Wednesday, 4 September 2013

The Miracles of St Birinus


Today is one of the feasts of St Birinus, Oxfordshire's own apostle. Our best source for Birinus' life is, unsurprisingly, Bede, who gives us only this much information in Book III of his Ecclesiastical History:

At that time, during the reign of Cynegils, the West Saxons, anciently known as the Gewisse, accepted the faith of Christ through the preaching of Bishop Birinus.  He had come into Britain at the direction of Pope Honorius, having promised in his presence that he would sow the seeds of the holy faith in the most inland and remote regions of the English, where no other teacher had been before him. He was accordingly consecrated bishop by Asterius, Bishop of Genoa, at the pope's command; but when he had reached Britain and entered the territory of the Gewisse, he found them completely heathen, and decided that it would be better to begin to preach the word of God among them rather than to seek more distant converts.

He therefore evangelized that province, and when he had instructed its king, he baptized him and his people. It happened at the time that the most holy and victorious Oswald was present, and greeted King Cynegils as he came from the font, and offered him an alliance most acceptable to God, taking him as his godson and his daughter as wife. The two kings gave Bishop Birinus the city of Dorcic [Dorchester-on-Thames] for his episcopal see, and there he built and dedicated several churches and brought many people to God by his holy labours. He also died and was buried there; and many years later, when Hædda was bishop, his body was translated to Venta [Winchester] and laid in the church of the blessed apostles Peter and Paul.

Bede, A History of the English Church and People, trans. Leo Sherley-Price (London: Penguin, 1974), III.7, p. 151.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle adds some dates, telling us that Birinus came to England in 634 and died around 650. For Bede, the interest of Birinus' mission lay in the part played by Oswald, king of Northumbria; this passage appears in Bede's narrative of Oswald's life, just after his famous story of how Aidan of Lindisfarne prophesied that Oswald's alms-giving arm would never wither or decay.  When the baptism of Cynegils took place in 635 Oswald had only recently regained his kingdom at the battle of Heavenfield, and his star was in the ascendancy: his role in Cynegils' baptism suggests that at this point he had some degree of power (even overlordship) over Wessex, as he did over some other southern kingdoms.


This doesn't tell us much about Birinus. Nonetheless, as the power of Wessex grew over the course of the Anglo-Saxon period Birinus came to be venerated as a saint, mostly by his episcopal successors at Dorchester and Winchester. His principal feast was celebrated on the date of his death, 3 December, and a secondary feast commemorates the translation of his relics to a new tomb at Winchester on 4 September 980, under the direction of Bishop Æthelwold.

 An 11th-century calendar from Winchester, with Birinus on 3 December (Arundel 60, f. 7v)

The Winchester-educated Ælfric mentions Birinus in his Life of Oswald:

On þam ylcan timan com eac sum bisceop
fram rome byrig birinus gehaten
to westsexena kyninge cynegyls gehaten
se wæs ða git hæðen and eall westsexena land.
Birinus witodlice gewende fram rome
be ðæs papan ræde þe ða on rome wæs
and behet þæt he wolde godes willan gefremman
and bodian þam hæþenum þæs hælendes naman
and þone soðan geleafan on fyrlenum landum.
þa becom he to westseaxan þe wæs ða gyt hæþen
and gebigde þone cynincg kynegyls to gode
and ealle his leode to geleafan mid him.
Hit gelamp þa swa þæt se geleaffulla oswold
norðhymbra cyning wæs cumen to cynegylse
and hine to fulluhte nam fægen his gecyrrednysse.
þa geafon þa cynegas cynegyls and oswold
þam halgan birine him to bisceop-stole
þa burh dorcanceaster and he þær-binnan wunode
godes lof arærende and geriht-læcende
þæt folc mid lare to geleafan to langum fyrste
oð þæt he gesælig siþode to criste
and his lic wearþ bebyrged on ðære ylcan byrig
oð þæt hædde bisceop eft his ban ferode
to wintanceastre and mid wurðmynte gelogode
binnan ealdan mynstre þær man hine wurðað gyt.

[At the same time also a certain bishop named Birinus came from the city of Rome to the King of the West Saxons, named Cynegils, who was still a heathen, as was all the land of the West Saxons. Birinus indeed travelled from Rome by the direction of the Pope who was then in Rome, and promised that he would fulfill the will of God and preach the Saviour's name to the heathen and the true faith in distant lands. Then he came to Wessex, which was then still heathen, and converted the king Cynegils to God, and all his people to the faith with him. It happened then that the faithful Oswald, King of Northumbria, came to Cynegils and accepted him in baptism, rejoicing in his conversion. Then the kings Cynegils and Oswald gave holy Birinus the town of Dorchester, and he lived there, exalting the praise of God and truly guiding that people in the faith for a long time by his teaching, until he in blessedness journeyed to Christ. And his body was buried in the same town, until Bishop Hædde later took his bones to Winchester, and placed them with honour in the Old Minster, where they are still venerated.]

