Little is known of the obscure Anglo Saxon Saint Bertelin that legend claims founded Stafford c.700 AD. Bertelin is said to have been a Mercian Prince who established a hermitage on a secluded marshy island called Bethnei in a crook of the river Sow in central Staffordshire. The local authorities maintain that the remains of a wooden preaching cross was found during excavations buried under the foundations of Bertelin's chapel in the centre of the town in the 1950s.2
Some two hundred years after this mysterious Bertelin is said to have founded the town, Æthelflæd, daughter of King Alfred the Great, established a fortified burh at Stafford in 913 AD. The town started life as a frontier post in the Anglo-Saxon's struggle against the Danes, forming a part of a chain of earth and timber fortresses that included Tamworth and Chester in the Mercian strategy to reconquest the Danelaw.
A reappraisal of the 1954 excavation findings by Martin Carver in the 1980s3 determined the so-called wooden cross was more likely the remains of a tree-trunk burial dating to the period 800-1,000 AD. The oak coffin found under the site of St Bertelin's chapel adjoining the west end of the Church of St Mary in Stafford may well have been an object of veneration, its central position suggests a significant burial; Martin Biddle suggests it may have even held the bones of the Saint himself.4
Following Local Government reorganisation in 1974 new arms were granted to Stafford Borough Council. The crest of the arms depicts the figure of St Bertelin, holding a staff. Yet the identity of the saint after whom the first church was dedicated remains elusive and like so many foundation legends much of what we read of St Bertelin is mixed up in a fusion of several different traditions.
The legend of Bertelin, variously named Beorhthelm, Bertram or Bettelin, as we have it today is a merging of all the various material available for this enigmatic Mercian saint assembled in the 14th century account by Capgrave in his 'Nova Legenda Anglie', first printed by Wynkyn de Worde in the 16th century and retold by Dr Plot in the 17th century in his 'Natural History of Staffordshire':
Bertelin is said to have been the son of a Mercian king, the friend and disciple of St Guthlac of Croyland, Lincolnshire, who, after the saint's death in 714 AD, continued his holy vocation on the isle of Bethenei, the historic core of Stafford town. Here, he remained until forced to retreat from the ill-will of jealous detractors, when he withdrew into “the mountains" and retired to Ilam, near Dovedale, on the Staffordshire-Derbyshire border where ultimately he died. He was buried at Ilam and his tomb soon became the place of pilgrimage to the saint named Bertram.
|The Church of the Holy Cross, Ilam|
The Church of the Holy Cross at Ilam is still visited by many today who leave prayers at the saint's shrine. The 12th century Saxon font in the church is decorated with iconography said to depict the story of Bertram and the wolves. Between the Church and St Bertram's Bridge is St Bertram's Well, a more recent addition to the legend, the original Holy Well is located on the side of Bunster Hill. In the churchyard are two Anglo-Saxon preaching crosses, one being a typical Mercian-style cross, although both are now without their cross-heads. A third rather battered cross shaft stands half a mile to the south-west of the church beside the River Manifold said to mark the site of a battle between the Saxons and Danes, it is known as ‘The Battlestone’. Frances Arnold-Forster makes the suggestion that “Battle stones" may be a corruption of "Bertellin-stones " and that they were raised as memorials of the holy man's journeys.5
|St Bertram's Shrine, Ilam|
The St Bertelin legend is associated with both Croyland in Lincolnshire and Bethnei (Stafford) in Staffordshire, evidently a mix of local folklore and parts from Felix’ Life of St Guthlac. The vita of a Bertellinus or Beccelinus was drawn up from material based on Felix with additional content included in subsequent editions of the Nova Legenda Angliae.6
The Life of Guthlac, was written by Felix a monk of Croyland on the request of King Ælfwald of the East Angles, to whom it was dedicated, within 35 years of Guthlac’s death; presumably after 731 as Bede provides no mention yet before 749 when Ælfwald died. The vita features a disciple of St Guthlac named Beccelinus. Guthlac as a young man of a noble Mercian family fought in the army of Æthelred of Mercia until the age of 24 when he became a monk at Repton monastery. After two years he sought the life of a hermit and took refuge on the island of Croyland (modern Crowland) in the marshland of the Lincolnshire fens. Guthlac built a small oratory and cells on the site of an ancient barrow on the island. When Guthlac is dying Beccelinus becomes the confidant of the saint in his last hours. Beccelinus takes Guthlac's last words to his sister Pega who lived as an anchoress at Peakirk (Pega's Church) in the Cambridgeshire fens. Guthlac is buried in his oratory until a year later when his uncorrupted body is translated by Pega to a nearby chapel. Beccelinus plays no further part in Felix's story.
