John Henry Newman.

Lives of the English saints (Volume 2) online

. (page 2 of 33)
Online LibraryJohn Henry NewmanLives of the English saints (Volume 2) → online text (page 2 of 33)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


of this title when applied to a British chief. He says,
in speaking of Tuduval, a petty prince in Galloway,
" That the whole island was divided into portions sub-
ject to different kings." Like the other Celtic nations,



14 ST. ninian's early days.

tlie Britons consisted of distinct tribes, with various
subdivisions of septs and clans, each under its own
chieftain, and these subordinated to a superior one.
Thus the four Kings whom Caesar speaks of in the one
kingdom of Kent. These national subordinations,
living on under, and through, the Roman period, and
naturally prevailing most on the outskirts of the em-
pire, are supposed to have been the origin of the
clans of the Scottish border. St. Aelred would identify
the position of the father of our Saint, with the kings
who governed the whole of the Cumbrian Britons
till within the memory of his own time ; though
this is giving him a wider extent of authority than he
probably possessed.

To suppose St. Ninian the son of one of the minor
chieftains under the Roman sway, is not assigning
him a very high or improbable distinction. These
kings, indeed, from their lands, or the contributions of
their tribes, often acquired considerable wealth, and
this coincides with what is said by his biographer of the
sacrifice he made in relinquishing his father's house
and his prospects in Britain, as well as with all we hear
of his education, and his acquaintance with the full
extent of theological teacliing, which his own country
could supply.

St. Ninian's father then was a petty chieftain of a
British tribe, and, as we should infer from St. Aelred's
description, on the north-west coast of Cumberland. It
is true that the claim of Cumberland to this her one
only native Saint may be disputed, and the right we have
to introduce St. Ninian into a series of English Saints,
For two other parts of the island have been generally
assigned. On the one hand, though without any alleged
ground so far as we cao ascertain, North Wales is stated



ST. ninian's early days. 15

to have been his birth-place by Leland, Bale, and
others ; while he has most commonly been regarded as
a native of Scotland, and it has not unnaturally been
supposed that he was born near Whithern, the seat of
his futm'e Bishopric ; not unnaturally, because it was
to labour for the restoration of religion among his
own countrymen, primarily, that he was sent from
Rome. The inhabitants of Galloway, however, were of
one and the same race with the Britons of Cumber-
land, and so were really his countrymen, even if he
were born in Cumberland ; and as we go on it will
appear that his mission at first was not directed to
Whithern, but that after landing and preaching in his
native country, he chose that as his permanent abode.
St. Aelred is certainly an unprejudiced witness. His
authority was a Galwegian life, and he was writing his
narrative for the Church of Galloway, and he had
strong affections for that country. Still he states, as the
received opinion of his day, that the coast of Cumber-
land by the Solway was the birth-place of the Saint.
His words are, " in that district, as it is thought, which
lying in the western parts of the island, (where the
sea, stretching out, as it were, an arm, and forming two
angles on each side, separates what are now the king-
doms of the Scotch and English) is proved, not only by
the authority of histories, but also by the memory of
some persons, to have had kings of its own, even to the
latest times of the Saxons." ^ This arm of the sea

' " In ea, ut putatur, regione, quae in occiduis ipsius insulae
partibus (ubi Oceanus quasi brachium porrigens, et ex utraque
parte duos angulos faciens, Scotorum nunc et Anglorum regna
dividit) constituta, usque ad novisslma Anglorum tempora pro-
prium habuisse regem, non solum historiarum fide, sed quorun-
dam quoque memoria comprobatur."



16 ST. NINIAn'S early DATS.

is evidently the Solway, which on the cession of
Cumberland to Henry II., 1153, became the boun-
dary of the two kingdoms ; and it was on the western
shore of the Island, and in a district which had kings
of its own, " usque ad novissima Anglorum tempora ;"
that is, till the end of the Saxon times. The Cumbrian
Britons had kings of their own till the year 946, when
the last of their princes, Dunmail, fell in defence of
their narrow territories, and Edmund gave the con-
quered country to the Scottish kings. The British in-
habitants continued as a separate race in the time of
St. Aeb-ed, and took a conspicuous part in the Battle
of the Standard.

