The Saxon Cathedral at Canterbury and The Saxon Saints Buried Therein/Chapter 9
ST. DUNSTAN, ARCHBISHOP AND CONFESSOR, MAY 19
ST. DUNSTAN, the 23rd Archbishop of Canterbury, was born about A.D. 924 and died in 988; his period therefore corresponds to the reigns of Kings Athelstan, Edmund and Edred, sons of Edward the Elder, and Edwy, Edgar, Edward the Martyr, and Ethelred the Unready; the seven Saxon kings who occupied the throne during the last three-quarters of the tenth century.
His five Latin Biographies will be found in the Rolls Series edited by Bishop Stubbs. The first was written by a priest, who simply signed himself "B," and described himself "vilis Saxonum indigena." It was written soon after the death of the saint, and implies that much of its contents was related to the writer by Dunstan himself, and the rest from those scholars Dunstan had educated at his school. Twenty years afterwards another Life written by Adelard was produced; here the stories of the saint's life become "legends," and the dreams related by "B" are given as realities. In the time of Lanfranc was issued a new Life written by Osbern, the apologist for the monks, who added to it a "Book of Miracles." And, lastly, there is the Life by Edmer; followed by that of William of Malmesbury (1093-1143), who lived at Glastonbury for some considerable time and probably learnt much of his history at first hand.
From such sources as these a reliable history of the saint is possible to be obtained, but much sifting is necessary, as will be perceived later.
First, as to his birth and parentage; Dunstan was of the West of England—Somerset—he was born about A.D. 924. His father was a West Saxon noble, Heorstan by name, and his mother Kynefrida, or Kynethryth. Both were of good position in life and celebrated for their practical piety.
At an early age the lad was sent to school at Glastonbury, a monastery where the monastic rule was dead, and the inmates seculars. Here was carried on a school where not only grammar was taught but also music, painting and carving. It was here the future Archbishop learned arts and crafts, and imbibed the taste he afterwards showed for illumination, metal-work, bell-founding; and the lighter ones of playing upon the harp and other musical instruments.
The lad was apt to learn, and probably was pressed to work above his physical capacity. Being of a highly strung and nervous temperament he soon showed signs of neurotic tendencies and from dreaming dreams he began to see visions and became a somnambulist. It was at this time that his uncle, Athelm, the Archbishop of Canterbury, thinking his nephew was old enough, took him to the Court of King Athelstan, and introduced him to the King. Here he lived with companions who had no sympathy with a studious dreamy lad who passed his time in reading books in a language they did not understand, and making experiments with chemicals. He was accused of making incantations, using pagan charms, and generally dealing with the Devil; and on more than one occasion he was roughly handled so that he ran away to another uncle, Alphage (not the martyr, but called "the Bald"), who then was Bishop of Winchester.
Dunstan entered into the service of the Bishop, who was most desirous that his nephew should become a monk. The lad was opposed to the idea at first, though after the attack of a dangerous illness he seriously considered whether he had a vocation for such a life. At length on his recovery he took the vows before his uncle Alphage, and being clothed as a monk returned to Glastonbury. It was at this time that he had his first encounter with the Devil. He wished to enter the church to return thanks for his recovery and was prevented by the Devil, who had locked the door and lost the key. Dunstan ascended the roof and was seen walking about on it. The next morning he was discovered in front of the altar asleep, and the Devil outside being kept away by an angel.
