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by A.M. Bellows

This area looks at St Helier. In "Did St Helier exist?", I attempt to sketch in the background of the stories surrounding St Helier, and consider what we can tell, looking behind the legendary accretions. "The Name Helier" suggests how the name may have been corrupted over time to its present form. "The Feast Day" shows the coincidence of Helier and similarly named saints. "Who was St Cunibert?" looks at the authentic historical background behind Helier's mentor."DNA and the Vikings" considers in passing the version of the legend which involves Vikings, and examines briefly recent evidence from DNA sounding. "The Development of the Tradition" examines the reliability of the historical material. Finally, "The Form of the Tradition" applies form critical methods to look at the author, his motivation and his audience.

I am not personally convinced that a real Helier existed, any more than a real "Arthur", but I am sure that an examination of the Life of St Helier will provide us with good reasons to believe that an early Christian settlement did exist in Jersey long before the supposed time of "Helier".

Did St Helier exist?

The oldest Life of St Marculf mentions an island called Agna with only thirty inhabitants and a hermit called Eletus. This has been identified with Jersey and St Helier, but this is largely a reading back into the story the identifications made in the Passion of St Helier, a much later work. That Jersey could have so few inhabitants (thirty) at the time compared to Guernsey, in the much better documented visits of St Sampson, stretches credulity too far. If a Channel Island is chosen, one the size of Herm would be more suitable.

That there was a town given the name "St. Helier" is not by itself proof that St Helier existed, or if he did exist, visited Jersey. The original attribution might have been to St Hilary of Poitiers, and became corrupted over time, particularly during the dark ages, when the Diocese of Dol was laid waste by invasions of pagans. However, the hermitage rock and linked Priory on the Islet of Elizabeth Castle have a long history. There would certainly seem to be enough evidence to support the idea of a hermit, and later, an erimetic community which gradually evolved.

Hilary of Poitiers was in Poitiers, Aquitaine, France, 315 and died there around 368. Hilary was exiled at various times because of his support for Athanasius against the Arian party. During his exile, no one replaced the saint as bishop of Poitiers. The priests preferred, instead, to pretend that he was still with them. So we might surmise a monastic settlement in Jersey, holding to the name of Hilary because he was so beloved by his fellow Christians.

If we consider the life of Martin of Tours, we may note some interesting facts. Martin was initially a follower of Hilary, and followed him to Poitiers and built a monastery at Ligugé, where he lived until he was chosen Bishop of Tours in 371. As well as founding a monastery, he also spent the ensuing years in various places, for some time leading the life of a hermit off the Italian coast. This is significant, because it shows that disciples of Hilary could both live as hermits and found monastic settlements. Indeed, Liguge was the first monastery in the West, and was very much a community of hermits.

Like the "Desert fathers", the disciples of St. Martin and St Hilary lived as solitaries, coming together for certain common exercises of piety, and practicing an austere existence. However, unlike these they also lived in the midst of a population wholly Pagan and, inevitably, they added to their monastic occupations the work of their neighbours’ conversion. Sermons, instructions, the exposure of the foolishness of the rustic Paganism, the practical exercise of the charity of Christ. What is interesting is that this would explain the contradictions between the "hermit" origins of St Helier's priory and the outreach to the population which can be discerned behind the legendary trappings.

We know, too, that there were early monastic settlements around Jersey. St Mary's Church takes its name from one such, possibly actually located in Greve de Lecq, while St Brelade's Church, again a remote location, appears to have started its existence in that way.

It is also interesting, that of that period we have dedications to St Martin and St Aubin, both Gaulish rather than Celtic saints (in their domains as Bishoprics, not their birthplaces), indicating an early Church link between those regions of France and Jersey. Might we not wonder why there is no dedication to St Hilary also? Hilary's would not be the only Saint's name to be corrupted; it is certainly the case that St Brelade is by no means the original form of that name. There are also dedications in Brittany to St. Hilaire, but not here.

