Though often overlooked by tourists, the central west of England has much to offer: from beautiful landscapes, peace and quiet, to rich history and culture, along with holy shrines. Christianity first appeared in western England in the Roman era, and later it was strongly influenced by both the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Christian traditions. In the age of the saints, it was dominated by the minor early English kingdom of the Hwicce, which existed from roughly 577 until the late eighth century when it was amalgamated with Mercia under the powerful King Offa. Its capital was Worcester—one of the earliest Christian sees in the region. The territory of the Hwicce largely corresponded to that of the diocese: Worcestershire, most of Gloucestershire, small parts of Herefordshire, Oxfordshire, Shropshire, Somerset, Staffordshire, Warwickshire and Wiltshire. There was also the short-lived kingdom of Magonsaete—a sub-kingdom under Mercia which mainly covered Herefordshire except for its west. Large areas of what are now Gloucestershire, Herefordshire and Shropshire belonged to Welsh kingdoms and were later invaded by the English (Gloucestershire later partly belonged to Wessex). Shropshire was dominated by the kingdom of Powys and probably by Pengwern; western Herefordshire was controlled by Ergyng—a small kingdom under the dominion of Glywysing. The region absorbed much from the Roman, sub-Roman, Welsh and English cultures, so the Welsh language, customs and place names were common here until recently.
The landscapes of England’s west are so scenic that they are reckoned by many to be among the most beautiful in Britain. The Forest of Dean, the Wyre Forest, the Severn and Wye Valleys (the latter was immortalized in the watercolors of Harold Sutton Palmer), part of the Black Mountains, the Clent Hills, the Cotswold Hills, the Malvern Hills, the Shropshire Hills and Offa’s Dike1 will leave no one indifferent. The region is mostly hilly, with numerous woods, picturesque river landscapes, and extensive rural and agricultural lands. No wonder such composers as Edward Elgar, Ivor Gurney, Gustav Holst, Herbert Howells and Thomas Tomkins created their masterpieces here. The west of England was associated with such poets as Elizabeth Browning, Alfred Housman, John Masefield, Wilfred Owen and Mary Webb. The fertile Vale of Evesham supplies many parts of the country with fruit and vegetables, and the areas with numerous orchards are known for their jam, cider and ale. The region has countless architectural gems, and the famous Cotswold honey-yellow stone was used to build some colleges in Oxford, Blenheim Palace and Windsor Castle. Such celebrated saints as David of Menevia2, Dyfrig of Ergyng, Egwin of Worcester, Milburgh of Much Wenlock and Oswald of Worcester and York labored in the west; and the relics of such saints as Ethelbert of East Anglia, Kenelm of Mercia, Werburgh of Chester, Winifred of Holywell and Wistan of Mercia were venerated here. Such famous spiritual centers as Abbey Dore, Bath, Cirencester, Evesham, Gloucester, Great Malvern, Hailes, Hereford, Leominster, Lilleshall, Much Wenlock, Pershore, Shrewsbury, Tewkesbury, Winchcombe and Worcester are situated within its borders. Let’s talk about four locally venerated saints of the region.
Saint Arilda, Virgin and Martyr of Thornbury
Commemorated: October 30 / November 12 and July 20 / August 2 (in Gloucester)
St. Arilda (Arild) is the most venerated female saint of Gloucestershire. No early accounts of her life survive, and we can only rely on local traditions. She lived in the fifth or sixth century, and was a virgin dedicated to Christ from childhood. She was almost certainly a native Briton, rather than a representative of the first generations of the Angles and Saxons who had invaded Britain, but not yet reached Gloucestershire until later. If the latter was the case, her name could be of Germanic origin and mean “a maiden of the hearth.” In some late documents it is said that she thrice successfully fought with the power of sin and, according to John Leland (1503-1552), “the father of English local history”, she was beheaded by a tyrant named Muncius after rejecting his advances. There is strong tradition that St. Arilda was slain near the present-day town of Thornbury in South Gloucestershire where she had lived and was buried by the holy well nearby. This ranks St. Arilda with other early virgin-martyrs of Britain, like Sts. Almedha (Eluned) and the more famous Winifred of Wales. All of them were devoted to Christ and gave their lives defending their chastity. It is believed that the place of St. Arilda’s martyrdom had been a heathen holy site, but thanks to her podvig it was sanctified. The holy maiden has been venerated in this place for about 1500 years, and St. Arilda’s well was famous for cures. Her name can be found in some early English calendars.