At Glastonbury he led the life of an ascetic, following the strictest rule and living in a cell 5 feet long by 2½ feet wide. In this tiny cell which he had built for himself, he spent his time; using it for his oratory where he prayed and wept; and for his workshop where he would work like a smith making bells and organs and all kinds of metal-work. Here again he dreamed more dreams and had more visions, he could ventriloquize and was known to have wrestled on more than one occasion with the Devil, giving rise to legends and fables which brought him into notoriety. Edmund at that time was King, having succeeded to the throne on the death of his half-brother Athelstan. Hearing of this remarkable person he sent for him to come to Court, and when he appeared, he was looked upon sometimes as a saint for his holiness and virtue, and sometimes as a wizard or conjurer who could perform miracles. Naturally he again fell into disgrace, mostly through the jealousy of certain of the courtiers and was dismissed the Court. But the King, whilst out hunting on one occasion was in imminent peril, as the stag and hounds after it had dashed over the edge of a precipitous cliff. The King's horse was following to certain death for both of them, when thinking he could not die at enmity with his friend, he vowed that if he lived he would at once be reconciled with him. A miracle occurred, the horse recovered itself and the King was saved; on his return home, he immediately sent for Dunstan, expressed his sorrow at his unchristian behaviour and desired forgiveness. The King desired St. Dunstan to ride with him, and they both rode to Glastonbury where the King, entering the church with floods of tears, prayed and gave thanks, and embracing Dunstan led him to the Abbot's seat, placed him therein, and said, "Be Abbot of this Church and whatever is lacking to the Divine Service I will supply by Royal Largess." It was at this time that the celebrated attack by, and discomfiture of, the Devil took place. Dunstan was subjected to various temptations of the Devil, being disturbed by him even when on his knees. He proved the reliability of the pious verse:
"And Satan trembles when he sees
The weakest saint upon his knees,"
for the Devil not only trembled, but bolted. He returned to the attack, however, in different forms, sometimes as a bear, a dog, or a serpent. There is one thing, however, that the Devil cannot stand and that is contempt; on one occasion when he appeared as a fox, Dunstan smiled derisively and making the sign of the Cross, the Devil vanished.
Osbern is responsible for the best-known legend. It must be remembered, however, that it does not appear till about a hundred years after the saint's death; but it is worth repeating; he says:
"That Deceiving One, having taken on the deceptive form of a man, sought the cell of the young Dunstan at Glastonbury, peeped in at the window, and seeing him at work in his forge, asked him to make something for him. Meanwhile he went on talking, mixing up the name of women and evil pleasures with religion, and then again to talk of luxurious delights, so that Dunstan soon came to understand who he was. Then the strong man in Christ held his pincers forth and well heated them in the fire, blowing it up the while with his bellows, all the while confessing and calling on the name of Christ, with tightly compressed lips; when he saw that the pincers were white hot, moved by holy rage, swiftly he drew them out of the fire and seized the Monster by the nose, and with all his might tried to draw him inside, so that with fearful outcry he fled away howling 'What has this bald-headed devil done?' for Dunstan's hair, though beautiful, was thin. The next morning all the people came to ascertain what all the noise and screaming meant. But from that day, more than ever, Dunstan kept himself fully equipped for warfare, by fasting and prayer, knowing that in no other way could the fight be won."
Abbot Dunstan started his new work at Glastonbury as a reformer, evidently copying the example of his uncle, Alphage. He began building the new Church of St. Peter, and restoring the Church of St. Mary. He then started on the domestic buildings, providing all things necessary for the monks to live as monks, though it seems that seculars lived in the house as well. Most writers say that at this time, though monks lived in monasteries, yet it was not the Rule of St. Benedict that they followed, which as yet was unknown in England—apparently they took the three vows and lived a sliding kind of discipline, of which the more exalted were practically hermits; and the more lax, monks living in the world. But Dunstan's great idea was to establish a school of learning which should become famous, and in this he succeeded.
In after years when his friend and King, Edmund, was slain, it was Dunstan who carried his body to Glastonbury, and buried it there. King Edred, who succeeded his brother, made Dunstan Keeper of his Treasure, which was kept at Glastonbury; and, as we have seen, he appointed his mother, Queen Ediva, and Dunstan as his chief advisers and rulers in the government of the country.
Dunstan seems to have had visions and experiences all through his life; on one occasion he dreamed that he journeyed to Rome and that he met there Saints Peter, Paul and Andrew, the latter of whom gave him a blow with a rod because he had refused to accept the See of Crediton when it had been offered to him by Edred in 953; on another occasion when he was bringing the body of his brother, Wulfric, who was his seneschal at Glastonbury, for burial, his hat was knocked off his head by a blow from a thrown stone, which was said to have been thrown by the Devil.
After the death of Edred in 955, when his nephew Edwy came to the throne troubles began. Edwy had taken a great dislike to him, which culminated on the occasion noticed in the account of Odo, where Dunstan compelled the young King to return to the Coronation Banquet and his guests, and to leave his wife and her mother to entertain themselves.