An additional surmise, though not part of my main argument, looks at the naming of the Parishes. John McCormack suggests that the basic Parish entities, restricted by the edict of Pope Hilary (461-468) were to St Mary, St Peter, St John, St Lawrence, Trinity, St Martin, St Saviour and St Clement. McCormack suggests that the edict of the Pope gradually lost force, and the additional Parishes came into being, cut out of part of the old ones. Thus St Mary's was split into St Ouen, St Peter into St Brelade, St Saviour into St Helier, and St Clement into St Martin de Grouville. If this is indeed so, we might surmise that the Western part of the Island was claimed by the Normandy church (strictly Neustria) and saints, and the South-Eastern corner by the Breton church, so we have St Ouen and St Brelade on the parts of the Island closest to Guernsey, which is known to have been visited by the Normandy church (with its Celtic links), and St Aubin, St Helier/Hilary and St Martin closest to the Brittany. This would also suggest two separate times for missions - an earlier one from Britanny and a later one from Normandy.

Lastly, the Passion of St Helier was written at a much later date, when the original attributions had been masked by time; it is clearly a work which draws upon any available sources of other Saints for stories, and it is this Life that makes the identification of Marculf's Eletus with Helier. The author was clearly trying to create a history where no records or traditions of the saint existed, apart from the bare bones of a hermit, and an early erimetic community, and the name Helier. The author would make St Helier a martyr, and the pirates purloined from St Marculf's Life would return to the St Helier when the Saint was alone to kill him. The geographical disparity between other sites in France attributed to St Helier would be taken care of with the miraculous translation of his body across the sea. The Parish symbol postdates this, and is drawn, of course, from the legendary account.

Reconstructing what might have been, we have an early and small mission of hermitic monks settling on the Islet and evangelising . These were followers of St Hilary and St Martin. Later, these died out, leaving traces of their religious occupation on the site, and in the name of Hilarius, but little more than a folk-memory, possibly of a healing ministry. A later religious settlement took over the site and the name Helier, and sought to create a founding document detailing their own origins, and in doing so, erased the record of the earlier mission, replacing this with the legend of St Helier. However, the pilgrimage, if celebrating the life of a saint who probably did not exist, in walking to the hermitage at Elizabeth Castle, is still paying tribute to what may have been one of the very earliest religious missions to the Island in the middle of the 4th century A.D.

The Name Helier

As we are considering Latin manuscripts, we are looking at the names Helerius for St Helier and Hilarius for St Hilary; if the Latin reflects an earlier oral tradition of a saint associated with Jersey, the pronunciation would effect the later spelling of the name, creating Helerius from Hilarius.

The Feast Day of St Helier

The feast day of St Helier is 16th July.This is also a feast day in the diocese of Coutances. There is also a feast day on this day for Hilarinus, martyr, a 3rd century saint at Magdeburg, Ratzeburg, Gnesen, Amiens, Arras, Beauvais and one authority ( "The Hours of Catherine of Cleves", introduction and commentaries by John Plummer (New York: George Braziller, n.d.) places this day as a feast day also for "Hilary, bishop"

Who was St Cunibert?

The legend mentions that Helier, born in Tongres, was taught by a "Christian teacher named Cunibert" (see St Cunibert (623-633?), a Frankish courtier, was successively archdeacon of Trèves (Trier) and archbishop of Cologne. He filled the office of chief minister during the minority of King Sigebert of Austrasia (the Kingdom of the East), not Neustra (the Kingdom of the West). He was an untiring builder of churches and monasteries. Saint Cunibert is always shown with a dove on his head or at his ear. Sometimes he holds Cologne Cathedral (Roeder). It is from here and here alone that we find the names "St Cunibert" and "Sigobard" (presumably Sigebert) and "Brunehilde", but their association is with Germany and Cologne, not Tongres.

