Kentigern : Saint of the North

“Here is the bird that never flew,
Here is the tree that never grew,
Here is the bell that never rang, 
Here is the fish that never swam. “

Statue of Saint Kentigern at Kelvingrove Museum.
Statue of Saint Kentigern at Kelvingrove Museum.

The rhyme above tells of legends associated with Saint Kentigern. Although patron saint of the Kingdom of Strathclyde since the 6th century A.D, little historical information is known regarding Saint Kentigern. Two volumes describing his life exist: one written around 1150 by an unknown author, the other written around 1180 by Jocelyn of Furness Abbey at the request of Bishop Jocelyn of Glasgow, former abbot of Melrose Abbey ( 1175-99 ).

Furness Abbey in Lancashire. The author of 'Life of Kentigern' hagiographer Jocelyn of Furness was a monk at the abbey in the 12th century.  Image: English Heritage
Furness Abbey in Lancashire. The author of ‘Life of Kentigern’ hagiographer Jocelyn of Furness was a monk at the abbey in the 12th century.
Image: English Heritage

Kentigern is thought to have been the son of Owain, son of Urien, and Theneu, daughter of King Leudonus of Lothian. Some legends state Kentigern was conceived when his father dressed as a woman in order to ravish the unsuspecting princess, who had refused to marry him, preferring to dedicate herself to her Christian faith. On discovering his daughter’s pregnancy, Leudonus condemned Theneu to death. She was duly hurled from the top of a hill, but survived unscathed. Choosing to let the gods decide her fate, her kinsmen cast her adrift in a boat without oars or sails. Theneu travelled across the Firth of Forth to Culross, Fife. Kindling a fire on the shore, she gave birth to a son named Kentigern ‘Lord of the Wolf Hounds’

Traprain Law. It is reputed Kentigern’s mother, Theneu, was hurled from the top of the hill as punishment for her seemingly illicit pregnancy.  Image: Undiscovered Scotland
Traprain Law. It is reputed Kentigern’s mother, Theneu, was hurled from the top of the hill as punishment for her seemingly illicit pregnancy.
Image: Undiscovered Scotland

Discovered by shepherds, Theneu and Kentigern were taken to Saint Serf and given sanctuary. Here Kentigern was trained for a religious life. It is here that St Serf bestowed on Kentigern the name he is more commonly known by: Mungo or ‘dear, beloved one’. While a novice in the monastery, his fellow students accidentally killed St Serf’s pet Robin, placing the blame on Kentigern. He prayed over the dead bird and restored it to life.

Another legend relates how Kentigern was charged with keeping the sacred fire alive, but fell asleep. On waking, he prayed over a frozen hazel twig, causing it to burst into flames.

Kentigern seems to have been resented by his fellow novices, perhaps because St Serf had chosen him to be his successor. Not for nothing is he the patron saint of victims of bullying.

On completion of his education, Kentigern travelled to Carnock, Stirlingshire. On his travels he is said to have parted the waters of the Forth.

Saint Ninian, the 5th century missionary from Whithorn in South-west Scotland who dedicated a burial ground, where Saint Kentigern later founded his church.  Image: University of Edinburgh,  Special Collections, MS 42.
Saint Ninian, the 5th century missionary from Whithorn in South-west Scotland who dedicated a burial ground, where Saint Kentigern later founded his church.
Image: University of Edinburgh, Special Collections, MS 42.

He later encountered a dying holy man named Fergus. Kentigern accompanied the corpse of Fergus, which was borne on a cart by two untamed oxen. Kentigern declared where the oxen stopped would be the resting place of Fergus. The oxen stopped at St. Ninian’s burial ground, in Cathures, where Fergus was duly buried. The Blackadder Aisle in Glasgow Cathedral is thought to occupy the site.

Depiction in the 15th century Blackadder Aisle, of the cart that carried Fergus. His name can be seen at the bottom.
Depiction in the 15th century Blackadder Aisle, of the cart that carried Fergus. His name can be seen at the bottom.
Blackadder Aisle, where the body of the holy man named Fergus encountered by St Kentigern is thought to be buried.
Blackadder Aisle, where the body of the holy man named Fergus encountered by St Kentigern is thought to be buried.

Kentigern was consecrated as the city’s bishop, founding a church on the site of the earlier burial ground dedicated by Saint Ninian.

Copy of Jocelyn's 'Life of Kentigern'. The original manuscript is in the Marsh Library in Dublin.
Copy of Jocelyn’s ‘Life of Kentigern’. The original manuscript is in the Marsh Library in Dublin.

Jocelyn’s Life of Kentigern describes the miracles performed by the saint. These include inducing a stag and a wolf to plough the land, and causing the wheat store of the despised King Morken, to be carried on the waves of the River Clyde to Kentigern’s monastery in response to his prayer. Morken is said to have later died from a tumour in his feet as punishment for kicking Kentigern.

A white boar similar to the one who led Kentigern to the site of his monastery in Wales. Although the boar shown here is a little less lucky. Image:
A white boar similar to the one who led Kentigern to the site of his monastery in Wales. Image: St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 827, p. 266 – Late Medieval Composite Manuscript of Computistic and Astronomical Content (www.e-codices.unifr.ch/en/csg/0827/266)

Forced into exile because of King Morken, Kentigern travelled through Cumbria to Wales, where he exchanges staffs with Saint David. Jocelyn describes how Kentigern and his disciples are travelling through the valleys, searching for a place to found his monastic church, when they encounter a white boar:

“a single wild boar from the wood, entirely white, met them, and approaching the feet of the saint, moving his head, sometimes advancing a little and then returning and looking backwards, motioned of the saint and to his companions with such gesture as he could to follow him. On seing this they wondered and glorified God, who worked marvelous things, and things past finding out in His creatures. Then step by step they followed their leader, the boar, which preceded them.

When they came to the place which the Lord had predestined for them, the boar halted, and frequently striking the ground with his foot, and making the gesture of tearing up the soil of the little hill that was there with his long tusk, and shaking his head repeatedly and grunting, he clearly showed to all that that was the place designed and prepared by God.”

While in exile, Kentigern is believed to have visited Rome, where the Pope gave him a bell – the “bell that never rang” of the well known rhyme.

Stained glass windows of St Kentigern and St Asaph.
Stained glass windows of St Kentigern and St Asaph.

Asaph, a novice, carries hot coals to warm the saint in his robe, but neither his skin or clothes are burned. Asaph is declared Kentigern’s successor in Wales, and later becomes a saint. The cathedral of Saint Asaph in North Wales bears his name.

Kentigern later returns to Strathclyde with over 600 disciples at the behest of King Rhydderch Hael, who is mentioned in the miracle of the ‘Salmon and the Ring’. Rhydderch is said to have died in the same year as the saint.

Kentigern’s death is thought to have occurred on 13th January in 603 or 612 A.D. He is described as dying in a hot bath, surrounded by his devoted disciples, who accompany the saint to heaven. An annual service is still held at his tomb on the anniversary of his death.

The tomb of Saint Kentigern in the Lower Church of Glasgow Cathedral.
The tomb of Saint Kentigern in the Lower Church of Glasgow Cathedral.
An image of St Kentigern.  Image: Glasgow City Council Museums
An image of St Kentigern.
Image: Glasgow City Council Museums
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