Jersey may think like to think Saint Helier is all their own, but he was buried in Normandy and quite interesting, so we are pleased to include some of his life and times on our blog.
It all happened a very, very, long time ago, but the story of Saint Helier goes a bit like this.
Born to pray
Being a medieval Saint was never an easy option and Saint Helier’s commitment to the wilder side of piety made it even more hazardous.
He was born late into the marriage of Sigebert, a Saxon nobleman and Luzigard. They lived near what is now Tongeren in Belgium. Sigebert and Lizigard despaired of ever having a son but had followed the advice of local priest Cunebert to pray and it worked, a son Helier was born.
The couple had agreed before his birth that Cunebert could be involved in their son’s upbringing and schooling. They put this off for seven years but when Helier became gravely ill called in the priest. When Helier recovered, they handed him over to Cunebert. This suited Helier well, but his father less so.
To Sigebert’s annoyance as Helier grew up it was Cunebert he turned to for advice and Cunebert that Helier emulated, with his love of being barefoot, fasting and avoiding the warmer spots in the Great Hall.
By the time Helier was a teenager their relationship had tested Sigebert to the limit. Rather than learn about governing their lands and basic war-craft, his son turned his hand to a few minor miracles and praying. A lot. Infuriated, Sigebert decided to solve the problem in true 6th century Saxon noble style; he cut of Cunebert’s head. Sadly he had left it too late. Helier was horrified and fled, never to return.
Helier wandered west, probably quite pleased (after the horror of losing his mentor had faded) to be on the road, spreading the good word like so many Christians before him. We know Helier spent some time in Seine Maritime and that they rather liked him, as a village is named for him; St Hellier.
Eventually Helier arrived in the beautiful, bleak and very pagan Cotentin. Here, under the wide skies and buffeted by sea salt winds, he felt closer to God than any place before. Initially he was drawn to a monastic community on the island of St Marcouf but found it all a bit crowded. The chants, hymns and the busy sounds and smells of the place disturbed his contemplation.
Like all saints in the making Helier dabbled in miracles. Sometime, possibly while at the monastery, he miraculously restored someone’s sight and convinced a serpent that had slithered into the throat of a sleeping man to slither out gain.
He also did a lot of penance. Most memorable was the time he dug two holes, put sharp stones in the bottom, filled the holes with water and stood in them. For five years. To stop himself falling sharpened stakes were placed all around.
Communal living is not for everyone and it was Helier the Abbot thought of when a desperate request came through from the island now called Jersey. The population had been severely diminished by repeated attacks from Vikings, Saxons or Vandals, depending on which source you read. The remaining islanders thought a bit of Christian support may help and asked for someone to bring the gospel to them.
Road, er Sea trip!
Helier soon sailed with friend Romard, attracted by the remote island as an ideal place for fasting and prayer. The small population lived by the dunes and had prepared a cosy hovel for their guests.
Helier had other ideas and swiftly made himself uncomfortable in a high rock hollow overlooking a tidal inlet, reached by slippery steps. Here he felt cold, damp and at peace. He refused to come down. The island was very proud; they had their own hermit. Things were looking up.
Saint Helier’s clouds
Romard acted as his go-between with the people of the fishing little village that we now know as St Helier town. Helier who soon gained their gratitude as from his rock he could see far across the horizon and any approaching sails. If ships looked pillagey he would signal to the villagers to hide in the marshes, spoiling the bloodthirsty fun of attackers.
The system was a huge success and slowly the now enthusiastically Christian population on the island grew. To this day little black clouds seen in the distance from Jersey are fondly called ‘d’ Jèrriais as les vailes dé St. Hélyi’ the ‘sails of Saint Helier’ which perhaps suggests the hermit was overly cautious with his warnings, but better safe than sorry.
Good days and bad days
A couple of miracles are remembered from Helier’s time on the island. He was particularly successful with islander Anquetil, whose lameness he completely healed. Heliers prayers were also answered one day when a raiding party were blown away from the island by a sudden storm.
Sadly his prayers were lost in the wind the day a vicious raiding party came ashore in 555AD. They found the hermit up in his cave and dragged him down to the beach. He was skin and bone but with the strength only a frugal diet of devotion and a fish can create, explained the error of their ways with some robust prayers.
Perhaps they had heard of him and his troublesome ways. For whatever reason they cut off his head with an axe.
Here credibility in this tale gets a little stretched.
Saint Helier apparently picked up his head and walked towards the sea. Terrified, his attackers raced back to their boats and away from the island.
Helier travels to Normandy
The islanders were heartbroken, consoled just a little when the raider’s departing fleet was caught up in a sudden hurricane and all of their ships dashed on the rocks. No-one survived.
Romard found his friend’s body in a heap of kelp, still clutching his head. Weeping softly, he placed Helier in a small boat which, guided by the hand of God, sailed to the mainland. Helier landed in Bréville-sur-mer.
A local man was walking along the shore looking for washed up branches to repair his cottage when he saw Helier lying on top of a board. He saw by his ragged clothing Helier was a monk and greatly moved, loaded him onto his cart. His horse headed instinctively for the village church.
When they arrived the priest rang the bell and parishioners rushed to the church from their fields and homes. They would bury the holy man in their cemetery, but first they prayed.
An unusual funeral
After the service four men respectfully lifted Helier onto their shoulders and headed for the north door, they could barely feel his weight. But as they crossed the threshold Helier became incredibly heavy and despite their best efforts, they dropped him. The tomb was dug next to where he lay by the entrance.
Disarmingly, once the grave was finished Helier slid himself into his grave.
By the next morning a new spring of the purest water gushed out of the soil by Helier’s resting place. It was a sign. The spring was soon discovered to have healing qualities and became a pilgrimage for believers with eye problems.
At some point Helier’s relics were sent to the abbey of Beaubec in Seine-Maritime where they remained until the destruction of the abbey during the French Revolution. Ironically for one so intent on fasting, Saint Helier has his own feast day, 16 July. We will be raising a glass.
There is some controversy around the accuracy Saint Helier’s life story, questioning whether scribes muddled his history a little with others. But the hermit’s rock on Jersey exists, as does the clear spring at Bréville-sur-mer and little black clouds on the horizon from Jersey are still called ‘d’ Jèrriais as les vailes dé St. Hélyi’. Which is enough for us.