Kentigern – De Vita Sua

Members of the Cathedral Family will appreciate the significance of a presentation that was made to the Cathedral at a ceremony at the tomb of Saint Mungo at 3.00pm on Sunday 18th March 2007.

The story begins much earlier, in June 2006, when the Very Revd John Miller, Interim Moderator, was approached by the City Council to provide a Cathedral representative to join the City Council’s Local History and Archaeology Working Group researching the publication of a new book on the Medieval City. Representation had earlier been invited by the City Council from the Archdiocese. Ian Macnair, our Librarian and Archivist, was asked to represent the Cathedral. Ian made progress reports to the Kirk Session in July and again in November covering his visits to Edinburgh and then to Dublin, from where, in addition to the Medieval City project, the City Council was hoping to copy for the City and for Glasgow Cathedral an ancient biography written around 1180 on the life of Saint Kentigern. The Medieval City project itself was to culminate in the publication of a book on Medieval Glasgow comprising contributions from eight notable authors including Dr James Macaulay, whose topic would be The Great Buildings of Glasgow.

Councillor Catherine McMaster, Chair of the Local History and Archaeology Strategy Group, wrote last November to the Cathedral, the Merchants House and the Trades House of Glasgow seeking financial contributions toward the cost of the twin projects – £10,000 for the Vita Saint Kentigern and £25,000 for the medieval book. A contribution similar to that made by the Archdiocese was though appropriate and the Kirk Session approached Glasgow Presbytery and the Friends of Glasgow Cathedral for their support culminating in a collective donation of £5,000 – £1,000 from Presbytery, £1,500 from the Cathedral and the balance of £2,500 from the Friends.

It was Bishop Jocelin (Bishop of Glasgow from 1175 to 1199), who had commissioned his namesake Jocelin, a monk of Furness Abbey in Lancashire, to write the story of Glasgow’s patron saint. Although long since lost to the Cathedral, probably during the Reformation in the mid 16th century, the original or at least a copy of it was found to have been in the possession of the Archbishop of Armagh, Narcissus Marsh, and now held in the Marsh Library in Dublin. Following the earlier mentioned sojourn by representatives of the city to Dublin permission was granted and the Marsh Library’s copy was digitally photographed and authentically reproduced.

The carefully prepared copies, together with an English translation from the Latin by Cynthia Whiddon Green, were presented in the Cathedral by Councillor Catherine McMaster, on behalf of the city, to Monsignor Peter Smith, Chancellor of the Archdiocese, representing Archbishop Mario Conti, who was indisposed, to Rev Dr Whitley and to representatives from the Mitchell Library in Glasgow and the Marsh Library in Dublin. The ceremony had been organised by Neil Baxter on behalf of the City Council and was stage managed by the Friends of Glasgow Cathedral, who afterwards provided a reception in the Lower Chapter House for the invited guests. As was the original, the book is not large (around 8” x 6” in size).  Thanks to the generosity of the Burns Association Of Glasgow, the volumes are now on display in the lower church.

While readers of the Chronicle may have read about the life of Saint Kentigern (or Saint Mungo as known in Glasgow), references which are likely to have stemmed from this publication itself, I feel privileged to have had a quick read of the translation and can tell you a little on the contents.

There are several chapters covering the public and private life of Saint Kentigern together with his consecration as a bishop as well as the miracles he performed. Included here is the restoration of life to the little bird needlessly killed by pupils in the monastery. We learn that Saint Kentigern wore a habit “made entirely from the skin of goats”, then a “cowl drawn tight like a fisherman’s” to cover his  head, over which was worn a “white alb” (a footnote reminds us that this was a vestment worn by all who served at the altar.) Saint Kentigern was noted to have carried a shepherd’s staff, though one not rounded or gilded and adorned with gems as is portrayed nowadays. We also learn that during his life Saint Kentigern made seven trips to Rome  to reaffirm his ordination as bishop in the presence of Gregory the Great and that he lived to the age of 185 years.

While Jocelin’s book centres largely on the life of Saint Kentigern within Glesgu (Glasgow), translated as “Beloved Family”, it also covers his flight to Saint David to escape the treachery of those plotting his death and his life there in Wales. One chapter speaks of King Rederech’s recall for Saint Kentigern to return to his former bishop’s throne, which he acceded to after an angel of the Lord commanded him thus “Return again to Glesgu and to your church and in that place you will be a great nation and the Lord will cause you to flourish among your chosen people. You will acquire a holy nation and purchase uncountable people for the Lord your God and you will attain a perpetual crown from Him. For there you will finish your days in good old age, and from this world you will pass over to your father who is in heaven. In that place your flesh will rest with hope, buried with funeral rights of glory and humour. You will be greatly honoured by the repeated visitations of the people and the display of wonders, until at the last day having received a double stole from the hand of the Lord, you will possess a double reward in the general resurrection.”

Leaving Saint Asaph as his successor in Wales Saint Kentigern returned to Glasgow where, in gratitude, King Rederech would have him be king over his dominions. The book tells us of the saint’s continuing life in Glasgow following his return and of the adultery of the queen with one of the king’s soldiers and the restoration by Saint Kentigern of the queen’s ring after it was cast into the River Clyde by King Rederech, another of the tales linked to the city’s coat of arms.

While the book speaks throughout of Saint Kentigern, Jocelin was aware of the saint’s more familiar name for in bold script after the final chapter Jocelin writes “Here ends the life of the most holy Kentigern, Bishop and Confessor, who is called Mungo in Glescu”. I hope these extracts will allow Cathedral members to take pride in this volume now resting in the Cathedral, believed to be the first copy of the original life of the city’s patron saint to be lodged in Glasgow for nearly 450 years. Those seeking more information should consult with Ian Macnair, who has available much more information on the book than the Chronicle can accommodate. I am sure Ian will be pleased to make this available to Cathedral members.

Jack Steele