St Pancras (May 12)
St Pancras was a martyr executed in Rome, probably around 304, during the persecution of Diocletian. Nothing certain is known about him. He has, however, been celebrated in England since St Augustine’s arrival in 597.
By tradition, Pancras was born in Syria or Phrygia (the west-central part of modern Turkey). The story goes that, after both his parents died, the boy was taken by an uncle to Rome, where they were both converted to Christianity. Shortly afterwards Pancras, still only 14, was beheaded for refusing to renounce his faith.
St Symmachus, Pope from 498 to 504, built a church on the site of St Pancras’s burial. Around 574 a certain Gregory (subsequently “the Great”) founded an abbey in his family’s mansion on the Caelian Hill, close to Pancras’s tomb. St Augustine had been prior of this monastery before Gregory sent him to England – hence no doubt his special devotion to St Pancras. At all events, Augustine dedicated a chapel to St Pancras in the monastery he established at Canterbury. Later, around 664, Pope Vitalian sent relics of St Pancras to Oswiu, King of Northumbria.
In London the old church of St Pancras (just to the north of the railway terminus) is sometimes claimed as the first Christian site in Britain. A scattering of Roman bricks and tiles found on the site has supported the tradition that a church existed there early in the fourth century. If so, the dedication to St Pancras must surely have been made later, after St Augustine’s arrival.
More convincing evidence, perhaps, is an altar stone discovered at the church, dating from around 600. The church was remodelled by the Normans, but rather lost status in the 14th century when the adjoining land was regularly flooded, causing the inhabitants to move north, to what is now Kentish Town.
After the Reformation the isolation and decay of the church made it a tempting resort for Catholics: indeed, it was said that the last bell which tolled for the Mass in England was at St Pancras.
Certainly the cemetery would accommodate several Catholic corpses, among them that of Johann Christian Bach, Johann Sebastian’s youngest son, who had been born in Leipzig in 1735, and converted to Catholicism in Italy.
The new church of St Pancras, a grand edifice in the neo-classical style on the Euston Road, was opened in 1822. The old church was entirely rebuilt in 1847, with scant respect for its past.
In 1866 the construction of a new railway line from St Pancras station meant that the graves in the churchyard had to be moved. The novelist Thomas Hardy, then a trainee architect in London, was partly responsible for this work, and the old tombstones are still gathered around what is known as Hardy’s tree.