The Local Saints of Eastern England (Part 1)

Sts. Cyneburgh and Cyneswith, Abbesses of Castor (March 6/19) and Holy Passion-Bearer Fremund, Prince of Mercia (May 11/24)

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Originally appeared at: Orthodox Christianity

Historically, the eastern part of England was occupied by the early English kingdom of East Anglia which corresponded to what is now Suffolk, Norfolk and the eastern parts of Cambridgeshire, the kingdom of Essex, the minor kingdom of Lindsey, in what is now Lincolnshire, and the eastern part of the kingdom of Mercia (now called the East Midlands). A considerable area of the region was called the Fens, which comprised the marshland around the Wash from Lincolnshire in the north to Cambridge in the south and Peterborough in the west (these areas were drained in the seventeenth century). Christianity was introduced here in the Roman era, and eastern England produced such celebrated figures as Sts. Botolph of Icanho (Iken), Etheldreda (Audrey) of ElyGuthlac of CrowlandEdmund the Martyr and Walstan of Bawburgh. The great missionaries, Burgundian Felix of Dunwich and Irish Fursey, preached here.

It is home to such important church centers as Bedford, Bury St Edmunds, Chelmsford, Crowland, Ely, Lincoln, Norwich, Peterborough, St. Albans, Thorney, Walsingham and Waltham. So many churches were founded in this region that Norfolk is regarded as the area with the highest concentration of churches in the world! Eastern England is flat and low-lying, famous for its long coastline and diverse water ways in the Broads national park. In the Middle Ages its chief industry was wool, and today it is famous for farming and as a center of learning, with the world-famous Cambridge University. The landscapes of East Anglia attracted outstanding painters such as Thomas Churchyard, Thomas Gainsborough, John Constable and Alfred Munnings, as well as writers and poets. This land is rich in its ancient holy places. Let us mention several locally venerated early saints of eastern England.

Venerable Cyneburgh and Cyneswith, Abbesses of Castor

Commemorated March 6/19

St. Cyneburgh's stone statue by Mark Sharpin at the church of Castor, Cambs (provided by Dr. Avril Lumley-Prior)

St. Cyneburgh's stone statue by Mark Sharpin at the church of Castor, Cambs (provided by Dr. Avril Lumley-Prior)  

The mid-seventh century was a time of dynastic intermarriage in England—a practice that contributed to the spread of Christianity in the kingdoms where paganism still persisted. Mercia in central England was ruled by the ferocious pagan Penda for about thirty years, while Northumbria (then divided into Deira and Bernicia) in the north had already become a beacon of Christianity. At that time, St. Cyneburgh (Kyneburga), one of Penda’s daughters, was given in marriage to the young King Alhfrith of Deira (655—664, the southern part of Northumbria), who reigned under his powerful father, King Oswiu of Bernicia (642—670), as a sub-ruler. She was mentioned by the Venerable Bede in his History of the English Church and People: “The Middle Angles, under their Prince Peada, the son of King Penda, received the faith and sacraments of the truth. Being an excellent youth, and most worthy of the title, he was elevated by his father to the throne of that nation, and came to Oswy, king of the Northumbrians, requesting the king’s his daughter Elfieda in marriage. But he could not obtain his desire unless he would embrace the Christian faith along with the nation he governed. When he heard the preaching of truth…, he declared that he would willingly become a Christian, even though he should be refused the virgin; being prevailed on to receive the faith by King Oswy’s son Aifrid, who was his relation and friend, and had married his sister Cyneherga (Cyneburgh), the daughter of King Penda” (b. III, ch. XI). Apart from in Bede, St. Cyneburgh is mentioned in a number of later hagiographies, chronicles and documents.