Two Anglican parish churches bear St. Arilda’s name. Both in Gloucestershire, about twenty miles apart from each other. They are situated in the villages of Oldbury-on-Severn and Oldbury-on-the-Hill3. Unfortunately, the church standing in a remote idyllic place near Oldbury-on-the-Hill, surrounded by the countryside, was declared redundant, meaning it ceased to be a parish church and services are no longer celebrated except on special occasions. (But such places of worship remain consecrated, are managed by the Churches Conservation Trust and are open for visitors). This small charming church is simple yet atmospheric inside, retaining a Georgian atmosphere. It dates from the thirteenth century and its style is Gothic Perpendicular. Both Oldbury villages were spelled “Aldberrie” at the time of the Domesday Book4, meaning the “old (pre-English) fort”.
The parish church of Oldbury-on-Severn, standing on a knoll and serving as a waymark for river travelers, is still active. Its churchyard is circular, indicating that its origins are pre-Norman. Thanks to its parishioners the memory of St. Arilda is kept alive here to this day. There is a new statue of St. Arilda outside the church, above the porch, and she is also shown in a stained-glass image created by the reposed churchwarden Tim Giles. It was consecrated in 2017 and hangs in the middle of the back window. The church was built in the thirteenth century, but most of it was destroyed by fire in 1897 and soon reconstructed, although the fifteenth-century porch survives. The parish celebrates its patron-saint annually on the Sunday nearest to her feast-day in July. The celebration includes a walk to her holy well, situated closer to Cowhill (a small village near the Severn estuary) than to Thornbury, for prayers and a picnic. The waters and some stones in the well often have a reddish tinge—especially on the saint’s feast—believed to be stains of St. Arilda’s blood, though scientists suggest it is a kind of moss or algae. The holy well is around two miles from the center of Oldbury-on-Severn. It is a spring rather than a well, and the water emerges from a slope of a small hill, close to “St. Arild Cottage.” The water never stops flowing, even in times of severe drought. In earlier times, such a reliable source of water must have been extremely valuable. The water seeps out at the base of a stone wall—part of a small reservoir which the spring keeps topped up, providing a piped water supply to the local St. Arild’s Farm.
After the Norman Conquest of England, St. Arilda’s relics were moved to Gloucester Abbey of St. Peter in the city of Gloucester (now the Anglican Gloucester Cathedral), where her shrine in the crypt was famous for miracles. She was depicted on the cathedral’s East Window5 and her statue was on the altarpiece of the Lady Chapel. According to John Blair’s Handlist of Anglo-Saxon Saints, the mason’s graffito “Arilda” on the fifteenth-century altarpiece marks the position of her former statue. St. Arilda’s relics were a focus of pilgrimage for centuries, but during the Reformation her shrine was obliterated and pilgrimages stopped. However, her relics survived and for many years lay in a side-chapel of the crypt. When electricity was installed at the cathedral in the early twentieth century, her relics together with all the other bones from the chapel had to be removed. So they were buried in some area outside the cathedral within its precincts, thought the exact spot was not marked.
Not long ago a thirteenth-century Latin hymn in praise of St. Arilda was found in the cathedral archives, translated into English, and this version is sung by the congregation at Oldbury-on-Severn every year close to St. Arilda’s feast:
Hymn to Saint Arilda
(Translated from the Latin and made to rhyme, the words are taken from a manuscript copy on the flyleaf of a book of sermons belonging to Thomas Bredon, Abbot of St. Peter’s, Gloucester—now the cathedral—from 1224 to 1228)
O Mother Church, today proclaim
The honour of St.Arild’s name.
And grant that we may have a share
In that great sound of praise and prayer.
She gave her life to Christ below
And in His strength she smote the foe.
Three times she fought the power of sin
And walked with Christ, made pure within.
O bride of Christ, O virgin wise,
The world was worthless in your eyes.
You now in Heaven’s eternal light
Are clothed in robes of glory bright.
With flesh unstained and pure of mind
Untouched by sin of humankind,
Your mind was turned to Christ above,
On Him alone you fixed your love.
O maid whose bones in Gloucester rest,
By whom all Gloucester folk are blest,
Help us in sorrow here below,
And then the joys of Heaven bestow.
