A-Z of Saints: John of the Cross

So far in this series we have tended to look outward, to men (and women) of action. Our saint for ‘J’ takes us inward, to a life of contemplation – though his life was not without its dramatic moments.

John de Yepes was born in old castile on 24 June 1542, the youngest son of silk weavers Gonzalo and Catherine, the latter widowed early in life. He lived in various villages as a child, attending schools for the poor, then studied the humanities at a Jesuit school in his late teens and early twenties, while attending to the very poor under the patronage of the governor of Medina hospital, before entering the Carmelite order as Father Juan de Santo Matia (St Matthias), studying at Salamanca University. He was ordained at the age of 25.

His life’s work arose from his meeting Theresa de Jesus, later St Theresa of Avila, and together they reformed the Carmelite order over the next 10 years, founding monasteries across Spain. Their reformed communities became known as ‘discalced’ (barefoot), in contrast to the ‘calced’ Carmelites who did not accept their reforms. At this period he took the name John of the Cross.

This work stopped abruptly in December 1577, when John was taken prisoner by those non-reformed calced Carmelites in Toledo, and he endured almost a year of brutal lashing, torture and isolation; his hardship was accompanied by mystical visions. Astonishingly he escaped in August 1578, and continued his reforming work until his death. In this latter period he produced many writings, all published posthumously, which were strongly influenced by his period in prison. He died in 1591.

These works have made him one of Spain’s foremost poets, with two of them, the Spiritual Canticle and the Dark Night of the Soul, accorded masterpiece status. In the former, he writes of how the bride of the soul has lost her groom, Jesus, and relates closely to the Song of Songs, which had been illegally translated into the vernacular by John’s tutor at university, Fray Luis de Leon.

His body of poetry is small overall, but has had a huge influence on subsequent mystical traditions, notably on Thomas Merton and T S Eliot. As a result he is regarded as the patron of the contemplative life and mystical theology, as well as Spanish poets. His memorial day is 14 December. Tradition has it that images of Christ, the Virgin and other saints have appeared in connection with his relics.

Other ‘J’ saints:

  • Joan of Arc (1412-1431) is of course the national heroine of France, and was canonised in the Catholic church in 1920. She was burnt at the stake in Rouen at the age of 19, at the instigation of the English. She was famed for her relieving the siege of Orleans in 1429, and for her visions. She is the patron of martyrs, France and prisoners, and her memorial is 30 May.
  • St John the Baptist (died c.30AD) is a prophet of Islam and Mandaeanism as well as Christianity, renowned for his diet of locusts of honey and his heralding of Jesus (Luke says he was actually Jesus’ cousin). He was beheaded at the behest of Salome whose jealousy he had aroused. He is patron of many things and people, including baptism, tailors, motorways, hailstorms and epilepsy. His memorials are 24 June and 29 August.

A-Z of Saints: Ignatius of Loyola

Among the few well-remembered ‘I’ saints, one formidable character stands out: Inigo Lopez de Loyola, better known as Ignatius, and founder of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits.

Ignatius was the youngest of 13 children, born to a noble family in the castle of Loyola in the Basque country. He was named Inigo after St Eneco, an 11th century Spanish hermit. Few details of his early life are recorded, but it seems that he became a cleric young, and served as a page in the household of his relative Juan Velazquex de Cuellar, treasurer of the kingdom of Castile in the time of Ferdinand and Isabella of Columbus voyage fame.

Ignatius later confessed to a dissipated life in these early years, affected of dress and fixated on personal glory. Perhaps this is what led him to join the army in 1517 (along with the death of Velasquez). In 1521, Inigo’s legs were both badly wounded by a cannonball that passed between them during the French siege of Pampeluna on 20 May. He was returned to Loyola by the French, to whom the Spanish forces had surrendered, where one leg was broken and reset, with part of the bone being sawn off – a gruesome era for surgery.

