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Scholar finds red-letter day for Thurstan, 12th-century Archbishop of York

05 February 2024

English Heritage © Reproduced by permission of King’s College, Cambridge (MS 31 fol 3v)

The manuscript

The manuscript

A SCHOLAR who has studied a 15th-century manuscript suggests that a former Archbishop of York, Thurstan (1114-40), was more highly venerated than historians have generally thought him to have been: in fact, a saint’s day would have been observed for him by monks in the first week of February.

The senior properties historian for English Heritage, Dr Michael Carter, made the discovery in the archives of King’s College, Cambridge. In a reference in a manuscript from Pontefract Priory, St Thurstan appears in a calendar of saints’ days observed at the monastery (King’s College MS 31 fol 3v).

The entry for 6 February, translated from Latin, reads: “Death of Saint Thurstan, archbishop of York, year of grace, 1140” It has also been written in red ink — a sign of its significance to the monks at that time.

Dr Carter said on Sunday that this represented “unambiguous proof that Thurstan was indeed a saint, and that his name should be seen alongside other religious contemporaries in northern England, including St William and St Aelred of Rievaulx, St Waldef of Kirkham and Melrose, and St Godric of Finchale”.

He described Thurstan as being “well known amongst medieval historians and scholars as a figure of immense political and social significance during the early half of the 12th century, but all have denied that he ever achieved sainthood”.

Thurstan, who was born in Normandy in 1070, visited the Abbey of Cluny in his youth where he vowed to one day become a Cluniac monk, Dr Carter said. “On 25 January 1140, aged nearly 70, and in failing health, he fulfilled this vow by resigning from his position as Archbishop of York and retiring to the Cluniac priory at Pontefract. He died less than two weeks later, on 6 February, and, as befitted his status and importance, was buried before the high altar at Pontefract Priory.”

Other accounts have been given of his sanctity, English Heritage reports.

A few days after Thurstan’s death, the Archdeacon of Nottingham was said to have experienced a vision of Thurstan in a dream, in which he appeared in heaven among the saints. Other sources report that, after Thurstan’s death, the monks at Pontefract opened his tomb to find that neither his body nor the vestments in which he had been buried had decayed, and that a sweet smell — thought to be an “odour of sanctity” in medieval times — emanated from the grave. A Life of Thurstan, written at about this time, refers to the “Blessed Thurstan”.

“Saintly cults of this type, largely restricted to a single monastery and its immediate surroundings, did not at this time require papal approval,” Dr Carter writes.

A professor of medieval history at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, Professor Janet Burton, specialises in medieval monastic and religious orders. She included Thurstan’s entry in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

“Dr Carter’s discovery has added an extra dimension to our understanding of Thurstan’s legacy and his place in the religious culture of the medieval north,” she said. “A man of European dimensions, Thurstan spent the first five years of his period of office on the Continent, where he enjoyed contact with popes and cardinals, and the leading lights in new emergent monastic movements.

“He was imbued with all the latest reforming ideas that were sweeping the Church. He transformed his vast diocese, introducing administrative change, fostering pastoral care, and above all encouraging new monastic foundations.”

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