Lucius of Britain

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King Lucius (middle) from the East Window in York Minster

Lucius (Welsh: Lles map Coel, Lleirwg, Lleufer or Lleufer Mawr) was a supposed 2nd-century King of the Britons traditionally credited with introducing Christianity into Britain. Lucius is first mentioned in a 6th-century version of the Liber Pontificalis, which says that he sent a letter to Pope Eleutherius asking to be made a Christian. The story became widespread after it was repeated in the 8th century by Bede, who added the detail that after Eleutherius granted Lucius' request, the Britons followed their king in conversion and maintained the Christian faith until the Diocletianic Persecution of 303. Later writers expanded the story, giving accounts of missionary activity under Lucius and attributing to him the foundation of certain churches.[1]

First mention: Papal Catalogues[edit]

The first mention of Lucius is in a list of Popes, with additional biographical notes, written in 532 AD and called the Catalogus Felicianus. In regards to King Lucius it says;

(Pope Eleutherius) ..received a letter from Lucius, King of Britain, asking him to appoint a way by which Lucius might become a christian.[2]

The Catalogus Felicianus is an update of earlier lists. The first known version, (and probably based on a still earlier catalogue) the Liber Generationis (235 AD) is completely lost and so we don't know what it says about Lucius. Copies of the second version, the Liberian Catalogue, contained within the Chronograph (354 AD) are in circulation, but the key period covering Lucius and Pope Eleutherus (174-189 AD), which occurs between Pope Soter (166-174) and Pope Victor (189-199) is frustratingly incomplete and mentions neither person. So we don't know if Lucius was in the earlier versions, or whether he was a later invention.

"Soter 9 years...... ....... ....... 3 months, 2 days. He was in the times of Antoninus and Commodus, from the consulate of Verus and Herenianus [171] to that of Paternus and Bradua [185]. Victor 9 years, 2 months 10 days. He was in the time......[3]

Academic debates[edit]

Because there is no other contemporary evidence for a British King Lucius, either in the writings of antiquity or in subsequently discovered artefacts (e.g. coins or inscriptions), academics question if he really existed.

In 1868 Arthur West Haddan and William Stubbs suggested that it might have been pious fiction invented to support the efforts of missionaries in Britain in the time of Saint Patrick and Palladius.[4] Since the early twentieth century most scholars have believed that his appearance in the Liber Pontificalis is the result of a scribal error,[1] based on a theory proposed by a German scholar, Adolph von Harnack.[5] Von Harnack argued that King Lucius was actually King Agba VIII of Edessa and the mix up was due to a scribal error. Von Harnack then suggested that a scribe had used Agbar's middle name of Lucius, and had mistakenly described him as King of ‘Britanio' (e.g. Britain) instead of 'Britio', a citadel of Edessa, present day Şanlıurfa in Turkey.

Harnack's proposal has been more recently challenged by British archaeologist David J. Knight.[6] In his book 'King Lucius of Britain', Knight argues that Abgar of Edessa was never called Lucius of Britio/Birtha in contemporary sources, and that to call Lucius King of a 'Citadel' (eg Britio) is non-sensical. Furthermore, Agbar was only granted additional his Latin names; Lucius Aelius Septeimus, sometimes after 193 AD, several years after Lucius' conversion.[7] Knight therefore argues for accepting the traditional identification of Lucius as a British ruler.[8]

British Sources[edit]

For centuries the story of this "first Christian king" was widely believed, especially in Britain, where it was considered an accurate account of Christianity among the early Britons. During the English Reformation, the Lucius story was used in polemics by both Catholics and Protestants; Catholics considered it evidence of papal supremacy from a very early date, while Protestants used it to bolster claims of the primacy of a British national church founded by the crown.[9]

The English monk Bede included the Lucius story in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed in 731. He may have heard it from a contemporary who had been to Rome, such as Nothhelm.[1] Bede adds the detail that Lucius' new faith was thereafter adopted by his people, who maintained it until the Diocletianic Persecution. Following Bede, versions of the Lucius story appeared in Nennius's 9th-century Historia Brittonum, and in 12th-century works such as Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, William of Malmesbury's Gesta Pontificum Anglorum, and the Book of Llandaff.[1][10] The most influential of these accounts was Geoffrey's, which emphasizes Lucius' virtues and gives a detailed, if fanciful, account of the spread of Christianity during his reign.[11] In his version, Lucius is the son of the benevolent King Coilus and rules in the manner of his father.[12] Hearing of the miracles and good works performed by Christian disciples, he writes to Pope Eleutherius asking for assistance in his conversion. Eleutherius sends two missionaries, Fuganus and Duvianus, who baptise the king and establish a successful Christian order throughout Britain. They convert the commoners and flamens, turn pagan temples into churches, and establish dioceses and archdioceses where the flamens had previously held power.[12] The pope is pleased with their accomplishments, and Fuganus and Duvianus recruit another wave of missionaries to aid the cause.[13] Lucius responds by granting land and privileges to the Church. He dies without heir in AD 156, thereby weakening Roman influence in Britain.[14]

Church of St Peter upon Cornhill[edit]

There is a long-standing tradition in London that St Peter upon Cornhill church was founded by King Lucius. Interestingly, the church altar is sited directly above the potential location of a pagan shrine room, of the great Roman London basilica. If Lucius did exist, it could make sense that he turned the pagan shrine room into a church.