O Arild, of this holy place
The guardian, and our hope of grace,
O Mother, hear your children’s prayer
That we the peace of Heaven may share.
Pray now for us to Christ your Lord,
Who by the angels is adored,
That we at last with you may come
To greet Him in our Heavenly home.
(The text was kindly provided by Martin Fardell.)
Gloucester, the county town of Gloucestershire, was founded by the Romans in the first century A.D. and originally called Glevum, or Colonia Nervia Glevensium. It was an important military fortress. The River Severn enters Gloucester from three sides. It is an industrial but pleasant city with a population of 130,000. Parts of its Roman gate, along with a stretch of Roman and medieval walls, survive to this day. The city has preserved its Roman layout, with the four main streets (Eastgate, Northgate, Westgate and Southgate) meeting in its center with St. Michael’s Tower (from a demolished church) rising beside it. In 1827, the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal was dug from here to the sea, making Gloucester Britain’s most inland port.
The main city’s landmark is its cathedral in honor of “St. Peter and the Holy and Indivisible Trinity.” A double monastery for monks and nuns was founded here in about 672 by Osric, ruler of the Hwicce, commemorated in the cathedral by a tomb monument. A large abbey was founded on the same site in 1058 and finished by 1100. This huge, magnificent, impressive edifice in the Romanesque and Perpendicular Gothic styles dominates the city center to this day. One of its key features is the enormous Great East Window of 1350, one of the largest in Europe, depicting angels on the top panel, the Savior, the Mother of God and saints in the middle, and bishops and knights on the bottom. The nave with massive columns is from 1126, the choir from the fourteenth century, and the medieval chapter house, cloisters and many former monastic buildings are intact as well. Among the most remarkable gems are the “cubicles” (called “carrels”) where monks used to sit, read, study the Scriptures, wash their hands before meals, store towels, etc.
The ambulatory (the space where monks went in procession) behind the High Altar houses a splendid tomb: that of King Edward II (1284-1327), who, unlike his father, King Edward I, “the Hammer of the Scots,” was one of the most unpopular monarchs in Britain’s history. He was defeated by Robert the Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn and was at loggerheads with the barons, backed by the knights and ordinary people displeased with the rise in taxes. He was deposed in 1326, and murdered the following year at Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire, probably with the involvement of his wife, Isabella of France, and her lover, Earl Roger de Mortimer. Although his life contradicted the idea of sainthood, common people flocked to his tomb in Gloucester from all over the country for many years, seeking his protection and consolation. It was thanks to his tomb, the physical presence of the remains of a monarch, that led Henry VIII in 1541 to decide at the last moment to not demolish Gloucester Abbey, but only dissolve it and make it a cathedral.
Duke Robert of Normandy, William the Conqueror’s oldest son, is buried and has his effigy in the cathedral. He unsuccessfully attempted to seize the throne from his younger brother, Henry I, which resulted in decades of imprisonment in various castles. After his death in 1134 at the age of eighty-three, he was buried in Gloucester Abbey. William Laud, a famous hierarch who strove to restore pre-Reformation practices in England and Scotland, was Dean of Gloucester Cathedral between 1616 and 1621; he was executed for “treason” during the Civil War. One of the cathedral’s chantry chapels is dedicated to the memory of the musicians and composers associated with this area. The cathedral has a fascinating whispering gallery—a long narrow passage, the space of which enables a whisper to be heard from the opposite side to where you are standing. The church has numerous other monuments and chapels, including stained glass by the artists Christopher Whall and Charles Kempe. The cathedral precincts boast an old herbal garden where monks once grew herbs and cared for sick people.
As Derry Brabbs wrote about Gloucester Cathedral in his book, Abbeys and Monasteries in Great Britain6:
“Its status as the lowest crossing point on the River Severn made Gloucester commercially and militarily strategic, a fact recognized by William I, who revitalized the ailing Benedictine monastery that existed at the time of the Conquest. Gloucester was one of the monastic churches retained as cathedrals by Henry VIII, possibly because of its many royal associations. Henry III was crowned here in 1216 aged only nine, and over a century later Edward II was interred here after his gruesome murder in nearby Berkeley Castle. It seems ironic that a monarch reviled during his reign as an effeminate wimp should have been so venerated after his death that his elegant alabaster tomb became a place of pilgrimage, generating wealth that enabled a remodeling of the chancel in the Perpendicular style. This purely English variation was pioneered in Gloucester and became the last great phase of Gothic architecture. Of the claustral buildings, only the chapter house is in regular use, fulfilling the same function it has for centuries, but it is the cloisters that are Gloucester's ancient treasure. Recesses that used to house wooden desks for reading or writing occupy one section, while another retains the original wash place used by the monks before dining in the adjacent frater, all adorned with the most exquisite fan vaulting, the first time such a technique was used for claustral decoration.”
