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by Richenda Fairhurst, historyfish.net. September 2007.
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Long years since, ere the fenlands were drained of the forests of England were so denuded of their majestic wealth of timber and foliage that they became mere plantations, when all locomotion was by foot, horse, or coracle, men and women, fired by divine love, undeterred by the difficulties of travel or the danger of preying wolves, carried the gospel news through the weird loneliness of vast solitudes to the tribes settled in the wildest recesses of the country.
Those were days of mystic loveliness and poetical beauty, when the Isle of Avallon was regarded as the abode of the spirits of the blest, when the Isle of Ely was held to be miraculously enshrouded and watergirt for the protection of purity.
Simple as these times my appear, though the knowledge of the present age, great deeds were done. Mythical as many of the stories are now held, there can be no considerable astonishment that those deeds, wondrous in themselves, should be enhanced by accumulative legendary lore and clothed in a robe of romance.
Other of these holy ones, instead of going in to the little world of their period, drew their disciples out of that world and her temptations into these solitudes for the development of greater spirituality. Others, again, not deeming it faithful in themselves to labour only 'mid
those within their country’s pale, when forth across the seas. Never since those early days have Britons been so fervently imbued with missionary zeal—considering the facilities for such work, the population, and standard of learning. In the countries of Western Europe they worked and they died, and there Latins and Teutons revere the memories of British saints, while in England itself they are forgotten.
No wonder that England and Ireland alike ere called the “Island of the Saints,” and that the small Isle of Bardsey, near Cardigan Bay, received the same honourable distinction independently of the mother isle, for, although but two miles and a half in length by one and a half in breadth, it is said that the bodies of twenty thousand saints were laid in peace.
Glastonbury Abbey was called the Second Rome on account of the number of saints that were buried within its precincts. At St. Augustine’s, Canterbury, it was said that every footstep trod upon the grave of a saint ; and William of Malmesbury declares that every corner of that monastery was filled with the bodies of saints of great name and metrit, any one of which would be of itself sufficient to irradiate all England.
The numerous Holy Isles—such as Iona, which being Anglicised means the Blessed Isle ; Holyhead, and nearly all the parishes with the same prefix in the British Isles, in its Latin, Celtic, or English form—commemorate the presence of the grave or shrine of a saint.
Although nearly the whole of the visible shrines in Britain have been totally destroyed, the entire land is a shrine, its soil is permeated with the dust of her saints ; but, alas ! the sins of her children arrest the continued application of the name “The Isle of Saints.”
Saturated as the land is with saintly remains, it had, until the sixteenth century, special centers of devotion associated with those more specially honoured, such as St. Edward at Westminster, St. Cuthbert at Durham, and St. Thomas at Canterbury, and others who gave their names to the towns that rose around their shrines, as St. Alban, St. Edmund, and St. David.
The present work is an attempt to picture the various classes of shrines which were raised in Great Britain to honour the memory and the relics of her saints, to describe the construction of the greater shrines, to comprehend the riches of art bestowed upon them, and to expose the dominating reason for their destruction. These former structures should be better known, some for the sake of the saint, others for the sake of the shrine ; others, again, reveal to us some of the customs of our forefathers, or how they became the means of swaying human passions. Raised to stimulate devotion, they occasionally stirred envy and covetousness, and tended to provoke even more grievous sins.
The numerous legends which, in the minds of the simple, enfolded many of the shrines in palls of wondrous mystery, and thereby begot greater awe and reverence in the person of the pilgrim, have not been entirely over-looked, many of them being deeply interesting, even if mainly fabulous.These pages do not, however, embrace a scheme of tabulation the numberless shrines which are known to have existed, nor the enumerating the relics of either British or foreign saints which were preserved in the churches of this empire. Britain’s saints, though some were of foreign nationality ; Britain’s saints, although many British born, carried their missionary work to
foreign fields and were there laid to rest, or raised to honour in shrines still held dear by French and Breton, Flemish and German, Swiss, Italian, and Norseman.many valuable suggestions, especially for his help in the account of St. Alkmund, which, but for his aid, I should probably have overlooked. My gratitude also goes forth to Mr. H. S. King for his invaluable aid in kindly
To the kindly help of those who are yet the custodians of certain shrines I am deeply indebted, and gratefully acknowledge the assistance of the Very Rev. G. W. Kitchin, who at Durham watches over the relics of the Venerable Bede, St. Cuthbert, and St. Oswald ; the Rev. Charles Druitt, vicar of Whitchurch Canonicorum, in whose church the remains of St. Candida lie enshrined ; and the Rev. Canon Columb, the custodian of the mutilated yet beautiful reliquary of St. Manchán. To the Rev. Dr. Cox, the general editor of this series, I owe
reading these sheets for the press.
J. C. W.
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