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

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A 16th century panel painting by Lambert Barnard showing Wilfrid being endowed land at Selsey in Sussex by King Cædwalla (Chichester Cathedral)

Today’s saint of the week is one you might not have heard of, but he is responsible – at least in part – for no-one actually knowing what date Easter is due to fall on from one year to the next!  It is said that his speech at the Synod of Whitby in 664 was key to persuading the representatives there to vote in favour of the Northumbrian church following Roman rather than Ionian practices, one element of which was the calculation of the date of Easter.

Prior to his bravura performance at Whitby, Wilfrid was a bishop of the Northumbrian church, having previously studied at Lindisfarne and Canterbury, as well as spending periods of time in both Lyons and Rome.  In 660, he returned from Rome to establish the foundation at Hexham where he was appointed abbot.  His childhood was one of wealth and nobility, and by all accounts he was not one to sit on the sidelines and watch the world pass him by.  He was one of the first bishops to bring relics back from Rome, against the express wishes of the Pope, and actively espoused Benedictine monasticism in Northumbria as a way of controlling the ‘poisonous’ Picts.  One historian has said of Wilfrid that ‘he was not a humble man, nor was he greatly interested in learning’, while another states that he ‘came into conflict with almost every prominent secular and ecclesiastical figure of the age’.

The Whitby synod was one of the high points of his ecclesiastical career, and his success there led to his appointment as bishop of York, where he lived lavishly and surrounded himself with a large entourage, so not the normal monastic behaviour we’re used to.  However, his career peaks were almost inevitably followed by very deep troughs, and while he was away in Gaul being consecrated as bishop (he had refused to be consecrated in Northumbria by Anglo-Saxon clergy, instead opting for the pomp and circumstance of a Gallic ceremony, where he was carried aloft on a throne supported by nine bishops – I know which one I’d choose!) he was deposed by the king and another bishop installed in his place.  On his way back, his ship was blown off course and landed in Sussex, where his party was attacked by local pagans.  Undeterred by these setbacks, over the coming years he established a network of monasteries in Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria, which just happen to correspond with the areas to which he was exiled as he fell in and out of favour with the king.  Finally, by 706, Wilfrid was installed in Hexham after having set up foundations in places as diverse as Ripon, Selsey in Suffolk, the Isle of Wight, Evesham, and Oundle in Northamptonshire, which is where he died while on a visit in 709 or 710.  The removal of his relics from Ripon to Canterbury in 948 was accompanied by reports of miracles at the tomb, as was their translation to their own shrine after a fire in 1067, the date of which has become his feast day, 24th April.   It doesn’t look like Wilfrid is the patron saint of anything in particular, but his lifestyle, rebellious character and history of upsetting anyone in authority could make him the poster-saint of modern day Bohemians everywhere!

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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!

IAN’S ‘SAINT OF THE WEEK’ – ST OSMUND

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Sculpture of St Osmund from the west front of Salisbury Cathedral

If you’re feeling a bit under the weather at the moment then spare a thought for those people afflicted with the illnesses associated with this week’s saint, Osmund.  He is the patron saint of insanity, paralysis, ruptures and toothache, all of which are specific references to the miraculous cures that were administered to pilgrims visiting his shrine at the cathedral in Salisbury.

Osmund was one of the first of the new breed of bishops appointed by William I in the immediate aftermath of the Norman Conquest.  His was a newly created diocese comprising the counties of Dorset, Wiltshire and Berkshire with its headquarters at Old Sarum, the location of the first cathedral of Salisbury until its relocation in the fifteenth century to its current position about three miles to the south.  Prior to this, he was one of William’s inner circle (Osmund was in fact William’s nephew) and received a privileged upbringing in his native Normandy.  He was also one of the commissioners responsible for the drawing up of the Domesday Book in 1086.

During his time at Old Sarum he was described by William of Malmesbury as ‘so eminent for chastity that common fame itself would blush to speak otherwise than truthfully concerning his virtue’, but he was also known to be stern and strict.  He was responsible for a great deal of the development of the cathedral at Old Sarum, although his time was not without setbacks.  Five days after the consecration of his new cathedral in April 1092, a thunderstorm destroyed almost all of the roof, and damaged a large part of the building’s infrastructure, something that must have been a tad disheartening, to say the least.  This may well have been one instance where the English obsession with talking about the weather was justified!