Bishop Godwin thought that the disapproval of the young King was mainly caused by the fact that Dunstan was supposed to have bewitched the King's predecessors in favour of the monastic orders to such an extent, that they not only extorted the incomes of the married clergy, but dissipated the Royal Treasure on the foundation of monasteries, instead of using it to wage war on the common enemy of God and man, the Dane. On this account Edwy became the oppressor of the monasteries and sought to annex their treasure, which he thought he might as well do as leave it to become the plunder of the pagan Dane. Dunstan fell into disgrace and fled to France, till the death of Edwy in 959. When the whole kingdom was united under Edgar, Dunstan was recalled and received by the King with great honour. He was promoted first to the Bishopric of Worcester in 957; then in 959 was translated to London, and in 960 became Archbishop of Canterbury. It was while Dunstan was in exile in France and Flanders that he had the opportunity of studying the Rule of St. Benedict, and observing the discipline which resulted. When, however, he found secular clerks at Worcester and at Canterbury, he took no steps to remove them, but the married clergy were expelled from the cathedrals and monasteries. He did not attack the married clergy as such, but as it was uncanonical for a priest to have a wife, he was bound to put her away if he wished to continue his priestly office; if he did not, then he came under the censure of the Penitential. St. Dunstan journeyed to Rome for the pallium and it was upon his return when celebrating the Mass for the first time at the altar of our Saviour in his Cathedral Church, that the miracle of the dove appeared as before related; and he never passed by the tomb of St. Odo afterwards without bending his knee, and calling him "Odo the Good" (Osbern).
St. Dunstan sedulously devoted himself to the duties of the high office to which he had been called, he took energetic and efficient steps for the betterment of his country. He was Chief Adviser to Edgar as he had been to Edred, and the result was that the policy of Conciliation in Church and State led to a peace and unity never seen before in England. On Whit-Sunday 973, Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury, and Oswald, Archbishop of York, with a multitude of Bishops assisting, crowned Edgar at Bath, and he was declared to hold the sole sovereignty of England.
Dunstan had resigned the Abbey of Glastonbury, and the Bishoprics of Worcester and London on his promotion to Canterbury. He did not build a single monastic house in Kent, but was active in restoring and endowing churches, and indeed in every good work. He was the friend to the good, but reproved all evil; and always acted as a True Shepherd of the flock committed to his care. He made the Church the educator of the people, and the clergy the teachers; a system which, when carried out faithfully, has ever been successful. For the guidance of the latter he issued a set of canons from the study of which the character of his policy can best be gauged.
Like his King, Edgar the Peaceful, Dunstan encouraged the people to learn the arts of peace, and again by training the clergy in all kinds of craftsmanship, they became the instructors of the people. He ordered that sermons should be preached every Sunday and that the clergy should strive to live a more spiritual life, and to keep from hawking, dicing, and drink, as well as from immorality, so that they might be able to rebuke the laity without incurring the charge of hypocrisy. He invented the system of putting pegs into the drinking pots so that all might know how much a man had drunk, a Peg-tankard (Derbyshire) held two quarts; the quantity between each peg was one gill (half a pint) Winchester measure, quite sufficient for one draught, the act of taking a man "down a peg or two" was therefore that of a sot, and to be avoided.
Dunstan was essentially practical, and at the same time full of sympathy for the sinner; the rich man who gave way to violent fits of anger or other deadly sin, was not just to call himself "a miserable sinner" and go on as before. Nor did he have a penance consisting of bodily mortificaton, but his pride and his soul were to be mortified, as he first had to forgive his enemy—that is the person he had injured—and then comfort those he had made sorrowful. Afterwards he could redeem his penance by the building or restoration of churches, repairing foul ways, helping the poor, and freeing the slave.
As Archbishop, Dunstan was strict; on one occasion an important personage had made an illegal marriage; the Archbishop remonstrated with him, and as he took no notice, he excommunicated him. Then the noble obtained from Rome a mandate from the Pope ordering the Archbishop to lift the excommunication: this he refused to do, insisting that he would rather die than be unfaithful to his Lord.
