Christ was an Englishman

…or an adopted one, at any rate. Frankly I find this no less plausible than anything else we are asked to believe about Him, and it certainly fills in a significant part of the frustrating blank that makes up the lost years. Here is an intriguing excerpt from Smith, A. W., and William Blake. “’And Did Those Feet…?’: The ‘Legend’ of Christ’s Visit to Britain.” Folklore, vol. 100, no. 1, 1989, pp. 63–83. 

The story with which we are concerned, and of which I have already given one ‘text’ is that Jesus as a boy visited Britain with his uncle Joseph of Arimathea, who was a tin merchant. Although I do not propose to discuss the more widely known story that Joseph first brought the Christian faith to Britain and established the first church at Glastonbury, we must recognise that the Jesus story depends upon that of Joseph and is, as it were, a side shoot, or the change the metaphor, an embellishment of it. Joseph’s alleged mercantile activities provide the link with Britain as well as the means for physically conveying Jesus thither.

Let us now look at some recent evidences of knowledge of this story, sometimes dignified with the title of ‘the Holy Legend.” a) Roseland, Cornwall: There is a legend which claims that Christ came to St. Just. The story goes that Joseph of Arimathea was a tin merchant and that when he came on business to the Fal, he brought the boy Jesus with him. During his visit Jesus came into St. Just Pool and landed at St. Just which, it is said, was a sacred place even then and that Jesus talked to the religious leaders there. b) On 18th September 1983 the BBC television programme ‘Songs of Praise’ was broadcast from St Ives, Cornwall. A participant related the story that Jesus came to Cornwall with Joseph of Arimathea as a ship’s carpenter and that he talked to the bards about their belief in an afterlife. c) In May 1984 Woman and Home magazine carried an article in which Stuart Jackman, a Congregational minister, fantasised about people he would like to talk to in an imagined afterlife. Among others he listed ‘…those Phoenician sea-gypsies who came on a tin buying cruise to Cornwall with the teenager Jesus as a cabin boy…’ d) The most recent Cornish reference is from John King, Chairman of Camborne Town Council, writing to The Guardian 1 May 1986: ‘There is a legend that Joseph of Arimathea, who was a merchant, brought Jesus as a boy to Cornwall and that Jesus spoke to tinners.’

My attempts to document more precisely the present status and distribution of the story did not prove particularly successful. An appeal through the colums of Home and Country, the magazine of the Womens’ Institutes, produced no response whatever and a similar appeal in the Autumn 1983 edition of Old Cornwall produced one answer only. This referred me to some well known printed sources but, more helpfully, also listed some fifteen places ‘in which the legend is said to persist’. They were: St. Just in Roseland; Falmouth; Redruth; St. Day; Marazion; Ding Dong Mine; Mousehole; Nancledra; Carnon Downs; Polruan; Penzance; Looe Island; Mylor; Talland; and Jesus Well ‘near Padstow’.

The ‘Holy Legend’ is not, of course, confined to Cornwall. I began my search with a Somerset story, so it is fitting in this place to ask what Ruth Tongue had to say on this question. It runs as follows: e) Our Lord as a boy came voyaging with a sailor uncle to Britain. Their trading ship put in at Watchet and from there he walked across the Quantocks to Bridgewater where He boarded a punt and crossed the lakes and marshes to the foot of Mendip, ending his journey high up at Priddy. Here, say the miners, He walked and talked with them a happy while, and then, loaded with Somerset gear, He went back to Nazareth. This was ascribed to ‘Oral tradition and Collection, Crowcombe and Holford, 1901-55’ Miss Tongue also noted how ‘as a tiny girl I heard the very old grandfather of a visitor direct my brothers how to find “Our Lord’s Path'”at least I think he called it that- but he was toothless and indistinct and my brothers careless. That was in 1901.’ The Priddy tradition is also clearly stated in The Somerset Year Book for 1933 p. 20 (cited by Miss Tongue as a ‘back-up’), where W.A. Perkins alludes to ‘the many distinguished people…received as guests in Somerset.’ He begins with ‘the Great Master, who as a youth trod the Mendip Hills, and was entertained by the miners of of Priddy’ f) Pilton, Somerset. The most tangible evidence of knowledge of ‘the Holy Legend’ in Somerset must surely be a banner displayed in the Parish Church of Pilton. It depicts an auburn-headed boy and an older, bearded man in robes and turban about to land among stylized trees from a small boat. It is said to have been made in the village early in this century.’ I would suspect the 1920s as the decade of manufacture. As yet little more is known about it. It is possibly the only artefact certainly evidencing belief in the ‘Holy Legend’ that we have. g) Glastonbury, Somerset. From a plethora of modern writings about this site, I select two texts to witness to the popularity of the ‘Holy Legend’ there. The first is from Geoffrey Ashe’s most recent book on Glastonbury: One further belief is famous, beloved, and impossible to trace to its source. It avers that Joseph was Mary’s uncle, therefore close to the Holy Family, and that he visited Britain long before the Gospel events, bringing the young Jesus with him…Those who favour this tale explain Joseph’s early British voyaging by his hypothetical business interests, and claim that tin workers used to say ‘Joseph was in the tin trade’ as a good luck charm on the job, as if folk memory retained some recollection of him.

The second is from an undated pamphlet, The Story of Glastonbury, recently bought there: There is a strong, unvarying tradition that Joseph of Arimathea [earlier identified as a ‘metal millionaire’ A.W.] brought the boy Jesus with him on some of his visits…and that part of his schooldays were spent at the Druidic College of Glastonbury where, under the Druids, the best education in the world could be obtained. It is interesting to contrast these sophisticated accounts with the simpler, literal folklore as recorded by H.A.Lewis, himself a devout believer, in his Christ in Cornwall, in the 1930s: ‘Of course, we know Christ came to St. Just. ‘Our Saviour preached to the miners. He was very fond of the miners.’ ‘Folks say Jesus passed by here and blessed these parts.’ ‘Some people say Our Lord came to these parts, but I don’t know whether it is true or not’.

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