Thursday, 20 April 2017

Who was St Ouen - part 1

From a 1948 copy of "The Pilot" comes this piece by G.R. Balleine. When it comes to the names of our Parish churches some are recognisable from the gospels - St Peter, St Mary, St John - and some are other saints.

The material on those is often fragmentary. St Helier only exists in legendary accounts dating around 400-600 years after his lifetime, which are untrustworthy. St Brelade is mentioned in Bishop Grandisson's ordinate, circ. AD 1330. Grandisson was Bishop of Exeter. Confusingly he lists two saints of similar names:

St. Branwalethri, a martyr son of King Kenem.

SS. Branwalader and Mellenus, confessors and bishops. St. Branwalader is also commemorated in a Winchester calendar, and one at Treguies in Brittany. In the Exeter Litany, cited by Mabillon, there is also an invocation of him. On January 19, 905, King Athelstan translated the body of St. Branwalader to Milton. William of Worcester says before it reposed at Branston, eight miles from Axminster. His days were June 8, January 19, June 5.

But with St Ouen we are on terra firma, with solid history. In this first part, here is that history, and tomorrow will be the later embellishments.

Who was St Ouen - part 1
by G.R. Balleine

When Ruskin was asked “Which is the loveliest Church in Christendom? He answered: “the glorious Abbey of St Ouen at Rouen”.

All over Western Europe are churches bearing this Saint’s name. There was one in the City of London, another at Gloucester, another at Hereford, another at Bristol (though under the name St Ewen), another at Armagh in Ireland. In Spain the Cathedral of Vich is St Ouen. Near Naples, he has a shrine to which the deaf flock for healing.

In France there is hardly a Department that has not several towns or villages called St. Ouen-sur-this or St. Ouen-des-that. The Diocese of Rouen has thirteen churches dedicated in his honour. The Diocese of Coutances has ten. Who was this Saint, who left so deep an impression on the Western church?

He is not a Saint, out of Legend Land like St. Helier or St. Brelade, but a real character, whose life-story can lie verified from contemporary documents. He lived in the seventh century, in days when the Merovingian conquerors were ruling France.

His real name, a common name among the Francs, was Dado. Later, when he was made a Bishop, this was Latinized as Audoenus. In French the first syllable was dropped, and he became Ouen.

The Merovingian Kings kept round them a corps of lads of good family, who later would have been called pages. Admission to this corps was the first step toward a public career. Dado became one of these pages. King Dagobert was a typical barbarian chief, a drunken ruffian with three wives and a vast seraglio of concubines . but among his pages was a group of lads who even in these unsavoury surroundings were enthusiastic Christians.

Here Dado formed a lifelong friendship with the boy who later was fatuous as St. Eloi, and several other of his companions became well-known Bishops. Step by step he rose through various offices in the Household until, while still under thirty, he became Referendaire or Keeper of the King's Seal. All official documents had to be sealed by him, and charters survive, which bear his signature.

He was now a Chief Officer of State, a man of influence and wealth ; and he founded a monastery on his father's estate, and secured as its first Abbot an aged disciple of the  Irish missionary, St Columban.

 In 640 something happened which revolutionized Dado's life. The Archbishop of Rouen died. Bishops in those days were elected by the laity, and Dado was popular in Rouen, which he had often visited in the King's train.

The citizens crowded their cathedral to choose a new Archbishop, and someone proposed Dado, and, though he was a layman only just thirty, whose whole life had been spent in secular affairs, to his horror he was elected by acclamation. He tried to escape, but the people would not let him.

So, since no man might become a Bishop, till he had been a year a priest, he was ordained, and spent twelve months with a mission that was trying to convert the Spanish Arians to orthodox views of the Trinity. Then he returned to Rouen, and was consecrated Archbishop.

Rouen was the largest Diocese in North France. The young :Archbishop had about two hundred clergy under him, and all neighbouring Bishops, including the Bishop of Coutances, were his suffragans.

By all accounts Ouen. as we must now call him, was a hard working ecclesiastic who ruled his diocese vigorously for forty three years. France was nominally Christian, but in the north the country-folk were still semi-pagan.

They were baptized and attended Mass, but, if a cow fell sick, offerings were left on the broken altar of one of the old gods, and at certain seasons everyone dressed in animal skins and joined in orgiastic dances.

 St. Ouen set himself to suppress this. He visited every village; he increased the number and quality of the clergy ; he encouraged the foundation of monasteries in remote districts. According to his biographers he stamped out the. last vestige of heathenism. In statuary he is represented as crushing the head of a dragon.

Apart from this he seems to have done all that was expected of a Bishop. He attended the Council of Chalons. Though no longer an officer of the Household, he maintained his influence at Court, and from time to time intervened in the blood-stained politics of the period. On one occasion he negotiated peace between the Kingdom of Neustria and Austrasia.

But the mystery about him is how he gained his reputation as a Saint. He was no martyr or heroic missionary, for in his contest with Paganism he had the power of the State behind him. He was no John the Baptist sternly rebuking, the corruption of the Court. He was no great preacher or theologian (two writings were attributed to him later, the Salic Law and the Life of his friend, St. Eloi; but neither came from his pen). Nothing in his record suggests any exceptional level of holiness. He was just a man who did faithfully and well the work that was given him to do. Many Bishops must have been just as diligent and successful.

But there seems to have been something about him that history has failed to make clear. Almost immediately after his death, his contemporaries acclaimed him as a Saint. (here was in those days no formal canonization).

Five years after his burial his body was removed front its grave, and reburied behind the Right altar in the Abbey Church at Rouen, which henceforth was no longer called St. Peter's but St. Ouen's. And almost immediately other churches began to be dedicated in his name.

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