Saints, Shrines and Pilgrims

Click to a larger version of Canterbury Cathedral, Kent (Church of England): photo © Mick Sharp

Canterbury Cathedral, Kent (Church of England): photo © Mick Sharp

Thomas Becket became a close friend of Henry II who made him Chancellor of England in 1155 and Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162. Thomas took to wearing a hair shirt and concentrated his formidable pride and energy on resisting ecclesiastical reform. As his relationship with the king broke down they engaged in bitter public rows. Becket excommunicated two bishops and suspended the Archbishop of York who remarked, at a meeting in Normandy, that Henry would have ‘neither quiet times nor a tranquil kingdom’ while Thomas lived. No sooner had the exasperated king exclaimed ‘who will rid me of this low-born priest’ than four eager knights left for Canterbury. Confronted in the cathedral, Becket taunted the knights calling Reginald FitzUrse a ‘pimp’ and pushing him to the floor. Becket received three sword-blows before collapsing. The final cut removed the top of his skull and the sword-tip shattered on the paving. Within hours the cathedral was full of mourners, forgetful of his hubris and mock humility, proclaiming him saint and martyr. Cures and miracles - and punishments for those who did not show enough gratitude - soon began, and Becket’s shrine became the premier pilgrim destination in Britain. Scenes from the life and miracles of the ‘holy blisful martir’, as Chaucer described him in ‘The Canterbury Tales’, are illustrated in the stained glass windows of Trinity Chapel. Those attending the translation of Becket’s relics into the newly-built chapel in 1220 were guaranteed a reduction of 540 days from their time in purgatory. This depiction of pilgrims at the shrine gives a double view of the east-facing altar, gold-plated tomb chest, draperies and golden lamps. When Henry VIII had the shrine destroyed in 1538 it took twenty-six wagons to carry away the treasures.
Click to a larger version of Chapel of Our Lady of the Crag, Knaresborough, N. Yorkshire (Ampleforth Abbey): photo © Mick Sharp

Chapel of Our Lady of the Crag, Knaresborough, N. Yorkshire (Ampleforth Abbey): photo © Mick Sharp

A large knight in armour, ready to draw his sword, guards the entrance to the wayside shrine founded by John the Mason in 1408. Working in a nearby quarry, John saw his young son playing on the cliff narrowly escape death in a rock fall. Attributing the boy’s miraculous survival to the intervention of the Virgin Mary, the grateful father excavated and dedicated the cave to her as a thank-offering. King Henry IV granted permission for the chapel which is reputed to be one of the earliest wayside shrines in Britain. For many years a painted statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus occupied the rock-cut niche above the stone altar inside the cave, but that was replaced at the Millennium Festival by a plain stone Madonna and Child sculpted by Ian Judd. A walk eastwards of 20-30 minutes, along Abbey Road as it runs between the magnesium limestone cliff face and the River Nidd, leads to the remains of the riverside Chapel of the Holy Rood. Beside it is the cave hermitage where St Robert of Knaresborough ‘could more quietly occupy himself in contemplating the Lord and could get away from the ubiquitous harassment of the crowd’. Robert died there in 1218 and was placed in a rock-cut grave to prevent Cistercian monks claiming him for burial at Fountains Abbey. By 1252 Trinitarian monks had built the ‘monastery of St. Robert at Gnaresbur’ nearby and moved Robert’s body to their church which was visited by pilgrims to witness the oil flowing from his tomb.
Click to a larger version of St Columba’s Cave, Mid Argyll: photo © Mick Sharp

