Who was Saint Ouen?

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Who was Saint Ouen?


Statue of Saint Ouen at Rouen

This article was written by the distinguished 20th century Jersey historian the Rev George Balleine

When Ruskin was asked “Which is the loveliest Church in Christendom? He answered: “The glorious Abbey of St Ouen at Rouen”.


All over Western Europe are churches bearing this Saint’s name. There was one in the City of London, another at Gloucester, another at Hereford, another at Bristol (though under the name St Ewen), another at Armagh in Ireland. In Spain the Cathedral of Vich is St Ouen. Near Naples, he has a shrine to which the deaf flock for healing.

In France there is hardly a department that has not several towns or villages called St Ouen-sur-this or St Ouen-des-that. The Diocese of Rouen has thirteen churches dedicated in his honour. The Diocese of Coutances has ten. Who was this Saint, who left so deep an impression on the Western church?

He is not a Saint out of Legend Land like St Helier or St Brelade, but a real character, whose life story can be verified from contemporary documents. He lived in the seventh century, in days when the Merovingian conquerors were ruling France.

His real name, a common name among the Francs, was Dado. Later, when he was made a Bishop, this was Latinized as Audoenus. In French, the first syllable was dropped, and he became Ouen.

The Merovingian kings kept round them a corps of lads of good family, who later would have been called pages. Admission to this corps was the first step toward a public career. Dado became one of these pages. King Dagobert was a typical barbarian chief, a drunken ruffian with three wives and a vast seraglio of concubines . But among his pages was a group of lads who even in these unsavoury surroundings were enthusiastic Christians.

Here Dado formed a lifelong friendship with the boy who later was fatuous as St Eloi, and several other of his companions became well-known bishops. Step by step he rose through various offices in the household until, while still under 30, he became Referendaire or Keeper of the King's Seal. All official documents had to be sealed by him, and charters survive which bear his signature.

He was now a Chief Officer of State, a man of influence and wealth ; and he founded a monastery on his father's estate, and secured as its first Abbot an aged disciple of the Irish missionary, St Columban.

In 640 something happened which revolutionized Dado's life. The Archbishop of Rouen died. Bishops in those days were elected by the laity, and Dado was popular in Rouen, which he had often visited in the King's train.

Proposed as Archbishop

The citizens crowded their cathedral to choose a new Archbishop, and someone proposed Dado, and, though he was a layman only just 30, whose whole life had been spent in secular affairs, to his horror he was elected by acclamation. He tried to escape, but the people would not let him.

Since no man might become a bishop until he had been a year a priest, he was ordained, and spent twelve months with a mission that was trying to convert the Spanish Arians to orthodox views of the Trinity. Then he returned to Rouen, and was consecrated Archbishop.

Rouen was the largest Diocese in North France. The young Archbishop had about 200 clergy under him, and all neighbouring Bishops, including the Bishop of Coutances, were his suffragans.

By all accounts Ouen was a hard working ecclesiastic who ruled his diocese vigorously for 43 years. France was nominally Christian, but in the north the country-folk were still semi-pagan.

They were baptized and attended mass, but if a cow fell sick, offerings were left on the broken altar of one of the old gods, and at certain seasons everyone dressed in animal skins and joined in orgiastic dances.

St Ouen set himself to suppress this. He visited every village; he increased the number and quality of the clergy; he encouraged the foundation of monasteries in remote districts. According to his biographers he stamped out the last vestige of heathenism. In statuary he is represented as crushing the head of a dragon.

Apart from this he seems to have done all that was expected of a bishop. He attended the Council of Chalons. Though no longer an officer of the household, he maintained his influence at Court, and from time to time intervened in the blood-stained politics of the period. On one occasion he negotiated peace between the kingdoms of Neustria and Austrasia.

Why a saint?

But the mystery about him is how he gained his reputation as a saint. He was no martyr or heroic missionary, for in his contest with paganism he had the power of the dtate behind him. He was no John the Baptist, sternly rebuking the corruption of the Court. He was no great preacher or theologian (two writings were attributed to him later, the Salic Law and the Life of his friend, St Eloi, but neither came from his pen). Nothing in his record suggests any exceptional level of holiness. He was just a man who did faithfully and well the work that was given him to do. Many bishops must have been just as diligent and successful.

But there seems to have been something about him that history has failed to make clear. Almost immediately after his death, his contemporaries acclaimed him as a Saint. (There was in those days no formal canonization).

Five years after his burial his body was removed front its grave, and reburied behind the right altar in the Abbey Church at Rouen, which henceforth was no longer called St Peter's but St Ouen's. And almost immediately other churches began to be dedicated in his name.

When St Ouen became recognized as a major saint, a demand arose for lives of him, from which extracts could he read as lessons in church and in the refectories. At least a dozen lives of this kind were produced. But a saint's life was dull reading, unless it was filled with miracles.

So now amazing stories began to be inserted: how as a baby, when his mother was going to bath him, she found the spring had run dry, but the infant struck the rock with a twig, and water gushed out ; how at mass, a dove brought hint in its beak a prayer on a slip of parchment, which protected everyone who used it against lightning; how once St Ouen deputized for the Pope ; on one visit to Rome he convicted the Pope of unchastity, and sentenced hint to seven years penance, and occupied the Papal Throne till the penance was completed : another Pope on his dying bed entrusted him with his ring, and ordered him to rule the Church, until God revealed to him who was to be his successor.

On a donkey to Rouen

Another legend exalted St Ouen. not only above Popes, but above St Peter himself. It told how a lame man went to Rome to pray to the Apostle for healing, but St Peter told him in a vision that no one but St Ouen could cure him. So he started for Rouen on his donkey.

On the way it was stolen by robbers, but at last he reached the Archbishop's Shrine, and as he kissed it, not only did his legs recover strength, but the lost donkey came galloping up the aisle to greet him.

We have thus two lives of St Ouen, the real life and the legendary one, and this is instructive. In the case of St Helier, we had only the legendary lives; but St Ouen shows how widely a legendary life could stray from the real facts.

One disadvantage of being a saint was that your bones were never allowed to rest in peace. When Vikings overran Normandy in the ninth century, the monks hurried the Archbishop's bones from one refuge to another. After 70 years they returned to Rouen, to be burnt eventually by Calvinists at the Reformation.

Meanwhile, wherever they rested on their wanderings, a fragment was left as a relic in return for hospitality. In this way they were divided and sub-divided, until fractions of them found their way to many different countries.

In the tenth century Canterbury possessed a portion of St Ouen's skull, a rather terrifying relic. If you were worthy of healing, when you touched it, your diseases vanished ; but, if you were unworthy, you were hounded from the cathedral by visions of avenging angels.

Other fragments of the skull were at Malmesbury and Dublin. In this way probably our Jersey parish obtained its name. No altar in those days might be consecrated, unless it contained a relic.

When some early de Carteret built a little chapel on his fief, he most likely secured from Normandy a splinter of one of the Archbishop's bones. Thus the altar became St Ouen's altar, and so in time the church and parish became St Ouen.

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