Simon Stock, who died in 1265, is a shadowy figure, of whom little is known with any certainty. Tradition holds, however, that he played an important part in the spread of the Carmelite order in western Europe.
The order developed from a group of hermits who lived on Mount Carmel in Palestine during the 12th century. Around 1210 St Albert of Jerusalem drew up a Rule. This enjoined strict obedience to the prior, residence in individual cells, constant prayer, a life of poverty and toil, daily celebration of the Eucharist and rigorous fasting.
In 1238 the Carmelites, troubled by disorder in Palestine, settled in Cyprus and Sicily, and from thence established themselves throughout western Europe.
The precise point at which Simon Stock joined the order is not clear. He is said to have been an Englishman, born in Kent, where he spent much of his youth living in the hollow trunk, or “stock”, of a tree. According to one account, he was with the Carmelites in Palestine. According to another he became the first member of the order to receive a degree from Oxford University. Still another tradition places him as a monk at Hulme in Northumberland.
More certainly, he became the sixth prior-general of the Carmelites in 1245. Soon afterwards he is said to have called a general chapter at Aylesford in Kent and to have instituted a revision of the Rule, better adapted to monks who were now rather mendicant friars than hermits.
Simon has also been credited with establishing Carmelite houses in Oxford, Cambridge, Paris and Bologna, as well as in Ireland and Spain.
In 1251, he was granted a vision in which the Virgin Mary instructed him to introduce into the order the wearing of the scapular. This consists of two strips of dark cloth, worn on the breast and the back, and fastened at the shoulders. Anyone who died in this garment, the Virgin assured him, would never be lost at the day of judgment.
Curiously, though, Simon Stock is not even mentioned in William of Coventry’s De adventu Carmelitarum in Angliam, which dates from around 1365.
Simon Stock died in Bordeaux. According to a 15th-century Carmelite catalogue of saints he had lived more than 100 years. It is hardly credible, though, that he would have been an octogenarian when elected prior-general of the Carmelites in 1245.
A local cult developed around his tomb in Bordeaux. The story of the scapular, however, seems to derive from the Low Countries.
In the 1860s a bone from one of his legs was given to the Carmelite church in Kensington Church Street. And in 1951, part of his skull was transferred to Aylesford, where the tradition of his presence has been strong for more than seven centuries.