St Columba’s Cave, Mid Argyll: photo © Mick Sharp

This green, airy cavern is claimed as Columba’s first landfall on the Scottish coast during his mission from Ireland in AD 563, which culminated in the founding of his monastery on the island of Iona. Just above a small bay in Loch Caolisport, with fresh water close by, it must have been a perfect place to rest and shelter for seafarers in a small boat. On the path up from the beach there is a ruined chapel, and a stream and small waterfall to the left of the cliff. Mass used to be said regularly in the cave and ecumenical services are still held there. The ancient stone altar is usually decorated with plants and flowers, and offerings such as coins, pebbles, quartz, pine cones, shells, wax and candles - even orange peel and other impromptu gifts. In the summer the area blooms with yellow flags, roses, foxgloves, huge poppies, yellow buddleia, azaleas and climbing white hydrangeas. Seals sunbathe on an islet in the mouth of the bay while sheep close-crop the grass amongst the flags on the rocky shore. The sheep are fenced out of Columba’s cave, but when the heat becomes too much for them they congregate in the coolness of the one next door. Columba made several visits to Scotland before settling on Iona. He is said to have first set foot in Scotland around 561 at Keil Point at the southern end of the Mull of Kintyre where there is also a source of drinking water, a sheltering cave and a ruined chapel. A footprint cut in the rock there is believed to have been used in the inauguration rituals of the Kings of Dalriada who were St Columba’s kin.
Click to a larger version of Mount Brandon, Dingle, Co Kerry: photo © Mick Sharp

Mount Brandon, Dingle, Co Kerry: photo © Mick Sharp

St Brendan the Navigator was a contemporary of St Columba and visited him on the Scottish island of ‘Hinba’ (possibly Jura or one of the Garvellechs). Like many Irish monks, the abbot of Clonfert was also a great traveller and seafarer. A 10th-century romance, the ‘Navigation of St. Brendan’, in which he leads a party of monks on a quest to find ‘an island of promise’, a ‘happy other-world’ in the Atlantic Ocean, did much to establish his cult which, like the story, has pre-Christian, early Christian and folkloric elements. Brandon Mountain is a dramatic, cloud-topped peak rising to 952m (3121ft) with wide views over the Dingle peninsula and surrounding sea. An ancient Lughnasa festival site and centre of pagan legends, Mount Brandon became a place of Christian pilgrimage, especially at St Brendan’s feast (16 May), the festival of SS Peter and Paul (29 June) and at Lammastide (last Sunday in July). Pilgrims would visit a variety of ancient sites on the peninsula before ascending the mountain from the SW via Ballybrack or by taking the harder route up the east side from Cloghane. A large pilgrims’ cairn marks the SW path, and at the summit are St Brendan’s oratory, his beehive cell and holy well. Wandering about in the mist, overdressed in modern walking gear, we encountered a farmer, sporting a crook, slacks and a tight woollen pullover, looking for his sheep.
Click to a larger version of Holy Island Sands, Northumberland: photo © Jean Williamson

Holy Island Sands, Northumberland: photo © Jean Williamson

At Easter modern pilgrims walk barefoot across the sands to the tidal island of Lindisfarne or Holy Island, famous for its monastery founded in 635 by King Oswald of Northumbria and St Aidan of Iona, and later ruled over by St Cuthbert. The line of poles established in 1860 marks the ancient path from Beal Sands on the mainland to Chare Ends on the island. Anglo-Saxon Oswald had become a Christian while in exile on Iona. After defeating Cadwallon - Christian King of Gwynedd and ally of Penda the pagan Saxon King of Mercia - in battle, Oswald asked Iona to send a missionary to help convert his kingdom. Aidan founded a Celtic monastery on Lindisfarne, preached with Oswald acting as interpreter, bought the freedom of Anglo-Saxon slaves to be educated for the Church and trained missionaries such as St Cedd who was sent to re-evangelize Essex. Oswald was killed by Penda, but his monastery thrived until the Danish raids started in 793 when Vikings looted the island, killing cattle, priests and monks, ‘raiding on all sides like stinging hornets and ravening wolves’. The monks fled in 875, taking with them the preserved body of Cuthbert and the skull of Oswald, and eventually settled at Durham. St Cuthbert spent periods on the island of Inner Farne which St Aidan had also used as a Lenten retreat. Cuthbert had an affinity with the natural world and protected the wildlife, especially the eider (Cuddy’s Duck) who nested at the foot of his altar. He would spend the night in prayer while up to his neck in the sea and was once observed, while on a visit to the monastery at Coldingham, coming out of the surf at dawn to have his feet dried and warmed by a pair of otters.
Click to a larger version of Pickering Church, North Yorkshire (Church of England): photo © Mick Sharp

