St. Botvid of Sweden

21 April 20 | Posted in Animals, Events, Saints, Supernatural

St. Botvid could be a patron saint of good fishing luck, and/or what happens when a good intention takes a fatal turn.

Botvid was a successful Viking or trader who encountered Christianity on a trip to England and converted during his visit. When he returned home to Sodermanland he began to evangelize in the surrounding area. The year of St. Botvid’s martyrdom was traditionally thought to have occurred in 1120 A.D.  However the Swedish historian, Johannes Messenius, proposed that Botvid returned to Sweden from England in 1055 and died in 1076.

St. Botvid is usually shown holding a fish and an axe. The fish represents his “fishing luck” miracle. After Botvid returned to Sweden, he went out to fish with some neighbors. The best fishing spot was near an island owned by a man named Bo. Bo claimed one-quarter of the catch from anyone fishing his grounds. He sailed out to tell Botvid and his group when he saw their boats approaching. Knowing it was a rich fishing area, some of the people decided to stay and comply; but Botvid left and went to another spot. The fish followed him. His catch was so great that he was able to share with his neighbors and other local fishermen who went to his spot. When Bo sailed over to see what was happening Botvid invited Bo to fish for free, and his heart was won over. 

Another tale associated with St. Botvid is his encounter with a man for sale. The man was a foreigner, Wend, Finn or Slav – the stories vary. Botvid’s plan was to convert this pagan to Christianity, and then emancipate him so that he could return home to evangelize. After baptizing the slave, Botvid and one of his tenant farmers, a man named Esbjorn, set out to return him to his homeland. As they headed toward Gotland, they stopped to camp on Rago Island in Sodermanland. The new freeman took Botvid’s axe and killed both Botvid and Esbjorn in their sleep. He took the boat and sailed away.

According to legend, Botvid’s brother, Bjorn and a priest named Henrik began searching for the missing men. Guided by a white bird, they found Esbjorn’s bones and Botvid’s intact body. A well of clear water was streaming from the place where Botvid’s blood had dripped from his wounds. Botvid is associated with another spring as well. Saint Botvid’s Spring (Sankt Botvids Kalla) is located at the southeastern tip of Lake Bornsjons. The water began to flow after Botvid’s casket was set down in route to his final resting place. 

His brother, Bjorn, built a wooden church on the family land in Botvid’s honor. The miracles reported at Botvid’s grave over the next nine years led to the conversion of the local people. The original wooden church was replaced by a stone structure in 1176 A.D. It is in Botkyrka (Botvid’s Church), a town not far from Stockholm.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

St. Melangell, Hares and the Origin of the Easter Bunny

17 December 19 | Posted in Animals, Events, Saints, Supernatural

St. Melangell (pronounced “Mel-eng-eth”) is the patron saint of hares and rabbits.  They are sometimes called St. Melangell’s lambs.

According to Welsh legend, Melangell was the daughter of King Cyfwich Addwyn, who is mentioned in the Tales of Culhwch and Olwen as a member of King Arthur’s court.  King Cyfwich Addwyn was said to be related to St. Helen of Caernarvon, the famous Elen Luyddog (Helen of the Hosts) who married the Roman general, Magnus Maximus (Macsen Wledig) the 4th century emperor in Britain, Gaul and Spain. Elen’s story is told in The Dream of Macsen Wledig, one of the tales associated with the Welsh epic, Mabinogion.

In most accounts Melangell is described as the daughter of an Irish king who fled from her father’s court to avoid marriage. Around 590 A.D., she arrived at the valley of the river Tanat, at the foot of the Berwyn mountains in Powys, Wales. 

In 604 A.D. the prince of Powys, Brochwel Ysgithrog, went hunting close to where Melangell lived and prayed. His hounds pursued their prey into a thicket, where he found a young woman with a hare lying under the fold of her garments. She boldly faced the hunting dogs and they retreated. The prince gave up the chase and sat down to listen to Melangell’s story. She told him she was a hermitess who lived nearby and had dedicated herself to God.  The prince and his huntsmen were the first men she had seen in 15 years.

So moved was the prince that he offered her the valley where she lived as a perpetual asylum and refuge for animals, and anyone who was fleeing harm.  Melangell lived there the rest of her life, eventually attracting a small community of women for whom she served as abbess.  A church was eventually built in the spot where she lived and it remained a place of sanctuary throughout the Middle Ages.  The killing of hares and rabbits has long been forbidden in the region, because people believe they are sacred animals under the protection of St. Melangell.  People in the parish still honor this custom. 

The association of religious female figures and hares is legendary and predates Melangell by several centuries. When the Romans invaded the British Isles, Julius Caesar saw that Celtic people did not regard it lawful to kill and eat the hare.  In Ireland the hare was associated with women who could shapeshift into their form, so eating them was taboo.  There is a legend that the God and warrior, Oisin, hunted a hare, wounding it in the leg.  He followed the wounded animal into a thicket, where he found a door leading down into the ground. He went in and came to a large hall where he found a beautiful young woman sitting on a throne bleeding from a leg wound.

Boudicca, the British warrior queen, was said to have prayed to a hare goddess before going into battle with the Romans and released a hare from beneath her gown to divine the outcome of the battle from the hare’s movements.  She also took a hare with her into battle to ensure victory and it was said to have screamed like a woman from beneath her cloak.

Boudicca probably prayed to Eostre, the Celtic version of the Anglo-Saxon goddess, Ostara.  Ostara gave her name to the celebration of Easter.  She was associated with the seasonal change from winter to spring.  Ostara was a shapeshifter who took the form of a hare at each full moon. All hares were sacred to her and acted as messengers. 

Eostre/Ostara is mentioned by Saint Bede in his treatise, The Reckoning of Time, written around 725 A.D.  Bede states that during the time period equivalent to April, Anglo-Saxons held feasts in Eostre’s honor.  The tradition had died out by his time, replaced by the Christian Paschal month, a celebration of Jesus’ resurrection.

In his 1892 study on the hare in custom and mythology, folklorist Charles J. Billson cited numerous incidents of folk customs in northern Europe involving hares around the Easter season. Billson said, “whether there was a goddess named Eostre, or not, and whatever connection the hare may have had with the ritual of Saxon and British worship, there are good grounds for believing the sacredness of this animal reaches back into an age still more remote, where it is probably a very important part of the great Spring Festival of the prehistoric inhabitants of this island.”

The story of St. Melangell is a blend of local history, custom, folklore and pre-Christian goddesses and practices. Was Melangell created to legitimatize these beliefs, or is she another in a long line of spiritually powerful women with a hare as her symbol and companion?