Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Who Stole St Andrew?

It would be disappointing if a land of myths and legends like Scotland didn't have a few Patron Saint stories. Fear not!

Because in the first half of the 4th century, Roman Emperor Constantine planned to move the bones of St Andrew from their resting place at Patras in Greece to the city of Byzantium - a city he'd renamed Constantinople in his honour.

And people consider 'Trump Tower' a vanity!

A monk called St Rule learned of Constantine's plans in a dream. The dream also told St Rule what to do - move the bones to 'the extremity of the earth'. So that's how he wound up in the East Neuk of Fife with three fingers of St Andrew's right hand, the upper bone of an arm, one kneecap, and one of his teeth. (It is a little known fact that a piece of the saint's shoulder is held today in St Mary's in Edinburgh, gifted by the Bishop of Amalfi in 1870.)

Another legend is that Oengus, King of Picts, faced a Northumbrian army under Athelstan at Athelstaneford in 836. Oengus knelt and prayed to St Andrew, and in reply saw the divine sign of two white clouds crossed in a blue sky. Oengus won the battle and made the Saltire the national flag of Scotland.

Plaque at Athelstaneford © Copyright Lisa Jarvis at Geograph

So did St Andrew's bones arrive on Fife's shores in the 4th century? Did King Oengus win a great battle against his Northumbrian foes? Here's what most likely happened.

In the early 8th century, King Nechtan of the Picts wrote to abbots in Northumbria seeking assistance in building a church 'in the Roman style'. There were monks in Pictland but they were Culdees, aesthetic followers of St Columba bound to none but God, and Nechtan wanted more control over the church. He had a church dedicated to St Peter built at Restenneth and another dedicated to St Andrew at the Culdee site Kilrymont. To set up his new church of St Andrew, monks came from St Andrew's in Hexham and in 717 the Culdees were evicted. There is no historical record of St Andrew at the site before then.

And what about King Oengus? The legend may be true in spirit. But... Oengus died in 834. Scotland hadn't been born then. So the interesting inference is that the Scottish kingdom inherited the Saltire as an existing symbol from the Picts. Oengus' opponent is clearly called Athelstan in the story. But while there were a couple of Athelstans of Northumbria, neither lived at the same time as Oengus. And in those days East Lothian was part of Northumbria - Oengus was leading an invasion, not defending a homeland.

Every old country has legendary origins. But on inspecting the historical evidence, the real story of St Andrew in Scotland is based less on dodging Roman Emperors and kicking Northumbrian ass, and more on building Roman churches through enlisting Northumbrian help.

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