Saint Botulph and the Demon-Haunted Fens

12 March 20 | Posted in Animals, Events, Saints, Supernatural

Saint Botulph (also spelled Botolph and Botwulf) was born to a noble Saxon family of Christians in 610 A.D. The boy was sent away to a monastery when Mercian forces under King Penda invaded the region.  He became a Benedictine monk at Farmoutiere-en-Brie in France, under the abbess Burgundofara, also known as Saint Fara.  He returned to the British Isles in 647 A.D. to establish a Benedictine monastery.

In 654 A.D., Botulph founded the Benedictine monastery of Ikanhoe (Ox Island) with the support of King Anna of East Anglia.  The monastery may have even been dedicated to the king.  In founding the monastery, Botulph chose a wild, barren fen reputedly haunted by demons. Ikanhoe was surrounded by water and foul-smelling marsh gasses that produced a disturbing nighttime glow. Some early accounts maintain that this was the work of ghosts and devils. Another story claims that a few degenerate descendants of an earlier race may have occupied these Suffolk marshes.  These vaguely humanoid creatures are suggestive of the underground beings in Robert E. Howard’s horror story, “Worms of the Earth.” 

It was said that the evil spirits that lived at Ikanhoe were disturbed at Botulph’s arrival.  They had dwelt there a long time, they said, and thought that they would do so forever. They had no other place to go. Couldn’t he seek another spot? They felt that the saint was acting unkindly by disturbing them. Botulph didn’t listen to them.  The monks built several structures and drained the marshlands. The marsh grass with its “night glow” disappeared. Botulph became revered for his ability to expel bogs of their “devils.” He died on June 17, 680 A.D. after a long illness.

Although many early accounts testify to the existence of Saint Botulph, no one is sure exactly where his monastery was built, since the saint was a traveling missionary in rough bandit and demon-plagued areas. Some think it was at Boston (a shortened form of “Botulph’s Stone”) in Lincolnshire, the home of Saint Botulph’s Church, also known as “The Stump.”  The other possibility is Iken, a town in Suffolk. The church there is also dedicated to Saint Botulph.  After his death his bones were moved around to protect them from raiders, and as a source of protection for local people against marsh monsters. 

Saint Botulph’s association with hauntings and demons continued after his death. St. Botolph’s Church in Burgh sits on a small mound, suggesting ancient fortifications or burial. The mound had a reputation as the home of a water-loving demon.  The nearby town of Grundisburgh may relate to the Anglo-Saxon word, “Grendel,” the fen-dwelling monster of Beowulf.  Botulph’s bones were brought to Burgh to exorcise the water demon.

St. Botolph’s Church, Skidbrooke, in the Lincolnshire marshlands, is reputed to be haunted as well. Dating from the early 13th century, it is nicknamed “the demon church” because of all the paranormal activity associated with it. Visitors reported seeing a spectral monk, a headless knight, odd lights, and hearing storm sounds in calm weather. Demons are associated with a specific tomb, which it is said to be an entrance to “dimensional changes.” 

Unfortunately Saint Botulph’s bones were lost during the Dissolution, so he can’t help rid the site of spirits and Satanists.  A church grim—a ghost dog guardian–would be helpful, but none are associated with the site.

 

 

 

 

Conscience, Candidates and Discipleship in 2020 Elections

7 March 20 | Posted in Events, Social Justice, Spirituality, U.S. Catholic

In a February 6, 2020 speech at the University of San Diego, Bishop Robert W. McElroy of San Diego said “the drive to label a single issue preeminent” in the 2020 election “distorts the call to authentic discipleship in voting rather than advancing it.” Bishop McElroy called both abortion and the environment “core life issues in Catholic teaching.”