DNA and the Vikings

The legend of St Helier has the island he was on attacked by Vikings (see

However, a recent study of DNA of Channel Islanders with Norman surnames shows the DNA was very similar to the Ancient Britons. There was only a hint of the Norwegian DNA signature from Norman invasions, either supposed (as the legend) or actual (as Rollo settling in Normandy in the 9th century). The connection with the Vikings would appear more tenuous than actually supposed., with more cultural influence than genetic.

(See for full details.)

Having written the above, I have spoken to the local expert, Frank Falle, who tells me that the DNA of Vikings is much more common that at first thought, although the proportion Celtic/Brittany DNA is more common in Jersey lineages than Vikings. It is clear, however, that at some point Vikings (or their descendants who became the Normans) settled in Jersey, but as an invading force, very much as a ruling minority - as was the case in England after 1066.

The development of the tradition

When considering the authenticity of the Passion of St Helier, we must note the following:

a) The manuscript's story is not well corroborated by other sources; indeed, other more accurate sources for the period show that names have been placed in the story with scant regard for historical period or geography. Balleine gives a number of examples of this.

b) The proximity of the story to the event itself is very remote. The Passion was written at least five hundred years after the supposed events, and no earlier sources are extant or even referred to in any other documents from that time. Compare this with the Lifes of Marculf, which are much closer to their source, and better still, the Lives of Aubin and that of Martin, both written by contemporaries. The element of "viking" invasions possibly dates closer to the 9th century with Rollo and the settlement of the Norsemen in Normandy than earlier.

c) The story dates from an age of pious forgery, where monastic claims were bolstered by fictituous or embellished "foundation" documents, both to gain glory for an order and to bring in revenue.

The case of Glastonbury Abbey shows how rapidly this can be done. In the course of scarcely a hundred years, the monks "improved" on William of Malmesbury's cautious account, adding Joseph of Arimethea, the Holy Grail, and King Arthur and Avalon to his story.

We may also consider the erroneous identification, in good faith, by G.O. Bailleine of St Brelade with St Brendan, and the associated "fishers guild" for the Fisherman's chapel, which actually led to stained glass windows depicting scenes from the life of St Brendan. How easy it would be to read back into these windows the identification if no other evidence existed!

St Brelade's Church also has a legend of a site moved when built by "fairies". As Ahier has stated, this appears no more recent than the 17th century, and internal evidence of the forms of the story would seem to suggest a fairly recent date. Similar stories are told of some English churches, and it appears to be a story told to explain the odd location of the church. Part of the St Helier legend clearly functions in a similar way, to explain the mystery of a name about whom nothing was known apart from a location.

The form of the tradition

It is important to look at the form of the tradition, and the situation addressed by the writer of the Life. In doing so, we must address the following questions: What form did the narrative take? To whom was the Life addressed? Why were particular stories recounted - what was their importance to the writer and his audience?

The Life of St Helier takes the form of narrative. Teaching is spoken of, but there is no actual didactic material in the story. In this respect it is closer to the early Old Testament model (in the stories of J) or New Testament Apocrypha. It is story, but not history, even if it has the appearance of history, and may approach historical events (c.f. Barr, "Explorations in Theology").

By the time the Life came to be written, the model for the early Saint's lives had become well established,: preface, chronological account from birth to consecration/ordination/call to holy life, deeds as holy man, personal life, death. The Life of St Helier betrays its poverty by having no preface and very few details of Helier's personal life. It begins with being placed for verisimilitude in an historical setting, contains anecdotes of Helier's miraculous deeds loosely strung together, and has no cohesive drive until the story shifts to Jersey, where we hear of prayer, fasting and a healing, but none of the previous deeds. We can therefore break the narrative down into the following elements: (a) early life with pseudohistorical background; (b) miraculous deeds (c) what we may term a "passion narrative".

The early life has the appearance of history, but is full of historical anomalies and discrepancies. Like the "Book of Genealogy" spread through the Old Testament, it serves in part the function of providing structure.

