On 1 December the Corps marks St Eligius Day, a celebration of REME’s patron saint, St Eligius. But why does the Corps have a patron saint? And how was Eligius chosen? We’ll fill you in.
Painting of St Eligius from an altar piece displayed in several REME garrison churches, recently acquired by the REME Museum.
Warriors and Craftsmen
We might think of saints as serene and peaceable, but the connection between these holy figures and the military goes back millennia. Saints associated with the armed forces include St George, who is said to have been a Roman soldier; St Barbara, associated with risky jobs and explosions; and Joan of Arc who is known for her bravery and military victories.
Other saints are tied to professions, most notably to artisans and craftsmen. Medieval trade guilds had their own saints. St Ambrose, for instance, watches over beekeepers and candle makers. Patron saints have been popular in more recent history too. All kinds of organisations have chosen saints including some – but not all – Corps and Regiments of the British Army.
Who was St Eligius?
St Eligius, also called Eloi and Eloy, was a goldsmith before he was a saint. He was born around 588 in modern France. While still an apprentice Eligius was commissioned to create two thrones for the king of the Franks. By skill or by miracle he was able to make two golden chairs with the materials needed for one. Inspired by this story, his later venerators were metalworkers and other craftsmen.
A fifteenth-century engraving of St Eligius in his busy workshop. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Earning respect for his achievement, Eligius soon joined the royal court and became an influential advisor and later a bishop, known for his charity and the monasteries he founded. Another legend tells that Eligius exorcised a demon from a horse by chopping off its hoof, fitting a horseshoe and then reattaching the beast’s extremity. For this Eligius is patron of horses, vets and blacksmiths.
Choosing a Patron Saint
The decision to adopt a patron saint for the Corps was not made until 1959. Two REME officers had been tasked with reading up on thousands of possible saints. They created a shortlist of likely candidates and presented these to the Chaplain General of the Forces. Once approved, the list was passed to the Corps Committee. Out of the numerous options the Committee choose St Eligius.
In an earlier article for the Craftsman magazine, printed in July 2009, Colonel (Retired) M E Sibbons, then Corps Archivist, summed up the rationale behind the decision:
‘There were many good reasons, therefore, for choosing St Eligius as our patron saint. During the first part of his life he was, in succession, an apprentice, a skilled craftsman, and manager of a workshop; he served his rulers at home and in foreign lands; he spent the evening of his days training others; in his early years, according to legend, he was brought to realize the danger of pride and the value of humility; and throughout his life he displayed the qualities of courage and service. It would be difficult to find a better inspiration for members of our Corps.’
Other ranks marching in an early St Eligius Day parade in Singapore, circa 1960. A:1970.1021.203. © Unknown.
Celebrating St Eligius
Over the last sixty years, St Eligius has become part of Corps life. St Eligius Day services and events take place on 1 December every year or the closest weekend. REME Battalions, Reserves and affiliated cadets often take part in engineering challenges to honour the saint. Several Corps sporting fixtures have also been named after Eligius.
More solemn celebrations take place in Garrison churches. The multi-denominational Corps Church of St Eligius, close to the REME Garrisons at Bordon and Arborfield, was the site of many sermons on St Eligius. Dedicated to REME’s patron saint in December 1989, the site had, appropriately, been a stable. In 1992, beautiful new stained glass windows were installed, including one featuring Eligius.
St Eligius at the REME Museum
There are a number of artefacts in the Museum’s collections that feature the Corps’ patron saint. You can also find a display dedicated to Eligius in our Trades gallery. The Museum is closed right now because of the new lockdown but we hope to welcome you back soon.
Trophy featuring a bronze statuette of St Eligius with an anvil and tools. Awarded to the best all round junior tradesman. 2014.7340.
Did you celebrate St Eligius Day this year? The Museum is interested in preserving how REME personnel adapted events in light of COVID-19. If you took photos of your 2020 St Eligius Day activities please us to share them.