Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

St Guthlac

Sunday, had it not been Sunday, would have been the feast day of St Guthlac of Croyland. The abbey, deep in the Fens of Lincolnshire, is one of those sites which holds a particular affection for me. I have visited the remains over many years, having relatives in the area, and the interest has been re-inforced by the fact that Richard Fleming was a friend of the Benedictine community there, both as a canon, and then as Bishop, of Lincoln in the early fifteenth century.

The west front of Croyland Abbey

The following notes on St Guthlac are based initially on those submitted to the Medieval Religion discussion list by John Dillon from Wisconsin University, together with several links to images he has provided, to which I have added observations of my own.

St Guthlac (d. 715). Guthlac was a young Mercian warrior, probably from the royal house or one of the great families of the kingdom who underwent a religious conversion, spent two years at the monastery at Repton in today's Derbyshire, and then became a hermit in the Fens before establishing himself at Croyland, now spelled as Crowland, in Lincolnshire. This we must assume was his equivalent of going into the desert or to a remote island. The abbey website suggests the name Croyland means marsh, and the region produced a number of other major Benedictine house that emerged from secluded monastic foundations in the remote, undrained and often impassible Fens - Ely, Peterborough, Ramsey and Thorney.

Here he underwent violent assaults from what monastic writers considered diabolic opponents. Modern historians have suggested that these may have been attacks of marsh-borne malaria, but a lecture I once attended drew attention to the similarities between description of his attackers and to the symptoms of starvation - he may have been the victim of starving peasants, or at least that was how Guthlac or his biographer, Felix, envisaged them. Whatever their cause he overcame these assaults to lead a life of piety in a hermitage on the site of the west end of the present abbey church.

His sister St. Pega (who is said to have given her name to the nearby settlement of Peakirk) opened his grave a year after his death, found his body to be incorrupt, and placed it in a memorial chapel.

The latter was soon honoured by Æthelbald, king of the Mercians, who before he was king is said to have spent time with Guthlac at Croyland and who clearly had a special devotion to him. Æthelbald was to be the ruler who established Mercian hegemony in the eighth century. Croyland Abbey grew up around his shrine. In the eighth century Guthlac's Vita was written by Felix of Croyland (BHL 3723). This is available in a translation by Bertram Colgrave. The abbey church was rebuilt on a number of occasions, and the remains today are a mixture of twelfth to fifteenth century work

The early thirteenth-century Guthlac Roll in the British Library (Harley Roll, Y.6) - thought to be a set of designs for stained glass commemorates Guthlac pictorially. Here is a view of its depiction of Guthlac, aided by St. Bartholomew, the other patron of the abbey, preparing to defend himself against demons intent on carrying him off to Hell:
A detail from one of this manuscript's roundels, showing Pega and Guthlac, and reproductions of two further roundels are here:
An expandable view of the opening of Felix' Vita of Guthlac. (London, BL, Cotton MS Nero C VII, f.29v) is here:
An expandable view of the thirteenth-century Croyland Gradual's decorated initial and music for Guthlac's feast is here:

I would add to these links the Catholic Encyclopaedia account of the abbey, Croyland abbey's own website, and some images courtesy of Wikimedia which show architectural and sculptural details of the remains, including carvings depicting St Guthlac.

The nave of the monastic church was retained at the dissolution, but the damage wrought in the Civil War and the collapse of the main nave roof later in the seventeenth century means that only the north nave aisle now serves as the parish church.

The ruins of Croyland are striking, in part romantic and numinous, dominating the local landscape, and in another way shocking and raw. They still convey a sense of shock at the destruction of what was once a beautiful and noble church in a way that many other Ancient Monuments do not. By a strange twist of the mind - a legacy of early nineteenth century Romanticism perhaps - they can seem right as ruins, as if they were built that way. That is, of course, ridiculous, but it lurks in the mind of far too many people. Croyland is a corrective to that. Perhaps the combative spirit of St Guthlac taking on the demons is speaking to the pilgrim.

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