Friday, April 03, 2009

Saints are rather "thin on the ground" in England

Home-grown saints are hard to find, says Chris Upton who recounts the story of St Winefride.

One of the reasons for the fuss of Cardinal John Henry Newman, and his progression towards sainthood, is that saints are rather thin on the ground in England.

This is understandable after the Reformation, when the adoration of saints became illegal, but things were not much better in the Middle Ages. Set aside Thomas Becket, St Chad and a handful of others and the number of native saints is distinctly limited. Even the country’s patron saint had to be borrowed from Syria.

The dearth of saints could have economic, as well as theological, consequences for the Church. Much of the regular income for monasteries and cathedrals came from the presence of saintly relics and the pilgrim traffic that they generated. And the presence of a saint’s remains in a church was always likely to induce other wealthy benefactors to look for eternal rest beside them. It was certainly the presence of the St Wulfstan which induced King John to wish to be buried in Worcester Cathedral, hoping a little of the saint’s holiness would rub off on him.

But, as we have said, English saints were few and far between. As with foodstuffs, so with saints: what cannot be grown locally has to be imported.

Luckily the Celtic fringes of the British Isles – and especially Cornwall, Ireland and Wales – had more than they could handle, and a little judicious relocation kept everyone happy. Such was the case with St Winefride.

St Winefride (we should probably call her Gwenfewi) was born in Wales in the early seventh century, the daughter of wealthy Christian landowners, Tyfid and Gwenlo. Winefride was also related to the early Christian bishop, St Beuno.

The story of Winefride’s martyrdom is not an uncommon one in the tales of female saints. At the age of about 15 years, it was said, whilst her parents were in chapel, she was approached by a man called Caradog, who assaulted her. Winefride resisted his advances and ran towards the chapel, whereupon Caradog in anger drew his sword and decapitated her.

At this moment Beuno rushed from the chapel and pronounced a curse on Caradog, who immediately fell down dead. As for Winefride, the holy man reunited her head and body and asked the worshippers to pray for the girl to be restored to life. Winefride was duly brought back to life and went on to live another 15 years or so, dedicated to the service of God. She lived first as a recluse and then as a nun at a place called Gwytherin, south of Conway. And there she died (for a second time) in around 640 or 650.

The spot where Winefride’s head had fallen itself became a place of pilgrimage. A stream of pure water gushed forth, and the place was renamed Holywell.

The tale may have remained entirely Celtic and Welsh, and Winefride an obscure, if well-loved, saint. But by the 12th Century powerful neighbours across the border had need of her.

In 1083 the Norman Earl Roger of Montgomery had made a vow to found an abbey at Shrewsbury, as a way to add religious credentials to his already considerable secular authority. When King William’s Domesday commissioners came to call three years later, they did indeed record that “Earl Roger is making an abbey...” The site of the foundation was across the river from the town, in the suburb we now call Abbey Foregate.

Earl Roger was not quite so open-handed when it came to endowing his new monastery with lands. Four rural estates, a handful of churches and the income from mills and burgesses in Shrewsbury amounted to less than £50 a year, hardly sufficient to keep an abbot and his monks in anything approaching a comfortable lifestyle. It was said that they were even short of clothes.

The receipts of the abbey would be increased much by the presence of holy relics, which would encourage pilgrimage and other endowments, much as a star footballer adds to attendance figures. 60 miles away in Gwytherin, St Winefride fitted the bill perfectly. And so in 1138 a procession of monks transferred the remains of Winefride from Wales to England.

There were various visions and miracles en route to demonstrate God’s approval of the move, but still, this does look like a bit of theological asset-stripping. Nor was the idea an entirely original one. Less than a decade earlier the monks of nearby Wenlock Abbey had added considerably to their footfall by the “miraculous” discovery of the bones of St Milburga.

The trick worked. Shrewsbury Abbey became, as was hoped, a place of pilgrimage, and the cult of St Winefride, promoted by successive abbots of Shrewsbury, took off. Devotion probably reached its height in the late 14th and 15th Century.

In 1398 the Archbishop of Canterbury ordered that the saint’s feast day be celebrated with special solemnity, and a chantry was established at her altar in the abbey church in 1463. And in 1487 the abbot established a perpetual guild in her honour, which had as its members many of the chief citizens of Shrewsbury.

The medieval abbey still standing in the Foregate, now only a fraction of the original church, is testimony to the power of sainthood, and the riches it can bring.