A wandering saint in London: St Catroe and the great fire of c. 945

London is a city full of people on the move: immigrants, tourists, students and commuters enter and leave the city every day. Many people assume that in the middle ages, things were much more static. In fact, medieval London was a hub for travellers.

Today I want to look at the life of one wandering miracle worker who passed through late Anglo-Saxon London: St Catroe.

The young Catroe:

Catroe was from an aristocratic family in Scotland: one of those for whom the destiny of every member is mapped out for them, before they were even born.

This was very literally true for poor little Catroe: on the day of his conception, an angel appeared to his parents to tell them: ‘God has commanded that you shall conceive, and bear a son, Catroe by name, a future light of the church’, (Life of Catroe, p. 432). When his parents came to pick a nanny for the young child, Catroe’s mother was guided by a vision that a hawk landed on the lady’s shoulder, (Life, p. 432-3).

When his parents were deciding how best to educate young Catroe, a cousin named Bean of Iona burst into the room and declared that God had spoken to him and told him that the boy must become a priest. Catroe’s parents were a bit put out: their only son was ‘the staff of his parents’ age’, they said, the one who would support them as they got old. But immediately afterwards, they conceived a brother for Catroe despite their great age, (Life, p. 433-4). God had spoken. Catroe was going to holy orders.

The remains of the monastery of Iona, home to Bean of Iona. Commons licence, Ray Jones: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Abbey_on_the_Isle_of_Iona_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1459438.jpg

Many saints’ lives include heavenly signs and prophecies which point the holy man on to the right path. Most saints accept them gladly. Catroe though was a different sort of boy. He had a rebellious streak. He resented the way that Bean was moulding his life and telling him what he could be.

One day, news came to Catroe that his old nanny and her husband had been seized by Vikings. Catroe ran away from the monastery and armed himself. He pulled together a fleet of boats and pursued vengeance.

A Viking fleet, from a twelfth century manuscript. Public domain: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wikinger.jpg

But Bean tracked the vengeful warrior down and told him: this isn’t God’s will. Catroe wouldn’t listen. Bean produced a copy of the gospels and opened it at a random verse: it read ‘If anyone take from thee what is thine, seek in not again’. The decision belonged to God, not Catroe, (Life, pp. 435-6).

Wandering mind, wandering spirit:

Catroe stayed with the church and worked hard. He was a natural prodigy:

‘all that poet has sung or orator spoken, all that philosopher has imagined, he learned; nothing escaped him. He exhausted everything that has been discovered by any one through number, measure and weight, through touch and hearing; lastly, the hidden movements and courses of the stars he described with compasses more learnedly than Eginus, than whom I doubt if any is more distinguished in the hierarchy of the sky’

Life of Catroe, p. 437).

Catroe established himself as a teacher of teachers: a sort of proto-professor, long before universities existed. His mind wandered far, but his body remained rooted firmly in place.

Armagh Cathedral: Catroe undertook much of his education at Armagh. Commons licence: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Armagh_Cathedral_(Church_of_Ireland).jpg

One night, whilst Catroe was praying, a voice spoke to him: ‘Depart from your land and from your kindred, and from your father’s house, and come into the land which I shall show you’, (Life, p. 438-9). Catroe immediately began to prepare for a pilgrimage.

Unfortunately, half of Scotland was set on stopping him. A mighty throng of people came forward and caught him at the monastery of St Brigit. It was led by Constantine, King of Alba (d. 952), who begged Catroe to stay for the good of the nation. It also included ‘a crowd of nobles and peasants’, who begged him not to leave. Catroe tried to reassure them: ‘I shall not forsake you since, wherever I am I shall keep you in my remembrance’. This wasn’t enough for them. They picked up the holy relics of the church and demanded that he yield to them. But Catroe could not be convinced.

The Book of Kells, which is thought to have been produced at Iona. Iona is one of the places where Catroe would have been educated, and may have taught. Public domain: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:KellsFol032vChristEnthroned.jpg

The crowd still had one more trick up their sleeves. From the back of the church emerged Catroe’s own parents. They were not happy that he was leaving. ‘If we cannot prevail with prayers, we shall restrain you with imprisonment and iron chains!’ his father cried.

‘This is in your power’, Catroe replied, ‘but so long as I am in chains, I will by no means drink or eat’.

