[taken from Manx Church Magazine]

Notable Bishops

I. Michael the Cistercian.
A.D. 1180—1203. (circa)

Of the Bishops in Man prior to Norman times, little is known. We have a number of names, but the precise dates when they flourished are uncertain; and as they were not " Bishops of Man" as a Diocese, but merely bishops exercising episcopal functions in Man, none of them had an exclusive tenure or period of office in the modern sense. Happily we have historical knowledge as to the point of time when the Kingdom of Man, or of Man and the Isles, was constituted a diocese with a diocesan bishop.

In 1134 when Olaf I. was already a man of middle age, he asked the Abbot and Chapter of the recently established but already flourishing Cistercian Abbey of Furness to elect from among them a bishop for the Church of Man. He addressed a letter to Archbishop Thurstan of York, famous in connection with the Battle of the Standard, asking him to consecrate the bishop so elected at Furness. Olaf also conferred on the Abbot and Chapter the patronage or right of appointment in perpetuity ; and made to Furness a gift of lands for a branch Cistercian house in the island viz. , at Ballasalla. Thus our diocese and our Cistercian Abbey of Rushen originated at the same epoch, in the time of Olaf I. of Man and of King Stephen of England.

As to when the little Abbey of Rushen was actually entered upon, and as to its early history little is known. Wymund the first or one of the first of these Cistercian bishops and a Manxmnan, was rather a lurid meteor than a star. After his time it is probable that there were some non-cistercian bishops,— consecrated by the Archbishop of Drontheim—during the 12th century.

Michael (1180—1203 circa) was a Manxman, who, probably like some other Manxmen of the period, had become a monk. Whether he had entered Rushen Abbey or Furness or had passed from one to the other, can only be conjectured. But that he was of the Cistercian order may be certainly inferred, and among other reasons from the fact that he died (1203 prob.) and was buried at the Cistercian Abbey of Fountains. Our knowledge of him is derived from the Rushen Chronicle. After referring to Cristinus, a native of Argyle, his predecessor, the Chronicle says

" After him Michael by race a Manxman, a man venerable and pure in life, truly a gentle monk in-deed, as well as in dress, had received the episcopate, and he ending the closing day of life in a good old age honourably lies buried at Fountains."

This record in the Rushen Chronicle is not common-place ; it is a specific description and touchingly eloquent, the record of no ordinary man. His life was venerable and stainless. His actions were consistent with his profession of a life devoted to religion. In his death and burial there is a pathos of honour.

That he was a native of the island reflects, from that far off time, a glow of beauty on our island, our race, and our Manx Church. But the name of Michael has to be associated with events that have an interest of another kind, viz., the building of S. German’s Cathedral.

The ancient churches that survive in the island are simple and unpretentious in comparison with the magnificence of those that enrich England, Scotland, and Ireland ; but quite apart from the prestige of their antiquity, they all have unsuspected beauty— S. German’s, S. Patrick’s with its mutilated Round Tower, Maughold, Old Lonan, the Grammar School at Castletown (anciently a church), the nave of Malew, the tower of Bishopscourt, Old Marown, Rushen Abbey, the Nunnery Chapel, S. Trinian’s, the Friary Chapel in Arbory, even S. Michael’s on Fort Island, and S. Michael’s in Upper Malew. Of these Maughold and Malew with subsequent modifications survive in the continuity of use. Old Lonan is being restored ; and proves to have heretofore unsuspected architectural value. Old Marown mutilated at the east end is otherwise at least being preserved. The Castletown church was fortunately preserved by becoming the Grammar School. The tower of Bishops-court has been almost surrounded, by additions to the Bishop’s palace, but otherwise it has been worthily and honourably preserved, and has the Bishop’s library in the lowest room. The Nunnery Chapel has been restored to its ancient form and use in a spirit that does honour to its restorer, and will yet be recognised and valued in the Manx Church. But the abbey, S. Trinian’s, and the two S. Michael’s of the south are at the mercy of decay. The Friary Chapel survives as a cattle shed. S. Patrick’s is a hopeless ruin. Finally, S. German’s the noblest and most magnificent, that which alone rises into comparison with the churches of mediaeval England is (private and public efforts for its preservation notwithstanding) abandoned its "lonely watch to keep" in roofless dilapidation.