King Edgar died in 975 and was buried at Glastonbury. At this time there arose a dispute between the regulars and seculars, and those in high positions took sides. In Mercia, the monks were turned out of the churches, and the married clergy were reinstated in their old positions; but in East Anglia the monks were supreme. In the height of this contest, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York attended a Witenagemote at Winchester, elected Edward, son of Edgar, as King and crowned him. At this meeting the question of regulars and seculars again came up, and on the demand that the monks should be expelled and seculars retained, a miracle occurred. At the upper part of the hall a rood was placed and whilst all were waiting for the decision of the Archbishop, a voice was heard coming from the Crucifix, "Let it not be so; let it not be so." The opponents of the monks were dumbfounded, and their supporters were again supreme. But the matter was not to end in this way; in 977 it cropped up again at a Witenagemote held at Kirtlington, and in the next year at Calne, where a terrible accident occurred: the Council were assembled in a large hall, when suddenly the floor gave way and all the nobles were precipitated into the vaults beneath; some were killed outright, and some were seriously injured. The Archbishop himself escaped by a miracle—his seat was just above a joist. It was many years afterwards that Osbern in his Life of St. Dunstan mentions these events as a manifestation of the wrath of the Almighty against the opponents of the monks.
In 978, King Edward was slain at Corfesgate by one of the servants of his stepmother. He was buried first at Wareham; and afterwards at Shaftesbury by Alfhere, ealdorman of Mercia, who had been instrumental in expelling the abbots and monks from the monasteries which had been founded by Ethelwold. He, however, did not escape the looked-for vengeance of the monks, for it is recorded that within a year "his body was eaten up by worms". The burial of the King at Shaftesbury in 980 is amongst the last recorded acts of Dunstan's life.
In 978, Thorne the chronicler tells us that this year Blessed Dunstan dedicated at Canterbury the Church of the Holy Apostles SS. Peter and Paul and St. Austin. This was the great Abbey Church without the walls of the city. He goes on to record that in 980 Abbot Elfnoth died and Siricus was elected in his stead, being blessed by the Blessed Dunstan in his church. Also that about this time St. Dunstan saw the Queen of Heaven and all the Heavenly Host, and amongst them he saw St. Adrian leading the choir in the church which Edbald the King had founded in honour of the Mother of God in A.D. 616-618.
In 984, Ethelwold the Bishop of Winchester died, and Alphage, at the request of Dunstan, was nominated to the See by Ethelred, the young King. Two years later, in 986, Ethelred invaded Rochester and laid waste the domains of the Bishop there, till with a bribe, Dunstan the Peaceful managed to induce him to desist.
After celebrating the Mass and preaching three times on Ascension Day, May 17, 988, he fell ill; and two days afterwards, "being the sabbath day, that most blessed confessor of the Lord, the Archbishop Dunstan, finished his praiseworthy course of life." He sent for his household and his brethren to come to him after matins had been sung, the Eucharist was celebrated before him and he received the Viaticum. He gave thanks to God and began to sing "The Merciful and Gracious Lord hath so done his marvellous works that they ought to be had in remembrance; He hath given meat unto them that fear him" (Psalm cxi. vv. 4 and 5, Vulgate Version), with which words he expired.
He was buried before the entrance to the Confessio in the centre of the choir of the Saxon Cathedral at its east end, in a grave six feet deep beneath the pavement which he had had prepared for himself two days before his death. The grave was separated from the Saxon crypt by the wall of steps, and it had at the head of the saint the matutinal altar, used for the daily service.
His body was deposited in a leaden coffin, and a tomb was afterwards constructed over it in the form of a large and lofty pyramid. As the chronicler Osbern says in his "Life", "by choosing so conspicuous a spot, he left a mournful and tender memorial of himself to the brethren singing in the Choir, or ascending the steps of the Altar."
After the fire of 1067, the remains of St. Dunstan were removed, and an altar and shrine erected on the south side of the High Altar in St. Anselm's church, where remains of the decoration of the shrine may yet be seen in the beautiful diapered wall of the choir screen, built by Prior Eastry in 1308.
Two of the triforium windows on the north side of the choir in the Cathedral, contain roundels filled with painted glass of about the year 1200 representing scenes in the Life or St. Dunstan. Mr. Caldwell thinks that these beautiful windows depicting episodes in the life of St. Dunstan were originally in the triforium windows on the south side of the choir where they would be looking on to the altar and shrine of St. Dunstan as they formerly existed. At the present time these windows fill the centre and westernmost triforium windows of the north aisle, next to that with the St. Alphage scenes worked in it. The centre window shows in the top roundel St. Dunstan's heavenly vision on the eve of Ascension Day at Canterbury; midnight matins was finished, and the saint was alone in the church when a multitude of the Heavenly Host burst into the church and brought him an invitation from Our Lord to spend the day with them in Heaven. He inquired who they were; they replied "We are Cherubim and Seraphim"; Dunstan answered that he must do his duty, offer the Mass, give the people their Communion and preach the Gospel–so was unable to accept the invitation.
