The Saint who Never Was


Behold, a fairytale made real in the minds of men.

Wandering round The British Museum’s Mediaeval Europe room, past priceless trinkets, St Eustace stands out.

For strange reasons: anyone who has seen Metropolis, Fritz Lang’s masterpiece, St Eustace seems to have the same unsettling gaze that Lang’s robot double has in the film.

Picture from

Picture from

He stares unblinking at visitors as they amble past and invites the question: what am I?

St Eustace is a bone holder. A reliquary. An outer silver gilt shell was made to contain an inner wooden bust, and inside that were found the relics of several saints. These included nine fragments of skull said to be the last remains of one of the most enigmatic characters ever canonised by the Catholic Church.

Once upon a time he was a Roman general called Placidus, serving under the emperor Trajan, worshipping Roman household gods like any self-respecting Roman general would.

But the story goes that one day he was hunting in Tivoli, outside Rome, and he spied a stag. And what should be hovering between its antlers but an ethereal crucifix.

A steadfastly mediaeval vision; it has that incredibly literal feel to it. But it held enough power for the general that he converted instantly, had his whole family baptised and changed his name to Eustace. As you do.

Whereupon the ‘trials’ started. Eustace had a series of misfortunes; his wealth disappeared, his servants died and his wife was kidnapped. But Eustace stuck to his guns, and came through the tests with flying colours.

Unfortunately this is the mediaeval tale of a Roman saint, and a happy ending is not in order. Spectacularly, Eustace fell foul of the next emperor, Hadrian, and he and his family were roasted for their faith, inside a very large bronze effigy of an ox.

Still, a sad ending makes for a convincing martyr, and the mediaeval appetite for relics ensured that Eustace would have a considerable following. In the mediaeval church relics meant pilgrims and pilgrims meant money; it was worth encasing them in precious metal and stones, and recycled Roman glass, when bling increased the wow factor for tourists in sackcloth.

These days, few credits St Eustace. The Roman Catholic church has dubbed him ‘completely fabulous’. (Martyrologium Romanum” Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2001).

The Orthodox Church adopted him first, and his feast day is still held on September 20. Later his image began to appear in Europe. There are strong echoes of his tale in an old chivalric romance, The Man Tried By Fate. And much of what Eustace is said to have done has been re-attributed to a Belgian saint, St Hubert.

But stubbornly, his head remains. Originally from the cathedral in Basle, Switzerland, it sits in the British Museum dazzling the modern-day tourists as once he jazzed the pilgrims.

Noteable: how the power of a fairytale can displace reality with such consummate ease.

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22 thoughts on “The Saint who Never Was

  1. St. Eustace paid a high price for his legend and fame–I’d hate to think someone else stole his reputation and erased his existence. That’s really insult to injury! What an extraordinary reliquary!

    1. Interesting way to look at it, Debra! I think St Eustace may not really have existed, rather in the same way that King Arthur’s identity is hazy; he was an amalgam of stories from many sources.

  2. The legend of St Eustace is also a key part of Russell Hoban’s fable of post-apocalyptic England “Ridley Walker”

  3. Wow! What a horrible way to die. Do you think the Ox was Hadrian adding insult to injury as Christians were forbidden to have dealings with Moloch – a god with an Ox’s head?

  4. Kate, I am missing something here. I read the story which I hadn’t known before but then your comment: how the power of a fairytale can displace reality with such consummate ease. Is it the sainthood that is contrived or the man himself?

    1. Great question, Tammy. My understanding is that both the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churhces – and even the Anglican church – had Eustace in their calendars as a saint. But the man himself seems to be an amalgam of lots of different strands of story, and not a real historicaly documented character. It raises the question of what function a canonisation fulfils; if we’re looking at a Robertson-Davies-style story figure who gives us a life lesson, Eustace might qualify concievably. But if a saint is a documented historical reality, the Roman Catholic Church at least has said that Eustace is a ‘fabrication.’ So the man himself did not exist; can the sainthood exist independenly of that? I’m no theologian…

  5. “For strange reasons: anyone who has seen Metropolis, Fritz Lang’s masterpiece, St Eustace seems to have the same unsettling gaze that Lang’s robot double has in the film.”

    Uncanny resemblance between St. Eustace and the robot.

  6. Whether St. Eustace is a combination of folks or one person, his story of believing even when troubles mounted is inspiring. His fate at the hands of a “civilized” society is more disturbing. So much of other cultures have been destroyed by conquering countries that there is much we will never know.

    Fritz Lang’s robot could be a “body double” for St. Eustace. Good story, Kate.

    1. Thanks Judy 🙂 I wonder if the Romans were ever really civilised? Or whether, perhaps, the evil of which they were capable lurks under the surface of any polite society?

  7. Beautiful reliquaries. I’m not a big believer in hanging onto bones or ashes. I’m more a believer that the spirit is the precious part.

      1. The mediaeval time is well worth study. Many fascinating stories there. A lot of beauty and craft went into those reliquaries.

    1. And what a gothic confection it is, Andra! Grand, and serving the grandest. I believe Moliére was baptised there, and Mozart earmarked it for his mother’s funeral. I, howvere, have yet to walk through its doors.


  8. The BM’s collection of relics and reliquaries is impressive as the V&A’s, isn’t it. And the disembodied head is such a powerful image, reflecting an iconography which reappears charged with so much symbolism throughout history. Just randomly I’m thinking of Roger Bacon’s bronze talking head, the head of Baphomet the Templars were said to have worshipped, the head of John the Baptist on a platter (the Tailor’s Guild in Bristol used this as its symbol) which so fascinated Salome.

    And of course a more benign version of Lang’s robot appears as the automaton in Scorsese’s recent film Hugo.

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