Saints of Scotland : St Constantine

Considered a contemporary of St Kentigern, the legacy of Constantine is one that has suffered with the passing of time. Monsignor Hugh Bradley reflects on the legacy of Govan’s saint.


The depiction of St Constantine that features on the staircase to the crypt of the Scots College, Rome.

Trying to piece together the life of St. Constantine is fraught with difficulties. There are references to the saint scattered through various historical chronicles and the task is complicated further when we consider that during the middle part of the first millennium various other ‘Constantines’ were making a name for themselves in the British Isles.

It is unlikely that the Constantine who has been revered at Govan for centuries was the saint of the same name in Devon and Cornwall or the king of the ancient kingdom Dumnonia in the same area of modern day Britain. In the written history of the church, Constantine is referred to in the Annals of Ulster around 588 AD, as a man converted to Christianity whilst the Breviary of Aberdeen also makes reference to a man entering an Irish monastery, an aspect which ties in with the tradition remembered in the parish dedicated to him in Govan.

There, Constantine is remembered as a King of Strathclyde who resided in the early fortress on Dumbarton Rock. After his abdication in favour of his nephew, the pious Constantine moved to Ireland and seeking obscurity after his high-profile role entered a monastery. Years later he returned to Strathclyde and established a monastery, school and hospice at the fishing port of Govan which had also long been the burial place of Kings of Strathclyde. All legends of Constantine who was active in this area of Scotland at this time agree that he did join forces with Kentigern, the famous saint who established the nearby settlement of Glasgow. Together they worked as missionaries to the Picts. In the various periods of his life, as King, hermit in Ireland and missionary in Scotland, Constantine was recognised as a holy man. Following his martyrdom in about 576, John of Fordun notes that the holy man was laid to rest in Govan.

Govan_sarcophogaus Today, in Govan Parish Church, a sarcophagus stands aside from others and is considered the last resting place of Constantine. It is decorated with an image of a young man on horseback hunting, a symbol which would refer to his time as King, and although it cannot be categorically identified as his tomb, it has over the years become the centre of the Constantine tradition. This memory of the man has been maintained since he trod the shores of the Clyde and despite the reduced knowledge of him today, it is clear that a real person gave rise to the reverence which grew up around his memory.

The mists of time have done a good job in obscuring a lot of the detail about Constantine and as we have noted, the question marks around which Constantine of history we are considering provide many of the stumbling blocks. This is not a problem for him, as a saint, he is assured of his place in history and heaven, however it poses a question for us. The possibility of fading into the background is something which we will all be faced with, long after we have gone. In the year 3518 AD, how will we be remembered? Will we be confused with the many others who bear our names today? It may prove a contentious suggestion for those who spend their lifetime seeking to bring our history to life, but when we consider Constantine, who, it is clear at least, spent his lifetime seeking to bring the life and message of salvation of Christ to others, we can identify the important aspects that we must ensure are part of our lives, that we too may strive to make known to our neighbours through our life and actions, that same message of salvation given to us by Christ. A message which has not changed in the 2000 years since Christ walked amongst us.

Mgr_HughBradleyMonsignor Hugh Bradley is the Parish Priest of Holy Cross in Glasgow. He also serves as the General Secretary to the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland. Monsignor Bradley studied in Rome where he also worked for 6 years as an official at the Congregation for Catholic Education in the Vatican.

Father Robert McCann is the Parish Priest at St Constantine’s in Govan. Our thanks to both for their cooperation in the completion of this reflection on the life of St Constantine.

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