A cult quickly developed after Guthlac's death and his shrine was later ornamented by King Æthelbald. Accounts of his life soon followed, being written in both Latin and Old English. Two poems (known as Guthlac A and B) are believed to be derived from Felix's Life of St. Guthlac, and written sometime between 730 and 740. The Guthlac B poem recalls the saints last words as a dialogue with Beccelinus (Beccel). The Guthlac Roll, comprising 18 roundels on vellum is believed to have been drawn by the monks at Crowland Abbey in late 12th or early 13th Century and based on Felix and the Crowland tradition.
|Illustration from the Guthlac Roll: |
Beccel finds Guthlac lying near the
altar of his chapel and is given his last instructions.7
In 870 Croyland was among the many monasteries, including Bardney, Repingas, Threekingham, Weedon, Wermundsey, Peterborough and Ely, destroyed by the Danes. Guthlac's relics had been removed into the safety of the fens by Abbot Theodore fearing an attack.8 But the Croyland Chronicle reports that all the shrines of the saints situated around Guthlac's tomb were broken open, including the four disciples Bettelmus, Egbert, Cissa and Tatwin; the most holy virgin Etheldritha; Celfreda, the former queen, and Wymund, the son of king Wichtlaf. Not finding the treasures they expected in the shrines the Danes burnt all the bodies of the saints in one heap.9 Clearly this cannot be the same Bertelin if his relics came to rest at Stafford.
One Saint or Two?
The legend of St Bertelin in its final form is clearly a conflation of a number of sources; the comparatively late account found in the Nova Legenda Angliae appears to be an attempt to combine all the material into the vita of one Saint. There appear to have been two saints mixed up in this legend, two hermits in Mercia with similar names. Indeed, Farmer records in his Dictionary of Saints:
Bettelin (1) (Beccelin, Bertelin, Berthelm, Bertram), early 8th century, hermit of Crowland, disciple of Guthlac. Feast: 9 September.
Bettelin (2) (Bertram) of Ilam (Stafford), where a chapel, font and well preserve his memory and substantial fragments of his shrine survive. Very little is known about his life; likely Anglo Saxon hermit who lived and died in this neighbourhood and was venerated locally. Feast: 10 August.
Farmer adds that the legend attached to Bettelin of Ilam is probably fictitious, such as that he was the son of a Mercian prince, fell in love with an Irish princess, brought her back to England and left her in the forest in urgent need of a midwife. On his return a pack of wolves were devouring her, so he became a hermit the rest of his life. Farmer concludes “This story is borrowed from the Legend of St Bertelme of Fécamp.”10
Beccelmus, the form of the name Beccel which is found in the Guthlac B poem and the Guthlac Roll, appears to have been the traditional form at Crowland. It occurs in the D manuscript (the Peterbrough MS) but no other. The name appears to have been misread by some earlier writer as Beccelinus and that was the form copied and adopted by later writers.11 The composite legend of St Bertelin, as found in the Nova Legenda Angliae, claims that following the death of Guthlac he retired to the Isle of Bethnei in the Stafford marshes, a topography very similar to the marshes in Lincolnshire where Guthlac spent his last days; is it possible this masks a tradition that his relics were conveyed to Stafford before the destruction of Croyland by the Danes?
As the patron of Stafford his relics were presumably kept with great veneration; typically saint's relics would be placed by, or in the high altar – but no trace of the whereabouts survives in Stafford; the town makes no claim today to possess the saint's relics. Furthermore, we have no means of fixing the precise date of the death of this Saint. Both Bettelin entries from Farmer's Dictionary of Saints have different feast days; it is possible a second feast may signify the date of translation.
Hugh Candidus of Peterbrough (d. c.1175) made a list of saints’ resting places so that “whosoever desireth to visit some saint may know where he may seek him” and included the reference "in Stetford sanctus Berthelmus martyr". Martyrs were the saints 'par excellence' but if this Bertelin of Stafford was a martyr we have lost an episode of his history; his martyrdom does not appear in the accounts of the Nova Legenda Angliae with no record of a martyrium at Stafford or Croyland. Significantly St Bertelin does not appear in the Old English text 'Secgan be þam Godes sanctum þe on Engla lande aerost reston' (The Resting-Places of the Saints), compiled in the 11th century, but containing older material. Hugh Candidus seems to have spent most of his life at Peterborough, barely 10 miles from Crowland, which forces one to question which Bettelin he was referring to in his text.