“Against the backdrop of these two monumental threats to human life, how can one evaluate the competing claims that either abortion or climate change should be uniquely preeminent in Catholic social teaching regarding the formation of Americans as citizens and believers? Four points should be considered. —There is no mandate in universal Catholic social teaching that gives a categorical priority to either of these issues as uniquely determinative of the common good. —The death toll from abortion is more immediate, but the long-term death toll from unchecked climate change is larger and threatens the very future of humanity. —Both abortion and the environment are core life issues in Catholic teaching. —The designation of either of these issues as the preeminent question in Catholic social teaching at this time in the United States will inevitably be hijacked by partisan forces to propose that Catholics have an overriding duty to vote for candidates that espouse that position.”

St. Winifred’s Well

3 March 20 | Posted in Events, Global Catholic, Saints, Supernatural

Saint Winifred (or Winefride, Welsh: Gwenffrewi) was a Welsh martyr in the 7th century.  The spring associated with her martyrdom and restoration is now a shrine.  It is called St Winefride’s Well in Holywell, Flintshire, Wales.  It is the oldest active pilgrimage site in Britain.  The well is open most days of the year and people still go there to bathe and sit on St. Beuno’s stone to ask for favors and blessings. There is a tradition that before he left Holywell, Beuno seated himself on the stone and declared: “Whosoever on that spot should thrice ask for a benefit from God in the name of St. Winifred would obtain the grace he asked if it was for the good of his soul.”

According to legend, Winifred’s family were descendants of Vortigern, a 5th century warlord. Her mother’s name was Wenlo, and she was a sister of Saint Beuno. Her father, Tyfid ap Eiludd, was the lord of Tegeingl, an area in northeast Wales which later became part of the county of Flintshire.

At the time of her martyrdom, Winifred was a teenage girl preparing to enter religious life.  Her uncle, Beuno, was an abbot and her mentor.  A local noble by the name of Caradoc approached her to propose marriage. Winifred was not interested in the man’s advances and refused to lay with him. She became frightened and ran to the church where her uncle was saying Mass. The rejected and angry Caradoc followed and caught up with her on the slope of a hill.  He drew his sword and cut off her head. The head rolled down the slope and eventually came to rest. As soon as it stopped, a spring of water bubbled up out of the ground.

On hearing of the terrible murder, Beuno left the church and went to the newly formed spring where Winifred’s head lay.  He returned the head to the body and covered it with his cloak.  After Mass he returned to the body and prayed. Legend says Winifred sat up as if she had been in a deep sleep, with only a thin scar to show where she had been decapitated.

Seeing Caradoc leaning on his sword with an insolent and defiant air, Beuno called on God to punish him. According to one legend, he died on the spot. Another legend said the ground opened to swallow him. Some historians think he was killed by Winifred’s brother, Owain.

Fearing the encroaching Saxons, Winifred and her companions left Holywell and joined a community of nuns living in Gwytherin near the River Elwy. Winifred eventually became abbess and passed away on November 3 sometime between 650 to 660 A.D.

The oak reliquary of St. Winifred was identified in 1991 from earlier drawings and descriptions.  The reliquary probably contained a piece of clothing or article identified with the saint but not her bones. It provides evidence that Winifred was recognized as a saint soon after her death.

The details of St. Winifred’s life are found in two manuscripts.  The one in the British Museum is by a monk named Elerius, a contemporary of Winifred.  The other manuscript in the Bodleian Library at Oxford is generally believed to have been compiled in 1130 A.D. by Robert, prior of Shrewsbury Abbey. Prior Robert promoted the cult of St. Winifred.  In 1138 A.D. her bones were carried with great ceremony from Gwytherin to Shrewsbury. Shrewsbury where they became an extremely popular destination for pilgrims. To further enhance the prestige of the abbey, Abbott Nicholas Stevens built a new shrine for St. Winifred, and had some of his monks steal relics of St. Beuno to add to the abbey church. They abbey was fined, but they were told that they could keep the relics. 

