This coming Saturday (January 13) is St Hilary’s Day and it is said to be the coldest day of the year.

Its chilly reputation came about after a severe frost in 1205 which started on January  13 and lasted until March 22. Reader Jim Ackrill from Picton, near Yarm, got in touch with a lovely message connected to St Hilary.

He said: “I was doing some research into my local parish church (now closed and sold) and came across an article by someone you may know! A certain Nicholas Rhea published the article in the Darlington and Stockton Times on the 13th of January 2012. It interested me as our local church was dedicated to St. Hilary when it was built in 1911.”

My dad’s article explained that St Hilary was born in 315 in Poitiers, a town in France known for its architecture and hill-top setting. Hilary followed the beliefs of his prominent pagan parents until the age of 35 when he became a Catholic priest and pledged to lead a life of abstinence, despite the fact he was already married with a daughter. He was elected Bishop of Poitiers in 353, and travelled extensively visiting the Middle East, Greece, and Italy.

Darlington and Stockton Times: The now disused St Hilary’s Church, Picton

He was known for being outspoken, and his writings upset Emperor Constantine II, leading to him being banished to Phrygia (now in modern central Turkey) and then back to Poitiers. St Augustine refers to him as an illustrious doctor and, as a progressive thinker, was said to be keen to educate children with learning difficulties. St Hilary died in Poitiers on or around January 13, 368 and is known as St Hilary of Poitiers. Pope Pius IX named him Doctor of the Church in 1851.

Jim Ackrill wonders more about the connection of St Hilary to his home village: “Now this is the interesting information which I discovered. Poitiers is in western France and was founded by the Celtic Pictones tribe (also known as Pictavi or Picts) and which, after Roman influence, became known as Pictavium. As Christianity was officialised across the Roman Empire during the 3rd and 4th centuries, the first Bishop of Poitiers from 350-367 was St. Hilarius (Hilary). The connection between Picton and the Pictones cannot be a coincidence. I believe some well-read cleric connected the two and suggested St Hilary for the church at Picton.”

It is possible that Jim’s theory about how St Hilary’s in Picton came by its name is correct. It was closed to worship in 2004, and hence St Martin’s Church in neighbouring Kirklevington was rededicated to St Martin and St Hilary in 2011, the centenary of the original St Hilary’s Church. The village name has evolved from Pyketon to Pykton, then Pickton to Picton, and has been said to mean ‘peak town’ which would fit in very well with its hilltop location and as such, echoes its French counterpart.

However, there is a possibility that ‘peak town’ is wrong, if an historical link with Poitiers can be established. Could Picton actually come from ‘Picts town’? As Jim says, Poitiers was called ‘Pictavium’ during St Hilary’s lifetime and is believed to mean ‘painted people’, referencing the Gallic Picts’ habit of painting or tattooing their skin.

It could of course just be a remarkable coincidence that Picton and the Pictones have similar names as well as a link to St Hilary. During the reign of Edward I (1272 – 1307), the family that owned the village took the name Picton to symbolise their ownership of it and the surrounding land. It is interesting to note that as a youth, King Edward I was heavily influenced by his relatives from the Poitou region of France (known as Pictavia) of which Poitiers was the capital.

It is also worth mentioning the Scottish Picts, a tribe with a ferocious reputation from the far north and east. Like their Gallic cousins they were named by the invading Romans, thanks to their habit of painting their skin to make them seem more ferocious in battle. Although they have links to the French, I think it is unlikely they have any connection to the village of Picton.

There must be a lot more to be discussed in this story, but it will need someone with a bigger and more knowledgeable brain than mine to get to the bottom of it.

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