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.

Monday, 5 December 2011

St Birinus

St Birinus, whose feast it is today, was the missionary bishop who evangelised the mid-Thames valley and later the Kingdom of Wessex. He died in 649 0r 650. Originally buried at Dorchester on Thames his relics were later tranlated to Winchester, although there were relics and a shrine, of which part remains in a modern reconstruction, at Dorchester. This served as the site of the of a cathedral until 1072 when the cathedra of the united east-midland dioceses was established at Lincoln.

The former cathedral, which retained for some time pro-cathedral status, was refounded as an Augustinian priory, now known as Dorchester Abbey, and its surviving church is one of the most interesting examples of a medium-sized monastic building and its gradual eveolution. It has some wonderful medieval glass and carving, both on the building itself and in the fine selection of tomb effigies. In the modern reconstructed cloister walk is a fine display of twelfth century architectural fragments which was organised by my Orielensis friend David Kendrick.

The biography of St Birinus by Barbara Yorke in the Oxford DNB can be read here and David Nash Ford's account has more about local legendary associations. It can be read here.

The stress in the life of St Birinus upon his miraculous recovery of a Papal gift to him - a corporal which Pope Honorius I himself had blessed - can be understood as an expression of the unity of his mission with the see of Peter, and the monastic church at Dorchester is dedicated to SS Peter and Paul. The suggestion is that the King of Wessex gave him as an estate a site not only with a Roman origin and remains, but one which may well have still sheltered a residual British Christian community.

On a more prosaic, or whimsical, and even Chestertonian, note I believe I am right in saying that it was St Birinus who first noted the consumption by the Anglo-Saxons of ale or beer.


St Birinus is consecrated as a bishop
Medieval glass roundel in the north chapel of Dorchester abbey

Image: sacred-destinations.com

dorchester abbey glass

St Birinus preaching to the King of Wessex and his followers.
Fourteenth century glass in the east window of Dorchester abbey

Image: ecclsoc.org
Copyright: C. B, Newham

The exquisite mid-nineteenth century Catholic church in Dorchester dedicated to him, and its continuing programme of restoration and redecoration, initiated by the parish priest Fr John Osman has been featured in other posts on this blog, but the parish webite at St Birinus, Dorchester gives more information.

If Dorchester Abbey is well worth visiting for its medieval features, then a visit should, no must, be combined with one to see both the wonderful work executed recently in St Birinus but also to attend Mass there - the corporal in use may not be a gift from the Pope, but the liturgy is. St Birinus would approve.

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