Vienna, 14 October 2020
Question: What connects this tumbledown church, which my wife and I stumbled across during a multi-day hike we did this summer in the Wachau region of Austria
and this train station in London, well known to all those who take Eurail to go to London?
Answer: Their names: they are both called Saint Pancras.
I must say, when we came across that half-ruined church and discovered its name my curiosity was piqued. I mean, Pancras is a funny name, no? I’ve never met anyone face-to-face called Pancras, I’ve never even heard of someone called Pancras. And those websites which will breathlessly list you famous persons having a certain name all came up blank for Pancras. I had only ever heard the name due to the station, and that only because it’s right next to King’s Cross Station, which I used a lot at a certain moment of my life. And I only remember the name because of its close similarity to the name of that organ we all have and whose precise purpose I have never really understood. Yet here were two places some 1,500 km apart with the same name. Yes, my curiosity was piqued, I had to investigate – “Google it!”, as my son always says. And I am now ready to report.
First of all, who was this Saint Pancras? Well, he was an obscure fellow about whom relatively little is known. Like Saint Blaise, another obscure fellow whom I have written about in an earlier post, he was born in what is now central Turkey some time in the 3rd Century. When still a boy and after his parents died, he moved to Rome to be with his guardian. There, again like Saint Blaise, he was caught up in one of the periodic persecutions against Christians, in this case by the Emperor Diocletian. It seems that he and his guardian were giving shelter to Christians and as a result he (and presumably his guardian, but he disappears from the story) were arrested. Pancras was 14. Here, the story gets fanciful. His hagiographer claims that Pancras was hauled in front of the Emperor himself, that the two had a long discussion during which Pancras impressed the Emperor with his youth and determination. Finally, annoyed (enraged, says the hagiographer) by the teenager’s refusal to refute his Christianity, he ordered Pancras’s execution. Pancras was promptly dragged off and beheaded. I find it hard to believe that the Emperor ever bothered to speak to this unknown youth; in fact, as one of the commentators diplomatically put it, it would have been very difficult for him to do so since he was not actually in Rome in the year that Pancras was beheaded. Whatever actually happened, it seems that Pancras was buried along the Via Aureliana.
For reasons that are just as obscure to me as the details of his life, his grave became a hub of pilgrimage and supposed miracles. Pope Symmachus built a basilica over the grave in 500 AD, a basilica that was expanded and much remodeled over the centuries. A church still stands on the spot (a church which, I must admit, I have never visited; perhaps the next time I’m in the Eternal City …).
If things had remained there, Pancras might have ended up as simply a minor regional saint. But for reasons which are yet again obscure to me Saint Gregory of Tours in France wrote in a famous book on Christian martyrs which was published in about 590 AD, that anyone making a false oath at the saint’s tomb would be seized by a demon and would collapse and die. Well! In an age where oaths were taken incredibly seriously and where everyone believed in the existence of demons and Hell, this was equivalent to saying that Saint Pancras was a divine lie detector: who in their right minds would dare to lie if asked to take an oath on the saint’s tomb? An oath on Saint Pancras’s tomb was considered so potent that it could be held up in court as proof of a witness’s testimony.
There was one slight problem: Saint Pancras’s tomb was in Rome and Rome was far away. No matter! In an age in which trade in the relics of saints flourished, relics of Saint Pancras were considered just as potent. There was therefore a huge and urgent demand from all over Western Christendom for relics of Saint Pancras to be sent to them. The Romans were not slow to oblige, and soon relics purported to be of Saint Pancras were on their way to every corner of Western Europe. As one source I read commented: “The whole body of the Saint was apparently in at least twenty churches; the head, in at least ten cities. As for the individual bones, they were without number. Of course, only a small part of these relics could be authentic .”
Of course, such potent relics needed to be housed appropriately! As a result, many a church was built and dedicated to Saint Pancras, with his relics enclosed in the main altar. In great pomp and ceremony, swearers of oaths could be solemnly brought before the altar and required to take their oaths. In our more cynical age, we can smile at the credulity of our ancestors but I have to say if I had been around in the Middle Ages and had been required to take an oath before the relics of Saint Pancras I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have lied. Who wants to spend eternity in Hell, even if you are being asked to swear that you didn’t kill someone?
It wasn’t just churches who owned relics. Rich aristocrats also had their collections of relics, housed in richly made reliquaries like this one.