Pickering Church, North Yorkshire (Church of England): photo © Mick Sharp

One of the 15th-century frescoes in SS Peter and Paul’s church depicts the murder of St Edmund. In an age of conflict, many Anglo-Saxon kings came to be regarded as Christian martyrs. Before St George was adopted as England’s patron saint, SS Edward the Confessor and Edmund the Martyr shared that honour. Edmund became king of East Anglia at the age of fifteen; he died in his late twenties at the hands of the Danes in November 869. The ‘great army’ of Scandinavians had been causing trouble in the British Isles since 865. Their leader, Ivar (Ingwar), who did not lose a battle for twenty years was considered to be a pagan sorcerer. He celebrated victories by offering Christian kings to his god, Odin, in the ‘blood eagle’ rite: the victim’s ribs were hacked off, the lungs spread out across his back like wings. Losing a battle at Thetford, Edmund either surrendered to prevent further bloodshed or escaped and was captured. Amongst other things, he was tied to a tree, scourged, shot full of arrows and beheaded to prevent Christian burial. Guarded by a ‘wolf’, Edmund’s severed head was miraculously reunited with his body which was buried by his followers in a wooden chapel. As he died affirming Christ and refusing the unacceptable Danish peace terms, he was soon regarded as a martyr, saint and English patriot. For over thirty years legends and patriotic fervour grew around his name, and in 903 his incorrupt body was taken to the Saxon monastery in the place named Bury St Edmunds in his honour. His relics were considered to induce fertility and avenge wrongs: the sudden death of King Sweyn, while trying to force ransom money from the monastery, was held to be by ‘the Saint’s spear. As a gesture of reconciliation Sweyn’s son Cnut (Canute), the Danish king of England, had the church rebuilt and installed Benedictine monks to tend Edmund’s shrine.
Click to a larger version of Gloucester Cathedral, Gloucestershire (Church of England): photo © Mick Sharp

Gloucester Cathedral, Gloucestershire (Church of England): photo © Mick Sharp

The acquisition of a popularly acclaimed royal saint could do wonders for an abbey’s finances. The shrine of one of Britain’s most unlikely examples can be seen in the church of the former St Peter’s abbey where, bathed in colour and light from the great east window, lies the exquisite alabaster effigy of Edward II. The wayward behaviour of Edward I’s son dismayed the king and disgusted his barons. At his coronation banquet in 1308, Edward paid so much attention to his favourite Piers Gaveston - dressed in imperial purple trimmed with pearls - that the relatives of his twelve-year-old queen, Isabella of France, stormed out. His unsatisfactory behaviour continued and civil war followed his defeat by the Scots at Bannockburn in 1314. With the support of bishops and barons his estranged queen raised an army of mercenaries against him and had his new best friend executed for alleged ‘unnatural practices’: Hugh Despenser’s genitals were cut off, his stomach slit open and his entrails set on fire while he was still alive. In January 1327 Isabella and her lover, Roger Mortimer, forced Edward to abdicate in favour of Prince Edward. The former king was imprisoned and tortured at Berkeley Castle where his ordeal came to a terrible end when a heated soldering iron was forced into his bowels. In fear of Isabella the abbots of Bristol, Kingswood and Malmesbury refused to bury their former king, but the abbot of St Peter’s was shrewdly brave. He risked having Edward’s body interred in his church after a magnificent and crowded funeral. Edward III imprisoned his mother, sent Mortimer to the scaffold and persuaded the Benedictines to convert their choir into a lavish mausoleum for his ‘martyred’ father. When the influx of pilgrims threatened to overwhelm the town’s facilities, the New Inn was built in Northgate to accommodate them.
Click to a larger version of East Dereham Church and Well, Norfolk (Church of England): photo © Mick Sharp

