Thursday 1 June 2017

St Wigstan: The Story of a Murdered Anglo Saxon Prince

According the the Resting Paces of the Saints (Secgan be þam Godes sanctum þe on Engla lande ærost reston) St Wigstan lies in the monastery of Repton near the river Trent.

Death of A Mercian Prince
We know little of Wigstan, he is entirely absent from the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, the early kalendars, the Old English Martyrology, and of course lived after Bede's time. Later Medieval accounts of his life claim he was descended from the Mercian kings; he was son of Wigmund, in some sources named as the Archbishop of York, whose father was Wiglaf, king of Mercia, and Wigstan's mother Ælfflæd was the daughter of Ceolwulf I, king of Mercia 821 to 823, the last of an ancient Mercian Royal line descending from Offa.

St Wigstan, south porch of St Wystan's Church,
Repton, Derbyshire
Yet, Wigstan is recorded among the early Anglo Saxon saints in the Secgan be þam Godes sanctum þe on Engla lande ærost reston (The Resting Paces of the Saints). This text, in its current form, is found in two 11th century manuscripts listing the resting places of 89 saints, almost all Anglo Saxon. Studies have shown that the list was copied into the current manuscripts in 1031, but contains much older sections. The list appears to be in two parts; the first names 39 saints and their resting places located by references to nearby rivers. Yet the references to rivers is absent from the second part. Rollason (1981) notes that the first part records mainly saints of the 7th and 8th centuries with some of the 9th century, nearly all enshrined in the places mentioned before the end of the 9th century. Whereas the second part contains mainly saints from the 10th century. Rollason (1981) argues that the first part of the list of resting places is a compilation in its own right dating from the 9th century with further saints added in the 10th century. That Wigstan appears in this early list, recorded as lying in the monastery of Repton near the river Trent, is seen as evidence for his existence.

Study of St Wystan's church at Repton supports the evidence of the list of Resting Places. Architectural investigation of the church has revealed that during the Anglo Saxon period two passageways were knocked through to the crypt, presumably to provide access for pilgrims to the saint's shrine. Archaeological investigations at the church found a group of richly decorated Anglo Saxon burials around the east end of the church, probably high status Mercians enjoying the sacred profits of resting near the saint.

The crypt was constructed in the first half of the 8th century (before 740), and is thought to have originally been a baptistery, as it is built on top of a natural spring. It was later converted for use as a mausoleum, with the first interment being that of King Æthelbald of Mercia, who was murdered at Seckington Castle in 757.

The crypt was incorporated into the later St Wystan's Church, now the Anglican parish church, which was constructed on the site of Repton monastery, founded in the 7th century as a community of both monks and nuns by the Mercian Royal family. Werburgh, daughter of Wulfhere, King of Mercia from 658 until 675, is cited as one of Repton's first abbesses. The east-end of the monastery church (the chancel), and the crypt, were renovated by King Wiglaf of Mercia. This site became a burial vault for several Mercian kings of the 8th-9th century, including Æthelbald (d.757), and Wiglaf (d.839). The early Mercian part of this church has been described as "one of the most precious survivals of Anglo-Saxon architecture in England".

Later accounts of Wigstan's life claim that on his father's death in 849 AD he inherited the throne but turned it down in order to serve God. He appointed his mother Ælfflæd as regent. Following Wigmund's death, a Mercian noble named Beorhtwulf (= bright wolf), usurped the kingship and forced Ælfflæd to marry his son, Beorhtfrith. Wigstan refused to allow the marriage, since Beorhtfrith was a kinsman of Wigmund's and was also Wigstan's godfather.

Florence of Worcester (d.1118) records the event:

“Beorhtfrith, son of Beorhtwulf, king of Mercia, unjustly put to death his cousin, St Wigstan on the Kalends of June [1st June], being the eve of Pentecost. He was grandson of two of the kings of Mercia; his father, Wigmund, being the son of King Wiglaf, and his mother, Ælfflæd, the daughter of King Ceolwulf. His corpse was carried to a monastery which was famous in that age, called Repton, and buried in the tomb of his grandfather, King Wiglaf. Miracles from heaven were not wanting in testimony of his martyrdom; for a column of light shot up to heaven from the spot where the innocent saint was murdered, and remained visible to the inhabitants of that place for 30 days.”

The story of Wigstan's murder on 1st June can be found in the Passio sancti Wigstani, the earliest recensions may well derive from a 9th century original; the tale they tell is supported by the Worcester Chronicle (entry 849-50), and claims that Beorhtfrith went to visit Wigstan seemingly in peace but, when the two greeted each other, he struck Wigstan on the head with the shaft of his dagger and his servant ran him through with his sword. Later accounts of Wigstan's murder claim the spot was revealed by a shaft of light.

Wigstan's body was taken to the Mercian monastery at Repton, where he was buried in the crypt alongside his grandfather King Wiglaf and his father Wigmund. Miracles soon followed and the crypt quickly became a place of pilgrimage and from the 9th century Wigstan was considered a saint.

