Saint Tibba of Ryhall
Commemorated March 6/19
Situated in the East Midlands, Rutland is the smallest historic county of England. With a population of just over 39,000, its total area is 152 square miles. Despite its tiny size, Rutland has many sights, from Roman and Anglo-Saxon settlements and traditional English villages to castles and stately homes (as in Oakham), old churches, hills, valleys, woods, rivers and Rutland Water—the largest manmade lake in the UK. The only saint associated with Rutland is St. Tibba, a kinswoman of holy abbesses Cyneburgh and Cyneswith of Castor. According to tradition, St. Tibba joined the royal abbesses in that double monastery and later may have succeeded them, becoming its third abbess. But according to another tradition which persists in the large village of Ryhall (nine miles north of Castor) in Rutland, St. Tibba lived there as an anchoress, reposed there in the late seventh or early eighth century, was buried there, and was greatly venerated afterwards. Since the early stage of her veneration is poorly documented, it is not known whether her relics were kept at Ryhall or at Castor until the tenth century.
But what is known is that in 963, Abbot Aelfsige of Peterborough translated the relics of the royal trio—Cyneburgh, Cyneswith and Tibba—to Peterborough Monastery (later Peterborough Cathedral) after Castor Monastery had been destroyed by the Vikings. In 1016, these relics were moved to Thorney Monastery in Cambridgeshire (of which the fine Abbey Church of Sts. Mary and Botolph survives), but were restored to Peterborough under King Henry I. One of the chapels of Peterborough Cathedral in Cambridgeshire—in the south transept—is dedicated to Sts. Cyneburgh, Cyneswith and Tibba; their shrine with relics was located there until the Reformation, when it was destroyed.
In her article, “St. Cyneburgha of Castor: from Mercian Princess to Northumbrian Queen”, the historian Ms. Avril Morris (Lumley Prior) writes:
“The life of St.Tibba is shrouded in obscurity. There is neither archaeological nor documentary evidence to prove that she was ever interred at Castor or to substantiate the existence of a shrine dedicated to her at Ryhall. Her final resting place is excluded from an eleventh-century list of saints’ burial places, implying that she may have been dismissed as being of minor importance. According to the twelfth-century chronicler, Hugh Candidus, Tibba was a pious virgin, who had posthumously requested that she should be buried with ‘her saintly friends,’ Kyneburgha and Kyneswitha. Both the author of The Mildrith Legend and John of Tynemouth, writing around 1346, described Tibba as their blood relative, ‘who, living in great sanctity and solitude for many years, commended her soul to God.’ The possibility of relationship between the Mercian princesses and the anchoress of Ryhall should not be disregarded. Retirement from secular life, whether to a convent or to a hermit’s cell, was the prerogative of aristocrats. Tibba may have been a cousin, perhaps distant, of Kyneburgha and Kyneswitha, and was locally important enough to warrant a shared interment in a chapel at Peterborough. It is possible that both Tibba's cell and shrine may have fallen into decay by the early eleventh century, prompting the elevation of her relics to Peterborough. Alternatively, she could have been translated to Castor upon her death. If she became a recluse, then from which religious foundation did she retire? Seventh-century eremitic saints were initially required to complete their spiritual training and take their vows at a conventional monastery before withdrawing to a life of seclusion. During the late seventh century, the nearest convent to St. Tibba's cell in Ryhall was at Castor. Since seventh century nunneries were often family affairs, Tibba may have served her novitiate under Kyneburgha and Kyneswitha, suggesting a closer relationship with the daughters of Penda. After receiving the veil, she may have withdrawn to her sanctuary at Ryhall as part of a spiritual progression, to be reunited with her relatives either at Castor, upon her death, or three centuries later, at Peterborough” (cited with the author’s permission).