Having recovered from the fever that attended this ordeal, Inigo asked for fiction (the chivalric romances of the day) to aid his convalescence. When none was available, he was left with the lives of Christ and the saints to read. Competitive by nature, he imagined rivalling the saints for their feats of endurance, fasting or pilgrimage, but then had a vision of Mary and Jesus which made him realise how shallow his worldly view had been (to the concern of his worldly older brother). He now became resolved to emulate the saints’ self-denial and to emulate their better deeds, and decided to dedicate himself to converting non-Christians.

He followed this change of heart by visiting the monastery at Montserrat in 1522, where he gave away his rich clothes, and then lived in a cave in Catalonia for a few months to purify himself, where he had visions of the Virgin. Here he developed the first version of his series of meditations, the Spiritual Exercises. He then embarked on his planned pilgrimage to the Holy land, only to be rebuffed by the Franciscans there and sent home after a long and arduous voyage.

In 1528, he joined the University of Paris, after a brief and troubled period (many people did not accept his new holy way of life) at the University of Salamanca. In Paris he spent seven years refining his education and attempting to persuade others to practice his Spiritual Exercise. After six years there he had attracted half a dozen followers and together, on 15 August 1534 at Montmartre, they founded the Society of Jesus ‘to enter upon hospital and missionary work in Jerusalem, or to go without questioning wherever the pope might direct’.

Ignatius’ companions travelled to Venice on their way to the Holy Land, but war with the Turks prevented further progress. Ignatius, meanwhile, was compelled to return to Spain due to his ill health. The group were all ordained in Venice in 1537, with the approval of Pope Paul III. In 1540 the Pope approved their order in Rome, though limited it to 60 members – a limit removed three years later.

Ignatius himself was appointed the first Superior General of the Jesuit order (though this term was only used by their detractors), and sent his colleagues across Europe as missionaries to found schools and seminaries. His Spiritual Exercises became a cornerstone of their philosophy, and were published in 1548 (although led to a brief enquiry by the Inquisition).

In 1554 his Jesuit Constitutions affirmed the order’s commitment to self-denial and Papal authority, with the motto Ad maiorem dei gloriam, ‘for the greater glory of God’. In the 1550s Ignatius also wrote his autobiography, though it was not published for 150 years.

Ignatius spent his later years administering the society, and his attempted retirement in 1551 was not accepted. His original companions meanwhile travelled to India, Ireland, Germany, Scotland and Ethiopia, among others. He died in Rome after a bout of fever in 1556, by which time the Jesuits had already grown to 1000 members – today there are more than 30,000. He was canonised in 1622.

Ignatius is patron of the Basque country, of retreats, of soldiers and, naturally, of the Society of Jesus. His memorial day is 31 July, the date of his death.

Other ‘I’ saints

  • Saint Innocent of Alaska (1797-1879) was a Russian Orthodox priest and later archbishop of Moscow and all Russia, who was a significant linguist and greatly advanced studies of Alaskan languages – he was a major missionary to this often inaccessible area. He was made a saint in 1977 and is celebrated on both 6 October and 31 March.
  • Saint Isidore of Seville (560-636) is known as ‘the Schoolmaster’, as a major scholar of the Middle Ages – he wrote an encyclopedia, a dictionary and various histories, and introduced the works of Aristotle to Spain. He is now the patron of the internet and computer users, as well as schoolchildren and students. His memorial day is 4 April.

A-Z of Saints: George

G is for St George, the Patron Saint of England … and Canada, Georgia, Greece Malta and Palestine to name a few.

The status of St George (c275-c303) in England (only one of the countries which has him as patron – others include Canada, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Lithuania, Malta and Palestine, as well as many cities!) has grown and grown, if only through the recent popularity of St George’s Cross flags during football tournaments.

But what do we know of England’s patron, and are there any meaningful connections that gave him this role?

The simple answers are ‘little’ and ‘no’! The earliest account of his life dates from the 4th century, and tells us that his father was an army officer from Cappadocia (now part of Turkey) and his mother was from Palestine, where she brought him up.

George himself apparently became a soldier and rose through the ranks until he refused to assist the emperor Diocletian’s persecution of Christians – he was already a Christian himself and was apparently tortured for his perfidy and executed on 23 April – more specifically, the stories tell that he was decapitated at Nicomedia as an example to others (though this example may have the opposite effect from that intended, as the Empress Alexandria and a pagan priest watching were apparently prompted to become Christians themselves).