The roundel on the left at the bottom represents the saint at Glastonbury when he had gone to the church to return thanks for his recovery from the serious illness which determined him to become a monk. He was hindered by the Devil who had locked the church door and lost the key. However, the saint ascended the roof by a ladder and got in that way with the help of an angel who placed him before the altar, where he was discovered next morning. On the outside is the Devil kept off by the angel.
The roundel on the right at the bottom shows the miracle at Calne where the enemies of the saint, mostly nobles and relations of the married clergy, met him in the large hall to discuss the question of religious versus secular clergy to occupy the Religious Houses and Cathedrals. Whilst waiting for the saint to speak the floor gave way and they were precipitated into the vaults below, but Dunstan and his friends whose seats were on a strong beam were unharmed.
The westernmost window also with three roundels represents the release of King Edwy from the jaws of Hell on the intercession of St. Dunstan. Osbert says that whilst St. Dunstan was at prayer the soul of Edwy was shown him by devils in the form of blackamoors. He burst into tears and prayed long and earnestly, and when he saw the blackamoors go away without the King he knew that his prayer was heard. The open jaws of Hell, Demons, and the crowned figure emerging will all be recognized in this early thirteenth-century glass; though the window has been very cleverly made up by Mr. Caldwell from what he recovered of the old leading and glass.
The roundel on the left at the bottom seems to represent the consecration in the Saxon Cathedral of St. Dunstan as Bishop of Worcester in 957. St. Dunstan had been ordained Deacon by Alphage the Bald, Bishop of Winchester; but here the ceremony is Ordination to the Priesthood and Consecration as Bishop at the same time, as was usual in the case of those who were to be consecrated but had not yet received Priest's Orders. The consecrator is an Archbishop, certainly Odo; he wears the pallium and has a crozier in his hand. The chalice and vestments are to be delivered to the newly ordained priest; the book belongs to the consecration ceremony and was held over the neck of the person to be consecrated bishop.
The roundel on the right at the bottom represents the Archbishop with a group of men on either side of him. Mr. Caldwell thinks those on the left are the married clerks being separated from those on the right, the monks. No such incident is recorded in the life of St. Dunstan, but he sanctioned such a proceeding to Oswald of Worcester and to Ethelwold of Winchester, and it is quite likely that such a policy would be assigned to him by a thirteenth-century glass painter.
The Festival of St. Dunstan was kept at Canterbury on May 19 as a Red Letter Day, and was observed with an Octave. It is mentioned in all the Kalendars—the Commemoration was ordered by King Canute in the eleventh century; the sum of iiis. ivd. was paid by the Sacrist at the Cathedral on his Feast Day for extra music and bell-ringing (A.D. 1273, and an extra vd. on the day of the Octave.) in
The jewels and ornaments pertaining to the Altar of St. Dunstan were kept in the Middle Ages in the great cupboard that stood where Archbishop Bourchier's tomb now is on the north side of the Sanctuary. In the inventory of Prior Eastry (dated February 2, 1315–1316), now in the British Museum, there were two jewelled staves, probably used on St. Dunstan's day by the Rulers of the Choir (one was a small one of silver with gems and head of ivory the other larger, partly silver with gems and ornamented with a tooth of St. Andrew). The relics of the saintly Virgin Siburgis, who had been buried in the Saxon Cathedral by St. Dunstan, were deposited, after the fire of 1067, on the north side of St. Michael's altar just within the apse in the south transept of the Cathedral.
