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One says; "He summoned his brethren, and announced that he was going to Brittany, and Romard, a holy Priest, asked leave to accompany him. So they crossed the Breton country, and came to an isle. Which those who lived there called Agna. Here they found a brother, named Eletus, who had long been living a hermit life. Then those three holy men discussed the guile of the Evil Spirits, and how by God's grace the Serpent is always foiled; and they gave themselves wholly to fasting and prayer. Therefore the crafty foe, seeing the island radiant with three such shining lights, stirred up against it nearly three thousand Saxon pirates. Now the isle, though rich in goods and cattle, had not many inhabitants. One day the inhabitants on their way to work saw the Saxon horde approaching, and fled in panic to the cell where the three holy men were at prayer, and cast themselves at Marculf's feet crying, 'Save us, or we perish' The Saint replied, 'Fear not, God will fight for you. In His sight numbers are as nothing'. Cheered by these words. they rushed on the foe. While Marculf, prostrate on the ground, pleaded for Divine help. Now many say that the Isle had only thirty inhabitants. The invaders were leaping into the surf, and some had reached the shore, when a great gale swept the ships out to sea, and smashed them to atoms, while the natives .slew all who reached the sands. When the Bretons heard of the miracles daily wrought by Marculf, crowds flocked to him, and he built a place of prayer on that isle, in which he placed monks to serve God".
The other Life tells the same story with variations: "Wishing to live for a time a hermit life Marculf went with a Priest named Romard to an island called Agnus off the Breton coast (Britannicae regioni quamdam adjacentem insulam quae Agnus vocabatur). This isle was inhabited by a few serfs (coloni), among whom dwelt a man named Helibertus, a very ascetic man, who kept his body in subjection by ultra-rigorous fasts. Marculf and Romard shared his hut and his life of contemplation and self-discipline. One day three thousand Saxon pirates descended on the isle with all sails set and oars swinging, The natives, who numbered no more .than thirty, fell trembling at Marculf's knees, crying, 'Father, save us', 'My sons', he said, 'to arms! The God Who overthrew Pharaoh and his host will fight for you. Forward! I promise you victory'. Relying more on the Saint's prayers than on their own strength, they killed all who landed, while those still on board were engulfed by the waves. The Lord of the Isle (insulae dominus), when he heard this, gave the Saint half the island, and here he built a monastery, in which he placed monks to form perpetually a Household of God". Marculf, then returned to Nanteuil.
Three points deserve attention:
(I) The island is not called Jersey, but Agnus and Agna. Other monastic writings however; show that one of the Channel Islands was called Angia. The Life of St. Samson says that he sailed to "Lesia and Angia. islands of the sea". The Miracles of St. Wandrille states that an Abbot of Fontenelle was sent to an "island called Angia, which Bretons inhabit, adjacent to the Coutances country" The Acts of St. Magloire tell how the Saint was summoned to "the island of Angia near Sark". An island described as "near Sank", and "adjacent to the Coutances country" certainly sounds like Jersey, though the Bollandists suggest Herm, perhaps because the thirty inhabitants sound more reasonable there. So if (and this is only an assumption) Agnus, Agna, and Angia are the same, St. Marculf's biographer may have placed his hermit in Jersey.
(II) The hermit is not called Helier, but Helibertus and Eletus.
The pirate story is practically same as one told of St. Magloire in Sark. He too encouraged the natives to resist. He too receiver from the Lord of the Isle half the island as a gift. He too built there a monastery. Legends of two Saints with somewhat similar names have clearly become entangled. So the whole incident may belong to Sark, not Jersey.