Twentieth century scholarship suggests that all we can safely say about George is that he lived and suffered in the area around Lydda in Palestine – and that’s it.

However, his veneration began early, in the reign of Constantine (emperor from 324), with a church built at Lydda. The one there today, built in 1872, is the third on the site.

George was canonised in 494 by Pope Gelasius I, despite the belief at the time that his ‘acts are known only to God’. The earliest text about miracles associated with George dates from this period, so clearly people were not unwilling to imagine his acts anyway.

He has been depicted as a soldier since at least the 7th century, and the legends about the dragon begin in the 12th.

The primary telling of this latter tale comes from the Golden Legend of Jacob de Voragine, a 13th century bestseller recording legends about many of the popular saints. The story entered popular English culture after it was printed by Caxton.

Briefly, the tale runs that a dragon had ravaged a city in Libya, and was only appeased by a daily sacrifice of two sheep. When the ovine supply ran dry, humans had to be considered as substitutes, and the king’s daughter was selected to be first by drawing lots.


St George was passing by and rescued her from the dragon, transfixing it with his lance and binding it with the princess’ girdle so that she could then lead it like a lamb. George then used this victory as leverage to convert the locals to Christianity and he distributed their rewards to the poor.

There are many interpretations of this story, and some even suggest that the dragon was an allegorisation of Diocletian. At the very least it is a powerful symbol of Christianity fighting and defeating the forces of evil.

George’s presence in England dates at least back to 1061, when a church was dedicated to him in Doncaster. The St George’s cross was certainly used in the 13th century, and he seems to have been something of a mascot for the crusaders.

The Order of the Garter, founded around 1347, is named after George, and he has held a grip on the English imagination ever since – perhaps if only because of his military prowess.

Given that he is also the patron of farmers, butchers, knights, lepers, saddlers, sheep and syphilis, it does seem that his lack of recorded ‘acts’ has only ever been a stimulus for him to become whatever people need.

Some other notable ‘G’ saints

  • Saint Gabriel is not just a saint, but an archangel – one of the three named in the official Bible canon. His patronage ranges from Argentinian ambassadors to telecommunications workers, and his feast day is 29 September.
  • Saint Gertrude the Great (1256-1302) was a nun in Saxony, and now a patron of nuns, as well as the West Indies. Unusually for the period she died of natural causes. Her memorial day is 16 November.

A-Z of Saints: Edmund

Edmund the Martyr (c840-870) was a king of East Anglia, succeeding to the throne when he was still a teenager as successor to Offa. It is likely that he was descended from the previous kings of the region, but one tradition asserts that he was of Saxon origin and had been born in Nuremberg. This story also tells that he landed at Hunstanton in 855 to claim the kingdom.

Little is known of the main years of his life, other than a reputation for being a good ruler, unswayed by flattery, and apparently withdrew for a year to a tower at Hunstanton to learn the whole Psalter by heart. His first biographer, Abbo of Fleury (945-1004) – who supposedly heard of Edmund’s life through St Dunstan, who in turn had met Edmund’s own standard-bearer – described Edmund as ‘wise and worthy’, ‘humble and virtuous’. It is only in the year of his death, 870, that we hear more.

In that year the Danes, led by Ubba (or Hubba) and Ivar the Boneless (or Hinguar, boneless or otherwise) invaded East Anglia via Mercia, having wintered at York, and set up camp in Thetford. Edmund’s army fought them valiantly, but were unable to repulse them and the Danes summoned a much larger armer to join their ranks and Edmund was captured on his way to Framlingham having refused to agree to the Danes’ terms (he had also disbanded his troops to avoid a massacre), which included him becoming their vassal. Abbo writes that Edmund sent a message to Ivar: ‘Never in this life will Edmund submit to Ivar the heathen war-leader, unless he submit first to the belief in the Saviour Christ which exists in this country.’

