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E06042: Pope Vitalianus, in a letter to Oswiu, king of the Northumbrians (northern Britain), states that he is sending him and his wife relics of *Peter (the Apostle, S00036), *Paul (the Apostle, S00088), *Iohannes and Paulus (martyrs of Rome, S00384), *Gregory ('the Great,' bishop of Rome, ob. 604, S00838), and *Pancratius (martyr of Rome, S00307). Written in Latin at Rome, 666/8; recorded by Bede, writing at Wearmouth-Jarrow (north-east Britain), 731.

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posted on 2018-07-25, 00:00 authored by bsavill
Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 3.29 ('Desiderabilies litteras', JE 2089/JH 3427)

Domino excellenti Osuiu regi Saxonum Uitalianus episcopus seruus seruorum Dei ... Munuscula a uestra celsitudine beato principi apostolorum directa pro aeterna eius memoria suscepimus, gratiasque ei agimus ac pro eius incolumitate iugiter Deum deprecamur cum Christi clero. Itaque qui haec obtuit munera, de hac subtractus est luce, situsque ad limina apostolorum: pro quo ualde sumus contristati, cum hic esset defunctus. Verumtamen gerulis harum nostrarum litterarum uestris missis, et beneficia sanctorum, hoc est reliquias beatorum apostolorum Petri et Pauli et sanctorum martyrum Laurentii, Iohannis et Pauli, et Gregorii atque Pancrati eis fecimus dari, uestrae excellentiae profecto omnes contradendas. Nam et coniugi uestrae, nostrae spiritali filiae, direximus per praefatos gerulos crucem clauem auream habentem de sacratissimis uinculis beatorum Petri et Pauli: de cuius pio studio cognoscentes, tantum cuncta sedes apostolica una nobiscum laetatur, quantum eius pia opera coram Deo flagrant et uernant ...

'To the most excellent lord, our son Oswiu, king of the Saxons, Bishop Vitalian, servant of the servants of God ... We have received the gifts sent by your Highness to the blessed prince of the apostles to be a lasting memorial of you. We thank you and will pray continually for your safety and that of the Christian clergy. But the bearer of your gifts has departed this life and is buried in the threshold of the apostles: his death has greatly grieved us. Nevertheless, we have directed that the blessings of the saints, in the form of relics of the apostles Saint Peter and Saint Paul, and of the holy martyrs Laurence, Iohannes and Paulus, as well as Gregory and Pancratius, should be given to your messengers who are the bearers of this letter to be delivered to your Highness. To your wife, our spiritual daughter, we send by the same bearers a cross with a golden key, with a part of the holy chains of the apostles Saint Peter and Saint Paul: for, hearing of her pious zeal, the whole apostolic see rejoices with us, just as her works of piety smell sweet and blossom in the presence of God ...'

Text and translation: Colgrave and Mynors 1969, 318-23; translation lightly modified.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Peter the Apostle : S00036 Paul, the Apostle : S00008 Laurence/Laurentius, deacon and martyr of Rome : S00037 Iohannes and Paulus, brothers and eunuchs, martyrs of Rome under the emperor Julian : S00384 Gregory I, 'the Great', bishop of Rome, ob.

Saint Name in Source

Petrus Paulus Laurentius Iohannes et Paulus Gregorius Pancratius

Type of Evidence

Documentary texts - Letter


  • Latin

Evidence not before


Evidence not after


Activity not before


Activity not after


Place of Evidence - Region

Rome and region Britain and Ireland Britain and Ireland

Place of Evidence - City, village, etc

Rome Northumbria Wearmouth and Jarrow

Place of evidence - City name in other Language(s)

Rome Rome Rome Roma Ῥώμη Rhōmē Northumbria St Albans St Albans Verulamium Wearmouth and Jarrow St Albans St Albans Verulamium

Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and Customs


Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Ecclesiastics - Popes Monarchs and their family

Cult Activities - Relics

Unspecified relic Contact relic - other object closely associated with saint Transfer/presence of relics from distant countries Contact relic - instrument of saint’s martyrdom

Cult Activities - Cult Related Objects

Crosses Precious material objects


Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People (completed 731) includes fifteen papal letters: eight of Gregory I (590-604), three of Boniface V (619-25), two of Honorius I (625-38), and one each of John IV-elect (640-42) and Vitalianus (657-72). Bede states in his preface to the History that Nothhelm, a priest of London (and, after Bede's death, archbishop of Canterbury, 735-9), had provided him with copies of 'some letters of Saint Gregory and other popes,' following a period of research in the Roman archives (sanctae ecclesiae Romanae scrinio) with the permission of the future Gregory II (715-31). There has been some debate, however, about whether all Bede's papal letters were copied from Roman registers, rather than English archives: this may well have been the case for Boniface's letters to Edwin and Æthelburh (E06040, E06041), and perhaps others (see further Story, 2012, 785ff).


We know from Bede that Vitalianus' letter was composed as a reply to a (now lost) letter sent apparently by both Oswiu/Oswy (king of Bernicia, 642-51, and of all Northumbrians, 651-70) and Ecgberht/Egbert (king of the people of Kent, 664-73), and so perhaps a similar reply, and further gifts of relics, were also sent to the latter king. The kings' letter had accompanied the priest Wigheard, whom they had appointed as archbishop of Canterbury, but who died on arrival in Rome, probably in 667. Note that in this letter Vitalianus appears only to acknowledge Wigheard as a gift-bearer (gerulus), rather than an archbishop-elect. This letter provides our earliest contemporary evidence for the appearance of relics in England. None are likely to have been corporeal relics: the majority were almost certainly pieces of cloth that had been placed in close contact with the holy bodies concerned (a practice frequently used by the Roman church to create new relics; see, for instance, E05962), while Oswiu's wife almost certainly received filings from the chains of Peter and Paul, a notable relic kept at the church which is now San Pietro in Vincoli (see E00615, which treats both filings from these chains, and specially produced cloth contact relics). It is also the earliest record of relics of Gregory the Great anywhere. What became of the latter is unclear, since the early Life of Gregory produced at Whitby, a house founded by Oswiu, mentions an altar dedicated to the saint but never his relics (see E05961). It may be significant that Vitalianus sent relics as gifts at all, since Pope Boniface V's letters to King Edwin and Queen Æthelburh of 633 (E06040, E06041) only mention the gifting of precious items, sent to express the 'blessing' of Saint Peter. Possibly this was only a matter of context: Oswiu, unlike Edwin, was already a Christian, and had already sent gifts to Vitalianus that he was now obliged to counter-gift. Yet it may also point to a development in attitudes to relics between the 620s and 660s, either in England and/or Rome.


Edition and translation: Colgrave, B., and Mynors, R.A.B., Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Oxford, 1969). Further Reading: Craig, D., "Oswiu [Oswy] (611/12-670)," Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004), Jaffé, P., Regesta pontificum Romanorum: ab condita ecclesia ad annum post Christum natum MCXCVIII, third edition, revd. K. Herbers et al. (Göttingen, 2016-). Mommsen, T., "Die Papstbriefe bei Beda," Neues Archiv der Gesellschaft für ältere deutsche Geschichtskunde, 17 (1892), 387-96. Story, J., "Bede, Willibrord and the Letters of Pope Honorius I on the Genesis of the Archbishopric of York," English Historical Review, 127 (2012), 782-818. Wallace-Hadrill, J.M., Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People: A Historical Commentary (Oxford, 1988).

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    Evidence -  The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity



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