Saint Sampson – A Superstar of his Time
St Samson wasn’t just a local phenomenon but would have been regarded as something of a celebrity
It is St Sampson (originally spelled Samson*) who is credited with bringing the Christian Gospel, to not only Guernsey, but the whole of the Channel Islands. In all likelihood it is probable that the Channel Islands had already been visited by Christian missionaries prior to St Samson but it seems that it is his proselytisation which really made the lasting difference.
St Samson wasn’t just a local phenomenon but would have been regarded as something of a celebrity, a “rock star of his time”
Soon after his death it appears that the cult of St. Samson became general in many Celtic countries with him being revered by many of the Anglo-Saxon kings of the time. In an age where travel was extremely difficult and hazardous numerous pilgrimages were made from Britain, as well as from parts of Brittany, to his sarcophagus at Dôl. Indeed his fame spread beyond the Celtic parts, to Switzerland and Italy.
So St Sampson needs to be seen in a very much wider context than just his visits and impact he had on the Channel Islands.
*The accepted spelling of his name is with a “p”, but the French version is without that letter.
Setting the Scene
When Samson was born in 486 AD* the western Roman empire was dead – it had ended ‘officially’ 10 years earlier when the last Emperor, Romulus Augustus was deposed.
Samson was born into a land that Rome had abandoned over 75 year earlier when the last Roman Legions were withdrawn in 410AD. So we can imagine that Roman cultural influence was even weaker in post empire Britannia. He was born into a partly Christian society – Rome had first tolerated and then adopted the new Christian religion as long ago as 312 AD (See our article The Tipping Point – The Day Rome Embraced Christianity )
His family must have been deeply committed Christians because at the age of 5 he was taken by his parents to the school of St. IItut at Llantwit near Cowbridge. Whilst there he was eventually ordained a deacon and then a priest.
The world around him would not have been universally Christian. Britain was coming under the influence of many pagan invaders and since the collapse of Roman authority no doubt much of continental Europe was slipping back into pagan ways.
*Note : many dates for Samson have have had to be inferred from his main biography “The Life of St Samson of Dôl”. There is only one date we can be certain of – the date of his ordination as bishop. If, as is usual, he was 35 years old at the time then he would have been born in AD 486.
Sources for the Life of Samson
The life of St Sampson has been well documented in a work commissioned by the then abbot-bishop Tigernomalus not long after Samson’s death, around 610 AD, “The Life of St Samson of Dôl”.
Samsons [biography] was written within a decade or two of his death. We can therefore place more weight in this account.
Hagiographies, generally, of Saints are not always known to be very reliable especially because the lives of most other Celtic saints were usually written several centuries after their time. However Samson’s was written within a decade or two of his death. There is also independent evidence of Samson’s missions in the number of placenames and churches dedicated to him in Brittany, Maine, Normandy, Artois, Picardie, Beauvaisis, Orleanais and further afield.
And so … to Guernsey
We can therefore place more weight in this account from “The Life of St Samson of Dol”.
For when, on a certain occasion, he preached in the island of Lesia1, he arrived at the yearly return of the Kalends of January (i e., January 1st), because the men of the aforesaid island had been accustomed to celebrate, indeed beyond all others, this wretched anniversary according to a vile custom of their fathers. But he, prudent in spirit, to soften their hardness caused them all to come together to one place, and, God showing the way, a discussion took place for the removal of so great evils. Then all these men, truly loving him, for his sake anathematised these evils and truly promised to submit unreservedly to his directions. He, none the less rejoicing in the Lord, according to the Apostle’s (words), called to him all the young children, who were running about throughout the island on account of this abominable holiday, and gave to each of them, in solemn jest, by way of reward, a very trifling piece of gold, and instructed them in the name of the Lord that this impious custom must be no longer observed by them.
And so, to this day, in this same place spiritual jests have continued to be a sound and catholic (currency). 2
1Lesia is a Middle Ages’ corruption of Lisia – which is what we now think the Romans called Guernsey (see out article “Roman Guernsey“)
2text describing Samson’s visit to Lesia (Guernsey) from ‘The Life of St Samson of Dôl’ translated by Thomas Taylor
When Samson landed in Guernsey he was no novice but an experienced member of the church with a life time of missionary accomplishments and experiences behind him.
After being ordained as a priest Samson entered the monastery on Caldey Island where he rose to become the abbot. Later he decided to travel as a pilgrim for Christ, visiting Ireland, the Scilly Isles (where the island of Samson is named after him) and Cornwall. His biography relates several miraculous stories about his time in Cornwall so that Samson’s fame soon spread.
From Cornwall Samson crossed with his followers, one of which was his cousin Magloire – sometimes confusingly also described as his nephew , to Brittany.
And so the events were set in motion that would ultimately lead to his mission to Guernsey
In Brittany he was given a small parcel of land on which to build a monastery. This site, in time, became the town of Dôl, which also became the spiritual centre of Brittany.
Samson’s influence, both spiritual and political, grew to the point where in about 557 he asked king Childebert (king of the Franks) for more lands to augment his small estate at Dôl . Bertrand d’Argentré (1519 – 1590), a court official in Rennes in the 16th century, records : “To this archbishop, Childebert gave some islands and lands in Normandy: Rimoul, Augie, Sargie and Vesargie, which were islands off the coast, for so I find in the old documents”.
And so the events were set in motion that would ultimately lead to his mission to Guernsey and the other Channel Islands, to win the islands for Christ.
So, at the turn of the year in AD 560 Samson first set foot on Guernsey in what was then and still is a natural harbour. Along with his followers he built a chapel near to his landing place. It is highly likely that this early church stood on the same spot as the current St Sampson’s parish church.
We have no records of what he did or where he went whilst on Guernsey but there is no doubt about the results from a man who undoubtedly had much natural charisma and proselytising zeal.
St Sampson died around 565 AD but he left behind a legacy that has survived for nearly 1,500 years.
|St Magloire – Patron Saint of Sark|
|Monks on Herm|
|The Tipping Point – The Day Rome Embraced Christianity|