It is quite clear that Galloway was not the coimtry
intended, for it had Lords of its own, who were in
power in Aelred's day, and some time after ; and as he
was on terms of intimate friendship with Fergus, the
then lord, he would certainly not speak of them as
matter either of history or tradition.

Pinkertou indeed in a note on St. Aelred's life, sup-
poses as others had done, that Strathclydd, the Scottish
portion of the great northern settlement of Britons,
is the district referred to. But there are these ob-
jections to the view. Strathclydd which lies on the
opposite side of the Solway, and stretches to the
Clyde, would scarcely have been described as in the
western parts, in connexion with the mention of that
sea, as it is its south-eastern coast only which abuts
upon the Solway. Again, though the Strathclydd
race of kings had continued till 975, or perhaps 1018,
when there is the last mention of the inhabitants
of Strathclydd as having a king ; yet it does not
appear why they should be mentioned in connexion
with the Angli — the Saxons — who had not occupied



ST. ninian's early days. 17

that district for some centuries previously, and then
only for a short time and very partially. Indeed the
" usque ad novissima Anglorum tempora" would not
seem to have any meaning as regarded any part of
Scotland, where, in St. Aelred's days, the Angli still
continued in as much power as at any previous time.^

And there is a remarkable confirmation of our view
in Leland's account ; for though he represents North
Wales as Ninian's birth-place, and throughout his
history differs materially from St. Aelred, yet he says
that the country the Saint first visited as a mission-
ary, was the coast of Cumberland, " between St. Bees
Head and Carlisle," and Galloway. This is what we
conceive him to have done, supposing that part of
Cumberland to have been his birth-place, ^nd so far it
coincides with St. Aelred's account, that he first went
to his native place ; except that Leland, quite erro-
neously it would seem, places that missionary visit
before, instead of after, his residence at Rome.

It is allowed that St. Aelred's description is obscure,
but to suppose it to describe the Cumbrian coast, seems
the most natural interpretation. Let us then assume
that St. Ninian is an English and a Cumbrian Saint.
In that case he would be one of the great tribe of Bri-
gantes, who occupied the whole of the Northern coun-
ties of England. The district where he was born was

' The name Cumbria was given to the whole district occu-
pied by the Cwmry, in Scotland and the north of England,
sometimes including even Galloway. The Scottish part was
called Strathclydd ; the English, to which the name of Cum-
berland was afterwards appropriated, Reged. We must not,
therefore, claim the authority of writers who call St. Ninian a
native of Cumbria, as they may have meant, of the Scottish
portion.

N



18 ST. ninian's early days. I

in those days one of considerable importance. It lay
close to the wall of Severus, which there came to its
western limit, and for the defence of this line, a very
large proportion of the Roman forces was stationed in
the neighbourhood ; and it was near the point where
the great line of road through York to Carlisle termi-
nated. These circumstances made the district a busy
and excited one, and gave many opportunities of in-
tercourse with the Romans, and the rest of the world.
Still it was the busy scene of camps and warfare, for
the country was intersected by roads, and filled by
o-arrisons ; and its position on the Scottish border must
even then have made it a restless and unsettled dwell-
ing-place.

In a religious point of view, it is possible that this
free intercourse may have brought a knowledge of the
Gospel earlier amongst the natives of this district,
than of others which were in actual distance less re-
mote. "We know so little of the religious history of
Britain at tliis time, that we must judge much by
probabilities, and the parallels of other countries.
There had long been a Bishop at York, and probably
the small size of the island would have promoted a
more general conversion of the people than in France,
where, at the same period, a large portion of the
country were still unconverted. In the towns, Chris-
tian Churches would be established ; but in country
districts, the people might still be to a great extent
pagan. Indeed, it was to complete the conversion of
the inhabitants of the western side of the island, as
well as to root out the errors which prevailed among
those who were Christians, that St. Ninian was many
years after sent back from Rome. That the father
of St. Ninian was a Christian, is mentioned as a dis-
tinction.