It has already been shown how St. Dunstan was translated from the Saxon Cathedral after the fire of 1067 and re-interred on the south side of the High Altar in St. Anselm's Church. After the burning of Conrad's Choir in 1174 the coffins of both St. Dunstan and St. Alphage were taken from their tombs and deposited in receptacles of a similar kind at the Altar of the Holy Cross in the Nave, which was then used as the principal altar until the new Choir was rebuilt, when they were translated again to the New Sanctuary which was used for the first time on Easter Eve 1180. At this time the two Archbishops' remains were buried behind the wall or reredos of the High Altar between it and the steps leading up to the Archiepiscopal Throne. St. Alphage on the north of the High Altar and St. Dunstan on the south. His body was reclothed anew in fine linen, as the original vestments were decayed, and placed in a wooden coffin, which was enclosed in a leaden one banded with iron, and then enclosed in a stone-built tomb secured with lead on the south side of the High Altar again. Here the body rested until 1508, when the monks of Glastonbury claimed to possess the relics of the saint, and the Prior of Christ Church, Thomas Goldstone, at the request of Archbishop Warham had the tomb opened and the body was found enclosed as stated above. In the coffin was a plate of lead, 8 inches long, inscribed with the name. The skull was taken out and given by the Archbishop to the Prior to be set in silver and shown as a relic. The late Sir William St. John Hope was of the opinion that the skull enclosed in silver which Erasmus says was shown to him in the Crypt, and which he thought was the head of St. Thomas, was probably this new relic of St. Dunstan.
There was also an image of St. Dunstan (together with that of a Majesty of Our Lord, and of St. Alphage, with seven shrines or chests covered with gold and silver and filled with the relics of saints) placed on a beam which went across the sanctuary above the High Altar, the ends of which rested on the capitals of the columns on either side, and was also supported by two wooden columns ornamented with gold and silver which were placed just behind the altar at either end of it.
On the fourth and fifth folios of John Stone's Chronicle 1457, but written in a different hand from that of the Christ Church monk, occur some interesting details concerning the furnishing of these three most important altars in the Cathedral:
a set of frontals for the 3 Altars of green satin and velvet with red fringe, embroidered with gold and lined with green and red buckram.
a carpet of green with swans.
a set of curtains of green silk cloth painted with gold swans and fringed with red.
a carpet of blue with an eagle in the midst.
the green and blue frontals were in use down to the Dissolution, being mentioned in the 1540 Inventory.
The Sacrist's accounts for the year 1432-1433 include a payment of "xxvj s. viii d. pro quatuor candelabris circa feretra sanctorum Dunstani et Elphegi." These were probably what we should now call standard candlesticks to stand upon the floor.
Amongst the Chartae Antiquæ of the Cathedral MSS. is a miscellaneous Roll of the thirteenth century containing, amongst other things, the Psalms and Collects for Saints' Days use, from which is extracted:
V. Sacerdos Dei Dunstane pastor egregie ora pro nobis Deum
V. Ora pro nobis beate Dunstane
NOTE ON THE SAXON THANET SAINTS
Who was the holy virgin Siburgis whom St. Dunstan (960-988) on account of her sanctity buried in the Saxon Cathedral? Who were St. Florentius and St. Ymarus? These Saxon saints of Thanet's Isle are more unknown than their brethren in the west of England, where certainly their memory would have been perpetuated in the name of a headland, a bay, a church or an abbey.
Were it not for a fifteenth-century monk and former Treasurer of St. Austin's Abbey Canterbury, one Thomas of Elmham, who wrote a history of that monastery little more than one hundred years before it was dissolved by Henry VIII, we should know nothing—not even the names—of some of these Saxon saints and heroes. As it is, the information presented to us by Monk Thomas is most meagre, Florentius and Ymarus were probably "Priests or Levites" who suffered martyrdom during the incursions of the Danes. Florentius was buried in the churchyard of the church of St. Mary at Minster; and beyond this fact nothing is known of his life. St. Ymarus had been a monk of Reculver Abbey, which had been founded by King Egbert in A.D. 669, having been given by him to one Bassa "a mass-priest on which to build a minster."
Reculver, though in so exposed a situation for attack by the Danes, continued as an abbey for some time after it had been given to Christ Church Cathedral by King Edred in 949, but it was converted into a Collegiate Church and governed by a Dean in the time of Archbishop Agelnoth (1020–1038).
Ymarus was probably martyred some time in the tenth century. Thomas of Elmham says "They translated the body of St. Ymarus a monk of Reculver to the church of St. John the Baptist which is in Thanet."