After marrying Alhfrith, Queen Cyneburgh became a devout Christian. She may have been introduced to and instructed in the true faith by the Irish St. Finan of Lindisfarne and Sts. Wilfrid and Benedict Biscop (proponents of the so-called “Roman customs”). These were very troubled times. In 655, her father Penda invaded Bernicia with a large army. Later the same year both Oswiu and Alhfrith won a decisive victory over Penda at Cock Beck, at which Penda was killed. The relations between Alhfrith and his father were strained too. While Oswiu adhered to Irish customs (especially in the observance of Pascha), Alhfrith stuck to Roman practices. After the Synod of Whitby in 664, Alhfrith disappeared from historical records. He may have been killed in a rebellion against his father, or deposed and replaced with King Ecgfrith. It is not known if Alhfrith and St. Cyneburgh had children.

In the 660s, after her husband’s death (or even earlier by mutual consent), after losing her father and going through other trials (her brother Peada had been treacherously murdered too), St. Cyneburgh retired from court to what is now Castor in Cambridgeshire by the border with Northamptonshire, in the easternmost part of her father’s kingdom. There she took the veil and became the first abbess of Castor Monastery, choosing the Mother of God as its Patroness. By that time Christianity had been introduced into Mercia, which then was ruled by the converted King Wulfhere, another son of Penda. According to tradition, assisted by her brother, Cyneburgh herself founded Castor Monastery—a double community for monks and nuns. Castor stood on the ruins of a huge Roman praetorium (the central headquarters of the Roman administration of this region) by the River Nene, and probably had an early Roman church. Castor was conveniently situated by the intersection of some Roman roads. Archeological excavations showed that there was an earlier villa on the site that was later used by the Angles. Castor monks and nuns used materials from those sites to build their church. The world’s oldest known Christian communion plate and chalices were discovered a mile from Castor in 1975. Scientists date them to the fourth century A.D. They are kept at the British Museum.

Peterborough Cathedral, Cambridgeshire

Peterborough Cathedral, Cambridgeshire    

Together with her brother Wulfhere, St. Cyneburgh was one of the signatories of the founding charter of Peterborough Abbey of Sts. Peter, Paul and Andrew in Mercia (it was first named Medeshamstede; now it is Peterborough Cathedral in Cambridgeshire) in 664. Though she was much esteemed in her lifetime, few facts of her abbacy survive. A later legend has it that once the saint was pursued by two (or three according to another version) “villains”—soldiers with shields—when she was on a mission. St. Cyneburgh prayed and accidentally spilled the contents of a basket she was holding in her hands as she ran. The contents turned into a carpet of flowers in front of her and thorn bushes behind her, thus blocking the bandits’ way to her. Perhaps it is an allusion to her warrior father and her ex-husband (or even father-in-law), who would have been very reluctant to let her become a handmaid of Christ; the flowers might symbolize the saint’s virtues or the prosperity of her church. The hagiographer John of Tynemouth in the fourteenth century referred to Castor Monastery as to “Dormundesccestre”, which was locally called “Kyneburgecastrum”.

St. Cyneburgh as depicted on a capital of the church in Castor with two warriors pursuing her, Cambs (provided by Dr. Avril Lumley-Prior)

St. Cyneburgh as depicted on a capital of the church in Castor with two warriors pursuing her, Cambs (provided by Dr. Avril Lumley-Prior)    

St. Cyneburgh reposed in about 680 in Castor and was succeeded by her younger sister St. Cyneswith (Kyneswide)—another saintly daughter of Penda about whom little is known. The tenth century Kentish Royal Legend claims that St. Cyneswith was betrothed to an East Anglian prince, but inspired by a vision of the Mother of God, extricated herself from the arrangement, took monastic vows and persuaded her ex-fiancé to do the same. After serving as the second abbess of Castor, St. Cyneswith died later in the seventh century and was succeeded by their kinswoman, St. Tibba, who shares their feast-day (March 6/19). We will speak in more detail about St. Tibba in another article.