Nor did things go entirely to plan after his death on December 4th 1099 either.  The Salisbury clerics waited until 1228 before they pulled together a petition to Pope Gregory IX for his canonisation only for it to be refused, as were subsequent attempts in 1387, 1406, 1416 and 1442.  One final bid in 1452 was successful, however – maybe the papacy had just been worn down by the Salisbury monks’ unwillingness to give up – and Osmund was finally made a saint in 1457 by Pope Callistus III, the last English canonisation for nearly 500 years until that of John Fisher in 1935.  Perhaps Osmund should also be the patron saint of tenacity and determination!

Ian’s Saint of the Week! St Frideswide

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St Frideswide hides from King Algar amongst the swine. Stained-glass window, Christ Church Oxford: Edward Burne-Jones (1833 – 1898)

St Frideswide is this week’s saint of the week.  Her death in Oxford in 727 is commemorated on 19th October and she is primarily associated with the city.  She was born into a royal Mercian family, the daughter of a sub-king Dida of Eynsham who held lands in Oxfordshire and the Upper Thames region.  She was destined to take up a religious life from an early age, and with the help of her father, became the founding abbess of the double house in Oxford, which has since been incorporated into Christ Church College.  Her remains were translated in 1180 to a new shrine by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, a ceremony that was attended by King Henry II, and this site became and remains the cathedral church of Oxford to this day.

There are a couple of slightly differing versions of her life which were written in the twelfth century, thus coinciding with the translation of her relics.  They both tell the story of how she was chosen by another Mercian king, Algar, to become his wife, but, since she had pledged herself to a life of celibacy, she spent three years trying to evade his advances by escaping and hiding out in and around Oxford.  It is here that the accounts diverge: in one, Algar only gave up his hunt for her when he was blinded by a bolt of lightning while in the other his quest ended when he was killed by falling from his horse and breaking his neck.  Either way the message is clear: Frideswide’s marriage to Algar was not going to happen!  There are striking similarities to the story of St. Æthelthryth, an East Anglian princess of the same period, who was also forced to flee in order to keep her virginity intact and who also subsequently founded a priory, this time in Ely in Cambridgeshire.  The symbolism of a royal princess succeeding in maintaining her celibacy despite severe pressure to marry and then actively demonstrating this through the establishment of a religious house shows how important this was to the Anglo-Saxon church, and the comparisons with the Virgin Mary are clear to see.

Chapels at Binsey in the north of Oxford – apparently on the site of a pigsty, hence the image of her hiding amongst the swine in Burne-Jones’s stained glass window, above – and at Bampton, another of her hiding places, became pilgrimage destinations, and miracles were recorded at both of these sites.  She is also recorded as curing lepers by kissing them and restoring sight by bathing the afflicted’s eyes in holy springs when she was still alive.  She lived happily to the ripe old age of seventy-seven, thus demonstrating the benefits of a good and holy life.  Let that be a lesson to us all!

