[ELH] Saints of early England

The cult of saints in Anglo-Saxon England to c.900

Notes for a lecture on Tuesday, March 16, 12.30pm, which forms part of the second/third-year course, Anglo-Saxon England: The Kings and Kingdoms of Early England, led by Dr Jo Story of the Department of History.

Putting Anglo-Saxon England and its church in context

Important to be clear from the beginning that England, both before and after the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons, was part of a European entity.

Devotion to the saints in Anglo-Saxon England must be seen in that light, and also in the understanding that the cult of saints was itself a phenomenon found everywhere at this time across western and southern Europe, that it to say, generally that part of the Continent within the former boundaries of the Roman Empire, both west and east.

St Guthlac, his companion St Bettolin, and his soul-mate and examplar, the Apostle Bartholomew.

Not only that, but understanding also the universal human phenomenon of religion, with large areas of commonality, including a devotion to holy persons which is found widely from one culture to another. For example, there are shrines of Jewish and Muslim saints, holy men particularly are venerated in the Hindu and other south Asian traditions, and graves of the respected dead have been objects of ritual attention from time immemorial.

At the same time, our understanding of medieval cults, particularly those of local saints, is at best fragmentary. It is therefore useful, to say the least, to have an idea of the form and setting of the medieval Christian saint's cult as fully formed. You will find it helpful to take a print-out of the checklist of characteristics of saints' cults available elsewhere on my pages.

Anecdotal evidence for the cult of saints

Gildas' complaint that it was difficult to visit the shrines of British saints.

Bede's descriptions of Chad's shrine at Lichfield in the mid-seventh century.

Pope Vitalian sends relics to the wife of the king of Northumbria.

Offa's devotion to St Peter, and to St Alban (Link to images of Offa and of Offa with church of St Alban's, but note lateness of latter). (Offa's burial at Bedford - close to St Aethelred?)

Who were the saints of Anglo-Saxon England?

They fall into two main groups. The first is the universal saints of the Christian church - and in particular the saints most venerated at Rome. The popularity of some universally culted saints in England was such that Old English versions were composed of their Lives, sometimes in verse.

Wilfrid was especially devoted to Andrew, Guthlac to Andrew's fellow Apostle, Bartholomew.

The second is the English saints themselves. This group of no fewer than 250 or so men and women has distinctive characteristics. About a third of these saints were royal, another third were bishops, abbots and abbesses of unspecified social background but almost certainly royal or noble, and the remaining third were religious persons of lower ecclesiastical rank but again of royal or noble birth in many cases.

Furthermore, the English saints are assigned by history or tradition to particular dates, and the corpus peaks chronologically in particular periods. In Mercia the peaks occur in the seventh and ninth centuries.

These Mercian peaks are related respectively to the period of Mercian ascendancy, and the period of crises, dynastic and from external threat. This in itself teaches us something about what the saints represented and how they were expected, posthumously, to behave, by supernatural intervention, intercession, and so on.

Overwhelmingly these Mercian saints were members of the ruling families. About three dozen occur in the three generations of direct and collateral descendants of King Penda in the late seventh and early eighth centuries.

This illustrates several important aspects of the early English church. It was tied closely to the ruling families. This may not be simply about alliances of the social elites, but rather about the religious duties assigned traditionally in insular and continental cultures to heads of kin-groups and households.

Also, religious communities provided opportunities for aristocratic retirement, and for a crucial involvement in public affairs by aristocratic women.

The roles of these women included education and upbringing, prayer and other forms of support, and, quite probably, judging from place-name and other evidence, conversion of non-Christian places and people.

A typical early English saint: Guthlac

The Life of Guthlac by Felix. A near-contemporary portrait.

The Guthlac roll: an illustration (though late) of the Life.

Guthlac and his family, including his sister Pega.

Guthlac and his soul-mate, Bartholomew.

Guthlac and his small community at Crowland.

Guthlac and his legacy: including aspects of religional identity such as the name of Guthlaxton wapentake, that part of Leicestershire immediately south of the city.

Additions to Reading list

[Leicester University] [*]
Last updated: 28 January 1999 17:02
Dr G.R. Jones

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