On This Day: Bones Of Contention

April the 19th is the day of Alphege, who was an Anglo-Saxon monk of Deerhurst near Gloucester. Old Alfie, as I rather irreverently refer to him purely because it’s easier, was made the bishop of Winchester in 984 and Archbishop of Canterbury in 1005. 

When he took the post of Archbishop he took with him the head of St.Swithin, like you do. I would normally just take a book.

When the Danes invaded in 1011 he refused to leave his people, and when held to ransom he refused to let the money of the poor be used to buy his freedom.

A 13th Century stained glass window at Canterbury Cathedral, depicting Alfie’s abduction. Note the Viking stood behind him giving him a Karate chop.


The following year, his captors, not exactly renown for their patience, finally lost it during a drunken feast at Greenwich and pelted him with bones and the heads of cattle. They then killed him with an axe-a noteworthy example of a martyr witnessing to justice rather than faith.

What’s it all about, Alfie? 

He became the first Archbishop of Canterbury to die a violent death. 

Alfie is shown here being asked advice. I would imagine his reply could be: “Don’t bother taking a Saint’s head with you for luck. It’s not worth the effort-and you could instead pack more socks.”

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On This Day:England’s First Historian And The Fleeting Sparrow

In 686, plague broke out at a monastery in Jarrow, north-east England. There were only two survivors, one being a young boy who we now know as the Venerable Bede. He went on to write many books, and the one for which he is most famous, The Ecclesiastical History Of The English People gained him the title of ‘The Father Of English History’.

He died on this day in 735, and a few years ago I visited Durham Cathedral where he is buried, along with St.Cuthbert and the head of King and Saint Oswald.

I’m one for deep and hypothetical conversations, especially in the wee small hours, and whenever the subject of our existence comes up, where we came from and where we are going to either end of this short life, the following passage of Bede’s always comes to mind. It reflects on the Christian faith when it was being presented for the first time to the people of early England:

Another of the king’s chief men signified his agreement with this prudent argument, and went on to say: “Your Majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thegns and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside, the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing. Therefore, if this new teaching has brought any more certain knowledge, it seems only right that we should follow it.”

Today, in an older and more rooted England, if we call ourselves Christian or not, I love the image of that one, fleeting sparrow, passing through between storms.

On This Day: My Mother The Cow

On this day is remembered the Irish saint Máedóc of Ferns, born around 558. According to Irish legends, when a boat could not be found to take the infant Aedan (Máedóc’s original name), across the lake where St.Kilian waited to baptise him, the boy was floated to shore on a slab of stone.

The font at St Mogue’s in Bawnboy is said to be made from part of the stone. Will come in handy if ever the churchyard floods.

He studied at Clonard Abbey, the famed school of St.Finnian. When many people came to seek him out, desiring to be his disciples, he fled to Wales to study under none other than St.David. These saints do seem rather clicky, don’t they?

Along with St.Cadoc (another name drop there) Máedóc was said to have exterminated an army of Saxons or Irishmen in a narrow valley by rolling stones upon them.

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The monastic site at Clonmore is in ruins. Here some cross fragments and carved stones have been collected together.

He was noted for his benevolence and hospitality (though perhaps not to Saxons or Irishmen). At one point, a man pushed him into a lake to see whether he would lose his temper, then, when he meekly got back out of the lake the tormentor confessed his guilt and apologised.

A humble, forgiving soul, eh? Don’t bet on it:

He was well known for his curses. Once, when he was grinding flour, a local man begged for some meal. After being given some, the man disguised himself as a blind man and returned to beg for more. Annoyed, Máedóc cursed him that the generations of his descendants would never lack for a blind member. Sins of the father and all that.

When a notable figure slew his own father-in-law, he attempted to accommodate the saint, only for him to curse that the man’s right hand would wither to a stump. When the man begged for a penance, Máedóc directed him to pray for forgiveness at the tomb of Brandubh in Ferns. The man did so, and a spectral voice from the crypt forgave him.

Miraculous. Marvellous. He still lost his hand though.

Many more stories abound concerning this seventh century figure. Once, fetching ale for his fellow monks, old butter fingers broke a jug. Making the sign of the cross over the broken shards, the jug repaired itself and he continued along the way. As a former teenage glass collector, I can tell you there is definitely a market for this kind of trick.

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Stained glass window of the Saint in Enniscorthy Cathedral.

I like the story about the time wolves devoured one of the calves at the monastery, the mother cow being inconsolable. Máedóc blessed the head of his cook and told him to offer it to the heifer. The cow licked him with its great, rough tongue, and from that moment ‘loved him like a calf’. Oh, how that cook must have leapt for joy whenever he heard it lowing mournfully in the barn. Think I’d have preferred a withered stump.

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One thing I love about the tales of these Celtic monks is their affinity with, and connection to, the natural world. Perhaps there is a moulding here of both the native pagan and early Christian faiths, back in the melting pot of these islands. There is a nice tale of  Máedóc reading one day in Connaught, and a hunted stag in desperation took refuge with him. By a miracle, the saint rendered the stag invisible, and so the pursuing hounds ran off.

In art the figure of a stag remains this saint’s emblem. A visible one, of course. An invisible emblem wouldn’t be much of an emblem, now, would it?

Aeddan, forever known as Máedóc, died on this day in 632, (or in an alternative account 626) and is buried on Lough Melvin’s shore in County Leitrim. Give him a thought before you turn out the light tonight.

 

 

On This Day: The One-Armed Man

In a list of saints native to the British Isles, today is the day of Nathalan, (?-678), who legend says was a wealthy man who became a hermit near Aberdeen, in Scotland, supporting himself by cultivating his smallholding:

‘which work approaches nearest to divine contemplation.’