The Anglo Saxon crypt, St Wystan's church, Repton
Site of the Martyrdom
The site of the martyrdom was called “Wistanstowe”, somewhere in Mercia, usually identified with the village of Wistow in Leicestershire. The Old English suffix “stow” indicating a meeting place. Other sites have been identified as Wistanstow, in Shropshire, and Wistow in Cambridgeshire. Yet, according to the legend, the true site of Wigstan's murder is betrayed by the miraculous appearance of human hair on the anniversary of his death, 1st June. This was said to occur annually for many years, and led to Archbishop Baldwin of Canterbury investigating the phenomenon in 1187.

The stained-glass windows in the parish church of Wistanstow (Shropshire), designed by notable British artist Margaret Agnes Rope, show the miraculous pillar of light leading to discovery of the earthly remains of Wigstan.

It would appear then that Wigstan was murdered in a Mercian power-struggle in 849. Thacker (1985) suggests that it seems likely that Wigstan was the victim of a dynastic struggle between his family and that of his uncle Beorhtwulf and his son Beorhtfrith, who may have inherited claims to the Midland Kingdom from an earlier Mercian sub-king Beornwulf (823-25) and possibly the Beornred desposed by Offa in 757.

It seems the prestige of marriage to a princess descended from the last branch of the ancient Royal house of Mercia was the reason for Wigstan's murder.

The Mercian Monastery
The choice of  Repton as the place Wigstan's body was taken is significant owing to its associations with the ancient Mercian Royal family. Æthelbald chose his burial place at Repton, the place were Guthlac entered religious orders before departing for a solitary life. Indeed, the cult of Wigstan appeared at the centre of a large Royal Anglo Saxon estate focused on Repton and Glenn, some thirty miles distant, and close to other cult centres at Wistow and Wigstow.

There is certainly strong architectural and archaeological evidence for a 9th century shrine and cult at Repton, almost certainly that of Wigstan (Thacker, 1985). The increase in pilgrims required additional staircases to be constructed to facilitate multiple access to the crypt.

The monastery was abandoned in 873 when it was overrun by the Viking Great Army who made Repton their winter headquarters that year. When they left they destroyed the monastery, only the mausoleum survived.

The Winter Camp
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded that a large force of Danes landed in East Anglia in 865 destroying the kingdom, then moved on to Northumbria and Mercia. This Great Army (micel here) was said to be led by the three sons of the semi-mythical Ragnar Lodbrok. This was a change in tactics for the Vikings who, up to now, had been content carrying out coastal raids on wealthy monasteries and churches, but now seemed intent on conquering and settling in England.

After plundering England for seven years this massive Viking war band located their winter camp in Lincolnshire; an entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year 872 records ‘Here the army took winter quarters at Turc’s island’. The precise location of the winter camp defied detection for many years but recent excavations led by Julian Richards and Dawn Hadley (2016) have confirmed the location as Torksey, on the River Trent, about 10 miles northwest of Lincoln. Here metal detectorists uncovered one of the richest sources in England of Anglo-Saxon coins, including over 100 tiny copper-alloy stycas from Northumbria in addition to Arabic coins (dirhams), chopped up silver bullion and pieces of hackgold. They also found smithing tools, spindle whorls and needles, fishing weights and over 300 lead gaming pieces. This rich assemblage all came from six large fields immediately to the east of the Trent where a steep cliff above the river formed the boundary of the camp. During times of flood this it would have formed a natural island between the river on one side and marshland; Turc's island.

Turc's Island after Hadley and Richards, 2016
The strategic position and natural defences of Torksey did not go unnoticed by the Anglo Saxons and after the Viking army left the site became a Saxon borough or 'burh'. Both coins and pottery (the distinctive Torksey ware), were produced on the site in the early 11th century, which according to Domesday Book was a royal holding in 1066.

After overwintering at Turc's island, the following year the Danes sailed up the Trent to Repton in Derbyshire. In 873 the monastery was looted by the Great Army forcing the nuns and monks to desert it, taking the relics of St Wigstan with them.

When Martin Biddle and Birthe Kjblbye-Biddle (1992) investigated the Repton site in the 1970s and 1980s they found evidence of a D-shaped enclosure with a massive V-shaped ditch, 4m wide and 4m deep. This enclosure used the Trent as a boundary on one side (closing the 'D') and the Mercian royal shrine of St Wigstan as a gatehouse to control access on the opposite side.

Evidence for the Danish presence was found around the east end of the church. During the Biddles' excavations a number of furnished graves were uncovered at the site in the churchyard, immediately north and south of the crypt; one contained silver pennies securely dating the grave to the mid-870s.
The most significant grave, originally marked by a 12 in square wooden post, was found north of the church containing the skeleton of a 35-45 year old man, about 6 ft tall.

This individual showed evidence of weapon trauma; he had received a blow to the skull, and a sword-cut to the thigh had severed the femoral artery. Around his neck a leather string held two glass beads, a leaded bronze fastener  and a small silver Thor's hammer. Between his thighs had been placed the tusk of a boar and lower down the humerus of a jackdaw.

