St Monans Church

Written byBeth Reid

St Monans Church is located in the picturesque village of St Monans in the East Neuk of Fife. The origins of this religious site go back to the ninth century when a shrine was established on the alleged burial site of St Monan, with the current building being founded in the fourteenth century by King David II. David’s choice to found a church in a fairly obscure location and dedicate it to an elusive saint is shrouded in mystery and myth.
Photo by @caledonianino
Photo by @caledonianino

One myth claims that David founded the church after nearly drowning in a shipwreck off the coast of modern-day St Monans. The bedraggled king swam from the wreckage and clambered up the rocks to safety. It is easy to imagine David’s relief when out of the clutches of death he set his eyes upon a saint’s shrine that had been built long before his own birth. As an act of thanks for saving him from drowning, David built a glorious new church in dedication to St Monan. Evidence for such an event could come from the fact that local tradition names one of the dark rocks near the church as “Davy’s Rock”.

Another fable about the origins of St Monans Church is that David was miraculously healed from an old war wound when praying to the saint while on a visit to the shrine. On the 17th October 1346 at the Battle of Neville’s Cross, David led his 12,000 strong army to a brutal defeat against a smaller English army led by the Bishop of Durham. While the king was described by chroniclers to have fought bravely, he sustained terrible injuries from two barbed arrows to his head. He would remain in English captivity for the next eleven years, with many a physician tending to the chronic pain he suffered from the one arrowhead that remained stuck in his skull. It was said that every full moon the king suffered terrible headaches from his constant reminder of his greatest downfall. Upon finally returning to Scotland, legend says that David was praying at the shrine of St Monan when the arrowhead miraculously removed itself from the king’s head via his nose. To convey his gratitude to the saint for healing him of his greatest physical – and perhaps mental – affliction David founded a new church dedicated to St Monan to replace the smaller shrine.

In reality, David’s placement of a church on the East Neuk of Fife was a political ploy by the crafty king. Throughout his fairly tumultuous reign, the ancient earldom of Fife had been caught in a feud between the king and his political rivals – the Stewarts. Held by its heiress Isabella of Fife, control of the earldom was crucial in the political minefield of fourteenth century Scotland and over the course of David’s reign it changed hands between Bruce and Stewart parties several times. David choosing to plant his new church in Fife was a concerted effort to send a clear statement of intention to his rivals and placed a strong royal foothold in such a hotly contended part of the kingdom. St Monans Church was also built directly across the Forth from the formidable Tantallon Castle, which was the seat of another of David’s ambitious earls – William Douglas, 1st Earl of Douglas. The church was also in the middle of a pilgrimage route to St Andrews, meaning that it was an opportunity of financial and religious gain for the king.

There may be an element of truth in the tales of shipwreck and healing associated with St Monans Church and David II, but the political symbolism and manoeuvring of medieval kings is not to be underestimated. What story do you think is more believable?

Written By Beth Reid

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