This was the parish church of Margate, and here before the year 1875 was to be found beneath the second arch of the southern arcade of the nave at the west end of the church, a coffin-shaped stone of black marble, probably Bethersden, an ancient coffin-lid with a cross wrought on the top, the shaft long and thin, resting on a calvary and having a head formed of a quatrefoil, combined with a square, placed diagonally.
This was traditionally said to cover the dust of the Saxon saint Ymar, and was there when I visited the church sixty years ago in its original position in the nave. At a so-called "restoration" in 1875, this coffin-lid was moved to the north side of the church, to the north of the pulpit (but has since been removed to the north side of the altar in the south chapel); and all the memorial brasses fixed in their ledger stones (an almost unique collection rich in beauty and number) were also barbarously moved from their places, set in rows to serve as a pavement for the chancel of this interesting church. The memorials of other Kentish saints have fared even worse. The holy virgin Siburgis or Sigeburga, was the fourth Abbess of the Saxon Nunnery of St. Mary (afterwards called St. Mildred) at Minster in the Isle of Thanet. This nunnery had been founded by a royal widow, Ermenburga, otherwise Ebba, called Domina Ebba, or more commonly Dompneva, who had been the wife of Merwald, son of the heathen Penda, king of the Mercians. Dompneva was the great-grand-daughter of Ethelbert, king of Kent, and of Bertha his wife who was a grand-daughter of Clovis and Sainte Clotilde. Dompneva and her husband were most pious Christians, and were the parents of three daughters, all three sainted virgins, of whom the second—Mildred—followed her mother as second Abbess of the Minster nunnery. Dompneva had received the veil in A.D. 672 from Archbishop Theodore, and had built her nunnery which had been hallowed by the Archbishop in 675 under romantic and tragic circumstances.
This early Religious House was situated on the site of the present vicarage of Minster-in-Thanet, which is to the north-west of the parish church of St. Mary, the two westernmost bays of the nave of that church having been the chapel of the nunnery. According to the charter of Wihtraed, Dompneva was alive in A.D. 697, but at that date she was succeeded by her daughter Mildred, who was then about thirty-seven years of age, as 2nd Abbess.
Mildred had also received the veil from Archbishop Theodore at a date unrecorded. The miraculous legends related by the chroniclers as occurring during the lifetime of this saint, were only surpassed by the surprising wonders and miracles wrought at her tomb after the days of her earthly pilgrimage. She passed to the heavenly kingdom the 3rd before the Ides of July (July 13), A.D. 725, and her feast day has always been kept as a "Double." Mildred was buried in the church of St. Mary, but her relics were translated to a new church by her successor Eadburga, and again later in 1031 to the abbey church of St. Austin at Canterbury, by Abbot Elfstan. King Canute had given the Manor of Minster in that year to the Abbot and Convent of St. Austin's and had vowed the translation of St. Mildred's relics to the Mater primaria of Saxon Monasticism.
Eadburga, or Bugga, as she was called by her friends, the 3rd Abbess, found the accommodation at St. Mary's insufficient for the growing needs of the nunnery; there were then between seventy and ninety nuns professed there. She therefore transferred the nuns to a new building on a site about a furlong to the north-east of the parish church, where the court-house now known as Minster Abbey stands. This is a more elevated situation, farther from the marshes and so far healthier than the old site by the creek.
The new buildings were dedicated in 738 by Archbishop Cuthbert, who also translated the relics of St. Mildred in 748 from the church of St. Mary to the new nunnery chapel which was dedicated to St. Peter and St. Paul, where they were placed on the north side of the presbytery. The foundations of this chapel may yet be traced in time of drought in the south garden of Minster Abbey. Eadburga died in 751, and was buried in the church she had founded and built.
Sigeburga or Siburgis was the 4th Abbess. She ruled from A.D. 751 to 791. At the present day we, unfortunately, know very little about her, except that she is described "as the holy virgin who for her sanctity was buried in the Cathedral by St. Dunstan." It was her misfortune to witness the first descent of the Danes upon Thanet, and almost every year after saw their inroad and ravages along the coast and often far inland. These began according to the chroniclers in 787, and resulted in constant afflictions and losses to the reduced and imperilled community, and according to the historian Thomas of Elmham "the flock wasted away from the deficiency of the pasture." Siburgis died in 791, having ruled the house for forty years, and was buried in the church or chapel of St. Peter and St. Paul, where her remains must have rested long after the burning and desolation of the abbey in the time of her successor, until the Archiepiscopate of St. Dunstan (960-988), who translated them to the Saxon Cathedral in Canterbury.