In Gloucester, pilgrims can also see ruins of the tenth-century St. Oswald’s Priory (founded by Ethelfleda, the Lady of Mercians who was St. Alfred the Great’s daughter and one of the most influential women of her age). They can also see ruined or partly ruined medieval monasteries of the Black Friars (Dominicans), Grey Friars (Franciscans), White Friars (Carmelites; the ruins were discovered in 2020!) and Llanthony Secunda Priory (Augustinian; founded as a retreat of Llanthony Priory in Monmouthshire—one of the most picturesque holy places in Wales), as well as ancient parish churches: St. Mary de Lode (its predecessor was built before the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain and, according to one legend, the first church here was built in the second century A.D. by the Christian King Lucius, who is purportedly buried in it), St. Mary de Crypt and St. Nicholas. John Hooper, the Anglican bishop of Worcester and Gloucester, was executed by public burning in Gloucester on the orders of the Catholic Queen Mary I and has been venerated as one of the Protestant Martyrs. Gloucester is closely associated with Robert Raikes (1736-1811), an Anglican lay philanthropist who founded the Sunday School Movement in England. Gloucester Cathedral is one of the three English cathedrals in which since 1724 the annual festival of spiritual music, “The Three Choirs Festival,” has been held alternately (the other two are Worcester and Hereford Cathedrals).
Saint Edburga (Eadburgh) of Winchester
Commemorated: June 15/28
Her Life was composed in the twelfth century by Osbert of Clare (+1158), Abbot of St. Peter’s Abbey in Westminster (London), who also wrote a Life of St. Ethelbert of East Anglia. There were some later hagiographies as well. St. Edburga never set foot in the west of England and was only venerated here posthumously. She was born in about 920 in the kingdom of Wessex. She was the youngest of the fourteen children of King Edward the Elder (ruled 899-924; son of St. Alfred the Great) and his third wife Eadgifu. When the saint was three years old, her father showed the child royal jewels and toys, and then a Gospel, chalice and a monastic habit, and asked her to choose. The girl, without thinking, chose the latter, and her parents gave her to St. Mary’s Convent in Winchester (called Nunnaminster, founded by St. Alfred and his wife St. Elswith), where she was educated under the guidance of Abbess Ethelthritha and remained, spending all her life in holiness, gentleness and humility.
The nun-princess used to wash sisters’ stockings at night in secret. She never became an abbess out of meekness and died of fever in about 960 as a simple nun aged about forty. She was first buried in an ordinary monastic grave, but soon St. Ethelwold of Winchester put her relics in a rich shrine covered with gold and silver. She was venerated in Winchester and other monasteries of Wessex, in Westminster (London) and the monasteries restored by St. Ethelwold. Countless miracles were recorded at her relics both in Winchester and later in Pershore Monastery in Worcestershire, restored by St. Oswald of Worcester in 972, where her remains were transferred soon afterwards. St. Edburga is usually depicted as a nun with a peaceful expression on her face or washing clothes. She should not be confused with several other pre-schism St. Edburgas who lived in different regions of England.
There was a permanent influx of pilgrims to St. Edburga’s shrine in Pershore Abbey until the Reformation, and the monastery was dedicated to Sts. Mary, Peter, Paul and Edburga7. Under Henry VIII the monastery was closed, the shrine to St. Edburga was smashed, and her relics were either destroyed or hidden in an unknown place in the abbey. Though the claustral buildings, the nave, the Lady Chapel, St. Edburga’s Chapel and other parts were pulled down and their building materials sold, one section of the monastery church (the monks’ choir) with its tower, fortunately, was not destroyed: it was bought by the townsfolk for £400 and saved. It has been used as an Anglican parish church ever since.