With the building of S. German’s the name of Simon, a successor of Michael is associated quite properly, but too exclusively. Of Simon’s life and work something will be said in a subsequent paper. But here it is necessary to postulate that Simon was an extender and an enlarger, unhappily also a mutilator of that church ; but not its originator.

S. German’s is a cruciform building, with marked contrast in age, style, and workmanship between the chancel on the one hand, and the tower transepts and nave on the other ; the chancel (subsequently mutilated in several other ways) proving to have been ruthlessly cut short at its western end in order to build be tower and transepts. The architecture and workmanship of the chancel are of great beauty. it is incomparably the noblest ecclesiastical building surviving on the island. Its two architectural notes are simplicity and feeling, pointing to its having been designed by a Cistercian architect and built by Cistercian hands. It is, of course, a surprise to find Cistercian work on S. Patrick’s Isle. Nevertheless, the style of the building confirms the impression . It is of transition or early pointed style, but the design Normanesque. Light buttresses rise from the plinth to the entablature, flush with the faces of both — thus forming sunk panels, in which the windows are inserted. The mouldings, and othaer crucial characteristics, are of equally early date and of like refined feeling. It is to be concluded that the chancel was built not later than the period generally acknowledged to have been the episcopate of Michael, viz., the earlier years of King Reginald of Man (grandson of Olaf I.), contemporaneous with Richard Coeur de Lion of England.

At that time the name of German, a companion of S. Patrick, had been brought into notice through a revival of interest in S. Patrick himself. John de Courcy had conquered Down, and had established himself in Downpatrick. He had adopted S. Patrick as his patron saint ; and, at his request, a new life of S. Patrick had been written,—in which book S. German figures as a companion of S. Patrick and placed by him as bishop over the newly-converted Manx more than seven centuries back in the earlier past. John de Courcy had married Lady Aufrica of Man, sister of King Reginald. In 1187, he founded at Inch, near Downpatrick; an Abbey of the Cistercian order, with a nucleus of Cistercian monks from Furness. In 1193, Lady Aufrica founded in county Down the Cistercian Abbey of Grey, in fulfilment of a vow made at sea on the passage to Ireland, when returning from a visit to her brother—King Reginald, and in Grey Abbey chancel she lies buried. King Reginald, between whom and Lady Aufrica there is evidence of long contiuued and devoted friendship, was also a favourer if not also a patron of Cistercians,

He was buried in the Abbey of Furness "in the spot which when living he had himself chosen," his body having been recovered by the monks of Rushen from the battlefield where he fell in his struggle with his half-brother Olaf II. But what is decisive in this matter is that an examination of the churches of Inch Abbey and Grey Abbey can leave no question but that S. German’s chancel has an identity of style and workmanship with these two Cistercian edifices. The inference is unavoidable that it was at this period, viz., about 1195, that S. German’s was built. The fact above-mentioned of S. German’s name having been brought into conspicuous notice just then is of momentous significance in connection with the erection of the new church that was to bear his name. There is a strong probability indeed that the walls of the chancel are built upon the broad walls of a more ancient building, which, if a church, may have been a more ancient church of the same dedication. Thus King Reginald, with the co-operation of his sister, Lady Aufrica, and by means of the Cistercian workmen who had erected Inch and Grey Churches, was the founder of S. German’s chancel— that is to say, if Lady Aufrica herself was not the prime author of the work.

That written record of their part in the Cathedral is lost will astonish no one who knows the bitterness of the feud between Reginald and his triumphant younger brother Olaf II. who succeeded him. Olaf’s right-hand man was Simon, Abbot of Iona, who became Olaf’s Bishop. The very ruthlessness with which the chancel was mutilated to build the tower and transepts seems but an abiding record of their history. Michael the Cistercian, " the gentle monk," was Reginald’s Bishop, contemporaneous with the earlier years of the reign, and the chancel was erected in his episcopate. He was as a man an unmistakably shining and venerable character ; and this being his place in the history of the Manx Church, he may well stand at the head of the list of Notable Manx Bishops.



Any comments, errors or omissions gratefully received The Editor
© F.Coakley , 2000