A Mess of Saints – the battle to be England’s patron saint.

So who should be patron saint of England? St George? St George is fine. And very popular: many countries around the world have adopted him as their patron saint, just as England did. But I wanted to use St George’s Day as the springboard to bring back England’s neglected first patron saint: Edmund. Edmund was made patron saint of a newly united England, and remained so, alongside the later Edward the Confessor, until Edward III officially made St George our saint in the mid 14th century. For over ten years there has been a drive to reinstate St Edmund, and it’s a fun idea. It’s all too easy, though, to see the drive to reinstate the (possibly) local English-born Edmund over the Palestinian/Turkish/Greek George as an exercise in jingoism – out with the foreigner, bring back the native born son! So we need to tread carefully. St George has wide appeal and everyone knows about the dragon killing and the princess rescuing (though that’s a bit non-PC in my book!) though fewer I suspect know about the story of his martyrdom at the unwilling hands of Diocletian, who knew him, respected him and had been a friend of his father.

Of course, George does have a claim to Englishness. There are those who say that he was born in Coventry – and died there too – but this derives the legend of the seven champions, recorded in England as The Famous History of the Seven Champions of Christendom by Richard Johnson in 1596. This wacky series of tales about some of the most popular saints in Britain at the time (including all our patron saints: Patrick, Andrew, David and George, as well as those of Spain, France and Portugal, James, Denis and Anthony of Padua) are romances in which the hero-saints win fair maidens, fight enchantments and the enemies of Christendom. They were very popular and bear very little reference at all to the lives of the saints themselves: St Andrew, for example, delivered six women who had lived for seven years as swans and all of the saints were put into an enchanted sleep in the Black Castle. These tales inhabit the worlds created by Sir Thomas Malory and the other, earlier Romance writers – it’s easy to see why they were so popular. Be warmed, though! They are super racist and sexist… A product of their time.

What about Edward the Confessor? His reign was free from war, so he was called the ‘Peacemaker’. He was canonised in 1161, and was regarded as a patron saint to England until, again, St George was brought to the fore. Whether Edward was truly worthy of his title is a matter for debate, especially as after he died in 1066 a furious battle for England began between the claimants to the throne resulting in the Norman Conquest, the results of which, I might argue we still feel today… His canonisation may owe more to the ambitions of the clergy of Westminster Abbey than to any actual holiness! However, a legend says that when he was in the last year of his life he gave a ring to a beggar who had pleaded to him in the name of St John the Evangelist, and subsequently St John assisted two English knights lost in the Holy Land because of what Edward had done and instructed them to go back and tell Edward that in six months he would be waiting to escort Edward through the pearly gates. He was also supposed to heal the sick within his own lifetime, starting the tradition in England of kings having the healing touch. For information, his saint’s day is 13 October – easy to remember, as it’s the day before the Battle of Hastings…

Unbeknownst to me, apparently we had a third patron saint as well: St Gregory the Great. Gregory is honoured because he sent the first mission to convert the Anglo-Saxons: he’s the one who made the witty comment about some Anglo-Saxon slaves he saw in a market in Rome. Finding their appearance unusual: ‘fair complexions, fine-cut features, and beautiful hair,’ he enquired after them. It was explained that they were pagans from the island of Britain. Gregory was disappointed that ‘such bright-faced folk are still in the grasp of the author of darkness’ and asked the name of their race. The slaver replied: ‘They are called Angles.’ Gregory came back with the retort ‘Non Angli sed angeli,’ – not Angles but angels. He then continued punning on discovering that they were from the province of Diera (which then stretched from the Humber to the Tees), saying that ‘they shall indeed be rescued de ira (from wrath) and called to mercy of Christ.’ On hearing that their king was Aelle, he then punned on that, saying that it was right that their land echoed with the word to praise God, Alleluia…(1) What a wit! He acted immediately to beg the then pope to send a mission to convert the Anglo-Saxons, but only achieved this when he himself became pope. He has the saint’s day 3 September.