St. Cyneburgh was greatly venerated in and around Castor and Peterborough and is mentioned in several early calendars. She was revered as a learned, courageous and influential royal lady who abandoned the world and devoted herself to the service of Christ, bringing many of her fellow countrymen to Him. She should not be confused with another princess and queen of the same name, who was the wife of St. Oswald of Northumbria. There was also another saint with this name who lived in Gloucestershire.

The Hedda Stone at Peterborough Cathedral, Cambridgeshire (provided by Dr. Avril Lumley-Prior)

The Hedda Stone at Peterborough Cathedral, Cambridgeshire (provided by Dr. Avril Lumley-Prior)    

Abbot Aelfsige of Peterborough translated the relics of Sts. Cyneburgh, Cyneswith and Tibba to Peterborough Monastery in 963 after Castor Monastery had been destroyed by Vikings. In about 1016, these relics were translated to Thorney Monastery in Cambridgeshire, but were restored to Peterborough in the reign of Henry I. St. Cyneburgh is still commemorated at Peterborough Cathedral, where a chapel is dedicated to Sts. Cyneburgh, Cyneswith and Tibba (in the south transept where their shrine stood until the Reformation) and where she is immortalized by a statue on the west front. The Anglican Peterborough Cathedral, which is about 900 years old, is one of the finest Norman and Gothic cathedrals in England. It once housed a vast collection of relics, some of which were even linked to the apostles and Christ. This monastery kept an arm of the holy King Oswald of Northumbria, and this relic was considered so precious that a watchtower was built in the twelfth century from which monks guarded it. The watchtower and St. Oswald’s Chapel still stand in the cathedral. It also preserves the “Hedda stone”—possibly a grave marker of St. Hedda, Abbot of Peterborough, who was slain by Vikings in 870. It is made of a solid stone in the form of a reliquary but without a cavity for relics. The cathedral can boast of its painted ceiling in the nave, the grave of Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife, among other things.

Two villages, one in Norfolk and the other in West Yorkshire, are named Kimberley, probably after St. Cyneburgh. “Lady Conyburrow’s Way”—a Roman track in a field near Castor, the scene of the miracle with flowers—bears her name. The holy spring near Toddington, known as Kimberwell, in Bedfordshire, is connected with her.

St. Cyneburgh's wooden statue by Kevin Daley at the church of Castor, Cambs (provided by Dr. Avril Lumley-Prior)

St. Cyneburgh's wooden statue by Kevin Daley at the church of Castor, Cambs (provided by Dr. Avril Lumley-Prior)    

Today Castor is a large village four miles from Peterborough. The parish at its church, successor to the monastery’s original church, has been doing much to preserve the memory of its ancient saints and heritage. This Anglican Church is dedicated to “St. Kyneburgha”—the only church to bear her name. Its royal foundress is commemorated annually by the parish on March 6, and in July both the church and the village hold the “St. Kyneburgha Festival”. Monastic life was never resumed at Castor after the tenth century. The Normans rebuilt the original church, which was solemnly consecrated in 1124, extended in a later age and remained a place of great importance throughout the centuries. From the late seventh century up to the Reformation, Castor was a great center of pilgrimage. There is an opinion that small fragments of the royal saints’ relics remained at Castor after the major relics had been translated to Peterborough, and that wall paintings depicting scenes from St. Cyneburgh’s Life were created in the north aisle in the fourteenth century for pilgrims. During the Civil War this church was vandalized by Cromwellian soldiers for supporting Charles I, but it was later restored.

St. Kyneburgha's (Cyneburgh's) Church in Castor, Cambs (provided by Dr. Avril Lumley-Prior)

St. Kyneburgha's (Cyneburgh's) Church in Castor, Cambs (provided by Dr. Avril Lumley-Prior)    

The church stands on a hillside where the upper courtyard of the Roman praetorium was. Its imposing Norman tower with the Early English spire is very high and a local landmark. At least until the 1530s the church was dedicated to Sts. Cyneburgh, Cyneswith and Tibba.

