12 May 2016
St Pancras: From Roman Martyr to London Station
May 12 is St Pancras’s Day. As the name of London’s second busiest railway and underground station, the name ‘St Pancras’ is well known to many Londoners, as well as travellers from abroad, as the station is the terminus for Eurostar trains arriving from Europe.
The station is also across the road from the British Library. Colin St John Wilson's iconic, red-brick design for the library visually riffs on St Pancras Station's Victorian architecture. But how many of the thousands of people who pass through St Pancras Station and past the British Library each day are aware of the story behind the name?
Not much is known about the martyr St Pancras. The main source for his life is a short Latin account of his martyrdom. According to this text, Pancras was born to a wealthy Christian family somewhere in Phrygia (in modern day Turkey). After the death of his parents, he moved to Rome with his guardian. There Pancras and his guardian gave shelter to Christians persecuted by the Emperor Diocletian (284-305 CE). When the Emperor heard of Pancras’s efforts to save Christians, he immediately summoned him. To his surprise, he discovered that Pancras was only 14 years old and, seeing his youth and determination, subjected him to a long trial.
Detail of St Pancras and the Emperor Diocletian, from Queen Mary Psalter, England (Westminster or East Anglia?), c. 1310-1320, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 249v
According to this account, Diocletian was impressed by Pancras, telling him, “My dear boy, take my advice and save yourself and give up this madness and I will treat you as my own son.” But, even after a long discussion to dissuade him from Christianity, Pancras remained true to his faith. Enraged, the Emperor ordered his immediate execution. Pancras was beheaded and buried by the Via Aureliana in Rome around 287CE.
Detail of St Pancras's martyrdom, from Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 250r
As with many of the early Christian martyrs, it was not his life or even his martyrdom that made Pancras' cult so popular, but the miracles associated with his tomb and relics. In around 590CE Gregory, the archbishop of Tours in France, claimed that anyone making a false oath at the saint’s tomb would be seized by a demon or would collapse and die. Consequently, an oath on Saint Pancras' relics was thought so potent that it could be held up in court as proof of a witness's testimony.
No wonder, therefore, that Pancras’s relics were soon distributed to many other churches, towns and countries, including far-flung regions like Britain.
End of Pope Vitalian’s letter to Oswiu, from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, England (Wearmouth-Jarrow?), c. 775-825, Cotton MS Tiberius A XIV, f. 111r
Perhaps the earliest written reference to the cult of Pancras in Britain comes from a letter from Pope Vitalian to King Oswiu of Northumbria in the 660s, copied by Bede into his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. The British Library has recently digitised a very early copy of Bede’s History (Cotton Tiberius A XIV). Vitalian mentions that he has sent Oswiu’s messengers back with relics of St Pancras and other Roman saints. The relics of Pancras sent by popes to England may have been used to re-consecrate old Romano-British churches or to set up new churches. As a result, churches dedicated to Pancras often claim to be among the oldest in Britain. These include St Pancras Old Church in Camden, a church near the British Library, from which the railway station takes its name.
From the 18th century onwards, St Pancras Old Church was widely regarded as one of the earliest churches in England. Although historical and archaeological evidence shows that the church does have early medieval origins, its early history before it is mentioned in Domesday Book is difficult to unravel. Efforts to do so, however, have resulted in important finds and discoveries.
One of the residents of the area, Ambrose Heal Sr, chairman of Heal’s Furniture in the early 1900’s, gathered a considerable collection of materials related to the parish of St Pancras. It was his enthusiasm for documents relating to Pancras that led him to acquire an eleventh-century manuscript containing one of the earliest copies of the life and the office (a set of prayers and hymns) of the saint. This manuscript, which his widow generously bequeathed to the British Library in 1914, is a part of a large collection of saints’ lives from eleventh-century Fulda, in what is now Germany.
St Pancras’s name marks a large spot on London’s street map, but the figure of the fourteen-year old Roman child-martyr himself is now forgotten. 12th May, the anniversary of his execution in Rome, is a good occasion to reflect on his long journey from early Christian Rome to the centre of Britain's bustling capital.