This calendar of saints is drawn from several denominations, sects, and traditions. Although it will no longer be updated daily, the index on the right will guide visitors to a saint celebrated on any day they choose. Additional saints will be added as they present themselves to Major.

Friday, March 16, 2012

March 16 -- Feast of Saint Guðmundur Arason

But first, let's remember that it is the feast of the spurious Saint Urho, who might have been the patron of Finland if he had been real.  For more on Urho and those who celebrate him despite (because of?) his historical incredibility, visit this site

Henry's pals gang up on Little Tommy Becket
 Remember Thomas Becket, the archbishop who defied King Henry II over whether priests can be tried in regular courts?  Henry complained about him to some of the thugs he kept around court, and they in turn martyred the archbishop right in front of the altar of Canterbury Cathedral on the fifth night of Christmas.  No five golden rings for King Hank; more like sackcloth, ashes, and a whipping from the monks for penance.

Well, a little less than fifty years later, a similar story unfolded in Iceland, but it has some surprising plot twists.  Lest you think this was just some imaginative monk dreaming up a variation in the scriptorium late at night, you should know that the Icelanders didn't screw with their history like that.  If you've read Njal's Saga, you know what I mean -- it is unvarnished truth.  (No, I am not being sarcastic.)

As bishop of Holar, Gudmundur Arason defended the Church Court's jurisdiction in, the prosecution of a priest.  In specific, the local padre had knocked some poor penitent girl up and was under prosecution to make some provision for her.  Like Becket, who had become archbishop with Henry's support, Gudmundur owed his position in part to Kolbeinn Tumason, the chieftain of the Asbirning clan. 

Ecclesiastical immunity from regular criminal courts was no more a popular idea then than it would be now, but Gudmundur was the bishop so he defended the point.  You might think that a bunch of Vikings like the Icelanders would be more violent than some tea-sipping Brits, but not in this case.  Perhaps because the lesson of Becket had already spread through Christendom, or perhaps because it was just the right way to do it -- the archbishop called Gudmundur to Norway until everyone cooled off.  [To be fair, Thomas a Becket spent a few years in exile in France before returning to England and drawing the foul.] 

The statue of Gudmundur near Holar. 
In 1218, after four years in exile, Bishop Gudmundur returned to Holar.  He didn't plan to run afoul of the Asbirnings again, but somehow trouble just followed him.  Actually, a whole lot of poor people followed him because he was generous.  To Kolbeinn's successor, Arnor Tumason, this looked like a mob, or perhaps a proto-army.  He rode up and, with less than gentle prompting, persuaded the group to disperse.  Then he put the Bishop under house arrest, which was also sensible and non-violent.  Released after a year, Gudmundur toured Iceland for a couple years until Tumi Sighvatsson seized regional control following the death of Arnor.  He also claimed the bishopric at Holar, which didn't go down well with those loyal to Gudmundur.

Here's the plot twist!  [I hope you hung in for it.]  The Bishop's men killed Tumi!  I know, what a reversal, right?  And just like Henry, Gudmundur took the heat, though he didn't get killed for it or anything.  He was once more recalled by the archbishop to Norway, where he no doubt did a lot of penitential things for months on end.  By the time he got back to Holar, he was just the sort of quiet, pensive old bishop that a chieftain would hope to find down at the cathedral, the kind to read his Bible and say the Mass and not make any more trouble.

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