Between 1980-86 the Biddles also investigated reports of a mass burial discovered around 1686 by Thomas Walker who discovered a two-roomed subterranean structure some 15 ft square, originally roofed by 'decayed wooden joyces', possibly the abandoned mausoleum constructed to hold the body of the Mercian monarch Merewahl who died in 757AD.

Inside this structure was a stone coffin, containing 'a Skeleton of a Humane Body Nine Foot long.' Speculation has led to claims that this was the body of Ivar the Boneless. Around this singular interment the disarticulated remains of over 260 people were found - the original report claimed there were 'One Hundred Humane Skeletons, with their Feet pointing to the Stone Coffin.' The entombment is without parallel in Europe during the Viking age, and it is interesting that one saga notes that Ivar died and was buried in England 'in the manner of former times', an allusion to the fact he was interred in a barrow. At least some of these individuals must have been part of the Great Army who died at Repton during the winter of 873-874.

Repton winter camp 873, after Biddle & Biddle, 1992
Barely 3 miles to the southeast of Repton, on higher ground overlooking the Trent, a group of 59 small burial mounds was discovered at Heath Wood at Ingleby. Julian Richards identified some of these burials as cremations and goods found with the bodies also appeared to have been through the cremation fires; sword and buckles, nails and wire embroidery all suggested these had been Danish cremations. This Danish cremation cemetery is quite unique in Britain and was in use between 873-7, the time that the Great Army were active in this area of Mercia.

When the Great Army left Repton, destroying the monastery buildings and setting fire to the church, they went on to complete the conquest of Mercia in 874, driving the Mercian king Burgred into exile and replacing him with Ceowulf II.

A Ray of Light at Evesham 
The relics of St Wigstan that were removed by the fleeing monks and nuns during the Viking attack on Repton in 873, were later returned, although there is no evidence that the monastery ever recovered to any great extent. King Cnut had the saint's remains removed from Repton again in the 11th century to be reburied at Evesham Abbey in Worcestershire.

The Normans were sceptical of the sainthood of the many local saints of Anglo Saxon England and decided to subject the relics of local saints to “ordeal by fire”; if the remains burnt then they did not belong to a saint, but if they survived the test they were indeed genuinely Holy.

In the year 1077, Walter of Cerisy, the first Norman Abbot of Evesham, was surprised at the number of relics held at the monastery which he duly subjected to ordeal by fire. When it came to the turn of the relics of St. Wigstan, the heat of the fire had no effect on them, but the relics began to shine. Walter returned Wigstan's relics back to their shrine, when he dropped the saint’s head on the ground which then started to sweat, while a sweet fragrance spread throughout the church. Wigstan was truly a Holy martyr. From that moment on Walter is said to have accepted the holiness of the Anglo Saxon saints.

A 'Vita Sancti Wistani' (Life of St Wigstan) was included in the Chronicle of the monastery of Evesham (Chronicon Abbatiae de Evesham) written in the main part by Thomas of Marlborough, abbot from 1230 to 1236. The earliest parts of the Chronicon, concerning the Mercian St Egwin (d.717) were written by the 12th century prior Dominic of Evesham who had also written a 'Life' of St Wigstan. The Chronicon was continued to the year 1418 by an unknown hand.

As we have seen above, most of what we know of St Wigstan is derived from later sources; Florence of Worcester's 12th century account may well have been the source of Thomas of Marlborough. Yet, these later accounts may well have been based on a 9th century text.

Two 'passions' of St Wigstan have survived, one in the 14th century manuscript of saints lives' held at Gotha in Germany. The other was preserved in the British Library manuscript Harley 2253.These two accounts are both similar to the version of Thomas of Marlborough but differ in slight detail; one claims the top of Wigstan's head was sliced off (perhaps like Thomas Becket at Canterbury). However, neither of these 'passions' makes reference to the translation to Evesham in the 11th century, and therefore must be earlier than Thomas's account. Rollason (1981) suggests a version is likely to have been written at Repton in the 9th century before the Danish attack.

In 1207 the tower of Evesham Abbey church collapsed, falling debris smashed the reliquary of St Wigstan breaking the skull of the martyr. Part of the broken skull and a bone from the arm were sent to Repton at the request of the canons. These relics of the saint were enshrined in their new priory church at Repton, now demolished, rather than in the ancient church which is now the parish church of St Wystan.

The Anglo-Saxon Chancel at the east end of St. Wystan's Church, Repton
and below it the famous crypt. 
Wigstan's relics were kept at Evesham until the Reformation when the Monastery was dissolved and destroyed in the 16th century and the relics of all its saints disappeared.

Copyright © 2017 Edward Watson

Martin Biddle & Birthe Kjblbye-Biddle, Repton and the Vikings, Antiquity 66, 1992.
John Crook, English Medieval Shrines, Boydell & Brewer, 2011.
Dawn Hadley and Julian Richards, The Winter Camp Of The Viking Great Army, Ad 872–3, Torksey, Lincolnshire, The Antiquaries Journal, 96, 2016.
David Rollason, The Search for Wigstan, Vaughan Paper 27, Uinversity of Leicester, 1981.
Alan Thacker, Kings, Saints and Monasteries in pre-Viking Mercia, Midland History 10, 1985.

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