The hymn “Onward, Christian Soldiers” has a line reminding us: “Brothers, we are treading/Where the saints have trod”. English Catholics ought to know that for us the statement is literally true: from the days when we were part of the Roman Empire, saints have walked our land. The name “Alban” has been given to our first martyr, a Romano-British Christian. The story is that he gave shelter to a priest fleeing persecution by the Roman authorities. They sat up all night talking and Alban was convinced by the message of Christianity. He was baptised, and when the soldiers came, he gave himself up in the priest’s place, saying “I am a Christian”; and he was prepared to die for the faith. The priest, Amphibalus, also gave himself up and the two were martyred: a church was duly built where they died, and the town still carries the name of St Albans. The later Anglo-Saxon saints have names to relish: Elphege and Ethelwold, Sexburga and Etheldreda, Cuthbert and Aldhelm and Cedd and Bertha. The last-named is perhaps the mother of them all, in the sense that it was she, a Frankish princess married to Ethelbert of Kent, who begged the pope to send missionaries to the Saxons among whom she now lived. Without her support and encouragement the evangelisation of the Anglo-Saxons would not have happened. Cedd evangelised Middle England – the kingdom of Mercia – in the 7th century. But he in turn owed his formation in the faith to another saint, Aidan of Lindisfarne, from across the Irish Sea. And we know about all these – and many other – saints because of the great historian Bede, known as the Venerable, from the monastery at Jarrow. His History of the English Church and People is our main source for information on the early centuries of the Church in Britain. It was he who seems to have popularised the custom of dating each year as Anno Domini – the Year of the Lord, which eventually became standard across Europe and was taken to the New World centuries later. But we should not just think of Saxons. Cornwall produced saints whose names are still commemorated across the peninsula. The most famous of course being Petroc, who gave his name to Padstow and is really the father-figure of Cornwall. He founded churches in Bodmin and in Petherick and across the sea in Brittany. St Piran, another popular Celtic saint, came from Ireland, established monasteries and has given Cornwall its own flag – St Piran’s Cross, a white cross on a black background. St Ursula on the other hand is more widely venerated in Germany than in Britain: she was a British Christian of the 4th century, born in Cornwall and sent to marry a German prince, but massacred by pagans on the way; her shrine is at Cologne. In the 12th century Hugh, Bishop of Lincoln, rescued Jews from attacks by a savage mob, and was a dedicated pastor, travelling regularly to parishes in his care and establishing a good cathedral school. In the 13th century St Simon Stock, still honoured today by pilgrims to the Carmelite Friars at Aylesford, gave us the Brown Scapular and its associated prayers, as worn and used by millions since. The 16th and 17th centuries brought the heroic English Martyrs. Since their canonisation by Paul VI they have been giving their names to more and more schools and colleges: St John Payne in Chelmsford and St Richard Reynolds in Richmond … And so onwards. Pope Benedict VI beatified John Henry Newman in 2010: will he be our next English saint? Joanna Bogle is an author, broadcaster and historian

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