East Dereham Church and Well, Norfolk (Church of England): photo © Mick Sharp

Withburga was the youngest daughter of saintly King Anna of East Anglia. When he was killed in battle around AD 654, the family dispersed and Withburga eventually established a nunnery at ‘Dereham’ in Norfolk, usually taken to be East Dereham where St Withburga’s Well may be seen below the church. The nuns and their masons were so poor that they lived on dry bread and the milk of two generous does who appeared each day from the woods. Withburga died before completion of her nunnery and was buried in the graveyard. When the church was rebuilt in the 9th century after Danish raids, Withburga was translated inside the new building. Her body was found to be incorrupt and from her grave a healing spring broke forth which attracted pilgrims and the sick. The importance of saints, their relics, miracles and the pilgrim revenues they brought cannot be overstated. Withburga’s sister Etheldreda (Audrey) became the most popular of Anglo-Saxon women saints and her monastery at Ely thrived until 870 when it was burnt and plundered by the Danes. Ely was keen to have a family set and eventually managed to ‘collect’ Etheldreda’s sisters Sexburga, Withburga and Wendreda, her niece Ermenilda and her great-niece Werburga. After King Edgar re-founded Ely in 970 he agreed that Withburga should lie with her sisters. Abbot Brithnoth went to Dereham with a band of monks to steal the missing sister. By force or deception, the body was removed during the night and taken twenty miles overland to waiting boats on the Little Ouse near Brandon. Armed and angry, the pursuing Dereham monks were left standing as Ely escaped on the water with their precious relic.
Click to a larger version of Whitchurch Canonicorum, Dorset (Church of England): photo © Mick Sharp

Whitchurch Canonicorum, Dorset (Church of England): photo © Mick Sharp

Apart from that of Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey, the shrine to St Wite (Candida) is the only one to have remained in situ in an English church containing its original relics, and to have maintained pilgrimage almost continuously since the reign of Alfred the Great (871-99). Although Wite is ‘surrounded by a curious haze’, strong local tradition maintains she was a Saxon holy woman who had a hermitage near her holy well on Chardown Hill and was martyred during a 9th-century Danish raid on Charmouth. The present tomb was constructed in the early 1200s and was opened in the 1500s but the relics were not disturbed. They were examined in 1900 after settlement in the church transept opened a crack in the Purbeck marble tomb chest. An inscribed lead casket was revealed containing the bones of a small woman aged about forty. Almond-shaped holes below the tomb allow pilgrims to place ailing heads and limbs close to the healing relics, or to transfer their restorative powers onto items such as handkerchiefs. While prayers, coins and candles were offered at the shrine, gifts of cake and cheese were also considered acceptable. Those receiving a miracle were ‘measured for St Wite’: a length of wick, amounting to the dimensions of the part cured, was made into a candle for burning at the shrine. In the case of a whole-body cure the wick was coiled before being waxed. Modern offerings, and supplications and thanks written on shrine cards or rolled up pieces of paper, are placed in the apertures. Water from the well is used in church services and to soothe eye complaints. The clear blue periwinkles trailing amongst the hedgerows of nearby Stonebarrow Hill are known to this day as St Candida’s Eyes.
Click to a larger version of Pennant Melangell, Powys (Church in Wales): photo © Mick Sharp