Constantine II, king of Alba; a portrait of an obviously much later date. Public domain: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Constantine_II_of_Scotland.jpg

Finally, the abbot of the monastery stepped forwards to mediate. Catroe would go but he would take some of the people with him. The king and the nobles would provide him with all that he could need: gold, silver, horses and men. Finally, Catroe could leave!

Catroe in London:

Catroe and his retinue headed south, to London. London must have come as a shock to a man raised in rural Scotland: it would have been far larger and more intimidating than any settlement he had ever seen before.

He stopped over in London with a man called Ecgfrith: the story is rather vague about who he was, beyond that he was powerful and had a hall large enough to host Catroe and his men.

A reconstruction of an Anglo-Saxon interior. A workshop from the West Stow Anglo-Saxon village. Commons licence by Midnightblueowl, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:West_Stow_workshop_interior.jpg

During the night, Catroe would have been awoken by shouts and yells, and by the distant sound of roaring and of collapsing wood. The greatest of all of the urban hazzards had struck: a fire! Our storyteller says:

‘By carelessness, that city was set on fire, and the larger part of it was already consumed; triumphant flame was licking what remained. Then God chose to declare what merit Catroe had in him. He was asked by the old man to rescue by prayer those who were perishing.

Trusting in the Lord, Catroe ran between the fire and the remnants of the city. Turning to the Lord, he said: “Lord, everything that exists obeys you. Bid then the terrors of the raging flames to cease!”.

This he said, briefly, and he raised his hand and commanded the flames to die down. Then one might see the flame bent back as by the force of the wind and, gradually subsiding, die out. Thus, the city was delivered, to the joy of all’.

Life of Catroe, p. 441-2).
An Anglo-Saxon house on fire: detail from the Bayeux tapestry. Public domain, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:BayeuxTapestryScene47.jpg

Catroe the wanderer:

Catroe had performed his first true miracle! His fame spread and he was quickly brought to meet the king and the archbishop of Canterbury. They lent him all of the assistance that they he asked for and Catroe was soon ready to set sail.

But at the coast, something strange happened. Catroe loaded all of his men and horses and goods onto ships and set out to sea. But the winds turned against them and drove them back to shore. The heavens were cursing the mission!

‘All were disturbed, but Catroe was attacked by grief’, his biographer tells us (Life, p. 442). He set about fasting until he collapsed, exhausted. As he lay weakly on the couch a voice spoke to him: ‘All those that are with you shall not be able to cross the see, lest they prevent you in God’s way that you have entered. Persuade therefore your men to return; and then, after crossing the see, you shall rejoicing be reach the father shore’, (Life, p. 443).

An image of a ship caught in a storm. Here, St Claudius intervenes and saves the sailors. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Book_of_Hours_of_Simon_de_Varie_-_KB_74_G37a_-_folio_010v.jpg

Catroe was a noble at birth: always surrounded by others, always with a retinue. He always had a powerful relative, telling him what his destiny was. But on that day, he dismissed his men. He stood alone on the beach and looked out at the wider world. He set sail on a voyage into the unknown. And he was alone.

Postscript:

Catroe would go on to travel across Europe. He would become a wandering monk and a miracle worker. Eventually he would settle at Metz in modern day Germany where he became abbot and teacher until his death in 971. At Metz he made a very significant impression on one of his pupils, Reimann, who would later go on to write a biography of his old teacher.

It is thanks to this biography that we know anything at all about Catroe’s adventures. Saints’ lives are an odd genre: the Life of Catroe is a mixture of convincingly realistic social and psychological detail, with some very odd visions and magical happenings.

Gorze Abbey, near Metz: one of the monastries at which Catroe served as a monk. Public domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Eglise_de_Gorze.JPG

Even amongst the medieval weirdness, I think there are some things that can speak through the ages. Many modern migrants would recognise Cathoe’s story of wanderlust. They can recognise both the pain of leaving behind their old life, and the promise that comes from striking out on your own. They can recognise his determination to make his name on his own, and on his own terms.

Catroe was only briefly in London, but I think his story can still speak to many Londoners today.

For further reading:

Alan Macquarrie, ‘Catroe’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, https://ezproxy-prd.bodleian.ox.ac.uk:4563/10.1093/ref:odnb/4312 (2004).

‘Life of St Catroe’, ed. and tr. A.O. Anderson, Early Sources of Scottish History, A.D. 500 to 1286, pp. 431-443 https://archive.org/details/cu31924028144313/page/n589

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