His captors chained him and demanded that he renounce his Christian faith, which he refused to do. He was then beaten, tied to a tree somewhere near Hoxne and whipped, but continued to assert his faith and call upon Jesus. The Danes then fired arrows at him ‘until he was entirely covered with their missiles, like the bristles of a hedgehog’, but he continued to pray nonetheless, and he was finally beheaded.

When the Danes had departed from the woods where this took place, the local people found their king’s body, but not the head. The legend, as told by Abbo, runs that they searched the woods crying ‘Where are you now, friend?’ and the head answered ‘Here, here, here’. The remains were interred at Beadoriceworth, which later became the abbey settlement of Bury St Edmunds, famed for its shrine of ‘St Edmundsbury’.

Edmund’s memorial day is 20 November, the date of his martyrdom, and he is the patron of kings, wolves (a wolf was said to have guarded his severed head), torture victims and plague epidemics; he is represented by an arrow and sword, or a wolf. Little is left of his shrine now, as it was ruined in the Dissolution of the Monasteries, but in mediaeval times the abbey was one of the most powerful in England.

Edmund’s own significance to England’s early history is marked by his presence in the Wilton Diptych (in the National Gallery), the altarpiece which depicts Richard II being presented to the Virgin and child by three saints, St John the Baptist, St Edward the Confessor, and St Edmund the Martyr, holding an arrow.

Some other notable ‘E’ saints

  • St Edmund Campion (1540-1581) was a bookseller’s son who fled Elizabeth I’s England to become a Jesuit. He later returned to England and distributed pamphlets promoting Catholicism, for which he was arrested and hanged at Tyburn. His memorial day is 1 December; he was canonised in 1970.
  • St Edward the Confessor (1003-1066) became king of England in 1042, and was noted for his generosity and piety. He built Westminster Abbey, and was believed to be able to heal scrofula. His memorial is 13 October and he is patron of difficult marriages!

A-Z of Saints: Cosmas and Damian

There wouldn’t normally be ‘two saints for the price of one’, but Cosmas (or Cosmus) and Damian go inextricably together.

They were, in fact, twin brothers, born in Arabia, both doctors and famed for their healing in Cilicia (now Turkey).

A portrait of the saints from the 15th century depicts them conducting the world’s first leg transplant, based on a miracle after their deaths where they apparently replaced a Roman man’s leg with that of an Ethiopian!

The only source we have about them is a 13th century ‘bestseller’, the Golden Legend, where the Bishop of Genoa wrote: “They were learned in the art of medicine, and of leechcraft, and received so great grace of God that they healed all maladies and languors, not only of men but also cured and healed beasts…”

Their reputation grew not only for their prowess, but also for their refusal to charge for it, and thus they became known as “the silverless”.

Many of their patients became Christians as a result of their ministrations – such that under the emperor Diocletian’s (245-313) wave of persecution, the prefect Lysias, governor of Cilicia, arrested and tortured them.

The legend runs that the saints were unharmed by attempted drowning, fire and crucifixion, and ultimately had to be beheaded – along with three other brothers of theirs. (Both died circa 283-287.)

Their remains were buried in Cyrus, Syria, and the Christian emperor Justinian (527-565) made their church in Constantinople a place of pilgrimage, having been cured of an illness by their intercession.


Cosmas and Damian became patron saints of pharmacists, apothecaries, doctors and surgeons, and are represented by a phial of ointment.

Their memorial day is either 26 or 27 September (1 July, 17 October and 1 November in Greek traditions). In Britain, it is notable that there are only five Anglican churches named after these saints. They are:

In London there is a Greek Orthodox church dedicated to the saints; overseas they are celebrated in churches in Germany, Croatia, Sardinia and Italy (including one in Rome).

Some other notable ‘C’ saints

  • Saint Columba (521-597) was the abbot of Iona – of royal descent, he was an Irish missionary who helped reintroduce Christianity to Scotland and the north of England. His feast day is 9 June. He is also the source of the first ever reference to the Loch Ness monster!
  • Saint Cuthbert (c634-687) became bishop at Lindisfarne after a period on the Farne Islands as a hermit. His body, found to be preserved years after his death, was stolen by the Danes in 875, and is now entombed in Durham Cathedral. His feast day is 20 March.
  • Saint Christopher (3rd century?) is of course the patron of travellers. He is important to the Orthodox churches although widely held elsewhere to be a figure only of legend – largely on account of the tales that he was 18 feet tall or a dog-headed cannibal!