ST. ninian's eakly days. 19

We might probably infer, from the prince of the
district having accepted the gospel, that it would be
promoted among his countrymen, that Churches were
built, and clergy fixed among them. St. Ninian's reve-
rence for Churches is mentioned by his biographer, as
a mark of his youthful piety. Now, not far from the
sea-coast, in the very part of Cumberland where we
conceive St. Ninian to have been born, and of which
his father was the chieftain, there is a church, the
architecture of which has been supposed to indicate
its being built during the Roman occupation of Britain
— that of Newton Arloch, in the parish of Holme
Cultram. It is, then, not an improbable conjecture,
that this church, wliich, unlike the rest of the British
churches, was built of stone, may have been con-
nected with the family of our Saint. Shall we imagine
its erection the work of the British prince, and his
son baptized, and praying there ? Or the fruit of the
return of the Saint from Rome, when, as his Cathedral
at Whithern was built of stone, a corresponding work
of piety was performed, in the rebuilding the Church of
his native district. Anyhow, if such, as is by no
means improbable, be the age of the Church, and this
the birthplace of St. Ninian, we cannot but connect
them with each other.

The very circumstance that Christians were living
surrounded by a heathen population, assisted them to
realize that they were a distinct people, enjoying pecu-
liar privileges, and under especial obligations, separated
from the world, as in profession, so in duties and in
destinies. It was a state which gave a vivid force to
the language of the New Testament, and a manifest
visibility to the Church ; and their faith may Avell be
supposed to have been united to personal earnestness



20 ST. ninian's early days.

and conviction, to actual renunciation of the world,
and a life corresponding to their calling. Such the
father of Ninian is said to have been ; " one of such
faith and merit, as to be thought worthy of a son
through whom the deficiencies in the faith of his own
people might be supplied, and a distinct tribe (the
Southern Picts) brought to a participation in the mys-
teries of our Holy religion."

His mother has been supposed to be one of a family
of Saints. The notion is not unnatural. In those
days, when the few names we know are those of Saint-
we should wish to imagine that they, at least, knew,
and were connected with, each other. And the in-
stances in sacred history, the selection of families
for privileges, the rewarding the children for the
piety of their parents, and the obvious effects of asso-
ciation, common education, and mutual intercession,
would lead us to think it likely. All this would sug-
gest the notion, till it passed into a probability, and
guesses became reports, and their very likelihood made
men believe them. Thus one would account for tin
tradition, that the mothers of St. Ninian and St. Pa-
trick, whose name is said to have been Conch, or Con-
chessa, were sisters of St. Martin of Tours ; thus
uniting, by the ties of blood, these holy men. This
statement, as regards the mother of St. Ninian, is
found in a MS. Catalogue of Saints, at Louvain, and
in Hector Boethius, and otlier later writers, of little
authority. But to say nothing of the improbability
that the daughters of a Roman officer, in Pannonia or
Italy, should have married two Britons, the life of St.
Aelred would be decisive against it. It is not to be
supposed that he should not have known it, had it in
his day been matter of probable tradition. Yet he



ST. nlnian's early days. 21

not only omits it, but implies that St. Ninian's know-
ledge of St. Martin arose from the Life of the Saint,
by Sulpicius.

A brother is mentioned by St. Aeh-ed, in the later
part of St. Ninian's life, as his companion in his epis-
copal travels in Galloway. His name was Plebeius ;
and he is spoken of as his equal in sanctity. He,
probably, was one who stayed in his father's house,
and on the return of Ninian from Rome, became liis
feUow-laboui'er in the conversion of their countrymen,
and his helper, by example and admonition, in personal
holiness.

Born of such parents, our Saint " was in infancy
regenerated in the sacred waters of Baptism." So his
biographer begins his history — with the first element of
spiritual life, the source of all his graces ; and very
beautifully does he describe the preservation of the
purity then imparted. We might, indeed, wish to
know the circumstances by which the youthful Saint
was surrounded ; the events which befel him, and the
temptations he surmounted ; but it seems as if we
were to view him as Angels might love to do, in his
true spiritual condition, looking only to the Divine
work in him, not to those temporary and earthly acci-
dents by which it was carried out ; for of them no
record is left us. It is this inward life only which St.
Aelred records, and the graces in which it developed
itself. We must imagine the outward circumstances
of his condition as best we may.

" The wedding garment," he says, " which he then
put on," that pure bright clothing of the soul by the
gifts of grace, which the white robes of the new-bap-
tized figured, " he preserved unsullied." Such was his
special blessedness ; as one of those virgin souls which



22 ST. niniajn's early days.

follow tho Lamb whithersoever he goeth. " Victo-
rious over his foults" — those tendencies to evil which
remain in the soul, like the Canaanites in Israel, to
exercise the Christian warrior in watchfulness and
obedience-r-" he presented it, spotless as it was, in
the presence of Christ, And coming thus pure for
the gift of Confirmation, he deserved, by the sanctity
of his character, to have, as the enlightener of his
holy heart, that Holy Spirit whom at first he had re-
ceived to purify it."