Couldnt have had cows, then.

Born into a noble Pictish family, he produced surplus food to help pilgrims and the needy of the area. So far so good. Saintly material.

But, when the crops failed one summer, Nathalan cursed God for the wet weather. (Seems like nothing has changed climate wise in those parts.) Full of remorse, he repented by having one arm chained to his side. The only key to the padlock he dispensed into the depths of the River Dee. He then set off on foot to do penance in Rome. At least he still had one arm free to thumb a lift in case he grew too weary.

Arriving in Rome months later, he bought a fish in the market. When he cut it open, guess what he found inside? Only the key to the padlock on his chained arm. How’s that for a divine sign of forgiveness?

On hearing of this miracle, the Pope had Nathalan made into a bishop (some say the Bishop of Aberdeen). The poor fish is never mentioned again though. Such is the fate of fish throughout history.

He returned to Scotland, (Nathalan, not the fish), establishing a second church at Coull, in the Howe of Cromar, and another at Cowie near Stonehaven.

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Cowie Kirk, originally dedicated to St. Nathalan.

 

An old Cowie rhyme states:

‘Atween the Kirk and the Kirk ford,

there lies St. Nathalan’s hoard’

His hoard or treasure is believed wrapped in a bull’s hide, tied with a rope which, according to folklore, will hang anyone uncovering it.

Think I’ll leave the spade in the shed then.

On This Day: The Wolf And The Head

On this day is remembered Edmund, (c841-869), King of East Anglia from around 855. He was killed after being taken prisoner in a Danish incursion, when he refused the Dane’s demands to denounce Christ. This seems enough to qualify the King for sainthood.
He is often depicted pierced with arrows like a bristled hedgehog as, according to tradition, his captors tied him to a tree and used him for target practice before beheading him.

According to one legend, his head was thrown into a forest, but was found safe (as safe as a severed head can be) when searchers were drawn to it by a wolf that was calling “Hic, Hic, Hic.” It was not an alcoholic wolf with the hiccups, rather the three hics meant “Here, here, here.” My wife could use a totemic wolf when hunting for her car keys.

I have read of another version of this tale, where the wolf protected the head, and it was the head itself that cried out “Hic, hic, hic.”

A talking, severed head, though? That’s way too far fetched. I believe it was a talking wolf.

The place that he was buried (that is body and head together) became a great abbey around which the town of Bury St.Edmunds grew. Nothing enigmatic about that literal place name, is there ? It is a town that I have never visited. I have been to one about twenty minutes away from where I live that is called Bury. Instead of being a last resting place of a King and Saint, rather its fame lies in the selling of black puddings.

Tourists queue here.

One last point: it can be noted how Edmund’s death is similar to the fate suffered by St.Sebastian, St.Denis, and St.Mary of Egypt.
I’m not sure if they had a wolf though, speaking or otherwise. That’s a job for Google.

 

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On This Day: Ghosts; Witches; Skeletons; Lions. Who’d Live In A Place Like This?

In a diary that chronicled events and personages connected with the days of the year, I spotted that today was linked with the Christian saint Osyth, who was a minor Saxon Princess who died around the year 700.

She married a sub-King of East Anglia, (who seemed unworthy of being named, at least in the account that I was reading), and founded a nunnery at what is now St. Osyth (funnily enough) in Essex. According to an unreliable biography she was killed by robbers, but if you are of the type who needs substantiated facts, I’m afraid that the famous-as-well-as-venerable Bede does not give her a mention.

Osyth’s nunnery died out, but was re-founded as an Augustine monastery, containing her shrine, in the early 12th century.

I love the old legends that permeate these islands, especially those that concern (perhaps) historical figures partly obscured by the myths and mists of time.

There are various fantastical events surrounding St. Osyth, and some of them are just perfect for this time of year, as the nights draw in and Halloween approaches:

**when she was young she drowned in a stream, but revived after nuns from a local convent prayed for her for three days. (If this was a time-travel story, they would be from the nunnery that Osyth founded in the future. Did Osyth found the nunnery in gratitude to those nuns who resurrected her as a child? Or did the nuns travel back to save the child in gratitude to the adult who established their nunnery? Then again, if she died as a child she wouldn’t have created their nunnery. I’m confusing myself, let’s leave science fiction out of it.)

**she was executed by beheading; where she fell a spring issued forth from the ground. She picked up her severed head and walked to the door of the nunnery where she knocked three times before collapsing. (Knock knock knock. “Who’s there?” “Osyth.” “Osyth who?” “Oh syth down, I’m dead anyway.”)

**her ghost walks along the priory walls, carrying her head, one night each year. (I would guess that would be tonight, then? Anyone up for a vigil?)

The place name of St.Osyth rang some bells for me, so I looked it up.

The village was a focus for witch persecutions in the 16th and 17th centuries, ten local women being hanged. In 1921 the skeletons of two women were unearthed in a garden, one of them claimed to be the first of the women that was tried for witchcraft. I hadn’t heard this story before.

Then I found the source of my familiarity:

In 2012 there were reports of a lion being sighted near the village. After twenty four hours, an armed search was called off.

Is it safe to come out yet?

Is it safe to come out yet?

Beheadings; ghosts; witches; skeletons; lions: I’m packing my bags now. It sounds like a great place to live!

Part of its beach being used for nudist bathing doesn’t come into it.

Must go now, someone has just knocked on my door three times. I’ve looked through the spy hole but cannot see anybody there. At least no-one at head height.