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When most people think about what it means to be a saint, the image that comes to mind is of a benevolent, gracious figure that exudes holiness in every cell of their being, and that every word and action they take is always in the service of a holy cause. St Guthlac of Crowland however, is an unusual saint, one who strayed from the path of righteousness to spend his youth as a knight and warrior, only to turn back to God after seeing the errors of his ways and vowing to live out the rest of his days in isolation as a hermit monk.
So how can a medieval warrior, who made a career of murder and pillaging, become a man whose reputation for holiness and ability to work miracles earned him the title of “saint”? What could possibly inspire a man to turn his back on the world in favor of a life of loneliness and hardship? Perhaps St Guthlac’s choice may not seem so strange to those of us who have felt the weight of worldly cares sitting heavily on our shoulders and wished for escape. His story can be a reminder that even those of us who seem to have it all may still in fact be missing something within ourselves, something that cannot be found in earthly things.
Stained glass panel depicting St Guthlac of Crowland, in Crowland Abbey.
A Man of Future Glory is Born
Guthlac was born in the year 673, son of the nobleman Penwald of Mercia. He was descended from an ancient royal line known as the Iclings or the House of Icel. The house was named after Icel, the great-grandson of the legendary Offa, king of the Angles, mentioned in several epic poems, including Beowulf (not to be confused with King Offa of Mercia, who reigned from 757 to his death in 796). St Guthlac’s name when translated into Latin becomes “Belli munus,” meaning “reward of war,” so it seems the young nobleman was always destined for the life of a warrior.
The birth of Penwald’s son was heralded by the manifestation of signs from heaven, according to the East-Anglian monk, Felix, who wrote Guthlac’s biography:
“Lo! men saw a hand of the fairest red hue coming from heaven; and it held a golden rood, and was manifested to many men, and it leaned forward before the door of the house wherein the child was born.”
Much like at the birth of Jesus, men came from all around to witness this miracle, and when at last the child was born, a woman emerged from the house to speak to the men gathered there: “Be firm and of good heart, for a man of future glory is born here on this earth.”
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Divine portents aside, the son of a nobleman and inheritor of such a powerful bloodline would have been expected to do great things in his life. In the medieval period, it was believed that lineage and ancestry determined a man’s character, and the virtues that made a good warrior were hereditary. If a boy’s father or grandfather was known to be an able and courageous warrior, then so should he be as well. Failure to display proper military values and behavior was thought to indicate an inherently flawed character and tainted bloodline, or in the case of one born from good lineage, it may call his parentage into question.
The beginning of Felix's Life of St Guthlac. (Felix / )
St Guthlac As Boy and As a Teenager: A Promising Young Man
As a child, Guthlac is said to have been sharp-minded, obedient to his parent and caregivers, did not partake in vain talk or lying flattery, and was not “addicted to boyish levities” but was instead “innocent in his ways.” No doubt wanting to paint an image of Guthlac as a holy child, Felix most likely skipped over the details of his growing years that would have been considered less wholesome.
Medieval warriors like Guthlac began training for a military career early in childhood. The boy would learn to walk and to ride a horse simultaneously, expected to be a fully competent horseman by the age of seven. Young boys were raised in a homosocial environment, meaning everything they did was always in groups with other boys or men. Meals were communal, as were sleeping areas, and young boys were sent out hunting together in teams. Military training was conducted in groups as well to the build group loyalty that was key to a successful army.
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When training was completed in his adolescence, a boy could become a knight, a rite of passage into manhood. But before he could become a man, a boy must prove himself among his peers. Military skill and a warrior’s disposition were seen as intrinsic to masculinity in the medieval period. So, in order to prove himself a man one must pursue military activities, usually in the form of real or simulated combat such as tournaments.
Guthlac was no different. No doubt having grown up in the company of many fighting men in his father’s household, once he reached the age of manhood he was inspired to collect a troop of his companions and lead them in the pursuit of manly activities.
St Guthlac was a fierce medieval warrior for nine years and during that time he murdered some and pillaged plenty, until he “saw the light.” ( zef art / Adobe Stock)
St Guthlac Emerges and Gives Back Some of His Loot
In Felix’s words, Guthlac’s gentle and innocent nature suddenly changed on the cusp of manhood:
“Thought he on the strong deeds of the heroes, and of the men of yore. Then, as though he had woke from sleep, his disposition was changed.”
The divine child, who had received the gift of eternal bliss from God, now became a warrior who reveled in violence and bloodshed: “wreaked he his grudges on his enemies, and burned their city, and ravaged their towns, and widely throughout the land he made much slaughter, and slew and took from men their goods.”