Some other notable ‘D’ saints

  • Saint David (c512-587) is the patron of Wales and was from the royal family of Ceredigion. He founded monastic settlements in both Britain and Brittany, including one on the site what is now St David’s cathedral in Pembrokeshire. His feast is 1 March.
  • Saint Denis was the bishop of Paris who died around 250AD. He was beheaded on the hill now known as Montmartre, and one legend tells that he picked up his head and preached a sermon before dying where the St Denis Basilica stands today. His feast is 9 October.
  • Saint Dunstan (909-988) was an Archbishop of Canterbury, renowned for his cunning in outwitting the Devil. The service he created for King Edgar’s coronation still forms the basis of coronations to this day. He is the patron of goldsmiths and his feast day is 19 May.

A-Z of Saints: Brigid

St Brigid of Ireland (c453-c523), also known as St Bride or St Bridget, or indeed Mary of the Gael, was present when St Patrick himself was teaching.

Her mother, Brocca, was a Pictish slave whom Patrick had baptised. Brocca had been sold to a Druid landowner and put in charge of his dairy.

Brigid took charge and, despite giving away much of the produce, the dairy became such a success that her mother was freed.

Her father, meanwhile, was Dubtach, the pagan Scots King of Leinster. He had tried to sell his daughter, who often gave away his possessions too, but while he bargained with the Christian King of Leinster, she gave Dubtach’s prized sword to a leper.

The Christian King forbad her father from punishing her and declared “Her merit before God is greater than ours”. She was then given her own freedom. Legend has it that St Patrick (or perhaps his deputy St Mel) made a mistake when hearing her final vows, using the form for ordaining priests.

On realising his error, he observed that “she is destined for great things”. Another legend says that she prayed for her beauty to be taken away from her, and it was only restored after she had taken these vows.


Her great works began with the founding of a small convent, with just seven nuns at the foot of Croghan Hill. She gradually travelled across all of Ireland and started many convents elsewhere as well as the first ‘double monastery’ for both monks and nuns, in Kildare.

This became the “Church of the Oak” on account of the tree where it was built. Kildare eventually became a cathedral city and for centuries it was governed by a double line of bishops and abbesses.

She also founded a school of art, including metalwork and illumination, which produced the highly praised Book of Kildare, sadly lost in the Reformation. When she was dying, she was attended by St Ninnidh, who became “Ninnidh of the clean hand” after having his right hand encased in metal to prevent its being defiled thereafter.


Brigid died in Kildare and her shrine became an object of veneration for pilgrims, especially on her feast day of 1 February. After Viking raids, her relics were later taken to the tomb of St Patrick and St Columba in Downpatrick, where they remain, although apparently a hand was removed to a Jesuit church in Lisbon.

Brigid’s name means ‘arrow of fire’ and she has often become conflated with the Celtic goddess of fire of the same name. One intepretation suggests that Brigid was in fact a pagan priestess who built a sanctuary at the oak of Kildare, and later converted to Christianity.

She is also known as the keeper of the Sacred Flame of Kildare, a fire that was kept burning for centuries and was later described by the historian and hagiographer Gerald of Wales.

Place names across Ireland and Britain such as Kilbride and Brideswell commemorate her, including London’s ‘printers’ and typographers’ church’ of St Bride.

As a result of her voyages she is a patron of travellers, sailors, nuns and even fugitives. She is also the patron saint of chicken farmers!

