Posted by: kljolly | April 14, 2020

Govan Sarcophagus

Although I have not posted recently, now in this time of pandemic, here is what I have been working on since my last post. I have actually finished a long chapter set in 941 with Aldred trailing along with Cathroe’s pilgrimage from Govan to Penrith.

Along the way, I have taken a number of liberties with the historical record, including having them travel by ship and visit a number of holy sites such that the chapter has turned into a hagiographic marathon.  If anyone wants to binge-read saints’ lives, this chapter does it.  It also ponders a lot of stone monuments.

One of the liberties early on in the chapter tries to explain the “Constantine” sarcophagus at Govan that I blogged about when I visited in 2015.   Tim Clarkson recommended a visit to Govan, and his blogs Heart of the Kingdom and Senchus, as well as his books Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age and The Making of Scotland, have been essential reading for me.  So apologies to Tim for what follows!


This ninth century sarcophagus  is not only rare but also puzzling as to who was in it.  Although attributed to a “Constantine,” that connection as patron of the Govan church is tenuous at best.  And, even if a Constantine was encased in it, which one?

  • Possibly Pictish/Scots King Constantine I, Constantín mac Cináeda (d. 877), son of Cináed mac Ailpín (d. 862).  But why would he be buried in the church at Govan?
  • The hazy St. Constantine of the early seventh century, reputedly the son of Rhydderch Hael and a pupil of St. Columba, is only known from a twelfth-century account (Jocelin’s Life of Kentigern), with a Greek Orthodox feastday of March 11.  So how would his body be in a viking style sarcophagus of ninth century, and decidedly secular, manufacture?

So I invented a scenario for Aldred’s contemplation of the sarcophagus in the Govan church, comparing it to his fond memories of Cuthbert’s wooden casket:

           Today [March 11] was the feastday of St. Constantine, the patron of this church—not the great Roman emperor famous for his conversion, but son of a Strathclyde ancestor.  According to the brothers here, St. Constantine was the son of Rhydderch Hael (the Generous), king of Alt Clut.  He was purportedly tutored by the great Columba, founder of the Iona monastery, itself the mother of the Lindisfarne community to which Aldred belonged.  Aldred had never heard of this saint before coming to Govan, but certainly anyone connected to Columba was bound to have pursued a holy life.

            The bones of this saint rested in the east end of the church in a stone sarcophagus intricately carved, a much more solid edifice, if less angelic, than the carved wooden coffin of St. Cuthbert back at Chester-le-Street.  Alded had examined the sarcophagus soon after his arrival, discovering that it was of recent construction—its motifs reminiscent of the viking hogback stones dotting the landscape, rather than the older style of Iona two centuries before.

            To be sure, the sarcophagus had interlaced vines similar to many an Irish cross or Northumbrian gravestone.  But between the blocks of entangled vines were carvings not of saints or angels, but of animals, mostly powerful horses.  In the center of the side facing the nave, a decidedly warlike horseman rode after a stag, while a frame near the head on that side depicted a horse trampling a beast underfoot, which, Aldred supposed if you stretched it, might be Christ trampling the devil. 

            To Aldred’s mind, it would be a very fine coffin for a king named Constantine, a common  enough royal name, rather than a saint.  The Govan brothers had given only sketchy answers to his polite queries about what the carvings represented in the life of their patron. 

            Aldred guessed that the saint’s bones had been moved into this glorious stone coffin as the result of some kind of dispute between the churchmen and the rulers across the river [Partick], perhaps over their alliances with the Gall-Gáidhil, “foreigner-Gaels.”  Whether the Gaelgal were viking foreigners become Gaels, or Gaels become vikings was unclear, but their warrior ethos was abundantly clear.  Aldred had seen similar bands—and alliances—in Northumbria and in Ireland. 

            Was this magnificent stone sarcophagus a peace offering from the Gaelgal, a gesture toward being more Christian?  If so, their ideas about sanctity and warfare differed from his own community’s.  Aldred pitied St. Constantine his new stone home and thought longingly of St. Cuthbert.

Is this plausible?


  1. Seems plausible to me. Very neat.
    Just one little thing: I would spell “Gall-Ghàidheil” Gallgael in English.

  2. Thanks, I have changed it in the chapter, while retaining the initial reference to “Gall-Ghàidheil,” which I learned from Tim Clarkson’s Strathclyde book. One of the language issues in this chapter and throughout the novel is giving some indication of the original languages while still making the narrative intelligible.

  3. […] Govan Sarcophagus […]

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