Quite some years ago now I stumbled upon the story that Saint Fursey was said to have come to England and, at the invitation of King Sigeberht, established a monastery at Burgh Castle. I thought that I would retell the story here as a good way to draw to a close, for now, the theme of Burgh Castle and the surrounding area. We have moved forward a few hundred years after the Romans retreated from Britain . The area has now been settled by the Anglo Saxons and Christianity is starting to become firmly established as the main religion of the British Isles.
The Life of Saint Fursey
The Venerable Bede, Monk and historian of the early English church, records this of Fursey:
WHILST Sigbert still governed the kingdom, there came out of Ireland a holy man called Fursa. renowned both for his words and actions, and remarkable for singular virtues, being desirous to live as a stranger and pilgrim for the Lord’s sake, wherever an opportunity should offer. On coming into the province of the East Angles, he was honourably received by the aforesaid king, and performing his wonted task of preaching the Gospel, bv the example of his virtue and the influence of his words, converted many unbelievers to Christ, and confirmed in the faith and love of Christ those that already believed. Here he fell into some infirmity of body, and was thought worthy to see a vision of angels; in which he was admonished diligently to persevere in the ministry of the Word which he had undertaken, and indefatigably to apply himself to his usual watching and prayers; inasmuch as his end was certain, but the hour thereof uncertain, according to the saying of our Lord, “Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour. ” Being confirmed by this vision, he set himself with all speed to build a monastery on the ground which had been given him by King Sigbert, and to establish a rule of life therein. This monastery was pleasantly situated in the woods, near the sea; it was built within the area of a fort, which in the English language is called Cnobheresburg, that is, Cnobhere’s Town; afterwards, Anna, king of that province, and certain of the nobles, embellished it with more stately buildings and with gifts. This man was of noble Scottish blood, but much more noble in mind than in birth. From his boyish years, he had earnestly applied himself to reading sacred books and observing monastic discipline, and, as is most fitting for holy men, he carefully practiced all that he learned to be right. Now, in course of time he himself built a monastery, wherein he might with more freedom devote himself to his heavenly studies.
The 12th century version of the life of St. Fursey, the Beatha Fursa, states that he was born c.584 AD at Rathmat on the island of Inchiquin on Lough Corrib. He is thought to have been the son of Fintan, King of Munster. His mother, Geligies was a Christian and daughter of Aed-Fin King of Cannacht. Traditionally he was said to have been baptised by Saint Brendan who was Fintan’s uncle, however, there is some doubt about this version of his life. Another version, written shortly after his death, reports that Fursey came from Ulster and also casts doubt on his lineage. It is said that Fursey decided when still a child “To spend his life as a pilgrim for the love of our Lord.” He was duly sent to study under Abbot Meldan.
As his reputation grew, large crowds gathered to hear Fursey. This made him increasingly uncomfortable and so he retreated to a small island off the west coast of Ireland and there sought God’s guidance. During this period he felt that he was being prepared for a new mission and around 630 AD Fursey, along with his brothers Foillan and Uttan and two other companions set sail from Ireland probably under invitation of Sigebert, King of the East Angles.
Sigebert welcomed Fursey and his companions and it is believed that he gave them the old Roman fort of Gariannonum, Burgh Castle as it is known today, and adjacent land for their monastery. At that time it would have been a remote place on the southern shore of a large estuary, the area was known as Cnobheresburg. It has been attested that Fursey, assisted by devoted followers, built a place of God within the walls of the fort. From this centre a great missionary movement was established that brought the Christian message not only to the people of the area but also to the Saxons, Picts and Franks of Northern Gaul.
Both before and during this time at the fort Fursey was given a series of visions. According to Bede, Fursey “quitted his body from sunset to cock crow” and saw great choirs of Angels singing praises to God and the Saints. Bede recorded that in one of these visions the Angels took Fursey to a great height where, upon looking down, he saw a gloomy valley where four fires burned in the air. The Angels told Fursey that fires threatened to consume the entire world.The fires were called Falsehood, Covetousness, Discord and Cruelty. Fursey watched with terror as the fires formed together into one great conflagration and a great battle ensued between Angels and demons. Bede relates;
But as for the story of his visions, he ( Fursa ) would only relate them to those who, from desire of repentance, questioned him about them. An aged brother of our monastery is still living, who is wont to relate that a very truthful and religious man told him, that he had seen Fursa himself in the province of the East Angles, and heard those visions from his lips; adding, that though it was in severe winter weather and a hard frost, and the man was sitting in a thin garment when he told the story, yet he sweated as if it had been in the heat of mid-summer, by reason of the great terror or joy of which he spoke.
Upon the death of his patron, King Sigebert the King’s successor, Anna continued to support the monastery. But as Fursey’s reputation grew so too did the crowds who wished to visit him and with another war threatening to engulf East Anglia, Fursey decided to disband the monastery until the situation calmed and so he sailed to Gaul. At Ponthieu Fursey was said to have raised a young boy from the dead, he was the son of the Lord of the area, Duke Hayson. With this and other events his reputation and fame spread and he was given land to establish a monastery at Langny on the river Marne by Erkinoald, ruler of the area. It was here that Fursey built his monastery and three chapels and it was from here that the message was disseminated. He was greatly renowned throughout Picardy and his message spread throughout Europe.There are many miracles attributed to him. After receiving premonitions that his life was nearing its end, Fursey decided that the time was right to return to Cnobheresburg (Burgh Castle) and once there recall his, now scattered, community of monks to reestablish the monastery. Fursey was never to achieve his ambition. He was struck down with a mortal illness at Ponthieu and died there on 16th January 650AD. In his honour the town was renamed Forsheim (House of Fursa) and is still known by that name today. His body was taken to the monastery at Peronne that later became a large shrine and here too many miracles were witnessed.
Foillan took over the care of the monastery at Burgh Castle after Fursey’s departure to Gaul. He too left to establish a monastery in Belgium where he later died.
It is said that, with Saint Columbia, Fursey was regarded as the most influential missionary to come from Ireland .
Archaeological excavations in 1958, 60 and 61 revealed evidence of foundations of a group of huts within the walls which may have been the site of Fursey’s monastery.
The arms of God be around our shoulders
The light of the Holy Spirit in our minds
The sign of Christ’s cross upon our foreheads
The sound of the Spirit in our ears
The fragrance of the Spirit in our nostrils
The vision of heaven’s company in our eyes
The conversation of heavens company on our lips
The work of God’s church in our hands
The welfare of God and neighbor in our feet
Our hearts a home for God
And to God, nurturer of all, our whole being.
Old Irish, attributed to Saint Fursey.
The above information came from various sources. For further details regarding St. Fursey and his legacy, please refer to the following: