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The Mystery of St Oflamnus

by Ellie Jones, Cathedral Archivist

Have you ever heard of St Oflamnus? It is not surprising if you haven’t, because no saint of that name has ever existed – except in the records of holy relics at Exeter Cathedral.

Although the relics of the saints no longer exist at the Cathedral, we are fortunate that multiple documents survive which describe the nature and extent of the collection, and how they were venerated between the 11th and 16th centuries.

Inventories of the Cathedral’s possessions made in 1327 and 1506 feature some relics alongside the books, vestments, plate and other treasures. However, four earlier manuscripts provide much more detailed information about the relics. One version, in Latin, prepared at the turn of the 13th century, is in the Cathedral Archives. The British Library and The Bodleian Library have three 11th century copies between them, two in Latin and one in Old English.

A comparison of the four earlier lists makes for interesting reading. They are substantially alike, with many of the same saints represented in each version, but sometimes they are in a different order; between lists some relics have been added, and some appear to have been removed. The differences suggest that the lists were not simply copied from one to the other. Instead, what seems likely is that the relics were individually identified in their reliquaries, and over the years they may have been reorganised, and new lists prepared.

Curiously, the four early lists all agree that the Cathedral had a relic of Saint Oflamnus or Oflamni, a companion or kinsman of St Peter. However, no saint of this name is recorded anywhere else. It appears that they were probably the relics of St Olympas, who is named in Romans 16:15: “Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas and all the Lord’s people who are with them”. Was this simply an unusual local spelling variant, or was the label associated with this relic unclear or smudged but never corrected?

Drop in to the Cathedral anytime between 1pm and 3pm on Thursday 27th July for this month’s In Focus event where you can find out more about relics in the medieval Cathedral.