Other notable ‘B’ Saints

  • St Bartholomew was one of the twelve apostles of Jesus. Little is known about him but tradition has it that after witnessing the Ascension, he travelled to India where he left a copy of Matthew’s Gospel. His feast day is 24 August. He is believed to have been flayed alive in Armenia and thus became the patron saint of tanners.
  • St Benedict of Nursia (c480-543) is remembered as the founder of Western monasticism. Son of a Roman noble, he sought solitude but attracted others and established the Benedictine order through his famous Rule, dividing the monastic life into periods of sleep, prayer, reading, rest and labour. Among many others he is the patron of farmers and schoolchildren.
  • St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) was a French abbot and scholar who became a leading figure of the Cistercian order of monks. He drew renown for his preaching and healing. He encourage King Louis VII to go on the Second Crusade and had considerable political influence at the time. He is the patron of beekeepers and candlemakers.

A-Z of Saints: Aldhelm

Of the saints of Wessex, Aldhelm perhaps inspires the warmest feelings. He comes across as a man of many parts.

Born around 640, Aldhelm was a native, believed to be a relative of the Saxon king Ine. A precocious child, he was sent to Canterbury, where he was schooled in Latin and Greek, and studied under Abbot Adrian of St Augustine’s.

Aldhelm was Abbot of Malmesbury from around 683, shaping a loose monastic community into a proper Benedictine abbey, and founding other monasteries at Frome and Bradford-on-Avon. His Saxon church at Bradford still stands.

Stories say that he played the lyre on Malmesbury’s bridge in order to summon people to church – and, for that matter, that his sermons would sometimes involve singing and juggling in order to keep his audience’s attention. Perhaps, then, a saint for modern times… He is also said to have installed the first church organ in England in 700.

With music came verse: Aldhelm was regarded by King Alfred nearly two centuries later as one of the country’s finest vernacular poets. He wrote in both Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Latin, and his works also include a treatise on virginity.


One scholar has described him as the first Englishman to deserve being described as book-learned. And according to Jacon de Voragine’s Golden Legend of 1275, “Saint Aldhelm made a book that all men should know for ever when Easter day should fall.”

Many legends are told of Aldhelm in the area. In Bishopstrow near Warminster, a window in St Aldhelm’s Church depicts one of them. The story says he once preached for so long that his ash staff took root.

One panel of the window shows the king offering his own staff to the saint, and promising him land for a church as far as he can throw it – hence ‘Bishopstrow’ perhaps. At Malmesbury, Aldhelm built three churches, with one surviving. A legend tells of him praying over a roof beam that was too short: it lengthened, and later survived two fires.

Aldhelm is also said to have visited the Pope, Sergius I. He allegedly saved the Pope himself from scandal, by baptising a baby supposedly sired by the Pope and which then spoke of the Holy Father’s innocence!

In 705, Aldhelm was consecrated as Bishop of Sherborne, and he died at Doulting in Somerset four years later. A vision of him is said to have appeared to the Bishop of Worcester, who then took the body back to Malmesbury, setting up a cross at each place where the corpse rested, every seven miles. His day is the 25th of May

A well in Doulting is named after Aldhelm. One local tradition asserts that he would sit by the well and do penance, reciting the psalter. Tales are also told from Malmesbury that he would recite the psalter standing up to his neck in ice-cold water! The well is there to this day.

Another place of worship named after him is St Aldhelm’s Chapel at Worth Matravers in Dorset’s Isle of Purbeck. Poised on a beautiful promontary, this tiny vaulted chapel, in Norman style, is unusual in being square. A story tells that in 1140 a bride and groom were sailing past the headland watched by her father, when a storm arose and drowned them. The father is said to have built the chapel in their memory, with a light always kept burning to warn other sailors. The chapel is believed to have been a chantry, and was restored in 1974.

Some other notable ‘A’ saints:

  • Andrew, patron of Scotland, was of course the first apostle. He is patron of fishermen and unmarried women, and his day is 30 November.
  • Anthony (known as the Abbot or the Great) was the hermit who spent 20 years in an abandoned fort in the 4th century, whose temptations have been depicted countless times in Renaissance art. He was the father of western monasticism and is the patron of animals, gravediggers and monks, among many others. His day is 17 January.
  • Alban (20 June) was a soldier who became the first Christian martyr in Britain, beheaded in 305. He is the patron of converts, refugees and torture victims.