Who Was Fursey?

Fursey was born in Ireland in the closing years of the 6th century. He early showed desire and aptitude to study the Bible, and his growth in the faith was matched by a monastic discipline of life. In his early twenties he received visions that focussed his life on the urgency of preaching the Good News of Christ. His visions were also to play a pivotal role in the Western Church’s developing understanding of life after death and God’s continuing desire to show love and forgiveness.

Fursey’s visions are among the first major accounts of a journey of a soul in the other world to be composed in the early medieval period. For the next decadeFursey went around Ireland, and his preaching was powerful. But his growing popularity disturbed him for he wished people to focus on Christ. Already a monk, he went with some monastic companions on retreat to a small Irish island to seek guidance. The desire to become ‘a pilgrim for the love of God’ grew stronger, and the group left Ireland, never to return.

Fursey and his companions journeyed to England, where Sigebert – the new and Christian King of East Anglia – had returned from exile in 630 with a desire to share his new faith with his new subjects. Sigebert welcomed Fursey and his group and allowed them to base themselves at Cnobheresburgh (which has been traditionally identified as the Roman Fort at Burgh Castle near Great Yarmouth). At the same time he was welcoming Bishop Felix from the continent in this “window of opportunity”, for Sigebert was only to reign for five years. After almost a decade in East Anglia Fursey felt called to continue his pilgrimage.

Going to France, he was received by King Clovis II and his leading official Earconwald. With their blessing he founded a monastery at Lagny-sur-Marne (east of Paris). His journeys continued and many churches in Picardy are dedicated to him. He died at Mézerolles c.650, and was buried in a church (built specially by Earconwald) in Peronne which has claimed him as patron ever since. Four years later his still uncorrupt body was moved to a new shrine east of the altar. At nearby Mont St. Quentin an Abbey was founded in his honour which became such a great centre for pilgrims that Peronne was known as ‘Peronne Scottorum’ (Peronne of the Irish). In its scriptorium one of the monks wrote the “Life” of Fursey, which tells us so much about him, probably to mark the translation of his relics. The "Life" has the vitality and insights that come from an eyewitness account, making it of especial value.

It was this almost contemporary “Life” that Bede drew on in his “History of the English Church and People” (iii,19). Bede obviously admired Fursey deeply. “He was renowned” wrote Bede “for his words and doings, and was outstanding in virtue”.
“Inspired by the example of his goodness and the effectiveness of his teaching”, Bede went on, “many unbelievers were converted to Christ, and those who already believed were drawn to greater love and faith in him”. Bede wrote, as he himself said, so that his readers would understand “how great a man Fursey was”. It is a view echoed by writers of our own day who place Fursey as the most influential Irish missionary in Europe after his predecessor Columbanus. Fursey's Visions were to play a pivotal role in the Western Church's developing understanding of the world to come.

 

Fursey window
Burgh Castle Church
Norfolk

back to top 

Home