Many royal pilgrims have visited St. Winifred’s Well over the centuries.  The earliest recorded visit was by Richard I (King Richard the Lionheart) in 1189. King Henry V made the pilgrimage in 1415 before his victory at Agincourt.  In 1416, he went on foot from Shrewsbury Abbey to Holywell as an act of reverence for his victory.  In 1461, the future King Edward IV of England went on pilgrimage shortly before the Battle of Towton.  According to an account by Welsh poet Tudur Aled, the young king took earth from beside the well and placed it upon his crown.  The future Henry VII is thought to have made a secret visit before winning his crown at Bosworth in 1485.

St. Winifred or St. Winifred’s Well have found their way into poems, plays and novels.  St. Winifred’s Well is mentioned in the medieval poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  William Rowley’s 17th century comedy, A Shoemaker, A Gentleman dramatizes St. Winifred’s story.  Poet Gerard Manley Hopkins memorialized St. Winifred in his unfinished drama, St. Winifred’s Well. 

 The most famous references to St. Winifred are in Ellis Peter’s Brother Cadfael mysteries.  The story of Winifred’s relics being taken to Shrewsbury Abbey forms the basis of the novel, A Morbid Taste for Bones, the first in her series of Cadfael books. The celebration of her feast day provides the setting for The Rose Rent and The Pilgrim of Hate. The casket containing her relics is stolen from the shrine in The Holy Thief. Brother Cadfael, a Welsh monk at Shrewsbury Abbey is also a former knight and crusader.  He has a special affinity with St. Winifred, who he affectionately calls “The Girl.” 

 

 

 

 

 

St. Wistan’s Miracle of the Hair

25 February 20 | Posted in Events, Global Catholic, Saints, Supernatural

St. Wistan, also known as Saint Wystan and Saint Wigstan, died in 840 A.D. His grandfather, King Wiglaf, ruled Mercia from 827 to 839.  His father, Wigmund, died of dysentery shortly before him. A young Wistan may have been proclaimed king, but more likely he abdicated in favor of King Beorhtwulf (Bright Wolf), who ruled from 840 to 852.  Wistan appointed his mother, Aelfaed, as regent.  Wistan’s godfather, Beorhtric, son of King Beorhtwulf was appointed as her advisor.

Wistan was scalped and slain with a blow to the head because he protested his widowed mother’s marriage to his godfather, Beorhtric.  In canon law at that time, baptism established a link of spiritual consanguinity between the parents and godparents of the baptized. As a spiritually close relative, Wistan’s godfather was forbidden from marrying her.

Aelfaed was the daughter of King Ceolwulf of Mercia who ruled from 821-823, the last of an ancient Mercian royal line descended from Offa, a legendary warrior and ruler.  The prestige of marriage to woman descended from the last branch of ancient Mercia was reason for Wistan’s murder. His death resulted from a Mercian power struggle between his family and that of his uncle Beorhtwulf and his son, Beorhtric.  They may have inherited claims to the Midland kingdom from an earlier Mercian king, Beornwulf (823-825) or Beornred, who was deposed by Offa in 757.

There are various accounts of Wistan’s death on June 1, 840. Beorhtric cut off his head while he was standing in prayer. Beorhtric cut off the upper part of his head with is sword, while a companion stabbed him. Beorhtric struck Wistan on the head with the shaft of his dagger while his servant ran him through with a sword. Wistan’s companions were killed as well.

Most writers identify this spot with the village of Wistow in Leicestershire, although another candidate is Wistanstow in Shropshire.  According to legend, the true site of Wistan’s murder was identified by a miraculous shaft of light, and an annual crop of human hair on the anniversary of his death. 

Miracles from heaven were not wanting in testimony of his martyrdom; for a column of light shot up to heaven from the spot where the innocent saint was murdered, and remained visible to the inhabitants of that place for 30 days. — Florence of Worcester

In 1077, Walter of Cerisy, the first Norman abbot of Evesham, subjected Wistan’s relics to the ordeal by fire. He was skeptical about the authenticity of Anglo-Saxon saints and relics. Since the fire had no effect on Wistan’s bones, the abbot decided to return St. Winstan’s relics to the shrine.  By accident he dropped the saint’s head on the ground. It began to sweat and spread a sweet fragrance throughout the church.

