abgar IX (179-214), King of Edessa and a contemporary of St Eleutherius. The confusion may have resulted when the Edessian fortress of Birtha was latinised into Britium Edessenorum
. In the hands of a medieval copyist, Britio
may have become Britannio
. This theory seems to have been accepted almost universally over the last 100 years.
But the archaeologist, David J. Knight, has just written a whole book about the legend of King Lucius of Britain
. It arrived in the post yesterday and the few chapters I’ve managed to read convincingly question Harnack’s deconstructive theory and opens the way to proposing that St Lucius actually did exist!
One of the many interesting details – especially for those in the Archdiocese of Westminster – is the traditional list of the ‘Archbishops of London’ between the reign of St Lucius and the coming of St Mellitus, the bishop of London appointed after the mission of St Augustine of Canterbury. There would be no more Catholic Archbishops in London until 1850…
Stephen (martyr, +17 September 304)
Augulus (martyr, +7 September 305)
Iltutus Restitutus (attended the Council of Arles, 314)
Fastidius (c. 431)
Vodinus (martyr, +23 July 436)
Theanus (c. 587)
Note the three martyrs, SS Stephen, Augulus and Vodinus, now totally forgotten. These cults were probably discouraged by St Augustine, who preferred the ancient Roman martyrs and arranged for their relics to be brought to England to replace those of the more dubious British saints.
If you’re interested in the origins of Christianity in this country, then you’ll find Knight’s book very interesting…