IAN’S ‘SAINT OF THE WEEK’ – ST WERBURGH

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St Werburgh of Chester and her Geese (Chestertourist.com)

Wherever you find pictures or statues of St Werburgh, there will nearly always be the image of a goose not too far away.  And not just any goose, but her favourite goose (and after all, who hasn’t got a favourite goose!) who was called Grayking.  According to one version of the miracle story for which St Werburgh is famous, Grayking along with his flock were creating havoc in a field of corn belonging to a steward named Hugh in the village of Weedon, Northamptonshire.  When Werburgh heard of this she ordered the geese to leave the field alone, at which point they, according to the words of the Flemish hagiographer Goscelin, ‘flew off and away, so that not even one small bird of that species has ever been seen on that territory’, and apparently it is true to this day that no geese can be found in the village.  However, Hugh was not satisfied with this action as reparation for his losses, and so he caught, killed and subsequently ate Grayking.  Werburgh was none too happy about this state of affairs, (after all, how would you feel if your favourite goose had just been killed?) and so gathered together the remaining bones which she then was able to miraculously reform such that Grayking was once more able to stand before her, the proud goose he once was.

Stories about geese aside, Werburgh was a very well-known Anglo-Saxon saint, and many miracles were witnessed at her tomb and further afield.  She was born in Staffordshire in the early seventh century, the daughter of a Mercian king and queen with links to royal families in East Anglia, Kent and France, and was the last in a familial line of abbesses to take charge of the monastery at Ely, following in the footsteps of her mother, grandmother and great-aunt.

She also apparently had the gift of prophecy, and was able to foretell of the rivalry for her relics that, subsequent to her death, would happen between the communities with which she was linked.  In an attempt to forestall this, she insisted on being buried at the monastery of Hanbury, Staffordshire, although upon her death in Trentham, twenty-five miles from Hanbury, the Trentham monks not only refused to hand her over, but instead locked her coffin in their crypt and set a guard by the door.  However, Werburgh’s wishes were to be fulfilled, and the Hanbury monks sent a raiding party to Trentham to recover her remains, whereupon the bolts and chains on the doors miraculously opened at their touch, and the guards were all overcome by a deep and uninterrupted sleep.  After nine years in her tomb at Hanbury, her relics were translated to Chester and when the tomb was opened, they were of course found to be intact, thus reaffirming her worth as a saint.  Chester was her resting place up until the Reformation, but then her shrine was broken up and her relics were fragmented and dispersed, although a number of the pieces have since been gathered together and placed in the position the shrine previously occupied, which is where they can be seen today, alongside the ever-present statue of Grayking the Favourite Goose.  So don’t forget, on February 3rd, the feast day of St Werburgh, be nice to your favourite goose and in that way you will avoid the saint’s displeasure!

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