Enjoy Kate Colbert’s article ‘The Cult of Relics and Expressions of Wealth at Eleventh- and Twelfth- Century Ferns’


Wealthy and powerful, Ferns was one of the most regionally important churches in early medieval Leinster, with close connections to several other major churches in Ireland and across the Irish Sea. Considerable archaeological work has been undertaken at Ferns and its surrounds in the past few decades, and a rich and complex array of archaeological features are still being discovered.

However, one area of study that has yet to be analysed in detail is the cult of relics at Ferns.

The paper in the Discovering Medieval Ferns Volume, upon which this blog is based, discusses Ferns’s rise to prominence during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and examines the historical and archaeological evidence for its cult of relics, as well as how it might manifest archaeologically, particularly through investment in stone sculpture.

Plain High Crosses Examples

The three plain high crosses at Ferns, positioned, from left to right, to the west, north and northwest of St Edan’s Church. Images © National Monuments Service

Ferns was reputedly founded by Aedán mac Sétna, more commonly known as Maedóc (referred to as St Mogue or St Aidan today), who is also considered the patron saint of the churches of Drumlane, Co. Cavan and Rossinver, Co. Leitrim.

Ferns was also the political and ecclesiastical seat of the Uí Chennselaig for much of the early medieval period, with its power and influence peaking in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, coinciding with that dynasty’s control of the kingship of Leinster. Likewise, the cult of Ferns’s patron saint, Maedóc, flourished during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, both at Ferns and in the northern kingdom of Uí Briefne, where his churches of Drumlane and Rossinver were situated.

It was also during this time that the saint’s cult at Ferns seemed to have been in competition with the cult of a different St Maedóc, that of Clonmore, Co. Carlow, 27 km to the north – and this rivalry included their respective relic collections. This competition was, at least in part, politically motivated, as they were not only headed by different saints of the same name, but ones from rival polities.

From the written sources, there was almost certainly relics at Ferns during the early medieval period. There is tentative evidence that some may have been corporeal relics, and it is possible that some or all of Maedóc’s associated relics were shared between his three primary churches at some point, but the Bachall Bhrandaibh, or ‘Staff of Brandubh’, was presumably housed at Ferns by the twelfth century.

It is named as one of Maedóc’s seven mionn (secondary relics, typically objects that had come in contact with and/or used by a saint in life) and as such, would have symbolised the saintly authority of both Maedóc and that of Ferns itself.

Fretful Crosses the carved design on high crosses

Fragments of the two decorated high crosses at Ferns: the ‘Mac Murchada’ cross (above) and a newly discovered fragment from possible fifth high cross (below). Images © Christiaan Corlett.

Churches with ties to relic cults often left behind archaeological traces in the form of stone sculpture such as shrines, founder’s tombs and cross-slabs, as well as evidence for burial ad sanctos (‘among saints’), whereby graves are crowded closely around saints’ tombs or shrines, but this does not appear to be the case at Ferns.

Moreover, the presence of sculpture within an ecclesiastical landscape was often considered a measure of the relative wealth and power of a community’s respective church, patrons and their saint. Yet, what little sculpture Ferns invested in is relatively modest and unambitious, albeit competently executed.

Furthermore, there is scant evidence to connect its eight carved stones directly with a cult of relics, though it has been suggested that there was sometimes a relationship between the erection of high crosses and the acquisition of relics in early medieval Ireland, so it is possible that periods of high cross construction at Ferns may have been related to its relic cult. However, without further evidence, this suggestion remains speculative.

Ferns obviously had the ambition and wealth to promote the cult of its saint and associated relics, but it is clear that Ferns was investing most of its wealth in other media and not, to any great extent, in monumental carved stone.

The lack of investment in stone sculpture at Ferns is at odds with well-established, albeit broad patterns evident at many important ecclesiastical sites across Ireland and Britain in which sculpture production, as a public expression of power and wealth, is often related to important socio-political changes – including the acquisition of relics.

Yet Ferns, along with several other major churches in southeast Ireland, flourished for centuries without ever choosing to invest in artistically ambitious sculpture, demonstrating that such correlations cannot always be assumed.

Acknowledgment of Support

This blog is number seven of a ten-part series entitled ‘Discovering Medieval Ferns’ which has been funded by the ‘Rediscovering Ancient Connections – The Saints (Ancient Connections)’ Project.

Ancient Connections Logo for Discovering Medieval Ferns blog series

Ancient Connections’ is an ‘inter-reg’ cross-border arts and heritage project linking Pembrokeshire and north Wexford, which strives to revive the ancient links between these communities, allowing them to rediscover their shared heritage and trade knowledge, experience, and skills.

‘Ancient Connections’ have also funded a major academic volume, also entitled ‘Discovering Medieval Ferns, upon which this blog series is based.

Discovering Medieval Ferns Book Cover 2023

This volume, which includes fifteen papers from an interdisciplinary team of twenty+ scholars, aims to highlight the remarkable history and archaeology of medieval Ferns, focusing on intriguing discoveries from recent excavations and research programmes.

The volume, which is the most complete picture to date of the origins and evolution of medieval Ferns, will be published by Four Courts Press later in 2023.

The logos of EU and Welsh bodies involved with Ancient Connections that have supported the excavation at St Mary's