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Saint Petroc: Devon’s Saint

If you’ve ever visited south-west England on holiday, you’ll notice a bitter rivalry between Devon and Cornwall on many things. The first is whether the clotted cream or jam goes onto a scone first. The second is the sheer number of flags of the respective local saints. Few counties in the UK have their own flag and fewer display them with such pride. The Cornish flag – the Cross of St Piran – is a white cross on a black background. Head next door to Devon and you’ll see another flag – the white cross on a green background of their Patron Saint Petroc.

Who Was Saint Petroc?

According to legend, he was a minor Welsh prince born in the early 6th century. We don’t know the exact year of his birth, but we do know he died in 564. This was a transitional time; the Roman Empire had withdrawn its legions at least a century before. Saxon pagans would not begin wholesale conversion for another three decades. It’s quite remarkable then that Saint Petroc’s Christian mission would begin so early. He was a well-travelled man having received ministry in Ireland and travelled to Rome on pilgrimage; some say twice.

St PetrocOn his return, he founded a monastery in Cornwall. Despite strong associations with Devon, he is equally venerated in both counties due to founding churches and monasteries right across both Devon and Cornwall. He spent time in Padstow and Bodmin where he founded enormous churches. After his death, his relics were first laid to rest in Bodmin but were later moved to St Meen in Brittany.

Deserving of Sainthood

Every saint needs at least two miracles in order to become a saint. The church is far more rigid about this now. While there are no verifiable miracles, several important actions have been attributed to Saint Petroc:

  • He is said to have converted Constantine of Cornwall to Christianity by saving a deer that Constantine hunted. The legendary king was discussed extensively by early historian Gildas
  • He is said to have tamed a pack of hungry wolves while on one of his many pilgrimages

Why Associate Him With Devon?

It’s peculiar that somebody so strongly associated with Cornwall and France would become important in Devon. There are even dedications to him in West Somerset too. He is responsible for founding a number of churches and monasteries right across the south-west with several important clusters, especially around Barnstaple in north Devon.

He was strongly associated with Exeter, for most of its history the most important, richest and most pious city in all of Devon. These two important towns alone create a strong association for Devon’s heritage. There are dedications to him at several key churches there and a strong focus on his cult around Torridge (north-west Devon, along the Cornish border).

About the Flag of St Petroc

While the Flag of St Piran has centuries of history, the Flag of St Petroc’s history is far shorter. Determined to ensure that Petroc becomes strongly associated with Devon, it was designed for a BBC competition in 2003 for a flag of their own. It came about as a result of a question from a local group of Scouts who wanted to use a symbol associated with Devon but knew of no existing flag. It quickly became a local icon and three years later in 2006, Devon County Council officially adopted it.

It is a white cross with a black border on a green background. Green is the colour of Exeter University and Plymouth Argyle Football Club as well as the rolling hills. The white represents the salt spray of the coast and the black represents the two high moors of the country (Exmoor and Dartmoor).