Ian Styler, saint expert extraordinare, shares a saint a week with you, for your delight and spiritual gain.
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!
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!
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!
Tuesday June 23rd
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!
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!
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’.
Ian’s blog brings some saintliness to the CeSMA community by introducing a different saint each time, whose saint’s day falls within the week of the post.
This week’s saint is the Welsh sixth-century bishop, St. Asaph. He was born in the early 500s, died in 596, and his saint’s day is the 11th May (so if you didn’t celebrate last Monday you’ve got a whole year to wait before the next occasion). He was the first Welsh bishop appointed to the see of St. Asaph in Flintshire, north-east Wales, which is the second-smallest city in the UK with less than 3500 inhabitants – no prizes for guessing which one is the smallest – and the monastery that preceded the cathedral there may have been founded by him.
He studied under the former bishop of Glasgow, St. Kentigern, who had retired from Scotland to Wales in the wake of a strong anti-Christian movement in his home country. Kentigern was prone to praying standing in icy cold water (these Scots are made of strong stuff!), and one particularly cold day, he sent Asaph to bring a burning brand (the stick variety, as opposed to the Russell variety!) back with which to warm him. Asaph, always the eager assistant, went one better however and actually brought burning coals back with him clutched against his chest, which miraculously did not scorch either his clothes or his skin. As a result of this miracle, Kentigern recognised Asaph’s holiness, and when he finally returned to Scotland, he appointed Asaph as bishop. According to one source, Asaph was said to have ‘charm of manners, grace of body, holiness of heart, and be the witness of miracles’, so a generally good egg then, and he is portrayed usually either as a monk carrying the burning coals, or as a bishop with a book (as in the image above).
Not a lot else is known of him as there are no known lives of St. Asaph, although his name does live on in such places as his ash tree (Onnen Asa), his well (Llansasa) and his valley (Pantasa), as well as streets as far afield as Christchurch, New Zealand and Alexandria, Virginia.