We hear no more of a Jersey hermit, till we reach the Passion of St. Helier (Passio Sancti Helerii), which cannot be earlier than the eleventh century, since it speaks of Normandy (Normannia), not Neustria. There are three Latin versions of the Passion, one printed by the Bollandists, one printed by Pigeon, and one printed in Le Grand's Saints de la Bretagne. There is also a French translation in an old Office Book at Rennes. They vary in details, but agree in their main story, which is this:
When Childebert reigned, after the death of the wicked Queen Brunehild, a childless couple lived at Tongres (now in Belgium), Sigobard, the richest noble of the north, and his lovely wife, Lutsegard. Though pagans, they begged St. Cunibert to pray that they might have children, promising, if his prayers were answered, to dedicate their firstborn to his God. A son was born, but when Cunibert claimed him, they would not let him go. Then the boy's legs began to wither, and Sigobard, remembering the vow, took him to the Saint, who healed him, and adopted him as his son, calling him Helerius. Daily the old man and the boy chanted God's praise together, living on barley-bread and greens seasoned with salt. Then miracles began. Helier kept the garden. When hares ate his cabbages he said, 'Let us share fairly' and drew a line across the cabbage patch, which the hares never crossed again. One say a hunter broke through the hedge to catch one of the hares, but a branch pierced his eye, and he would have been blind, had not Helier healed him. A woman with an issue of blood, which no physician could staunch, ate some of Helier's greens and was cured. A lad slept with his mouth open, and an adder slipped down his throat. Helier made the sign of the cross and the snake crept out ashamed.
Sigobard now wished to recover his son; so he sent two henchmen, who cut off Cunibert's head. Helier however ran away, and came to Therouanne (south of Calais). Here in the nicest corner of a disused church he made a private torture- chamber, where he prayed night and day, standing on jagged stones up to his knees in ice water with nails sharp as cobblers’ awls pricking his chest and back. People began to honour him as a Saint, specially when he had raised from the dead the child of a noble named Rotald. So, since admiration is bad for the soul, an Angel bade him go to Nanteuil in Normandy. On his way he cleansed a tainted spring by sprinkling it with salt. At Nanteuil he found St. Marculf, who baptised him. (A surprising statement. Why had not Cunibert done this long before? The mediaeval Church acknowledged no unbaptised person as a Christian; yet here was one becoming a Saint, and even working miracles!) After three months Marculf gave him leave to be a hermit, and sent him to Jersey (Different MSS read Gersut, Gersuth, and Gersich) with Romard as companion. (In the earliest story Romard only came to Agna with Marculf).
They sailed from Genets to Jersey, which had only thirty inhabitants. Here Helier healed a cripple with twisted legs, named Anscretil (other MSS read Ascretil, and Anchitil). Traces of this miracle can still be seen on the rocks (an indication that the writer was a Jersey resident. Indeed, who else would be lively to write the life of such an obscure local Saint?). Helier chose as home a cave in a crag cut off at high tide. Three years later Marculf visited him, and wept to see how worn he was with fasting. While Marculf was there thirty pirate ships from the Orkneys threatened the island. The Saints prayed, and the pirates fought among themselves so fiercely that not one returned home. (There were three versions of this Viking story. In one the ships were smashed by a storm. In one the raiders killed one another. And Poigndestre in l682 wrote of "an old French rime in which it is sayd that Sir Agobard, yt is a knight, was his father, and Elizambard his mother, and yt .like Elishah he was wont to delude pirats, who came to invade ye island, soe as they could not see it".) Three days later Marculf and Romard returned to Normandy. Helier now cut down his meals to one a week, and grew so feeble that he could not walk more than a stone's throw.
Twelve years passed. Then Vandals (i.e. pirates from North Africa) occupied the whole island. They discovered Helier’s cave through the twittering of the birds that congregated round it, and cut off his head. The bloodstain is still on the rock (another indication of local knowledge, referring probably to some red streak in the granite). Next day his pedagogue (Pedagogus; who this was is not explained) found the corpse a hundred yards from the cave with its head in its hands, as though it had tried to carry it to the shore. He laid the body in a boat, and fell asleep for sorrow. When he awoke, the tide had carried the boat to Holland. One manuscript says "to a town called Hereuarde, where the Meuse and Rhine and Waal meet, and there it was buried on July 16th by Willibrod the Bishop in a noble mausoleum". Another says "to a town called Hermiarde; and St. Gillebrius, the Bishop, had it taken to Struenarlensis, where he buried it on July 16th in a noble mausoleum". The old Office Book says, "It was carried to Hexvuarde, and buried at Stonenarleuse". None of these places can be identified.