Ian’s Saint of the Week: St Cadoc

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This week (actually Monday 21st September) was the feast of the apostle St. Matthew, author of the first gospel and patron saint of tax collectors and accountants. However, since in this column I have tended to introduce some less well-known saints, I’m going to forego Matthew in favour of a Welsh saint, Cadoc, whose life would ordinarily be commemorated on the same day, since he died on the 21st September 577. Practically, however, to avoid any clash the Welsh church moved Cadoc’s celebration to the 25th of the month, thus giving him a day all of his own.
Miracles attributed to Cadoc were being recorded even before he was born, with strange lights being reported at his parents’ house and their cellar miraculously filling with food. Apparently his birth was announced by an angel, and a well sprung up at the place of his baptism which then flowed with milk and wine. He was born into a union of two Celtic royal families, since his father, Gwynllyw the Bearded, was a prince of Gwent while his mother, princess Glwadys, was the daughter of a neighbouring chieftain. In celebration of his son’s birth, Gwynllyw, not content with just wetting the baby’s head, commemorated the event by going on a wild, celebratory raid of a nearby kingdom with a newly formed bunch of ruthless warriors. Anyone who’s been to Newport on a Saturday night might well be excused for believing that this tradition has very successfully stood the test of time!
Several noteworthy episodes in Cadoc’s life seem to have involved the local wildlife. On one occasion, his father, never one to pass up on a way to infuriate the neighbours, had stolen a cow belonging to an Irish monk who had settled nearby. After being confronted by the monk who quite reasonably wanted his cow back, Gwynllyw agreed to also send Cadoc to be raised in the monk’s care. It was in the monastery at Caerwent that Cadoc grew to appreciate the monastic life, and ultimately to embrace it himself. In another instance he was cornered by a wild boar in a forest. The boar lunged at him three times but he was saved when, on the third lunge, the boar miraculously disappeared. Finally, in the mid sixth century, after embarking on a preaching trip to Ireland he returned to find the monastery he had founded only three years earlier at LLancarfen already in ruins. He ordered his monks to immediately set about rebuilding the monastery, forcing them to manually drag timber from the forest. Two stags were said to have appeared from the forest at this point and helped the monks in their task, and this is why Cadoc’s image sometimes includes a stag, much like the one above which is part of a window located in the church of St Catwg (an alternate spelling of Cadog) in Caerphilly.
The events surrounding Cadog’s death in 577 were no less fantastic than those recorded while he was alive. According to the Vita Cadoci, written by a Llancarfen monk in the late eleventh century, we are told that the saint was killed when a horseman stabbed him with a lance while he was saying Mass in Benevento, Italy, after being transported there from Llancarfen in a cloud. Could it be that the violent legacy of his father followed Cadoc through his life, and ultimately was responsible for his death?

IAN’S ‘SAINT OF THE WEEK’: St Æthelwold

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The saint of the week this week commemorates St Æthelwold whose feast day is 1st August, and who by all accounts was a bit of an Anglo-Saxon machine.  He was born in Winchester to noble and wealthy parents in the first decade of the tenth century (there is some dispute around the exact year) and in his teens was placed within the court of King Athelstan, who sent him to be the protégé of Bishop Ælfheah of Winchester.  It was here that he was ordained, and where he learnt both his ecclesiastical and political skills, both of which he would put to very effective use later on in his life.

Subsequent to his installation as bishop of Winchester in 963, he was responsible, along with two other equally industrious bishops Dunstan of Glastonbury and Oswald of Worcester, for bringing the Benedictine reforms that originated in the abbey at Fleury across the Channel to the abbeys of Abingdon, Peterborough, Ely and Thorney, among others.  The tenets of Benedictine rule were laid down in a document called the Regularis Concordia, which Æthelwold was responsible for compiling, and the reforms that he instigated included the replacement of secular priests in the abbeys with monks, many of whom he appointed.  He astutely gained political backing for his actions through his support of Æthelred’s claim to the English throne after the death of Æthelred’s father Edgar in 975

In his spare time (which he clearly had a lot of when he wasn’t reforming monasteries, translating texts, writing rule books, appointing abbots, acting as king-maker and generally transforming the ecclesiastical landscape of tenth century England) he gained a reputation as an artist and goldsmith, and indeed was responsible for setting up a series of artistic workshops which continued to flourish long after his death.  He was also accredited with producing many metal artefacts at Abingdon Abbey, including bells and a pipe organ, as well as tending to the gardens and being actively involved in the day to day running and maintenance of the abbey’s buildings.  I think all in all, he must have taken the warning behind the saying ‘the Devil makes work for idle hands’ very seriously, as idleness does not seem to be something that Æthelwold was any good at!

IAN’S ‘SAINT OF THE WEEK’: St Swithun

July 15th 

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So if it rains on the 15th July then it’s going to rain for the next forty days.  From this one sentence, I’m betting that you can all guess that it’s St Swithun’s Day.  The date commemorates the translation in 971 of Swithun’s relics by the then bishop, Æthelwold, from his original, obscure grave outside the north wall of the abbey at Winchester into a shrine in the new cathedral.  The origin of the story regarding the weather that has grown up around the saint, however, is rather more difficult to identify.  No written accounts of the story exist before the 17th century, although one suggestion is that it reflects Swithun’s dissatisfaction with being moved from his original burial place, while another account links it back to a torrential downpour that happened on St Swithun’s Day in 1315.