The miraculous deeds are transposed from earlier Saint's Lives, and these themselves may have been adaptations of Biblical and Apocryphal Narratives. It is know (c.f. Stancliffe "St Martin and His Hagiographer") that there was a tradition of miraculous anecdotes which would be variously adapted to the Lives of Saints to illustrate their "virtue" or holiness.

The "passion narrative" at parts borrows from St Marculf's Life A and B. However, the healing of the cripple is distinctive, as is the place the hermit lived being a cave - Marculf has a "hut", and the death of Helier. The pirate's visit occurs twice not once, and the second occasion they kill Helier.

The audience to whom the Life was addressed were contemporaries of the writer in the 11th century, and unlike early Saint's Lives, not his contemporaries. As there is no preface, we have to speculate as to the audience. At the time the Life was written, there was a Priory established on the Islet (part of what was to become Elizabeth Castle). The Priory had taken its name from a tradition surrounding the Hermitage Rock and geographical district, which was associated with the name "Helier".

If other sources had existed, there would be traces of them within the structure of the Life, and the only associated sources are the much earlier Lives of Marculf, which have clearly altered in the Life of Helier. The writer and his audience must have been aware of the Life of Marcouf, because the pirate invasion is dispelled in that narrative, so the Helier one had them returning fifteen years later, rather than altering this detail. This indicates the Life has a Brittany background, and is written to establish St Helier in the Breton church.

Equally, the Tongres/Normandy narrative with its inconsistencies suggests that the audience for the Life was not familiar with the history of Tongres or Normandy - again implying a Breton background to the writer. This is creating a birth setting for the Saint well away from Brittany - he is telling his listeners that Helier's early life is so little known because he comes from outside the boundaries of their cultural and historical heritage. Equally, the surprising baptism of Helier by Marculf at Nanteuil (which occurs nowhere in the Life of Marculf) suggests the writer is concerned to establish a link between Helier (and the Priory) and Nantes; this may be against claims being made by other church groups such as those of the Diocese of Coutance and the Normandy Church. Again, Marculf sends him to Jersey - he is not found on the Island by Marculf almost in surprise, as with the Life of Marculf. Once more there is a claim of authority, which is curiously not reciprocated in any claims made by the Abbey at Nantes. This suggests while the writer may have come to the Island from Nantes, and is keen to assert the authority of Nantes over others; it also suggests that he was acting independently, and the authorities at Nantes were unaware of this claim, or aware of the flimsy nature of his story. Again, no documents appear contradicting this from the Normandy church, suggesting that there was no record of a the Priory being established in Jersey by a Normandy church group.

The miracle stories surrounding the Saint demonstrate that he is a Saint - he possesses the virtue or holiness which was linked in the mind with its realisation in miracles. Apart from the healing of the cripple, these are fantastical, and may be seen simply as a well-attested method of demonstrating the holiness of Helier.

The removal of the Saint's body after his death to Holland, and the care of a holy bishop, mirrors the early life, in that we are again in a locality where the writer and his listeners had only a very patchy knowledge. However, this did serve the purpose of dealing with the absence of any relics of the Saint locally; indeed the story removes such relics from the sphere of local knowledge.

In conclusion, the form of the story is narrative to give an appearance of history. The motive for writing a Life was no doubt partly for edification and to assuage curiosity, but also to establish and assert the independence of the Priory as a Breton establishment rather than a Normandy one, making out that the foundation had its source in Nantes, which was where the writer came from. In this respect, it was directed at the Normandy church rather than the Breton one. Our examination of the form of the story and its "life setting" suggests that the writer adapted existing stories at his disposal concerning the Lives of Marculf, anecdotal miracle stories, a pseudohistorical framework, and possibly a few minor facts about the religious tradition associated with the name "Helier" in Jersey.

Significant dates:

St Hilary of Poitiers 315-c368

St Martin of Tours c316-c397

St Aubin of Angers 470-550

St Sampson 485- 565

[St Helier ] c.510-520-c.550-560

St Brelade (6th Century)

St Ouen, Archbishop of Rouen (- 678),