This mixed-up legend appears to be borrowings from several different personages, suggesting that the Stafford St Bertelin did not possess his own account but attracted elements from saints lives with similar sounding names from hermitages surrounded by marshland. Bertelin, an elusive Mercian saint, defies recognition in the Secgan, the list of saints' resting places, where we should expect to find him recorded as a martyr as claimed by Hugh Candidus of Peterbrough. It is difficult to uphold the claims that he was a very localised minor saint from a Merican royal family.
As Alan Thacker states, “Bertelin's legend is worthless; it seems to have been borrowed from that of St Berthelme of Fécamp, and at most preserves a tradition that Bertelin was a Mercian prince. Nevertheless the cult itself seems to have been genuine.”12
A Cult in West Mercia
Perhaps Bertelin was simply a minor saint with a very localised cult ranging from mid-Staffordshire to the modern boundaries of southern Cheshire. Yet Bertelin re-appears in the 10th century at Runcorn in north Cheshire. This was another burh established by Æthelflæd in the early 10th century and thought to be sited on Castle Rock, a promontory jutting into the Mersey valley from the south. No doubt the fortification was intended to defend the river crossing from raiding parties from Danish Northumbria. The dedication of what was almost certainly a new church there to St Bertelin at Runcorn suggests Æthelflæd's responsibility given her recent acquaintance with this obscure Mercian cult at her new burh at Stafford just two years earlier,13 which appears to confirm her contact with this cult.
The archaeological evidence tends to support the argument that the Stafford site had only seen minor activity prior to Æthelflæd's construction of the burh there in 913 AD. As Martin Carver has shown there was very little activity at Stafford prior to the creation of the Anglo Saxon burh in the 10th century. Æthelflæd. is well known for the translation of Anglo Saxon saint's relics into Mercian sites deeper into the west of the country as protection from the Danes in the east: Oswald to Gloucester, Aldhelm to Shrewsbury, Werburg to Chester, being typical examples of saints translations in which Æthelflæd is known, or strongly suspected, of being instrumental in their relocation. However we are at a loss to the origins of Bertelin and there is no record of his translation into Stafford, Ilam or Runcorn. Suspicions of Æthelflæd's involvement with perhaps bringing the saint's relics into Stafford and the possibility of a later translation of some Bertelin's relics to Runcorn when she built the burh guarding the Wirral cannot be dismissed. Indeed as holy relics were required to consecrate the first timber church at Stafford, it seems likely Bertelin was introduced to Stafford by Æthelflæd herself, and again at Runcorn.
This elusive Mercian saint seems to defy recognition, however there is a saint that bears a remarkable set of coincidences to the Stafford tradition.
Crossing the Water
The Abbey of Saint-Bertin in Saint-Omer, France, was founded on the banks of the river Aa in the 7th century by the bishop of Thérouanne, who sent the monks Bertin (c.615 – c.709 AD), Momelin and Ebertram from Omer to spread the 'Word' among the pagans of the region.
About the year 638 AD Bertin set out, in company with two companions for the extreme northern part of France in order to assist his friend and kinsman, Bishop St. Omer, in the evangelization of the Morini. This area was a huge marshland studded with small hillocks; consequently Bertin's symbol was a boat. On one such hillocks, Bertin and his two companions built a small dwelling whence they went out daily to preach among the natives.