Seledritha (791-840) was the 5th and last Abbess of Minster. She was consecrated by Archbishop Ethelhard (793-805), and made a vigorous attempt to restore the monastery to its pristine state by most energetic measures. In this she was assisted by Archbishop Wulfred (805–832), but all in vain, for the abbey was attacked and burnt by the Danes according to Thomas of Elmham somewhere about the year 838 or 839, and the Abbess with ninety of her nuns, servants and the priests and levites, who had taken refuge within the chapel, were burnt to death and the abbey totally destroyed. There were never more than five Saxon Abbesses at Minster, they were the number of the wise virgins in the parable, whom doubtless they greatly resembled.
The above is the story of the destruction of the abbey as told by Thomas of Elmham, but there is some doubt, not of the destruction of the abbey but of the massacre of the nuns, for at about this time an Abbess Seledritha is found at the more ancient abbey of Lyminge. This abbey was founded in A.D. 633, upon the ruins of a Roman building with a western apse, by Queen Ethelburga, daughter of Ethelbert, King of Kent, and widow of Edwin of Northumbria, when she fled into Kent after the death of her husband. The abbey was destroyed by the Danes in the ninth century, but it seems that Seledritha and her nuns had been received there soon after 804, when certain lands in Canterbury were conveyed to her by a charter dated that year and the nunnery moved to the parish of St. Mildred in that city.
The last notice of these Saxon Abbesses is to be found in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle under date 1011, when in the attack on Canterbury Archbishop Alphage was taken prisoner, a certain Abbess Leofruna was also taken. Both Harpsfield and Lambard describe her as of St. Mildred's, Canterbury. I have never come across a life of Siburgis, until I accidentally noticed in a detached MS. handed to me by the Rev. C. E. Woodruff for examination the "item, Vita sancte Siberge cum aliis" amongst the list of books, etc., in an inventory of the fifteenth century of Contenta in cubiculo fratris Ricardi Stone, a monk of Christ Church Cathedral, who was professed about 1485. This interesting find is amongst the "Inventories" belonging to the Dean and Chapter of Canterbury with the Press mark: Inventory Box. A. 3. XYZ. What became of Brother Richard Stone's books and other possessions which he kept in his cubicle in the dormitory, it is quite impossible now to say, but if the "life" is extant and could be discovered what an immense amount of light it might throw upon the events which took place in Minster-in-Thanet during the last half of the eighth century.
- Catalogue of the Bishops of England, 1615.
- How different was the standard of the educated heathen: Proprium humani ingenii est odisse quem laeseris. Tacitus, Agricola, 42, 4.
- Thorne's Chronicle, Decem Scriptores, Col. 1780.
- Flores Historiarum (Rolls Series).
- There are five of these windows on the north of the choir aisle and five on the south; they form a tier above the great choir windows. They were inserted by William of Sens in 1177 or 1178. The windows are broad but shallow, and have trefoiled heads; each of the three cusps of the trefoil is a segment of a circle. They are the earliest examples in England of the trefoiled arch.
- Mr. S. Caldwell, the artist in stained glass, of Blackfriars North, Canterbury, whose family for three generations have had the care of the Cathedral glass.
- British Museum, Galba, E. IV.
- See note on the Saxon Thanet Saints at end of the Chapter.
- Gervase, Opera Historica, Rolls Series I, 22, 23.
- Leland's Itinerary, 1909 Edition, Vol. IV, p. 38.
- Inventories of Christ Church, Canterbury, Hope and Legg, p. 123.
- Inventories of Christ Church, Canterbury.
- Dictionnaire D'Archéologie Chrétienne et De Liturgie, 1925.
- Ch. Ch., Canterbury, MSS. Y 68—kindly communicated by the Rev. C. E. Woodruff.
- Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, sub anno.
- Ch. Ch., Cant., MSS., Saxon Charters.
- Somner's Antiquities of Canterbury, 1640.
- For some most interesting episodes in the life of this saintly lady and her letters to St. Winfrith (Boniface) of Crediton, see English Girlhood at School, by Dorothy Gardiner, 1929.