And then St Edmund the Martyr, our East Anglian saint. During his lifetime – or just after – there is one mention of him by name from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, as it describes ‘a great heathen force’ arriving in 866 when Edmund is referred to as making a peace with them in East Anglia, though not by name, through to 870: ‘The force went over Mercia to East Anglia, and took winter quarters at Thetford. In that year, St Edmund the king fought against them and the Danes took the victory, killed the king, and overcame all the land.’(2) From this the familiar legend grew of the death of Ragnar, the revenge of Ivar, Edmund’s devoted Christianity, the wolf’s head and so forth. You can find the whole tale, taken from many sources around Suffolk, in my Suffolk Folk Tales. Within 20 years of Edmund’s death a memorial coinage was being issued, already marking him as a saint, and in Asser’s Life of King Alfred, written in 893, more biographical detail is given of his coronation and death. He is said to have been an inspiration to Alfred as he too fought against the Danes a few years later in the late 870s. His saint’s day is 20 November.

I’ll be blogging more on St Edmund, and the Vikings in his story: Ragnar Hairy Breeches and Ivar the Boneless, as well as the various revenges of the saint on various unholy royals and council planners (and his nicer catalogue of saving children!) but today I wanted to put to you: who should be England’s saint? Well, why should we have to choose? Why not have the lot? Many countries have multiple saints – according to Wikipedia, France has seven, Germany has nine, and India and Japan have four and two respectively! So – shall we go back to having lots? Four saints? And maybe – can we have four bank holidays too?

References:

1. Bede Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Penguin Books, London, 1990), pp. 103-4
2. Savage, Anne (trans.) The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles (CLB Publishing Ltd., Godalming, 1995), p. 92

 

 

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Vikings and holy wells – an exercise in how difficult it is to find the ‘truth’

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It was a freezing cold day when we rocked up at Holywells Park in Ipswich to try to find the ‘hermit’s mossy cell’ as described by Elizabeth Cobbold in her poem ‘Holy Wells’ that inspired my Legend of the Holy Wells. Snow lay everywhere around, and children were racing while chilly parents followed them. It wasn’t easy to see what we were looking at, but it certainly showed what a vibrant place the former grounds of Elizabeth’s house has become.

DSC00298 (800x600) DSC00288 (800x600)

Why is it called Holywells? Well, shh, let me tell you a secret … it was called Hollow Wells (1) before , and our romantic 19th century citizens changed Hollow to Holy – maybe Elizabeth herself coining the term. The place does have a religious history, however, as it was owned by the Bishops of Norwich. There may possibly have been a residence for the bishops, and potentially a small chapel – but the idea of a Bishop’s Palace may well also have been concocted by Elizabeth! She seems to have been a woman after my own heart – keen to enchant, or re-enchant the landscape around her.

Is there any possibility that Elizabeth’s story has a grounding in history? The importance of the water on the site doesn’t seem to have been celebrated until the Cobbold’s came along to use it in their beer making in the 17th century. But there have certainly long been rumours of something holy happening at Holywells. Was it a guardian of the wells? A guardianship handed down from father to son over the generations? Had there, in fact, been a guardian there since the Iron Age and the time of the druids? A friend of Boudicca, maybe? We’ll never know – unless archaeology does turn something up in the future.

But, what about those Vikings? They were there, right? Oh yes. On the 5 May in 1010 there was a battle at Nacton, and indeed there is a snippet of folklore about the area. The Seven Hills mounds at Nacton – there are actually eight, and there were thirteen or fourteen once – by the A1156 are supposed to be the graves of the Saxons who fought under Ulfcytel Snillinge, or the Bold, Ealdorman of East Anglia, and who were killed by the invading Vikings under Thorkell the Tall (2).

In the saga of St Olaf, the Heimkringla, East Anglia is Ulfketel’s Land. He seems to have ruled from 1002 until his death in 1016. He may have been married to a daughter of King Ethelred. The Saxon forces in the battle at Nacton did not cover themselves with glory however. Thorketel Mare’s Head ran away, taking his force with him, and only the men of Cambridgeshire held firm. The Vikings then sack Ipswich, and raid the region.