The picturesque Rutland village of Ryhall is famous for its parish church of St. John the Evangelist. The present edifice dates back to the early thirteenth century with later additions. Its tower is in the Early English Gothic style, and most of the windows are Perpendicular Gothic. It is noted for a large number of carvings of grotesques, heads of monsters and foliage patterns both outside and inside. There is also an ancient figure of St. Christopher on the north arcade, heavily damaged by Puritans. The church font and the priests’ seats are over 700 years old. But for Orthodox, most significant is its connection with St. Tibba. According to oral tradition, she lived as an anchoress in a tiny cell attached to the original church on this site, was loved by the locals for her devout life, wisdom and miracles of healing. She may have undertaken missionary work in that area and also instructed her cousin, St. Ebba (Eabba), of whom nothing is known. There used to be healing wells of St. Tibba (last recorded in the nineteenth century) and St. Eabba (also called Jacob Well) in the village vicinity, but their location is lost. Her cousin is commemorated in St. Eabba’s Bridge over the River Gwash (a tributary of the Welland) in Ryhall. There are also two roads in the village named St. Tibba’s Way and St. Eabba’s Close. In olden times a local hill and a green (where the faithful would commemorate Tibba) bore her name. The name of Stableford Bridge in the neighboring village of Belmesthorpe means “St. Tibba’s Ford.”
St. Tibba’s hermitage at Ryhall is long gone. But there was a late medieval recluse who lived walled up, or immured, in a cell outside the northeast corner of the present church, either on the site of St. Tibba’s hermitage or shrine. The church believes that the later ascetic devoted her labors to the memory of St. Tibba, whom she tried to imitate. Alas, hardly anything survives of that medieval cell building with a pitched roof, except its outlines on the church outer wall, along with a niche (where the saint’s statue might have stood) and the squint window (formerly used by the anchoress to observe the Mass celebrated in the sanctuary and receive food) that looks into the church and was glazed at some point. The cell was always outside the church.
Late traditions call St. Tibba a patron-saint of falconers, which sounds unrealistic since falconry was not popular in Saxon England at least till 200 years after St. Tibba’s death.
The nearest town to Ryhall is Stamford in Lincolnshire—one of the most complete ancient stone towns in England with unspoiled Georgian streets and hundreds of “listed” buildings.
There were many recluses of both sexes who lived in isolation in cells attached to England’s parish churches in the late Middle Ages. Most of the anchorite cells are now gone, but some fine examples survive almost intact, as at St. Nicholas Church in Compton, Surrey, or at Sts. Mary and Cuthbert’s Church in Chester-le-Street, Co. Durham, where the former cell now houses the Anker House Museum.
Martyr Ragener of Northampton
Commemorated November 21 / December 4
If asked who is the most mysterious early English saint, lovers of Anglo-Saxon holiness may well name St. Ragener (Regenhere, Ragaher, Ragenerius), who was greatly venerated in Northampton, the county town of Northamptonshire. This holy soldier and martyr for Christ would have remained in obscurity but for a series of visions and miracles which occurred two centuries after his death. According to a medieval document, in the mid-eleventh century there lived Fr. Bruning, a wealthy and righteous priest at the fine St. Peter’s Church in Northampton, which had minster status (its successor stands there today). He had a servant of Viking descent who went on a pilgrimage to Rome to venerate the Apostle Peter’s shrine. While on his journey, a heavenly dweller appeared to him in visions, commanding him to travel back. When he got back to Northampton, the angel appeared to him again and told him to inform the priest that a friend of God lay buried under the floor of St. Peter’s Church, and revealed the exact place to him.
Carved stone thought to be St. Ragener's grave slab at St. Peter's Church in Northampton, Northants. Photo provided by Jean Hawkins Fr. Bruning obeyed, started digging and discovered a tomb under the church floor precisely where he had been told to search. This news was made public, but no one knew who lay in that grave. At that time there lived a certain Alfgiva of Abingdon, who was severely crippled. During the Paschal Vigil, after seeing a supernatural light, she was cured at the tomb and walked away from church “as she had never walked before.” After several days of strict fasting, Fr. Bruning made up his mind to open the tomb, and he found the remains of a man with a scroll in it. The scroll read that it was St. Ragener, nephew of St. Edmund of East Anglia, King and Martyr, who was killed for Christ together with him by pagan Danes in 869/870.