Two other facts however, may give credence to a Roman past. The first is that London sent a bishop, Restitutus, to the Council of Arles in 314 AD. Restitutus must have had a church base. Secondly, in 1417, during a discussion about the order of precedence in a Whit Monday procession, the Mayor of London confirmed that St Peter's was the first church founded in London.[15] Given that St Paul's Cathedral was founded in 604, this clearly implies that St Peter's was considered in 1417 to be founded pre-600.[16]

King Lucius Tablet[edit]

The London historian John Stow, writing at the end of the 16th century, reported "there remaineth in this church a table whereon is written, I know not by what authority, but of a late hand, that King Lucius founded the same church to be an archbishop's see metropolitan,[17] and chief church of his kingdom, and that it so endured for four hundred years".[18] The "table" (tablet) seen by Stow was destroyed when the medieval church was burnt in the Great Fire of London,[19] but before this time a number of writers had recorded what it said. The text of the original tablet as printed by John Weever in 1631 began:

Be hit known to al men, that the yeerys of our Lord God an clxxix [AD 179]. Lucius the fyrst christen kyng of this lond, then callyd Brytayne, fowndyd the fyrst chyrch in London, that is to sey, the Chyrch of Sent Peter apon Cornhyl, and he fowndyd ther an Archbishoppys See, and made that Chirch the Metropolitant, and cheef Chirch of this kingdom...[20]

A replacement, in the form of an inscribed brass plate, was set up after the Great Fire[19] and still hangs in the church vestry. The text of the brass plate has been printed several times, for example by George Godwin in 1839,[21] and an engraving of it was included in Robert Wilkinson's Londina Illustrata (1819–25).[22]


  1. ^ a b c d Smith, Alan (1979). "Lucius of Britain: Alleged King and Church Founder". Folklore. 90 (1): 29–36. doi:10.1080/0015587x.1979.9716121.
  2. ^ The Book of Popes, Louise Ropes Loomis, Columbia, 1916 in Records of Civilization, Sources & Studies, edited by James T Shotwell p17, accessed 5 February 2022
  3. ^ The Chronography of 354 AD. Part 13: Bishops of Rome (The Liberian Catalogue). MGH Chronica Minora I (1892), pp.73-6, accessed 5 February 2022
  4. ^ Heal, p. 614.
  5. ^ Harnack, A. 1904. Der Brief des britischen Konigs Lucius an den Papst Eleutherus, Sitzungsberichte der Koniglich Akademie der Wissenschaften, pp. 909-916.
  6. ^ "New Book Reclaims Britains Earliest Christian Monarch | University of Southampton". Retrieved 4 May 2021.
  7. ^ 'King Lucius of Britain', David J. Knight, Tempus Publishing, 2008, p25 (ISBN 9780752445724)
  8. ^ Knight, 2008
  9. ^ Heal, Felicity (2005). "What can King Lucius do for you? The Reformation and the Early British Church". The English Historical Review. 120 (487): 593–614. doi:10.1093/ehr/cei122.
  10. ^ Heal, p. 595.
  11. ^ Heal, p. 594.
  12. ^ a b Historia Regum Britanniae, Book 4, ch. 19.
  13. ^ Historia Regum Britanniae, Book 4, ch. 20.
  14. ^ Historia Regum Britanniae, Book 5, ch. 1.
  15. ^ The King Lucius Tabula, John Clark (2014), p7, accessed 17 January 2022
  16. ^ David Knight, 2008, p 83
  17. ^ "The City of London Churches: monuments of another age" Quantrill, E; Quantrill, M p88: London; Quartet; 1975
  18. ^ Stow, John (1842). A Survey of London, Written in the Year 1598. London: Whittaker & Co. p. 73.
  19. ^ a b Newcourt, Richard (1708). Repertorium Ecclesiasticum Parochiale Londinense: An Ecclesiastical Parochial History of the Diocese of London. Vol. I. London: C. Bateman. p. 522.
  20. ^ Weever, John (1631). Ancient Funerall Monuments. London. p. 413.
  21. ^ Godwin, George; John Britton (1839). The Churches of London: A History and Description of the Ecclesiastical Edifices of the Metropolis. London: C. Tilt.
  22. ^ Wilkinson, Robert (1819–25). Londina Illustrata. London: Robert Wilkinson. An illustration of Wilkinson's engraving is accessible at "Tufts Digital Library". Tufts University. Digital Collections and Archives: MS004.002.056.DO01.00049. hdl:10427/54651. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)


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