There is a, however, a basis in science for the forty days of rain story, since the jet stream, which is a major factor in Britain’s weather, tends to settle into a pattern around the middle of July and generally stays in that pattern until the end of August.  If the jet stream is to the north, it pulls in continental air from the south, meaning that days are drier and warmer, whereas a more southerly-located jet stream pulls in cooler, moister air from the north, which means rain and lower temperatures.  So maybe Swithun (or his followers) were better meteorologists than we give them credit for!

Deluges aside, very little of St Swithun is known, and he is not mentioned in any texts until nearly one hundred and fifty years after his death, so around 1000, from which point the legends surrounding him start to multiply and are disseminated.  Although there are miracle stories associated with him, the most well-known one that is recounted from when he was alive is where he miraculously makes whole a basket of eggs that had been broken by workmen on one of the bridges in Winchester.  He was also known for rebuilding decaying and tumbledown churches out of his own funds, as well as consecrating existing ones, during his tenure as bishop of Winchester.  There is a pilgrimage route named after him, linking Winchester and Farnham, and which forms part of the Pilgrim’s Way to Canterbury, so what better way to spend the saint’s day than to walk the path named after him – but if you do decide to do that, don’t forget your brolly!

Ian’s Saint of the Week: St Æthelthryth

Tuesday June 23rd 

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Tuesday 23rd June sees the commemoration of one of my favourite saints (primarily because I’m concentrating on her cult at the moment within my research).  She is St Æthelthryth of Ely, also known variously as Etheldreda, Audrée, and Audrey.  She was born in 636 in Exning in Cambridgeshire, the daughter of an Anglian king, and was married firstly to an Anglo-Saxon prince (who died not long after the marriage) and subsequently to a Northumbrian king, Ecgfrith.  The marriage was one of political convenience between the Anglian and Northumbrian dynasties and throughout it, and this is where I have some sympathy with Ecgfrith, Æthelthryth resolved to remain a virgin despite the king’s repeated attempts to persuade her otherwise.  At one stage, he is reported as chasing her through the Fens in an attempt to bring her back to his court, and he was only thwarted by Æthelthryth’s miraculous ability to make the waters of the Fens rise and to survive by producing drinking water from bare rock.

After Ecgfrith finally gave up his futile quest to fulfil his conjugal rights, Æthelthryth was allowed to enter the convent at Coldingham, and a year later became the founding abbess at Ely, where she stayed until her death in 679.  She was succeeded there by her sister, Seaxburh, who was responsible for translating Æthelthryth’s relics into a new coffin sixteen years later, whereupon it was found that her remains were amazingly uncorrupted, and a tumour on her neck that was probably the cause of her death had miraculously disappeared, leaving only a healed scar in its place.

The images on the panel above reflect Æthelthryth’s story up to this point, portraying her marriage to Ecgfrith, her entry into the convent at Coldingham, the foundation of the abbey at Ely and her translation in 695.  However, it is only after this point that we get to see the real influence she wielded, with her cult enduring (with varying degrees of success) right through until the Reformation.  As well as seeing the beneficial Æthelthryth – curing the sick and relieving the afflicted, as all good saints should do – we also see her vengeful and retributive side, with accounts of a Viking’s eyes being torn from his head for desecrating her tomb and severe punishments for anyone who threatened the security of Ely or its community.  With the abbey at Ely experiencing the Danish invasions in the ninth century, Benedictine reform in the tenth, and siege and subsequent submission to the Normans in the twelfth, Æthelthryth was kept quite busy protecting her foundation from all-comers, and judging by the punishments she meted out, you didn’t mess with her without very good reason.  So as it’s her saint’s day this week, it might well pay you to be nice to Æthelthryth, you never know what she might do if you’re not!

Ian’s Saint of the Week: St Columba

9th JUNE 

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After a hiatus of a couple of weeks Saint of the Week is back with St Columba, whose death in 597 is commemorated on the 9th June.  He was born in Ireland in 521, and his Irish name, Colm Cille, translates roughly as ‘church dove’.  While he is well-known for establishing a monastery on the island of Iona, which is where he died and is buried, prior to this he was active in his native Ireland, setting up the foundations in Derry, Durrow, Kells and Swords in Dublin.