That series of events was followed by further miraculous cures, which inspired the highly religious King Edward the Confessor to endow Northampton and its St. Peter’s Church with many gifts. A splendid shrine was made in St. Peter’s Church for St. Ragener’s relics, which became a focus of veneration and a popular pilgrimage destination. As for Alfgiva, she became a nun in Northampton. There was an altar dedicated to St. Ragener in St. Peter’s Church at least in the twelfth century. There is no evidence where the altar was placed but there are records from wills showing that people left money and altar cloths to pay for candles at it.
The only references to St. Ragener’s liturgical veneration can be found in an addition to the fifteenth-century Sarum Missal (formerly belonging to St. Peter’s Church—now kept in Oxford’s Bodleian Library) and in a thirteenth-century account in a Trinity College Dublin manuscript. In his booklet dedicated to St. Ragener, Bazil Marsh (1921–1997), the Anglican Archdeacon of Northampton, suggested that the memory of St. Ragener who was certainly a historical figure was lost because England had been invaded by the Vikings: after the Scandinavian Earl Thurferth surrendered Northampton in 917, King Edward the Elder (899—924) may have translated his relics to the town’s earliest wooden church, but it (except the shrine) was later burned down (until a stone replacement appeared), so the martyr was half-forgotten for a time.
Alas, we can only be guided by circumstantial evidence regarding his early veneration. But what is known is that from the reign of Edward the Confessor the saint’s relics were visited until the Reformation. His shrine was mentioned as a recipient of gifts and donations in the fourteenth century and even before the Reformation. Under Henry VIII, St. Ragener’s remains were destroyed, and the shrine smashed, though an elaborate slab believed to be part of it survives. This richly decorated supposed lid of St. Ragener’s stone coffin is now displayed at the end of the south aisle.
Today’s Northampton is a very large, populous and busy town (it failed to obtain city status in 2000). The beautiful 900-year-old Church of St. Peter in the town center, with a cinema and restaurants as its neighbors, is a true Christian gem in this urban area. Sadly, the church is now redundant—it ceased to be a parish church; almost no services are held in it, but it remains a consecrated place and is usually open for visitors (managed by the Churches Conservation Trust). It hosts a range of cultural events. The supposed coffin lid is late Saxon or early Norman: its carvings include a figure of the green man, surrounded by beasts and birds. This remarkable piece of Anglo-Saxon or Romanesque art is one of the rarest survivals in the UK and visited by many Christians. Though the shrine was lost during the Dissolution, what is believed to be its carved lid was spared and later used as the door lintel of a nearby cottage for many years. In 1843, it was rediscovered and identified, and was returned to the church ninety years later.
Most of the current church building is slightly younger than its shrine. It was rebuilt in the form of a basilica to the highest standards in the twelfth century. Apart from the lid, over a dozen twelfth-century beautiful capitals of columns in the nave (with carvings of birds and other animals, foliage, abstract patterns, and Jonah emerging from the sea monster’s mouth) of that time are intact. These carvings were plastered over by the “reformers,” and when they were rediscovered it took eleven years for the local historian and antiquarian Anne Baker (1786–1861) to carefully pick them clean with a knife. Visitors can also see a large wide arch in the church, built into the south wall. Its appearance suggests that it was purposefully built to house the saint’s relics. The stained glass windows and the painted reredos at the altar are from the nineteenth century.
St. Peter’s is an atmospheric place, partly thanks to the team who maintains it. It is considered the most outstanding Romanesque church of Northamptonshire. A Saxon palace and a Norman castle once stood beside it. The church was restored in 1850 by George Gilbert Scott and is in a good state of preservation. Its building materials—ironstone and oolitic limestone—give it red and yellow hues. The seventeenth-century tower has three stages. Among the celebrities associated with St. Peter’s is William Smith (1769–1839), “the father of English geology” who created the first geological map of England and Wales. He is buried in the churchyard and commemorated inside with a bust. At present, St. Ragener is venerated by some Orthodox, and his annual festival at St. Peter’s was revived not long ago.