This was the life Guthlac had been raised for, and despite whatever ethical qualms Felix may have had, a sudden change of disposition was not the likely cause of Guthlac’s ambition to become a warrior. He was simply doing what was expected of him.
Where the story becomes interesting however, is that after nine years of leading this life of murder and pillaging , Guthlac appears to have had a sudden spiritual revelation, which caused him to feel remorse for his actions and prompted him to give back a third of all the goods he had stolen.
Following this revelation, Guthlac was then gifted a divine vision in which he perceived his own death, and the meaninglessness of a sinful life, and so he made a vow to God that night that if his life would be spared until morning, he would devote himself to God’s service. And so he did. The next day, he informed his troop that they should find a new leader, then left for the monastery of Hrypadun (modern-day Repton) where he took his tonsure and became a monk.
The quatrefoil above the west door of the Crowland Abbey shows four relief scenes from the life of St Guthlac. (Thorvaldsson / CC BY 3.0 )
St Guthlac: A Christian Hero Is Born
A vision of one’s own death is certainly a powerful reason to trade a medieval warrior’s life for one of religious solitude, but on its own not enough reason to declare someone a saint. Plenty of nobles and royals in the medieval period, after a life of military service and warfare, retired to monasteries to repent their sins and live out the rest of their days in peaceful prayer and contemplation. Few, however, went on to become saints.
The violence of warfare was recognized as a necessary evil if Christian society were to be allowed to flourish in peace, but for a warrior to revel in that violence or to seek vengeance through the shedding of blood went against the teachings of the church. The moral code by which a warrior lived was incompatible with Christian morality. A warrior was expected to be courageous, but also wise enough so as not to be proud or reckless, and he must always go into battle viriliter et sapienter , meaning “manfully (with courage) and wisely.” A monk on the other hand, was forbidden from shedding another man’s blood and was expected to live peacefully, receiving wisdom from God rather than from other men.
The Church tolerated necessary violence without condemnation but was reluctant to condone any sort of violence unless it was directed towards spiritual ends. In this way, the two disparate ideals could be reconciled. A warrior who fought in God’s name and for a Christian cause was worthy of esteem in the eyes of the Church, and thus was the idea of a “Christian hero” born.
St Guthlac is presented with a whip by St Bartholomew as he is tormented by demons, an illustration from The Guthlac Roll.
A War Waged for the Lord
Felix’s biography paints St Guthlac as the quintessential Christian hero, creating him as “a soldier of the true God” who “waged his war for the Lord.” St Guthlac’s spiritual “battles” are consistently described by Felix with military metaphors, so as to give the impression that he is fighting a holy war: “that he might arm himself against the attacks of the wicked spirits with spiritual weapons, he took the shield of the Holy Spirit, faith; and clothed himself in the armor of heavenly hope; and put on his head the helmet of chaste thoughts; and with the arrows of holy psalmody he ever continually shot and fought against the accursed spirits.”
So, St Guthlac’s violent nature is turned towards a noble, Christian cause and thus he becomes a man worthy of recognition by the Church. He has not yet, however, become worthy of saint hood.
It was where he chose to wage his holy war that made Guthlac saintly. Two years after entering the monastery, at the age of 26, Guthlac decided to leave the world behind and live in almost total solitude in the wilderness of Crowland’s marshes.
He heard from a man named Tatwine, of a particularly isolated island that, although many had tried, no man could inhabit on account of “manifold horrors and fears,” a place so lonely and wild that no man could endure it. As soon as Guthlac heard this, he bid goodbye to his brethren at Hrypadun (Repton) and set out in a boat, with only two servants for company, to make his home on the island and live the rest of his days as a hermit.
The Temptation of St Anthony (1470 AD engraving) in which the Christian monk Anthony the Great faces temptation is his desert pilgrimage, much like the trials St Guthlac experienced in the marshes of Crowland. ( acrogame / Adobe Stock)
St Guthlac: A Holy Man of the Desert in the Marshes
St Guthlac’s decision to withdraw from the world in this way may appear as eccentric to modern sensibilities, especially for a man who “had it all:” a knight from the noble class, descended from a distinguished royal line, successful in his military exploits and a leader of men. It seems less strange though when considering that he was participating in a well-established tradition of monks who lived an ascetic lifestyle. For hundreds of years, men and women had been shutting themselves away from the world, living in isolation and self-deprivation as part of the practice of asceticism.
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The original ascetics usually made their homes in the desert, as they mostly came from Egypt where the “wilderness” that surrounded their civilizations was made of sand and rock, not marshland. The most famous of these “ Desert Fathers ,” as they came to be known, was St Anthony the Great, who lived from about 251-356 AD and moved into the desert in 270-271. Other well-known Desert Fathers include St Simeon the Stylite, a Syrian ascetic who lived for 37 years on the top of a pillar in the 5th century, and St Paul the Hermit, who supposedly lived almost 100 years in a cave near Thebes at around the same time as St Anthony.