11th-century list of saints' resting-places, noting that Birinus and Swithun rest in the Old Minster, Winchester (BL Stowe 944, f.38)

There are some signs of the veneration of Birinus in the eleventh century - Cnut, for instance, presented a reliquary to Winchester for Birinus' relics, among other gifts to the cathedral where he was to be buried - but he seems never to have been as popular as Winchester's other chief saint, Swithun. Swithun has a great number of miracles attached to his name and brought many pilgrims to Winchester, and thus people who don't know anything about Saxon saints have heard of him today. By contrast, you can see that Bede doesn’t mention any miracles associated with Birinus (though it's true Bede’s knowledge of affairs in Wessex was fairly patchy), and nor does Ælfric (which is more surprising, when compared to the many stories he tells about Swithun). By the late medieval period Birinus still only had two miracle stories associated with him – a remarkably limited showing. Neither of those stories appears before the mid-eleventh century, approximately four hundred years after his death. One tells how he healed a woman who was blind and deaf, while the other describes an incident on his journey to England from Rome. This is how William of Malmesbury tells the latter tale:

[Birinus] made his way to the sea in order to cross to Britain. While he was packing his bits and pieces, the sailors were urging him to hurry as the wind was favourable, and so he forgot those cloths which are called ‘corporal cloths’. He was already out to sea, with the ship happily ploughing its furrow through the calm waters, when he remembered he had left them behind. He was at a loss what to do. If he asked the sailors to go back, they would certainly laugh at him as the voyage was going so well. But if he kept quiet, he would have to put up with his apostolic worship being imperfect. And so, brandishing the weapons of his faith, he summoned all his courage, climbed down the side into the sea and with all speed made for the shore he had just left. There he found the corporal cloths, picked them up, and for the second time his daring had a blessed and happy outcome, for he returned to his companions, brushing aside by the power of his faith the crests of the waves and the thousand ways to death he encountered. They for their part had been won over by this great miracle, had cast anchor and were holding the ship stationary. They took him back on board, all competing to do him honour, and he soon reached the coast in the region of the West Saxons.

William of Malmesbury, The Deeds of the Bishops of England (Gesta Pontificum Anglorum), trans. David Preest (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2002), p. 103.

Despite its Biblical parallels, this is not the most heroic of miracles - the author of the eleventh-century Vita of Birinus, where the story first appears, is at pains to point out that this forgetfulness didn’t happen because of “negligence or foolishness” on Birinus’ part (perish the thought!) but to aid God’s plan to reveal the saint’s holiness. William of Malmesbury makes no comment, but we may detect a slightly dry tone in a fourteenth-century English reference to the tale:

Seint Birinus [þe confessour] was i-sent of Honorius þe pope for to preche to Englisshe men; and while Birinus seilede in þe see of Britayne he byþouȝte hym of his restelles þat he hadde forȝete in þe haven, and ȝede uppon þe see and fette [his] restelles. Birinus convertede Kyngilsus kyng of West Saxons, and cristened hym at þe citee Dortik, þat is Dorchestre; þere was [kyng] Oswald present, and was Kyngilsus his godfader, and wedded his douȝter afterward. And boþe kynges ȝaf Birinus þat citee for to ordeyne þere a bisshoppes see; and þere Birinus deide after þe fourtene ȝere of his bisshopriche, and was i-buried þere. Bote atte þe laste, by Hedda bisshop of Wynchestre, Birinus was translated to Wynchestre, into þe chirche of [Seynt] Peter and Poul. But þe chanouns of Dorchestre seiþ nay, and seiþ þat it was anoþer body þan seint Birinus his body þat was so translated; þerfore a beere of a wonder werk is ȝit i-seie at Dorchestre, above þe place of his firste grave: þat citee Dortic oþer Dorkynga, þat now hatte Dorchestre, is sevene myle besouthe þe citee Oxenford, i-sette bytwene þe tweie riveres of Tame and of Temse. Also it is i-founde in cronykes þat Kyngilsus assignede al þe lond seven myle aboute for to make a bisshoppes see in Wynchestre, and for þe sustenaunce of [þe] mynystres; and for þe kyng was i-lette by his deþ yvel þat he miȝte nouȝt it fulfille, he swoor þat his sone Kenwalkus schulde it fulfille afterward. Þis citee Dorchestre longede to þe bisshoppis of Mercia from þat tyme anon to þe comynge of þe Normans. But in William Conquerours tyme þe bisshoppes see was i-chaunged to Lyncoln.

