Fursa (Fursu, Furseus) (d. 649/50), Irish missionary abbot and visionary associated with East Anglia and Péronne (in Picardy in northern France), was a brother of Foillan (qv) and Ultan (Ir. Ultán). The brothers are supposed to have been of noble birth and to have come from south-east Ulster. They arrived in East Anglia in the late 630s. King Sigebert received them and gave them the old fortress of Cnobheresburg (Burgh Castle, Suffolk) with its adjacent lands for a monastic foundation, of which Fursa became abbot. The document known as ‘The Monastery of Tallaght’, a compendium of stories concerning the rule of Máel-ruain (qv), relates that ‘the daughter of the king in the eastern country’ (presumably, the kingdom of East Anglia) asked Fursa ‘What manner of man are you?’, to which he replied ‘Like an old smith with an anvil on his back . . . the anvil of perseverance in holiness,’ for which sagacious reply she gave him a gift of the land on which he stood.
When Sigebert was killed by the pagan King Penda of Mercia, Fursa departed for northern France (640 X 644 ). He was befriended by Erchinoald, mayor of the palace in Neustria under Chlodwig (Clovis) II, who gave him land at Lagny-sur-Marne on which to build a monastery. Following his death at Mézerolles, probably on 16 January 650, Erchinoald permitted his body to be buried in the basilica then being built on his demesne at Péronne, where a monastery was established which later became a famous centre for Irish pilgrims on the Continent (Peronna Scottorum – ‘Péronne of the Irish’). In 654 the body was transferred to a house-shaped shrine built by bishops Eligius of Noyon and Audoperth of Cambrai. It is related that Fursa performed great wonders in his lifetime and that his body remained incorrupt for some years after death.
Fursa is best remembered for the extraordinary visions which he had since his youth. He is reputed to have seen the next world, heaven and hell, angels and devils, and the punishments of the wicked. Bede included an account of the visions in his ‘Historia ecclesiastica’ (iii, 19), which helped to disseminate the tradition of the visions in the later middle ages. These vision stories are probably the earliest of their type in Irish literature, and had considerable influence on medieval vision literature. Fursa's life is well documented in hagiography. His ‘Vita Prima’ was compiled soon after the translation of the remains to the shrine at Péronne. It was supplemented by a monk of Nivelles in about 657; this recension seems to have been the source for Bede's account, which itself was the source for the Irish Life of Fursa. There is also a work known as ‘Virtutes Fursaei’, which is of ninth-century origin, and a ‘Vita Secunda’ which dates to about 1100.
The cult of Fursa is attested in French, Irish, and English calendars, and in literature in all three languages. It is associated with the continental cult of St Patrick (qv): Patrician texts and relics are believed to have been kept at Péronne. Fursa is commemorated in the Martyrologies on 16 January; the feast-day of his translation is 9 February.