A ‘lost’ English saint who was for many years the Archbishop of York looks set to finally take his rightful place in history.

Scholars of the middle ages have long known that Thurstan, the Archbishop of York from 1114 to 1140, was one of the most influential people in medieval England.

He played a key role in the foundation of many of Northern England’s greatest monasteries, including Kirkham Priory, Rievaulx Abbey and Byland Abbey.

He also helped protect the North of England from invasion by mustering the English army that defeated the Scots in the Battle of the Standard in 1138.

But it was always thought that, despite his huge importance, he had been passed over for sainthood. Until now.

York Press: Detail of the statue of Archbishop Thurstan at Ripon CathedralDetail of the statue of Archbishop Thurstan at Ripon Cathedral (Image: Ripon Cathedral)

English Heritage historian Dr Michael Carter has discovered a vital document which seems to indicate that Archbishop Thurstan is indeed Saint Thurstan.

That is the name by which he is recorded in a service book from Pontefract Priory which includes a calendar of saints’ feast days.

The manuscript, held in the archives at King’s College Cambridge, is written in Latin.

Its entry for February 6 reads, in translation: ‘Death of Saint Thurstan, archbishop of York, year of grace, 1140.’ The entry was written in red ink - a sign of its importance and significance to the monks of the time.

York Press: Detail from the service book from Pontefract Priory which revcords Saint Thurstan's death. The red line at the bottom is the relevant entryDetail from the service book from Pontefract Priory which revcords Saint Thurstan's death. The red line at the bottom is the relevant entry (Image: English Heritage)

Dr Carter, the senior properties historian at English Heritage, said: “Thurstan is well known amongst medieval historians and scholars as a figure of immense political and social significance during the early half of the 12th century, but all have denied that he ever achieved sainthood.

“The entry in this manuscript is unambiguous proof that Thurstan was indeed a saint.”

Thurstan was born in Normandy in about 1070AD, just a few years after the Norman conquest.

Catholic priests were still allowed to marry at this time, and his father was a priest by the name of Anskar.

Thurstan followed his father into the church, and became a chaplain to King Henry I.

York Press: Byland Abbey, which Archbishop Thurstan helped to foundByland Abbey, which Archbishop Thurstan helped to found (Image: English Heritage)

He won the king’s favour, and in August 1114 was appointed by Henry as the new Archbishop of York. This was despite the fact that Thurstan was only a sub-deacon at the time. Nor was the chapter of York Minster consulted - though they did not object.

Thurstan went on to become one of England’s great men. And while Dr Carter’s research is the first concrete proof of his sainthood, other sources from the time indicate just how much he was revered.

A few days after his death, the archdeacon of Nottingham experienced a vision of Thurstan in a dream, confirming that he was in heaven among the saints.

Meanwhile several sources say that, after some time, the monks at Pontefract opened Thurstan’s tomb and found that neither his body nor the vestments in which he had been buried had decayed and that a sweet smell emanated from the grave.

An incorrupt body and the accompanying ‘odour of sanctity’ were sure signs of sainthood in the medieval period.

Professor Janet Burton, professor of medieval history at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, specialist in medieval monastic and religious orders, said: “Dr Carter’s discovery has added an extra dimension to our understanding of Thurstan’s legacy and his place in the religious culture of the medieval north.

“A man of European dimensions, Thurstan enjoyed contact with popes and cardinals, and the leading lights in new emergent monastic movements. “He transformed his vast diocese, introducing administrative change, fostering pastoral care, and above all encouraging new monastic foundations.”