Pennant Melangell, Powys (Church in Wales): photo © Mick Sharp

The church at Pennant Melangell commemorates the 7th-century Irish princess who, to escape her father’s idea of a good marriage, sought sanctuary in a Welsh upland valley. Melangell spent many years without human contact but had a spiritual relationship with the wildlife of Cwm Pennant, especially the hares. Magical qualities have often been ascribed to hares, they figure in the mystical traditions of both East and West and are associated with ‘fertility, femininity and the lunar cycle.’ They were also associated with the goddess Eostre (Easter) - the ‘rising light’ of spring - and came to represent Christ’s resurrection. Melangell proved a worthy protectress: when Brochwel, prince of Powys, came hunting in the valley a pursued hare sought shelter under Melangell’s skirt as she prayed hidden among dense brambles. Awed by her spiritual presence, her power over his dogs and huntsmen, Brochwel spared the hare and declared Cwm Pennant a perpetual safe retreat. Melangell is reputed to have founded a nunnery and from her remote hermitage a place of medieval pilgrimage and sanctuary grew. By the 12th century a Norman church had been built with an apse covering Melangell’s grave, and a Romanesque shrine installed in the chancel to hold her relics. The shrine was broken up in the 1540s, reconstructed in the 1950s from fragments found in the walls of the church and lychgate and fully reinstated during the 1988-92 renovations. Church register entries from the 18th century describe Cwm Pennant as ‘a healing valley’, one step from heaven, where St Melangell and angels triumph ‘over all the powers of evil’.
Click to a larger version of Hennock, Devon (Church of England): photo © Mick Sharp

Hennock, Devon (Church of England): photo © Mick Sharp

On the rood screen of St Mary’s church SS Urith and Sidwell hold scythes and Sidwell carries her head. Echoes of pagan Celtic concerns feature in their related stories: both virtuous young women beheaded at the instigation of their stepmothers. St Urith (Hieritha) was born in Celtic Devon at a time when Anglo-Saxons from Wessex were moving into the West Country. Devoted to Christianity she provoked the envy of her pagan stepmother who incited Saxon harvesters to kill Urith with their scythes. A stream of pure water issued from the grieving earth where she fell in the fields at Chittlehampton - a book of her life and miracles used to be kept at the shrine in her church there. Through the treachery of Sidwell’s stepmother, the innocent young girl was beheaded by the scythes of her father’s hired men in his fields outside Exeter. A brilliant shaft of light illuminated the place for three nights, after which shining Sidwell was seen to carry her head close to the town’s east gate. These mixtures of Christian martyrdom and pagan fertility reach back to the rites of early agricultural societies where sacrifice, transfiguration and rebirth of a nature deity (or human proxy) took place amongst the crops whose cycle they symbolically copied and ensured. Lights burned at Sidwell’s shrine in her former church by the east gate and her relics brought about miraculous cures of the sick, lame and blind. At Morebath, an altar to Sidwell stood in the north aisle and on her feast days her statue was decorated with a silver shoe and a necklace of silver and jet. In 1533 a thief used his ladder to climb onto the nave roof and then through one of the belfry windows - breaking open two chests he stole a chalice and Sidwell’s silver shoe.
Click to a larger version of Bardsey Island from St Mary’s Well, Gwynedd (Bardsey Island Trust): photo © Mick Sharp

Bardsey Island from St Mary’s Well, Gwynedd (Bardsey Island Trust): photo © Mick Sharp

Before the Reformation, Bardsey or Ynys Enlli was regarded as a waiting room for heaven; three crossings to ‘fair Mary’s isle’ were considered equivalent to a pilgrimage to Rome, and many wished to be buried there in the company of ’20,000 saints’. Pilgrim routes led down the Lleyn peninsula to several embarkation points including the beach beside St Hywyn’s church at Aberdaron, the modern choice of Porth Meudwy and even the dangerously rocky cove containing St Mary’s Well, a small pool of drinking water covered over by the salty high tide. Enlli is the traditional site of a 6th-century Celtic monastery established by St Cadfan and the burial place of his contemporaries SS Dyfrig and Cadfan. by the 1100s Enlli was established as a major place of pilgrimage, by 1200 the Celtic monastery of St Mary had been taken over by Augustinian canons under a prior. Bardsey has a special atmosphere and is a world apart with weather of its own: it can be a great pleasure to be bathed in sunshine on the island while the day is all is gloom and doom on the mainland. In the often difficult sea and wind conditions the two-mile trip can become a tooth-crunching journey of six miles with a hard landing at the end. Enlli is a good place to ponder meaning and the mysteries of existence; the nature and variety of the earth, planets and stars; infinite time and space or the eternal now; faith or its absence; self-belief or acceptance of something beyond, eternal and universal; the paradise of Christ or the Celtic land of the blessed beyond the setting sun.

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