St Pancras

San Pancrazio by Guercino
Public domain image

According to tradition, Pancratius (Pancras) was born around 289 AD near Synnada, now Suhut in modern Turkey. His parents were Roman citizens who died when he was young and his uncle Dionysius took him to Rome where they converted to Christianity. During the Diocletian persecution Pancras refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods and was decapitated on 12 May 303 AD. There is dispute over the date. Pancras body was buried in the Catacombs of Rome and his head placed in a reliquary which is today in the Basilica San Pancrazio which was built over the catacomb in the 5th century by Pope Symmachus. Pope Gregory I gave impetus to the cult of St Pancras.

Bede’s Historia records that Gregory saw some fair-haired young Saxon slaves in the Roman market place and was told they were Angles. He said: “Non Angli sed angeli” (not Angles but Angels) and determined to send a Christian mission to their homeland. Whatever the reason, he sent Augustine, prior of the Benedictine monastery of St Andrew in Rome, with relics of St Pancras on a mission to Æthelberht, Anglo-Saxon king of Kent, in 595 AD. It is said that the first church founded by Augustine in England was dedicated to St Pancras.

The dedication of Lewes Priory to the saint is believed to have been derived from that of the earlier church on the site. This small Saxon church is described by Thomas Horsfield in ‘The History and Antiquities of Lewes and Its Vicinity’ as being converted to stone by William de Warenne. St Pancras would have had a special significance for the Normans as Harold Godwinson had sworn support for Duke William on sacred relics. These were said to be relics of St Pancras whom St Gregory of Tours calls the Avenger of Perjuries. Harold’s subsequent defeat was attributed to his oath breaking.

British History Online has this to say about the saint:

In consequence of the early age at which he suffered for the faith, St. Pancras was subsequently regarded as the patron saint of children. "There was then," as Chambers remarks in his "Book of Days," "a certain fitness in dedicating to him the first church in a country which owed its conversion to three children"—alluding, of course, to the fair children whom Gregory saw in the streets of Rome, the sight of whom had moved the Pope to send St. Augustine hither. "But there was also another and closer link which connected the first church built in England by St. Augustine with St. Pancras, for," adds Mr. Chambers, "the muchloved monastery on the Cœlian Mount, which Gregory had founded, and of which Augustine was prior, had been erected on the very estate which had belonged anciently to the family of Pancras." The festival of St. Pancras is kept, in the Roman Catholic Church, on the 12th of May, under which day his biography will be found in the "Lives of the Saints," by Alban Butler, who tells us that he suffered martyrdom at the early age of fourteen, at Rome, in the year 304. After being beheaded for the faith, he was buried in the cemetery of Calepodius, which subsequently took his name. His relics are spoken of by Gregory the Great. St. Gregory of Tours calls him the Avenger of Perjuries, and tells us that God openly punished false oaths made before his relics. The church at Rome dedicated to the saint, of which we have spoken above, stands on the spot where he is said to have suffered; in this church his body is still kept. "England and Italy, France and Spain abound," adds Alban Butler, "in churches bearing his name, in most of which relics of the saint were kept and shown in the ages before the Reformation. The first church consecrated by St. Augustine at Canterbury is said by Mr. Baring Gould, in his "Lives of the Saints," to have been dedicated to St. Pancras. In art, St. Pancras is always represented as a boy, with a sword uplifted in one hand and a palm-branch in the other; and it may be added that the seal of the parish represents the saint with similar emblems. There is a magnificent brass of Prior Nelond, at Cowfold, in Sussex, where St. Pancras is represented with a youthful countenance, holding a book and a palm-branch, and treading on a strange figure, supposed to be intended to symbolise his triumphs over the archenemy of mankind, in allusion to the etymology of the saint's name. The saint figures in Alfred Tennyson's poem of "Harold," where William Duke of Normandy exclaims—

"Lay thou thy hand upon this golden pall;

Behold the jewel of St. Pancratius

Woven into the gold. Swear thou on this."