But there are Vikings on both sides. This is a war for the rule of the country, not random raids to take plunder. Ulfketel and Thorketel are Scandinavian sounding names, and fighting on Ethelred’s side was also St Olaf, Olaf Haraldsson, the king who brought Christianity to Norway. And it’s complicated. The ‘enemy’ is Sweyn Forkbeard, and one of the reasons he felt able to invade was that his sister Gunhilde was said to have been killed as part of the St Brice’s Day Massacre on 13 November 1002, when Ethelred ordered all Danes (Vikings!) in England killed as he was afraid they might come after his throne – he was afraid that the Danes were ‘sprouting like cockle amongst the wheat’. Of course, his plan backfired and led to his overthrow, not once, but twice – badly counselled indeed! And an early indicator of the effects of an intolerant political agenda towards migrants. The Danes in Oxford, for example, sought refuge in a church, and were burnt out and killed. Who is the bad guy here? Can we tell? Can we judge – I doubt they could judge at the time, and I doubt we can judge now even with hindsight.

The battles continued. The same year at Rymer in Suffolk (seven miles south of Thetford, near RAF Honington and indeed another Seven Hills with mounds…) there was another battle in which St Olaf fought alongside Ulfketel:

To Ulfkel’s land came Olaf bold,
A seventh sword-thing he would hold.
The race of Ella filled the plain —
Few of them slept at home again!
Hringmara heath
Was a bed of death:
Harfager’s heir
Dealt slaughter there.

From Hringmara field
The chime of war,
Sword striking shield,
Rings from afar.
The living fly;
The dead piled high
The moor enrich;
Red runs the ditch.(3)

Ethelred won this one, and Ulfketel attempted to make a truce with Sweyn, but he broke it and tried to sack Thetford. This jockeying went on until St Edmund (allegedly) killed Sweyn in 1014, revenging himself on the Danes who had taken his life, and perhaps incensed that Sweyn had chosen the same day to get crowned as himself – Christmas day. But that’s another story for another blog. His son Cnut took the throne in 1016, after the battle that killed Ulfketel. It is said that he was killed by his nemesis at Nacton, the Jomsviking Thorkell.

A complex tale indeed, and who’s to say that two wounded Vikings didn’t make their way to Ipswich and that one found his long lost Saxon father and stayed as a hermit guarding the holy well…

There is a certain irony to all this, though. Because there is a Viking age holy well in Ipswich. A boundary charter of 970 records a haligwille near the Stoke area on the other side of the Orwell, probably where Fir Tree Farm was, and where the Chantry Estate now is. The well was already well enough established to be used as boundary marker:

The aforesaid land is bounded this way and that by these limits : ‘These are the boundaries (landgemaera) of the 10 hides at Stoke. The first of these is a hythe and along the midstream at Ashman’s yre and so forth into the middle of the stream it comes to brunna and so forth to Theofford and from there to Haligwille to Healdenesho and so to Pottaford to Hagenefordabrycge from Hagenefordabricgeto Horsewade to [into] a merscmylne from merscmylne to the bridge In the year of the Lord’s incarnation the nine hundred and seventieth was this charter written.’(4)

It may have been in use for a long time before, as it is close to the place where a cache of Iron-age gold torcs was found in 1968 – a ritual offering? The mystery deepens…

Notes:
1. http://www.gatehouse-gazetteer.info/English%20sites/4278.html
2. Actually Bronze Age bowl barrows…
3. http://omacl.org/Heimskringla/ The text of this edition is based on that published as “Heimskringla: A History of the Norse Kings” (Norroena Society, London, 1907, and edited, proofed, and prepared by Douglas B. Killings, April 1996
4. Fairclough, John ‘The Bounds of Stoke and the Hamlets of Ipswich’ in Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology & History Volume XL, part 3 (2003), pp. 262-277