Patronal banner, St. Cyneburgh and the villains, in Castor Church, Cambs (provided by Dr. Avril Lumley-Prior)

Patronal banner, St. Cyneburgh and the villains, in Castor Church, Cambs (provided by Dr. Avril Lumley-Prior)Of the numerous points of interest for contemporary pilgrims at the church of Castor let us mention:

a. The patronal banner featuring St. Cyneburgh and two villains, which once belonged to the Women’s Institute, and is usually kept at the Lady Chapel.

b. An early twelfth century figure believed to be that of St. Cyneburgh with two warriors pursuing her (in commemoration of the popular legend) on a capital of the south-west column beneath the church tower.

c. St. Cyneburgh’s stone statue above the priest’s door, by Mark Sharpin (2015).

d. St. Cyneburgh’s wooden (ash) statue, in an alcove of the north aisle north wall, by Kevin Daley (2001).

St. Mark's carving, probably fragment of St. Cyneburgh's former shrine, in Castor Church, Cambs (kindly provided by Dr. Avril Lumley-Prior)

St. Mark's carving, probably fragment of St. Cyneburgh's former shrine, in Castor Church, Cambs (kindly provided by Dr. Avril Lumley-Prior)e. A carving of the Apostle Mark, believed to be a fragment of St. Cyneburgh’s and Cyneswith’s shrine. The eighth-century carving is of fine craftsmanship and in surprisingly good condition. It was found under the chancel floor in 1924. Now it is to the right of the north aisle altar.

f. A cross base with late Saxon carvings in front of the north door. It is believed to be a part of a former Romano-British pagan altar that was later redeployed as a cross base.

g. The north aisle’s new altar in honor of St. Cyneswith with a roundel symbolizing the miracle of the Feeding of the Five Thousand. This aisle also has a 1350 painting depicting three scenes related to Great-Martyr Catherine’s execution.

h. A large Saxon stone altar slab, or mensa, that was discovered in the churchyard in the year 2000 and later brought inside the church and installed in the Lady Chapel. It has since been decorated with five consecration crosses.

i. Fourteenth-century carved angels and other figures on the beams of the church roof. There are twelve winged angels in the central nave roof; fifty-four figures, including two angels and two bishops, in the porch; and two angels in the upper priest's room. The nave angels were regilded in 1973.

j. Outside the church: a late eleventh-century carving of Christ in Majesty, surrounded by the sun and moon, above the entrance to the south porch (re-sited from elsewhere). It once welcomed pilgrims and guests to this church, which may have served as a minster with some daughter churches in the vicinity.

Passion-Bearer Fremund, Prince of Mercia

Commemorated May 11/24

Though the name of St. Fremund appears in three Middle English calendars, no pre-Norman sources or chronicles mention him. We find the first account of this saint in a work by the monk and hagiographer William Ramsey of Crowland in 1220; this story was repeated by the chronicler and hagiographer John of Tynemouth in about 1366. There were the metrical Lives of Sts. Edmund and Fremund written by the poet and hagiographer from Suffolk John Lydgate (c. 1370–1451) in the style of Geoffrey Chaucer. These versions are regarded as doubtful by scholars. But from them we can infer that St. Fremund lived in the ninth century, was related to the eighth-century King Offa of Mercia and at the same time to St. Edmund the Martyr, King of East Anglia. Fremund chose the life of a hermit, living with two companions, having a very frugal diet, praying and performing miracles. As a potential claimant to the throne, in about 870 he was treacherously slain while standing in prayer by his apostate relative Oswi. It was done with the help of the very Viking army that had put King Edmund to death. According to other versions, St. Fremund was forced to fight with the invading Danes to defend his land and was either killed in battle, or was victorious but murdered while celebrating by one of his own men who envied him. Beheaded, St. Fremund took his head into his hands, walked away, stopped at a spot where a well immediately gushed forth, washed his wounds and head, and reposed. According to tradition, he may have been killed at Harbury in Warwickshire in central England, and the place where the well appeared was in what is now the town of Southam, two miles from where an ancient holy well still exists. This well was mentioned in a charter of 998. For centuries it healed eye diseases (especially conjunctivitis) and, though very cold, never froze. The well was recently restored. It is located in a beautiful setting alongside the River Itchen, and is a place of pilgrimage.