[Saint Birinus the confessor was sent by Honorius the pope to preach to the English people. When Birinus was sailing on the sea of Britain he remembered some things that he had forgotten back in the harbour, and he walked upon the sea and fetched his things. Birinus converted Kyngilsus, king of the West Saxons, and christened him at the city Dortik, that is, Dorchester; [King] Oswald was present there, and was Kyngilsus' godfather, and afterwards married his daughter. And both kings gave Birinus that city to establish a bishop's see, and there Birinus died after fourteen years as a bishop, and was buried there. But in the end Birinus was translated to Winchester by Hedda, bishop of Winchester, into the church of St Peter and Paul. But the canons of Dorchester say no, and say that it was another body, not St Birinus', which was translated; so there is a tomb of wonderful workmanship to be seen at Dorchester, above the site of his first grave. That city Dortic or Dorkynga, which is now called Dorchester, is seven miles south of the city of Oxford, set between the two rivers of Thame and Thames. It is also found in the chronicles that Kyngilsus gave all the land seven miles around to make a bishop's see in Winchester, and for the maintenance of the minsters; and because the king was prevented by mortal sickness from fulfilling this, he promised that his son Kenwalkus should fulfill it afterwards. This city Dorchester belonged to the bishops of Mercia from that time to the coming of the Normans, but in William the Conqueror's time the bishop's see was moved to Lincoln.]

"The canons of Dorchester seith nay!" In the Anglo-Saxon period and through the twelfth century it was accepted that Birinus’ remains lay at Winchester, where they had been taken in the time of Bishop Hædde (676-705). However, in 1224 began the controversy alluded to here, when the canons of Dorchester Abbey suddenly decided to claim that Birinus’ body was still in their possession. The Pope ordered the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, to investigate their claim, and he decided (on what evidence is not clear) that the canons of Dorchester were correct; so they built a splendid marble shrine, the ‘wonder work’ referenced above, to house the relics. The shrine was of course destroyed at the Dissolution of the Monasteries, but fragments were incorporated into a restored shrine made in the 1960s, which stands in the abbey today.


Dorchester Abbey is an exquisitely beautiful church, and I'm inclined to think that the real miracle worked by Birinus was to cause this wonderful thing to come into existence. I wrote about Dorchester’s early history recently here; a former Roman settlement, now one of the prettiest villages in Oxfordshire, it lies where the River Thame meets the Thames. Although Bede doesn't say that Birinus came to Dorchester before he was granted it as his see, local tradition locates all his story in the area, saying that Birinus preached to Cynegils on the nearby round barrow Churn Knob, and that the king was baptised in the River Thame, which runs past the site of the present abbey. And why not?



The Abbey the canons built on the foundations laid by Birinus is mostly a fourteenth-century building, large and light and elegant. It contains a famous 'Jesse tree' window which combines stained glass and sculpture, a treasure of medieval art.


There's also an unusual sedilia which mixes stone with glass like this:


This bishop is the only one of the windows I have a picture of and I'm not sure who he's meant to be, so he can stand in for Birinus today.



It's evidence of Birinus' relative lack of popularity in the medieval period that there are no ancient church dedications to him, but the nineteenth century saw a revival of interest in this Oxfordshire saint. The Catholic church in Dorchester, founded in 1849, is dedicated to him, and bears this statue:


There are some other nineteenth-century churches dedicated to him, and a few schools. In the 1950s, when a new village was built near Dorchester to ease the post-war housing crisis, it was given the name Berinsfield - from the unlatinized form of Birinus' name, Berin. (An extraordinary stroke of genius for a 1950s planning decision! According to this site, other suggestions included 'Wimblestraw', 'Lynchwell' and 'Williamsville', so thank goodness someone remembered St Berin.) It does seem little short of miraculous that so much can grow from one man's work. Two miracles and two paragraphs from Bede are all we know about Birinus himself - but fourteen hundred years of devotion can produce many wonderful things.


Modern images of Birinus in this post come from (starting at the top) Dorchester Abbey, Worcester Cathedral, St Birinus Catholic Church in Dorchester, Christchurch Priory, and Winchester Cathedral. The best source of information for Birinus' cult is Three Eleventh-Century Anglo-Latin Saints’ Lives: Vita S. Birini, Vita et miracula S. Kenelmi and Vita S. Rumwoldi, ed. and trans. Rosalind C. Love (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996).

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