Such is the story. The first thing that strikes a reader familiar with Lives of the Saints is that he has heard of every incident before. The childless couple vowing to dedicate their firstborn to God, the boy brought up by an old priest, is a story first told of Samuel. Twenty per cent of the Celtic Saints as boys, were brought up by hermits. The story of the hares and the cabbages is told of St. Antony and St. Godric. while St. Firmetus struck he same bargain with a wild boar. Dozens of Saints saved hares from hunters, who, when they ignored a warning, were hurt. but later healed. One sensational version of this tale is told of St. Marculf, in which the huntsman was thrown from his horse and all his bowels gushed out, but the Saint gathered them together, and restorer them to their place. The woman with the issue of blood has stepped out of the Gospel story. The boy who swallowed a snake in his sleep appears in the Miracles of St. Hilary. Celtic Saints according to their legends were always reciting the Psalter standing in icy water, St. Iltyd in Wales, St. Iwenael in Brittany, St. Erfh and St. Neot in Cornwall, while St. Cuthbert did it in the sea. and the porpoises used to thaw his frozen toes with their breath. The poisoned spring cleansed with salt is one of Elisha's miracles. The betrayal of the cave by the twittering of the birds recalls innumerable legends of hermits and their feathered friends. The cells of St. Aventin, St. Galmier and St. Maixent were surrounded by swarms of song birds. St. Fructueux' hiding-place and St. Adjuteur's tomb were discovered in the same way. The head-carrying exploit on which St Helier’s office-hymn laid stress:Mortuus propriis manibus Cervicem detulit plus centum passibus In his own hands, though he was dead, More than five score yards he carried his head.
is attributed to no less than eighty-six other martyrs, including St. Denis of Paris and the British St. Alban.
Indelible bloodstains were pointed out on many a site of martyrdom, as for example at St. Winefride's Well. The miraculous voyage to Holland is one of a large group of similar stories. The world-famous pilgrimage to Santiago was based on the belief that, when Herod beheaded St. James, Hermogenes and Philetus rescued his body, and put it in a boat. 'They then fell asleep, and, when they awoke next morning, they found themselves in Spain" (Acta Sanctorum). The Passion of St. Helier is a mosaic of anecdotes told originally about entirely different persons.
Moreover its chronology is absurd. St. Helier was born, we are told "after the death of wicked Queen Brunehild. when Childebert governed the Francs". This must be Childebert III, who came to the throne in 693. But Helier became a disciple of St. Marculf. who died in 558 ; and 'according to one account he was buried by the famous eighth century Bishop Willebrod. In other words he was baptised 150 years before he was born, and buried, while still a young man, two hundred years later.
But, it we have to admit that the Passion of St. Helier, written at least five hundred years after the time when our hermit is said to have lived, is a religious romance, composed purely for edification, and not based on any historical research, what evidence is there that St. Helier ever existed ? The Lives of St. Marculf, much older works, assert, if Agna is Jersey, that there was a hermit in Jersey in the sixth century, a thing in itself highly probable, for the hermit movement was then at its height, a reaction against the prevailing laxness and worldliness of the Church; and on scores of Islands off the Breton coast, and in the isles of Chausey, could be found enthusiastic young men determined to be total abstainers from luxury. But the strongest argument is that in the twelfth century, when William Fitzhamon founded his Abbey on the spot where Elizabeth Castle now stands, he dedicated it to St. Helier (ecclesia Sancti Helier). He must have believed that there had been such a person (though even here it can be argued that the church was really dedicated to St. Elerius, a well-known Welsh Abbot, or to St. Hilary, the famous Bishop of Poitiers, and that Helier was merely the French form which the name assumed in the island).
However, when the Passion of St. Helier was written, the Jersey hermit acquired a certain amount of fame. A chapel was built over what was said to be his cave. At Fruges, near Therouane, a church was dedicated to him, and the village spring identified with the one he purified. A church at Rennes still bears his name, and one at Baubec, near Rouen. In the fifteenth century St. Helerus was added to the Calendar of the Augustinian Priory of Launceston in Cornwall (the monks on the Jersey islet were Augustinians). But St. Helier's name was not added to the Coutances Breviary till late in the seventeenth century, and it is not yet included in the Roman Martyrology, the official list of martyrs recognised by the Roman Church. The Bollandists class the Passion of St. Helier as a ‘Legende peu sure’, a legend on which little reliance can be placed.