|The Ruins of Saint-Bertin Abbey 1850 (Wikimedia Commons)|
The Abbey of Saint-Bertin soon became one of the most influential monasteries in northern Europe and one of the principal sources of 9th century Francia, producing the Annals of St. Bertin, covering the period 830-82 AD, notable for recording the raids of the Norsemen who plundered the abbey in 845 and 861. It was also damaged by fire several times in the 9th and 10th centuries.14
Bovo's Relatio recorded the recovery of St Bertin's relics in 1050 and their subsequent translation in 1052. Abbot Bovo states the abbey buildings had been hastily restored after the blaze in 1033 and started to crumble after just a few years. Four years into his abbacy, Bovo decided to rebuild and enlarge the church. During these works, by the main altar, they found a leaden casket containing bones and a silver cross identifying the relics as “Sanctus Bertinus Abbas”. But another set of relics had already been previously designated as St Bertin's and the discovery of these additional bones during Bovo's rebuilding raised serious questions. That the abbey already possessed relics said to be St Bertin's was not contested; his cult had been continuous throughout the period; the monastery had never been abandoned or so severely damaged it needed to be refounded. However, Bovo asserted that when the abbey had been threatened by the Vikings in 845/6, St Folcuin translated the relics. Bovo's explanation was supported in the Vita Folcuini which claimed the relics were buried very deeply in a place of safety. The Archbishop's solution was to place both sets of relics in the same shrine and translate them together. Two years later Archbishop Wido of Reims performed the translation on 1st May 1052.15
There is too much similar information here to be purely coincidental: the date is remarkably close to the Stafford St Bertelin's floruit; St Bertin resigned his abbacy at Sithiu c.700 AD which is also the traditional date St Bertelin founded Bethnei (Stafford); the names Bertin and Ebertram are remarkably similar to Bertelin and Bertram at Stafford and Ilam; the saint lived on a hillock surrounded by marshland as at Stafford, Croyland and Sithiu; a double identity – two sets of relics identified as Bertin; even the Feast Days are very similar. Is it possible this tradition could have travelled to west Mercia from Francia?
Route of Transmission
Frequent visits by English ecclesiastics to the Abbey of Saint-Bertin's on their way to and from Rome in the Late Anglo Saxon period led to the introduction of the cult of Bertin into England 16 and must have been known to King Alfred's family, including his daughter Æthelflæd. Alfred must have certainly been introduced to the story of St Bertin when he stopped at the Abbey on route to Rome. Through Fulk of Reims, Alfred invited his host at Saint-Bertin, a cleric named Grimbald, back to England in 887. Grimbald joined the community at Saint-Bertin's c.840, was ordained a priest in c.870 and went to Reims in 886. Alfred pressed Grimbald to accept the position of Archbishop of Canterbury in 889 but was obliged to allow him to retire as Dean to the church of Winchester until his death on 8th July 903. Grimbald was appointed first professor of divinity at Oxford when he is said to have founded that university. His life was written by Goscelin, a monk of Saint-Bertin’s.17
|Saint Bertin (Wikimedia Commons)|
© Edward Watson 2013
Notes & References
1. Theodoret, Curatio affectionum graecarum 8.67, PG 83.1033A, quoted in Peter Brown, The Cult of Saints, University of Chicago Press, 1981, p. 50.
2. Adrian Oswald, The Church of St Bertelin at Stafford and its Cross, Birmingham Museum, 1955.
3. Martin Carver, Anglo-Saxon Stafford. Archaeological Investigations 1954-2004. Field Reports On-line, 2010.
4. Martin Biddle, Archaeology, architecture and the cult of saints in Anglo-Saxon England, in ed L A S Butler and R K Morris, The Anglo-Saxon Church, C B A Research Report, 60, 1986, pp 9-10.
5. Frances Arnold-Forster, Studies in Church Dedications or, England's Patron Saints, Volume 2, 1899.
6. Bertram Colgrave, Felix's Life of Saint Guthlac: Texts, Translation and Notes, Cambridge University Press, 1956.
7. Lyall Seale, Saint Guthlac, His Life and The Guthlac Roll, published by St Guthlac’s Church, Market Deeping, 2004.
8. John Crook, Medieval English Shrines, Boydell Press, 2012, p.67.
9. Ingulph's Chronicle Of The Abbey Of Croyland, translated from the Latin with Notes by Henry T. Riley, George Bell And Sons, 1908.
10. David Hugh Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford University Press, 1978, Fifth Revised Edition, 2011.
11. Colgrave, op.cit.
12. Alan Thacker, Kings, Saints, And Monasteries In Pre‐Viking Mercia, Midland History, Volume 10, 1985 , pp. 1-25.
13. N J Higham, The Origins of Cheshire, Manchester University Press, 1993, p.111.
14. Rev. Alban Butler, The Lives of the Saints, Volume IX: September, 1866.
15. Karine Ugé, Creating the Monastic Past in Medieval Flanders, York Medieval Press, 2005, pp79-84.
16. Farmer, op.cit.
17. Butler, op.cit.
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