Friday, 11 July 2008

St Lucius, King of Britain

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…

Thean (c.179-185)
Stephen (martyr, +17 September 304)
Augulus (martyr, +7 September 305)
Iltutus Restitutus (attended the Council of Arles, 314)
Hilary (c.367)
Fastidius (c. 431)
Guidelium (c.410)
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…

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Blogger PJA said...

I had no idea about S Lucius. Does this place London back at the heart of the "nation", prior to Winchester's rise to pre-eminence?

4:13 pm  
Blogger Fr Nicholas said...

Londinium never seems to have been the capital of Roman Britain, though it was very important, and the story of St Lucius gives it a clear ecclesiastical pre-eminence.

5:14 pm  
Blogger David J. Knight said...

I'm very glad you're enjoying my book; please also refer to the errata list on my blog:
Also i have further details at:
Great to see interest in King Lucius
Best Regards
David J. Knight

2:24 pm  
Blogger David J. Knight said...

I'm glad you are enjoying my book; please also refer to the errata list on my blog:
and read further details at:
It is fantastic there is interest again in King Lucius. I'm intrigued by the image you have in your post, can you tell me the background details of this figure and its present location?
Best Regards
David J. Knight

2:32 pm  
Blogger Fr Nicholas said...


The figure is of Pope St Eleutherius in the basilica of Corpus Christi, Krakow, run by the Canons Regular of the Lateran.

I do have a C17 print of St Lucius by Raphael Sadler, showing him a Swiss missionary.

2:43 pm  
Blogger webmasterNW52HR said...

Although I have not had a chance to read the book, I have at least one reservation based on such reviews as I have seen: My problem is not with the existence of King Lucius - who I have always preferred with his local name Lucan, but with the myth of his asking the pope to let him be Baptised, which Knight apparently reiterates. In AD 177, when this request is supposed to have happened, there wasv at least one senior Bishop in London, while the bishop of Rome was just another bishop and he had no jurisdiction in the British Isles. We know that Aristibule (Aristobulus) - an Apostle of the Seventy had been sent from Tyre in AD37 as Bishop of the Britons, as recorded by Dorotheus, Bishop of Tyre. We assume (because it was common then) that he (possibly accompanied by Saint Joseph of Arimathea - or in a ship belonging to him) arrived either in the Bristol Channel or the south Cornwall coast. It is believed that he set up in the general Glastonbury-Gloucester area, and possibly north west of there - which means at least in part of the territory later ruled over by Lucan. I am therefore highly suspicious of stories that Lucan asked permission from a bishop in distant and unrelated Rome to be Baptised. The same argument works for AD 190, when Lucan brought Dyfan and Fagan to renew the Church, the idea that he should send to the pope would make me suspicious at that early date. The Church had some time to go before the Bishop of Rome was given a minimal honour. There is however, every reason to believe that there were other bishops and clergy present in the British Isles - and particulerly the west, where Lucan was. Much later "histories" dragging the pope in at that stage smacks far too much of the ubiquitous re-writing of history to bolster the later papal claims of universal power.
Fr. Michael

5:37 am  
Blogger blogowner said...

"The Church had some time to go before the Bishop of Rome was given a minimal honour"

And so it's funny that, in the earliest centuries, we find Clement I of Rome settling disputes in the Church of Corinth by his own authority, Ignatius of Antioch extolling the presidency of the Roman Church, and Irenaeus insisting that everyone agree with the Roman Church because of its pre-eminent authority.

Funny that you pass over such well-documented testimony and yet apparently have no problem in accepting all sorts of legends about Joseph of Arimethea, etc, for which there is no evidence.

If anybody is rewriting history, it's you, Fr. Michael.

12:48 pm  

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