I have absolutely no basis for making the following claim, but I would like to believe that one of the most famous of all oaths taken during the Middle Ages, that taken by Harold Godwinson in Normandy in 1064 before Duke William, was taken on relics of Saint Pancras. For readers who are not familiar with this story, let me quickly summarize the salient points. In 1064, the-then king of England, Edward the Confessor, was clearly nearing the end of his life and didn’t have a son to succeed him. Various regional powers were jockeying to get into position to take the crown on Edward’s death. One of these was Duke William of Normandy, who was related to Edward, although in a rather indirect way. Another was Harold Godwinson, head of the most powerful family in England. For reasons which are not entirely clear, Harold went to Normandy (some say he was actually on his way to France but got shipwrecked on the Normandy coast). Duke William promptly laid hands on him and held him prisoner, although he went through the motions of treating him as a valued guest. Harold’s “stay” ended with him swearing an oath on a series of relics. The Bayeux tapestry captures this moment.
Quite what he swore is not clear. William claimed that Harold swore fealty to him and agreed that he would support him to be king. Consequently, he cried foul when Edward died and Harold took the throne. Harold retorted that he had been made to take the oath under duress and therefore (whatever it was that he was made to promise) it was not valid. William took this “betrayal” as an excuse to legitimize his invasion of England. We all know how that finished. The two armies met at Hastings, Harold took an arrow in the eye and died, and his army collapsed. Again, this key moment in English history was caught in the Bayeux tapestry.
We’ll never know what oath Harold really took. As they say, history is written by the victors. But coming back to the relics that Harold took his oath on, it certainly seemed to have been important enough to have warranted the use of Saint Pancras’s relics. The poet Lord Alfred Tennyson believed that they were of Saint Pancras. In his verse-drama “Harold,” when it comes to the moment of the oath he has William exclaim:
“Lay thou thy hand upon this golden pall!
Behold the jewel of St. Pancratius
Woven into the gold. Swear thou on this!”
Continuing in the obscurity department, when the Church hierarchy got around to assigning saints to all the days in the year, something which they seemed to have done quite early on, they assigned St. Pancras to 12th May. Why St. Pancras got 12th May is completely mysterious to me. In any event, 12th May was already St. Pancras day in 896 AD, when the Holy Roman Emperor Arnulf of Carinthia conquered Rome. Arnulf belonged to that delightful period of European history when everyone had fantastic names, something I have noted in an earlier post about Saint Radegund (itself a wonderful name). His father was called Carloman, his mother Liutswind, his son Zwentibold. He deposed Charles the Fat as Holy Roman Emperor and took his place, he was saving Pope Formosus from the clutches of Lambert and his mother Ageltrude when he conquered Rome. And on and on: there are literally dozens more such colourful names attached to Arnulf’s life and times.
But I digress. Arnulf attributed his success in conquering Rome to the intercession of that day’s saint, that is to say Saint Pancras. This made Saint Pancras even more popular than he already was in the German lands, and could well explain in a roundabout way why my wife and I came across this dilapidated church in the Wachau dedicated to him.
The fact that May 12th is Saint Pancras’s day meant that for centuries he also played an important role in the agricultural calendar of large swathes of Europe, from Lombardy and Liguria as well as Slovenia and Croatia in the south to Sweden and Poland in the north, from Belgium and France to the west to Hungary in the east. He, St. Mamertus (May 11th), St. Servatius (May 13th), and St. Boniface of Tarsus (May 14th) became collectively known as the Ice Saints, and Saint Sophia (May 15th) as Cold Sophy. They were so called because the middle days of May were believed to often bring a brief spell of colder weather, and there were warnings against sowing too early in case young crops were caught in a frost. These were translated into a series of colourful sayings, no doubt repeated around the hearth by the wise men (and perhaps wise women) of the village:
Pankraz, Servaz, Bonifaz
only make way for summer.
No summer before Boniface
No frost after Sophie.
You’re never safe from night frost
Until Sophie is over.
Servaz must be over
If you want to be safe from night frost.
Pankrazi, Servazi and Bonifazi are three frosty Bazi.
And finally, Cold Sophie is never missing.
Pankraz and Servaz are two bad brothers
What spring brought they destroy again.
Never plant before Cold Sophie.
Readers get the picture. Alas, science seems to disprove peasants’ belief that there was a tendency to a cold spell in that period. In fact, science has generally stopped us from giving any credence to saints. Which is generally a good thing. But it does mean that names like Pancras, Mamertus, Servatius, and Boniface have sunk into obscurity, so much so that when I came across a church dedicated to Pancras I scratched my head and muttered to myself “Who on earth was he?” Luckily there was Google to help me find the answer.
Oh, in case any readers are asking themselves why the railway station in London is called after St. Pancras, it seems that it was so called because the surrounding district was so called, and the district was so called because there was once in the vicinity a very ancient church dedicated to Saint Pancras. So there you are.