He got into a bit of a spat over the rights of ownership of a copy of a psalter with St Finnian of Movilla Abbey in 560 which resulted in the deaths of around 3000 men at the battle of Cúl Dreimhne – thus making it the earliest, and possibly the costliest in terms of lives, copyright dispute that we know of.  It must have been some book!  Despite his side’s overwhelming victory, Columba was exiled from Ireland whereupon he sailed with twelve companions for the west coast of Scotland in a hide-covered boat.  He was given the island of Iona by his relative Conall mac Comgaill, a local king, and proceeded to set up the monastery there where, among other things, it acted as a centre of literacy and as a source of schooling for the community based on the island.

His biographer Adomnán says of him that ‘He had the face of an angel; he was of excellent nature, polished in speech, holy in deed, great in council’, and among the many miracles that are attributed to him, the most memorable involves the earliest known reference to one of our greatest enduring myths: that of the Loch Ness Monster.  According to Adomnán’s hagiography, a Pictish man swimming across the River Ness was attacked and killed by a water beast.  Columba subsequently sent one of his own followers across the river to the astonishment of the Picts who had just seen one of their own tribesman killed.  The monster rose out of the water to attack again, at which point Columba demanded that it go no further and leave the man alone.  The monster immediately stopped as if ‘pulled up by ropes’ and the man survived.  This was one of the main events that helped Columba in his quest to convert the Picts to Christianity.  So spare a thought this week for the man who defied Nessie!

Ian’s Saint of the Week: St Dunstan

Ian Styler, saint expert extraordinare, shares a saint a week with you, for your delight and spiritual gain. 

May 21st 

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This week we are commemorating the death of Saint Dunstan, patron saint of blacksmiths, silversmiths, goldsmiths, locksmiths, musicians, and … Charlottetown, Canada!  (Yes, really.  Charlottetown’s cathedral, university and cemetery are all named after him, and if you go there, you can drive down Saint Dunstan Street – although you’ll end up in an industrial estate!).  He died on 19th May 988 after a very eventful life where among other things he was abbot of Glastonbury, bishop of London and Worcester (at the same time), and archbishop of Canterbury.

His fortunes were directly and inextricably linked to whoever was on the throne of Wessex or England at the time.  During the reigns of successive kings from Athelstan in the 920s through to Æthelred the Unready in the 970s, Dunstan was banished and subsequently recalled so many times that he must have felt dizzy!  In one instance he was beaten up, bound and thrown into a cesspool, while in another, Dunstan barely escaped with his life after infuriating the incumbent king by forcing him to renounce the woman he was cavorting with as a strumpet.  At other times, and at the other extreme, his influence in the royal court was such that he officiated at the coronation of King Edgar in 973, and he was influential in the choice of Edward as Edgar’s successor two years later.

He was a talented metalworker and musician, and spent his retirement in Canterbury playing the harp, casting bells and making jewellery, and – interesting fact no. 1 here – he is the reason that the date year stamps on hallmarks don’t follow the calendar year but instead run from the 19th May to the 18th May.  Among the many miracles he performed, he was especially good at upsetting the Devil.  When asked to re-shoe the Devil’s horse, he instead nailed the shoe to the Devil’s own hoof, causing him great pain, and would not remove it until the Devil agreed never to enter houses with horseshoes over the door, hence – interesting fact no. 2 – where we get the idea of lucky horseshoes from.  Not content with tormenting the Devil with horseshoes, Dunstan also reacted to being tempted by the Devil as described in the following verse:

St Dunstan, as the story goes,
Once pull’d the devil by the nose
With red-hot tongs, which made him roar,
That he was heard three miles or more

His relics were placed in Canterbury Cathedral, and he was apparently the English people’s favourite saint (how do they know that, did they have the medieval version of a phone poll?) until Thomas Becket eclipsed him in the late twelfth century.  So, as the Penguin Dictionary of Saints describes him, he was indeed the definition of a ‘many-sided man’.