After his martyrdom, St. Fremund was buried in King Offa’s mansion in the village of Offchurch (“Offa’s church”) in Mercia in Warwickshire (four miles from Southam), where his tomb was visited by many seeking healing and consolation. A church was built in Offchurch in his memory. Today Offchurch is close to the town of Leamington Spa; it has a medieval church dedicated to St. Gregory, but St. Fremund is no longer venerated here.

From time immemorial Fremund was venerated in the hamlet of Prescote (“the priest’s cottage”) in Oxfordshire, further to the south, where his body was moved from Offchurch after a vision. In 931 his remains were transferred from there to the village of Cropredy in Oxfordshire, where cures continued. In about 1212, a portion of his relics was translated from there to Dunstable Priory in Bedfordshire in eastern England (historically in Mercia), where it attracted pilgrims until the Reformation. His veneration continued in Cropredy, which claimed some of his relics as well.

The village of Cropredy in Oxfordshire is famous for the Battle of Cropredy Bridge in 1644. The parish church of St. Mary the Virgin, built in the fourteenth century in the Decorated style, has a south aisle chapel (formerly a chantry chapel) dedicated to St. Fremund. A list of gifts and wills to St. Fremund’s chantry dating from the Middle Ages still exists. The village commemorates St. Fremund annually on the Sunday nearest his feast-day, and holds a procession every other year to the church while telling his story in a play to music.

Though St. Fremund’s shrine was destroyed at Dunstable Priory during the Reformation, an annual fair in his honor was held until the twentieth century. In the 1960s an Anglican parish church of St. Fremund the Martyr was built in Dunstable.

Dunstable Priory, Bedfordshire

Dunstable Priory, Bedfordshire    

Dunstable Priory was founded as an Augustinian monastery in the twelfth century by King Henry I. Over its long history it had periods of prosperity—with subsidiary churches and farms as far as the Peak District—and poverty. It had chapels and altars dedicated to the Mother of God, Sts. John the Baptist, Nicholas, James, Fremund, Martin, the Holy Cross and All Angels. In 1290 the body of Queen Consort Eleanor of Castile, King Edward I’s beloved wife, stayed at the Priory overnight on its way to Westminster, and to immortalize the event a beautiful cross was erected in the town (ornate crosses appeared in eleven other places where her bier stopped). Many pilgrims travelling to St. Albans to the south to venerate Martyr Alban’s relics would stop at Dunstable en route. In 1533 it was at Dunstable Priory that Archbishop Thomas Cranmer annulled Henry VIII’s marriage with Catherine of Aragon—an event that directly led to the establishment of the Anglican Church. The Deed of Surrender was signed in 1539, and the monastery ceased to exist. There were plans to establish a new diocese of Dunstable and convert the monastery church into a cathedral, but the idea was soon forgotten.

All that was valuable in the magnificent church was plundered and used as building materials. Only the nave of the monastic church survived and was converted into a parish church. Now it is used as an Anglican parish church and known as “the Priory Church of St. Peter.” A gem of Norman architecture, the present church is very large, and we can only imagine how enormous the original edifice was. The Priory’s west front is one of the most splendid in eastern England. The entrance is richly decorated. Among the internal treasures are a fourteenth-century screen, a medieval bell called “Mary” that was rung by the faithful during the Black Death, and numerous memorial brasses. The old Lady Chapel in which Henry VIII’s marriage had been annulled was pulled down, and today a plaque on the lawn beside the church marks the site. A medieval monastic gatehouse partly remains. Today it is a tranquil place surrounded by parkland.


To be continued.

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