In the Middle Ages, Northampton had many churches and monasteries and was the scene of two battles—in 1264 and 1460. In addition to St. Peter’s, of the medieval Northampton churches we should mention the enormous 900-year-old Church of the Holy Sepulcher (one of the four surviving round churches in England—its builder was inspired by the Holy Sepulcher Church in Jerusalem) and All Saints’ Church (built about 1680 on the site of the ancient All Hallows’ Church which had been destroyed by the Great Fire of Northampton in 1675; it has icons of St. Peter and St. Catherine, is renowned for its musical traditions and commemorates King Charles II, who helped restore it; the poet John Clare enjoyed sitting beneath its portico). Of all the former monasteries of Northampton the Cluniac Delapre Abbey of St. Mary is best remembered—part of it is used as a mansion.
Among the other local saints of central England we should mention:
● St. Alnoth (Elfnoth, Alnotus; †c. 700; feast: February 27), a pious, simple and unlettered cowherd who worked at the monastery of Weedon (Northants) during the abbacy of St. Werburgh. Noted for his holy life and humility (he was often undeservedly beaten by his steward), he later retired to lead the life of a hermit in the woods. After many years of unceasing prayer, he was slain by evildoers who envied him and was buried at the church in Stowe near Bugbrooke (now St. Michael’s Church in the village of Church Stowe, Northants), where his shrine was famous for numerous miracles.
● St. Owen (Owin; † c. 672?; feast: March 4), whose life is related by St. Bede (History, b. IV, ch. III). He was born in East Anglia and became bailiff of St. Etheldreda of Ely’s household. When she travelled to Northumbria to marry its king, he followed her, but when she took the veil he moved to Lastingham Monastery (N. Yorkshire), where he became a devout disciple of St. Chad. He arrived in poor clothes and with an axe in his hand, intending to labor hard rather than indulge in idleness. When St. Chad became Bishop of Mercia, he took St. Owen with him and settled him at his monastery in Lichfield. In 672, Owen heard a heavenly chorus foretelling St. Chad’s death (he died soon after his master). A parish church in Bromham (Beds) is dedicated to him. There was a St. Owen’s Church in Gloucester (Southgate Street), built in 1100 and pulled down during the Civil War. The city of Bristol had St. Ewen’s (identified with St. Owen) Church on Broad Street—built in the 1100s and demolished in 1820—and a late eighteenth century church nearby is called, “Christ Church with St. Ewen’s.”
● Sts. Wulfhad and Ruffin (Ruffinus; feast: July 24) were sons of King Wulfhere of Mercia (657–675) and St. Ermenhild. According to a late legend, they were baptized by St. Chad as young boys but put to death right away by their apostate father in the cell where they had been chrismated. Though the circumstances of their martyrdom are unclear (no case of their father’s apostasy is known), their relics were enshrined in the church of Stone (Staffs). The first monastery in Stone may have appeared in the seventh century. After it had been plundered by Vikings, it became a home for nuns, and later the Augustinian Priory of Sts. Mary, Michael and Wulfhad was founded. It was dissolved in 1536, and the relics disappeared. Today, the town of Stone has an Anglican Church of “Sts. Michael and Wulfad,” where the holy brothers are reportedly depicted on stained glass windows. In 2011, the thirteenth century bronze seal of the Prior of Stone was found.
Holy Betti, Hardulph, Modwenna, Osburga, Ragener and Tibba, pray to God for us!
I express sincere gratitude to Canon David Truby for photographs of Wirksworth church and St. Betti’s icon; to Rachel Askew for photos of Breedon church and its artworks; to the retired Vicar Stanley Monkhouse and Revd. Robin Trotter for photos and materials relevant to St. Modwenna; to Fr. Pontius Bandua for photos of the RC St. Osburga’s Church; to Ms. Jean Hawkins for photos of St. Peter’s Church artworks and additional information on St. Ragener; and to Ms. Avril Lumley Prior for photos of St. John’s Church in Ryhall and additional information on St. Tibba.