When The Saints Come In In March

by Esmerelda Weatherwax (March 2009)

February was a funny month. Thick snow, more than we have had for 10 years followed by floods. Record heat in some parts of Australia followed by unusually heavy rain in others. Geert Wilders didn’t get into the UK, Lord Ahmed threatened a wholesale riot anyway but in the event he himself went down. 

Looking forward to March which may be coming in like a lion there are two well known saints days coming up. St David patron Saint of Wales on the 1std and St Patrick Patron Saint of Ireland and Irishmen and descendants everywhere on the 17th.

But there are many more whose feast days are in March.

I bet you didn’t know that there was a St Gladys.

She was the wife of a Welsh Chieftain called Gwynllyn and they seem to have been a fiercesome pair. One of her sons was Cadoc, a monk, who was probably a contemporary of St David. He was responsible for his parents becoming Christians at which point they gave up the raiding and pillage and Gladys became a holy hermit.  As a discipline she took cold swims and long walks but the fact that she did this in the nude caused some consternation. The whole family, including Gladys’s father Brychan, and half a dozen of her brothers and sisters were declared saints. Gladys and Gwynllyn’s feast day is the 29th. St Gladys the Nudist didn’t seem to command the universal popularity as a dedication of, say, St Joseph the Worker.

St David’s mother Non, a nun, was also declared a saint and her feast day is the 3rd of March. I keep thinking of the spoof exam question from 1066 and All That - 

"What have you done with your Mother? If nun write none."

It should be remembered the early Welsh, Celtic people and Saxons called many holy and respected Christians saint in contrast to the formal process of Canonisation by the church in Europe.

William of Norwich had a very short lived and purely local cult which was celebrated on the 26th March. William was a boy of 12 murdered in Norwich during Easter and Passover of 1144. The body was mutilated in a way that suggested crucifixion and the local Jewish community got the blame. The historian Thomas of Monmouth wrote of his life and his grave was a place of pilgrimage for a few years.

This incident predates, but the manner of death is very similar, the murder of the 9 year boy now known as Little St Hugh of Lincoln who was murdered in 1255 and which murder was also blamed on the Jewish community who suffered terribly because of it. 

There is an interesting paper on William which was presented to the Jewish Historical Society of England by Raphael Langham. He makes the point that although the charge against the Jews was murder, there was no suggestion at the time that this was a ritual murder and he believes that it predates the first manifestation of the blood libel by 25 years. Other historians claim it as an early and undeveloped example of the blood libel. Langham is of the belief that the murderer was one Theobald, a recent convert from Judaism who deliberately framed his former business partner. Although the incident is not as well known in history as that of Little Hugh of Lincoln, Langham believes it was, through Thomas of Monmouth’s history, one of the bases for the persecution of the Jews which was gaining increasing impetus from the 12th century onwards and that its effects were thus far beyond anything Theobald could have imagined.

In 1190 rioting broke out in York and 150 Jews who had taken refuge in Clifford’s Tower were massacred. Shortly afterwards, Jews were killed in Bury St Edmunds, Lynn and Norwich itself. The Jews of Lincoln came under the protection of the truly saintly Bishop Hugh of Avalon (later canonised as St Hugh of Lincoln) and survived. By the time Little Hugh was murdered 65 years later the Blood libel was well known and persecution followed. By 1290 the Jews of England were so impoverished by taxation and robbery that they were of little more use to the King who ordered their formal expulsion.

St Cuthbert was one of the most popular of the English saints and his body and relics still rest in Durham Cathedral. 

Cuthbert was born in 634 into a wealthy Anglo-Saxon family and became a monk when he was about 16. He worked as a missionary, as Prior of the monastery of Lindisfarne (where after the Synod of Whitby which established that the ways of the church of Rome were to be followed in England he was instrumental in introducing Roman customs) and spent much time in solitude on the other islands in the North Sea. Eventually his holiness led to him being appointed first Bishop of Hexham, then of Lindisfarne where he died.  After the Vikings raided Lindisfarne his body and relics were taken to various places of safety and found a permanent home in Durham where his shrine was built in 995. His popularity is shown by the many churches dedicated to him, not just in the North of England and Scotland but as far south as Wells in Somerset and Cornwall. All the Farne Islands are now a wildlife sanctuary under the care of the National Trust and remain places of quiet and solitude.

He shares his feast day with his close friend Herbert of Derwentwater who was a priest in the area we now call the Lake District. They visited each other annually and both died on the same day 20th March 687.

There are more but I’ll end with St Felix of Dunwich, bishop and Apostle of the East Angles because he is local. He was sent from Canterbury by Archbishop Honorious to evangelise the people of King Sigebert. He seems to have been energetic working all over East Anglia, giving his name to the town of Felixstowe in the process. He founded monasteries at Soham and Ramsey. His centre was Dunwich the great port of the Middle Ages most of which is now under the sea as a result of coastal erosion. He died in 645 and was buried in Soham but his relics were later translated to Ramsey Abbey.

He is still celebrated in East Anglia by the local Anglican, Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches.



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Esmerelda Weatherwax is a regular contributor to the Iconoclast our community blog. To view her entries please click here. 

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