" Under this Divine Guide, whilst still a child, yet
with no childish mind, he shrunk from everything con-
trary to religion, from all that was opposed to chastity,
to right conduct, or the laws of truth ; and ceased not
to cultivate with the understanding of a man all that
was of the law, of grace, of good report, whatever
was of service to his neighbour and acceptable to God."

The circumstances of this holy childhood we must
imagine — the examples of religious parents, the
blessedness of a house where no sentiment unfavour-
able to piety was ever heard, the training of a saintly
mother, his first lisping prayers, his reverend intro-
duction to the Church. His first lessons in sacred
reading, his little playmates, his youthful trials, his
first schooling ; of these we only know that their in-
fluence issued in his sanctification and growth in grace.
One means of this, St. Aelred specially intimates — the
study of Holy Scripture, that meditative study which
is the only way to let its truths take a deep and sure
root in the heart.

" Blessed," his Life proceeds, " was he whose delight
was in the Law of the Lord ; in His Law did he
meditate day and night. He was like a tree planted



ST. niniak's early days. 23

by the water side, Avliich brought forth his fruit in
due season."

This fruit was abundantly produced in the after-life
of St. Ninian. Let us observe the preparation for it ;
the early practice of meditating on Holy Scripture,
by withdi-awing the thoughts from dissipating obj ects,
and calmly and silently turning them to God ; dwell-
ing upon His word, and extracting from it all its
sweetness. This is that studying, exercising one's self
in, meditating, thinking on it, which we hear so much
of in the Psalms. It is very important to accustom
children to this practice, that they may not merely
read over certain portions of Scripture, but, taking a
few verses, dwell on them in silence, endeavouring to
enter into their meaning, to realize what they contain,
and apply it to themselves. " To read little and think
much," is a rule of Bishop Taylor's.

But in subordination to this sacred reading and
meditation, we cannot doubt that Ninian had all those
advantages of secular learning Avhich Britain afforded ;
and these were not inconsiderable. At the neigh-
bouring town of Lugubalia, our Carlisle, he would
have the means of acquiring the preparatory learning
of the encyclical course,^ as no doubt the military
establishments in the neighbourhood would induce
even a higher class of teachers than ordinary to resort
thither.

At York, Avliich was in turns with London the seat
of government, still greater opportunities would be
afforded for completing his secular studies ; and the
zeal and earnestness with which he would avail him-
self of them, his after history will abundantly testify.

' See Life of St. German, No. IX. of this series, pp. 14, 15.



24 ST. ninian's riper tears.

Oi his character in this part of Iiis life St. Aelrcfl
writes, desci'ibing it as the fruit which in its season
was brought forth from his continual meditation on the
divine law, and the purifying and enlightening in-
fluence of the Holy Spirit, " He brought forth his
fruit in due season," he says, " fulfilling in riper years
wliat he had with the utmost devotion learnt in youtli.
His devout reverence for Churches was wonderful ;
wonderful his affection for his companions. He was
temperate in food, sparing in words, assiduous in read-
ing. His manners were engaging, he abstained from
jesting, and ever subjected the flesh to the spirit."



CHAPTER III. <

St. Ninians Itiper Years.

Proceeding (we may well suppose) from this spiritual
mind, and the fruit of it, was that mental energy and
resolution wliich soon distinguislied him. Indeed it
could not fail to be so. It is matter of common obser-
vation, how remarkably the understanding of a poor
and uneducated man is developed l)y religious earnest-
ness. Such a one is awakened from sluggish indiffe-
rence. The end of his being is set before him, and he
feels that he has duties to discharge. The value of
Christian knowledge begins to be appreciated, medita-
tion on divine truths expands the faculties, and leads him
to see tlie connexion of religious ideas ; and love of the
Object of Whom sometliing is known, creates a holy
eagerness to know more.

