Fursa, or St Fursey as he became known, (c597-C.649) was an Irish monk who did much to establish Christianity in England, and in East Anglia in particular. The name ‘Fursey’ or ‘Fursa’ means virtue in Gaelic.
Born in Ireland probably in the Munster area, he became a monk and before coming to England had already gained a reputation as a man of great holiness who dreamed visions and performed miracles.
St Fursey was the first recorded Irish missionary to Anglo-Saxon England. He arrived in East Anglia with his brothers, Foillan and Ultan, during the 630s shortly before St Aidan founded his monastery on Holy Island.
At this time Christianity was beginning to take hold in East Anglia under King Sigebert, king of the East Angles, who was already Christian upon becoming king in c.630. Sigebert appointed the first Bishop of East Anglia, a Burgundian Bishop called Felix who established the first see at Dummoc (Dunwich or Felixstowe on the Suffolk coast). St Felix is depicted in an early romanesque statue near St. Luke’s Chapel.
St Fursey won Sigebert’s patronage and was given a tract of land at Cnobheresburg, a Roman fort usually identified as Burgh Castle near Great Yarmouth. Here he founded the first monastery in East Anglia which was endowed further by Sigebert’s successor, King Anna.
During his years at Burgh St Fursey is credited with several miracles.
Around 644 he travelled to France where he founded another monastery at Lagny-sur-Marne near Paris and is described as carrying out further miracles. He was buried at Peronne which soon became a focus for pilgrimage as a cult developed in his honour.
The details of his life are known today mainly through two key sources:
- Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People and
- an anonymous manuscript known as the Passage of St Fursey written by someone who knew him.
In addition to his reputation as a missionary and miracle-worker, St Fursey is credited with having originated the Christian visionary genre in the West. During periodic bouts of illness he was visited by visions. The most well known of these was when he travelled in the company of angels to a great height from which he saw the heavenly delights enjoyed by the blessed and the torments suffered by the damned. Such a concept loomed large in the medieval mind and paved the way for Dante’s Paradiso and Inferno and numerous artistic depictions of heaven and hell.
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