The legend of the murder anniversary “crop of human hair” persisted for several hundred years. The miracle was apparently verified by a special commission set up by Archbishop Baldwin of Canterbury in 1187.

St. Wistan’s relics disappeared during the Dissolution of the Monasteries under King Henry VIII between 1536-1541.

A detailed article about St. Wistan can be found on Clas Merdin, a good source for Arthurian legends.

 

 

Saint Hugh and the Swan

22 January 20 | Posted in Animals, Events, Saints

The son of a noble, Hugh was a monk at La Grande Chartreuse in France when King Henry II of England asked him to come to Witham, England to head up a new Carthusian house.  The house was founded by Henry II in reparation for his role in the death of Saint Thomas Becket.  Hugh was a good man and a tough one.  He insisted the king pay the residents who had been displaced from their homes on the property intended for the new monastery. He supported people when they suffered from the treatment by the king’s foresters. He stood down an angry mob determined to punish Jews.  He convinced them to release their victims.

Nevertheless, the affable Hugh became a favorite of the king. In 1186 he was appointed bishop of Lincoln, the largest diocese in England.  Shortly after his election, during his first visit to the manor in Stowe, Hugh was presented with a large wild swan that had recently come to the manor lake. Hugh offered the swan scraps of bread, and from that moment, the swan became devoted to him. When Hugh was away from the manor, the swan kept to the middle of the lake.  But when the bishop came for a visit, the swan flew to him, tenderly placing his beak in the sleeve of the Hugh’s garment.  If any of his attending clerics came near, the swan would jealously attack them.  Their friendship lasted for 15 years.  The swan lived a few years after Hugh, but never became close to another person.

Antiquarian books often have the most charming stories and illuminating details. Here is one about St. Hugh from 100 years ago:

St. Hugh as a Monk – Hugh grew up into a splendid young man, and he desired above all things to be a priest; so he was ordained and became a Carthusian monk in a monastery high up in the mountains.  The monks lived a very austere life, fasting much, and never speaking to each other, living alone, each in his own cell. But for Hugh there were friends and companions with whom he might speak and yet keep his rule. He had always loved birds and beasts, and they knew it and loved him in return. When he sat down to supper his friends the birds would come hopping in, ready to share his meal; and the squirrels would scamper down from the trees and make themselves quite at home in his room, even whisking the food from his plate. Wherever he lived the wild creatures became his friends.”

St. Hugh as a Bishop – One day the prior of Hugh’s monastery received a letter from King Henry II of England asking for a good monk to take charge of a monastery…There was a lake in the grounds, and one day a splendid wild swan swooped down on it and killed or drove off all the tame ones, and then sounded a shrill cry of triumph.  The servants knew how the Bishop loved wild creatures, and they managed to get the swan up to the palace; St. Hugh at once made friends with it, and coaxed it to eat bread from his hand, and the creature became devoted to him from that moment.  It followed him everywhere, and even slept in his room.  The servants dare not go near the bed when St. Hugh was asleep, for the great bird would raise its huge wings in defense and hiss fiercely.  It would never let anyone but Hugh touch it, but it would nestle its head up his sleeve, and fondle him with queer loving cries.  When the Bishop was away from Stow the swan never entered the palace, but it seemed to know when he was expected, and as soon as the luggage carts and servants began to arrive  it would leave the lake and go striding up to the house. When it heard its master’s voice it would run to him and follow him about all the time he remained at Stow. But when St. Hugh came to Lincoln for the last time, just before his death, the swan seemed to know what was coming, and would not go near him, but hid in the reeds, drooping and ill, broken-hearted at losing his beloved master.” Faith & Duty by Judith F. Smith, Benzinger Bros., 1920