The young and noble Briton, with {^tvi advantages



ST, ninian's riper years. 25

indeed, yet earnestly desirous to use those few, had more
given. He began in careful self-government, unfeigned
reverence for Holy things, in sweetness of temper and
purity of heart. The Holy Spirit whose first fruits
were love, joy, peace, long suffering, gentleness, good-
ness, faith, meekness, self control, imparted in due sea-
son and fuller measure his sevenfold gifts. Such is the
true course of attaining divine wisdom. Holy Scripture,
in enumerating these gifts, mentions first that which
is the highest, and therefore the last attained ; in the
actual order they are inverted, and become the steps of
wisdom ; first is fear, the beginning of wisdom, fear
of offending God and losing our souls ; then ?'eve-
rence for every manifestation of the Divine will and His
truth ; hence knowledge imparted to the docile heart ;
then counsel guiding us to choose our course each day
ai'ight ; then resoluteness and strength to adhere to it ;
understanding readily to discern the Divine will and to
enter into the meaning of His words ; and lastly, as
the crowning point, wisdom in the contemplation and
perception of the highest truth.

Far different in its origin is that unpractical temper
which would treat the truths of our most Holy Faith
as matters of mere intellectual knowledge, and seek to
know what is and what may be said about them, in a
curious and disputatious spirit, tampering with most
sacred things. Such a temper can only end in dark-
ness, ignorance, and error, even if it retains the out-
ward expression of the truth ; for it is quite compati-
ble with the neglect of relative duties, self-indulgence,
angry passions, and gross habitual violations of the
divine law. Nay, from its offensiveness to Almighty
God, and profane familiarity in His most Holy Pre-
sence, and the hardening of a heart which has been



26 ST. ntntan's riper years.

accustomed to close the affections and the will against
the most influential truths, it is most likely to lead to
falKng away from grace and final departure from God.

But far different was the case of St. Ninian ; humil-
ity, i)urity, and love, were the elements of his character.
In him holiness of heart was the principle which led to
an earnest desire after divine knowledge. There was
One Supreme Object of his affections, and on that same
Object his thoughts would ever be fixed : where the
heart is kept in the love of God, the mind will turn to
the knowledge of Him. And it was the working of this
simple principle which determined the course of Ids
life. He had been taught the principles of the faith,
and he sought to realize more and more what is
revealed respecting the Heavenly Father, and the
Eternal Son and the Holy Ghost. He was constant in
drinking in at the fountain of Eternal Life in the
Scriptures, and tracing there the manifestations of
the truth ; and the result was a yearning after a
more exact knowledge of Religious Truth, after that
Truth which would be consistent with itself, and har-
monize with the statements of Holy "Writ.

" Before the mind," it has been said, " has been roused
to reflection and inquisitiveness about its own acts and
impressions, it acquiesces, if religiously trained, in that
practical devotion to the Blessed Trinity, and implicit
acknowledgement of the Divinity of Son and Spirit,
which Holy Scripture at once teaches and exemplifies."
" But as the intellect is cultivated and expanded, it can-
not refrain from the attempt to analyze the vision
>vhich influences the heart, and the Object in which it
centres. Nor does it stop here, till it has, in some sort,
succeeded in expressing in words, what has all along
been a principle both of the affections and of practical
obedience."



ST. ninian's riper years. 27

Such seems to have been the state of St. Ninian's
mind ; and a most critical period it was in his spiritual
history. For whereas the Divine arrangement is, to
provide, by the gradual teaching of the Church, that
knowledge which the religious mind desires, the cir-
cumstances of the British Church at that time failed
to supply it. His heart would have responded to
the notes of truth, but they were not truly and
clearly heard.

It is not a pleasing task to depreciate the estimate
which may have been formed of the religious condition
of Britons at any period ; but a writer of vSt. Ninian's
life cannot avoid the subject ; it stands full in his
way, tor the whole of our history turns upon the fact
that the teaching of the British Church at that time
was very imperfect and erroneous. His biographer
is explicit on this point, and the evidence from other
sources inclines the same way. Bede's statement as
to the prevalence of Arianism, does not imply merely
that when the British bishops consented to the sup-
pression of the true doctrine at Ariminum, our church,
like the rest of Christendom, wondered to find itself
Arian. On the contrary, he speaks of a pecuKar pre-
valence of error here ; an infection of Arianism first,



Online LibraryJohn Henry NewmanLives of the English saints (Volume 2) → online text (page 2 of 33)