The small market town of Pershore on the River Avon in the Vale of Evesham is dominated by the magnificent, ancient imposing Pershore Abbey, now dedicated to the Holy Cross and visited by pilgrims. The church is simultaneously tall and short, and has a welcoming atmosphere inside that leaves a lasting impression on visitors. It is one of the finest examples of Norman and Early English architecture. The first monastery was founded on this site in the 680s, on lands granted by King Ethelred of Mercia. It suffered at the hands of pagan Vikings in the second half of the ninth century and was refounded 100 years later during the nationwide monastic revival. A Roman Catholic abbey was established here after the Norman Conquest. It was completed in 1130 and flourished for several centuries, growing into one of the largest monastic centers in England. Over its history it suffered from fires, storms and an earthquake but was restored each time. In the 1860s, it underwent restoration by the eminent Victorian-era architect George Gilbert Scott. The current abbey church is huge, and we can only wonder how enormous the original edifice must have been.
St. Edburga is commemorated in Pershore Abbey in several Victorian stained glass windows in the south aisle, depicting her scenes from her Life, the abbey’s history and even her shrine. There is reportedly a Victorian wall painting featuring her high on the east end wall. In the twelfth-century seal of Pershore Abbey (one of the pictures shows a drawing of how it looked at that time), the saint can be seen at the bottom. Here is a description (from “Houses of Benedictine Monks: Abbey of Pershore”, A History of the County of Worcester: Vol. 2 (1971), pp. 127-136. via British History Online):
“The pointed oval twelfth-century seal of the abbey, chipped at the point, represents the Virgin with crown seated on a carved throne; on Her left knee the Child with nimbus, lifting up His right hand in benediction; in Her right hand is a sceptre fleur-de-lys. At the left side of Her head is a crescent, on the right an estoile of six points. St. Paul stands on the left holding a sword erect by the point, St. Peter on the right holding two keys; over the head of each an estoile, over the keys a quatrefoil. In base under a trefoiled arch St. Edburga, three-quarters length, in her right hand a chalice, in her left an open book. On each side an estoile.” This seal was used by the Friends of Pershore Abbey in the last century and featured in their annual Pershore Festival held at the end of June each year.
St. Edburga’s relics were kept in a special chapel (sacristy) to the east of the south transept, but this was destroyed at the time of the the Dissolution—traces of this chapel, now exposed, have survived the weather and can still be seen by the extensive lawns that surround the abbey. Inside the abbey you can see a locked-up archway that once led to St. Edburga’s shrine. There have been several archaeological explorations of the Abbey grounds both outside (1929) and within its walls (1996), and many remains of the Saxon church and the Norman foundations were found and are now displayed in an archway between the nave and the south aisle, but no hidden relics reported so far.
There is the following prayer among the records of the Friends of Pershore Abbey—the Collect of St. Edburga:
Almighty God, Whose glory shines through the lives of Thy Saints and Who raised up Thy servant Edburga to shine as a light in the world: shine, we pray Thee, in our hearts, that we also in our generation may show forth Thy praises, Who hast called us out of darkness into Thy marvelous Light, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
(Kindly provided by Dr. Judith Dale, Pershore Abbey)
A number of ancient parish churches not too far from Pershore are dedicated to our saint, most of them were connected with the monastery. These are: St. Edburga’s Church in Abberton village in Worcestershire (rebuilt in 1882); St. Eadburgha’s Church in the popular picturesque Cotswold village of Broadway in Worcestershire (the first church was Saxon, the oldest part of the present structure is the twelfth century; among its treasures are a rare Charles I royal coat of arms, a travelling pulpit which would be tied to the back of a horse and carried by a preacher through the area he visited, a Norman font and a seventeenth-century wooden altarpiece); the thirteenth-century St. Eadburga’s Church in the Cotswold village of Ebrington in Gloucestershire, with medieval and Flemish stained glass, a beautifully carved south door arch, etc.; St. Edburga’s twelfth-century Church in the village of Leigh in Worcestershire close to Worcester and Malvern (built by Pershore monks in 1100 and surrounded by ancient yews; among its gems are a medieval painted screen, a twelfth-century stone effigy of Christ, an Early English arcade, etc.); St. Edburgha’s Church in the Yardley area of Birmingham (also called “Old Yardley Church”; of the thirteenth century and is 150 feet tall).
To be continued...