Dec 04, 2022 I Paul Seaburn

St. Elmo's Chapel Found and St. Elmo's Fire Had Nothing to Do With Its Disappearance

If all you know about St. Elmo’s Fire is what you learned watching the 1985 Brat Pack coming-of-age film of the same name, then you would undoubtedly be puzzle on many fronts by the news this week from England about a discovery underneath Westminster Abbey having to do with St. Elmo. It is not a bar (the movie was centered around a college bar named St. Elmo’s), nor is it associated with the weather phenomenon of the same name, nor was the find named for St. ‘Elmo’ – it was a long-lost chapel dedicated to St. Elmo’s real name – Erasmus of Formia. Let’s clear up the confusion with some information about all three – starting with the discovery of the chapel of S. Erasmus of Formia, a martyr killed by slow disembowelment and the royal cult that followed him.

"The martyrdom of St Erasmus", by an unknown painter,

“In 1502 the 13th-century Lady Chapel at the east end of Westminster Abbey was demolished to make way for its new incarnation. Clearance of the site also required the destruction of a chapel dedicated to St Erasmus, which had stood on the south side of the Lady Chapel for only a quarter of a century.”

For a building as historically important to the history of England, Westminster Abbey still has its share of mysteries dating back to its origin the 960s when Saint Dunstan, an English bishop, and King Edgar formed a community of Benedictine monks on the site and called it St. Peter’s Abbey. A new study by Abbey archivist Matthew Payne and John Goodall, a member of the Westminster Abbey Fabric Advisory Commission, published in the Journal of the British Archaeological Association, reveals the interesting results of yet another archeological dig under the site that is the burial place of more than 3,300 famous rulers and people. That does not include the White Queen - Elizabeth Woodville, wife of Edward IV, who got her nickname from her ties to the House of York whose symbol was the white rose and who was believed to have worshiped there.

“The White Queen wished to worship there and it appears, also, to be buried there as the grant declares prayers should be sung ‘around the tomb of our consort (Elizabeth Woodville). The construction, purpose and fate of the St Erasmus chapel, therefore deserves more recognition.”

In a press release on the discovery, Payne says the White Queen was buried next to Edward IV in Windsor in St George’s Chapel. However, she and Edward IV had ten children, including Edward V, which may explain her devotion to St. Erasmus, the patron saint of abdominal pain and child wellbeing (more on that later). Historical records show the building of the chapel to have taken place around 1479 following the wedding of Anne Mowbray to the White Queen’s son Richard when Anne was just 5 and he was an even younger 4. Anne died in 1478 and was buried in the Chapel of St. Erasmus of Formia. According to the study, the chapel was then located on land that was formerly a garden and located near market stalls.

While St. Erasmus had a cult following at the time and his tooth was kept there as a relic, the chapel was demolished in 1502 by Henry VII to build a chantry (a type of chapel) and burial place for himself and his wife. The Lady Chapel which replaced it features a statue of St Erasmus which the study speculates may have been in honor of the long-forgotten chapel. The only thing left of the St. Erasmus chapel is an intricately carved alabaster frame that would have surrounded an image. The authors speculate the missing image was probably of St. Erasmus being disemboweled while tied down alive to a table as his intestines were wound out on a windlass - a rotating cylinder often used on ships.

This is a good place to talk about Erasmus/Elmo. Born in the 3rd century and martyred in 303, he was named Bishop of Formia, Italy. During the persecution against Christians under the emperors Diocletian and Maximian Hercules, Erasmus survived tortures and imprisonments, including two incidents involving fire. In one, he was being taken to a non-Christian temple when a fire was said to come out of the temple, destroying statues of the non-Christian idol and its followers. As punishment, he was coated with pitch and set on fire – but still survived. Eventually he escaped and was recaptured in the Roman province of Illyricum (modern day Croatia) where the aforementioned disembowelment finally did him in. That solidified his status as patron saint of those with abdominal pain. He was also accredited with saving the life of a child and that made him patron of protecting against colic in children.

A drawing of St. Elmo's Fire on a ship

Of course, it’s the St. Elmo’s Fire that makes Erasmus famous today. The name “Elmo” comes from The Acts of Saint Elmo which confused him with a Syrian bishop Erasmus of Antioch. The correct Erasmus/Elmo Erasmus was said to have been preaching when a thunderbolt struck the ground next to him and he continued unfazed. As a result, sailors who feared their ship would be hit by lightning during storms prayed to St. Elmo, and the electrical discharges at the mastheads of ships were seen as a sign of his protection and called "Saint Elmo's Fire". Those discharges are a real weather phenomenon where luminous plasma is created by a corona discharge from a ship’s mast (or a church steeple or building chimney or on the wing of an airplane) in an atmospheric electric field. The plasma glows blue or purple and often makes a hissing or buzzing sound. Since it often precedes a lightning strike, sailors of all faiths – even atheists - see it as a welcome warning sign and a good omen. Historically, it was seen during the Siege of Constantinople by the Ottoman Empire in 1453 coming from the top of the Hippodrome. It was also reported during the 1955 Great Plains tornado outbreak in Kansas and Oklahoma, and on British Airways Flight 9 on 24 June 1982 – a flight that survived losing all four engines after flying through volcanic ash.

It sounds like St. Elmo or Erasmus was deserving of a fine chapel and the study indicates it was one. Its dismantling to make a place for the Lady Chapel took almost 600 working days as the stonework was reused in other buildings. Having the Lady Chapel on the same spot caused it to be confused with the St. Erasmus Chapel. Unfortunately, it appears the tooth of St, Erasmus was lost in the demolition.

The authors of the study are right to say that the chapel of St. Elmo/Erasmus deserves to be remembered. It appears St. Elmo himself deserves some historical recognition beyond the weather phenomenon and a movie known more for its cast than its quality.

Paul Seaburn

Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.

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