While St Guthlac did not live in a literal desert, he nonetheless endured the self-deprivation and frugality as was the nature of an ascetic lifestyle and thus his island in the marshes became his metaphorical “desert.”
It was a harsh way of life, and Felix describes the ways in which St Guthlac showed his faith in his determination to endure: “he resolved that he would use neither woolen nor linen garment, but that he would live all the days of his life in clothing of skins…he never tasted aught but barley-bread and water; and when the sun was set, then took he his food on which he lived.” He washed only once every 20 days and passed his time mostly in prayer.
St Guthlac was never truly alone during his time on the island, as he was always accompanied by his followers and servants, and once it became known that he possessed both the power of prophecy and the power of healing, visitors came from all over England to seek him out. Even Aethelbald of Mercia, whilst still a nobleman and in exile, came to seek the counsel of the holy man St Guthlac, who prophesied that he would soon be crowned king, and he was in the year 716.
St Guthlac was a man of many faces, the lord’s son, the war hero, the monk, the hermit, who led a remarkable life. His deeds earned him immense fame throughout the medieval period and his feast day, on the 11th of April, was widely celebrated in parts of England for centuries.
His life may also serve as inspiration for a modern reader in many ways: a man who found himself dissatisfied with his life, made difficult choices that went against the expectations of his society and eventually found spiritual completeness and peace within himself. What could be more saintly than that?
The town's two historical points of interest are the ruined medieval Crowland Abbey and the 14th-century three-sided bridge, Trinity Bridge, which stands at its central point and used to be the confluence of three streams. 
In about 701 a monk named Guthlac came to what was then an island in the Fens to live the life of a hermit. Following in Guthlac’s footsteps, a monastic community came into being here, which was dedicated to Saint Mary the Virgin, Saint Bartholomew and Saint Guthlac in the eighth century. 
The place-name 'Crowland' is first attested circa 745 AD in the Vita S. Guthlaci auctore Felice, reprinted in the Memorials of Saint Guthlac published in Wisbech in 1881. Here the name appears as Cruglond, Crugland, Cruuulond and Cruwland. It appears as Croiland in the Domesday Book of 1086. The word "cruw" is thought to mean a bend, and to refer to the bend in the River Welland at Crowland, which was more pronounced before the draining of the fens. 
The town of Crowland grew up round the abbey. By a charter dated 716, Æthelbald of Mercia granted the isle of Crowland, free from all secular services, to the abbey with a gift of money, and leave to build and enclose the town. The charter's privileges were confirmed by numerous other royal charters extending over a period of nearly 800 years. Under Abbot Ægelric the fens were tilled, the monastery grew rich, and the town increased in size, enormous tracts of land being held by the abbey at the Domesday Survey. 
The Croyland Chronicle (1144–1486), an important source for medieval historians, is believed to be the work of some of the monastery's inhabitants. 
The town was nearly destroyed by fire (1469–1476), but the abbey tenants were given money to rebuild it. By virtue of his office the abbot had a seat in parliament, but the town was never a parliamentary borough. Abbot Ralph Mershe in 1257 obtained a grant of a market every Wednesday, confirmed by Henry IV in 1421, but it was afterwards moved to Thorney. The annual fair of St Bartholomew, which originally lasted twelve days, was first mentioned in Henry III's confirmatory charter of 1227. The dissolution of the monastery in 1539 was fatal to the progress of the town, and it rapidly sank into the position of an unimportant village. The abbey lands were granted by Edward VI to Edward Clinton, 1st Earl of Lincoln, from whose family they passed in 1671 to the Orby family. 
In 1642, near the start of the English Civil War, the remains of the abbey were fortified and garrisoned by Royalists under Governor Thomas Stiles. After a short siege it was taken by Parliamentarian forces under the command of Oliver Cromwell in May 1643.   
The surrounding agricultural area suffered from extensive flooding in 1947 as the River Welland and the surrounding drain network was overwhelmed with meltwater. A flood defence bank, West Bank, still exists, forming the north-west perimeter of the village and eastern flank of the River Welland's flood plain.
The Great Northern and Great Eastern Joint Railway crossed the north-east part of the parish until the 1980s.  It passed near De Key's Farm to the east and Martin's Farm to the north. Postland railway station was near Postland House. [ citation needed ]
An electoral ward in the name of Crowland and Deeping St Nicholas exists. This ward has a total population taken at the 2011 census of 6,172. 
A monk named Guthlac came to what was then an island in the Fens to live the life of a hermit, and he dwelt at Croyland between 699 and 714. Following in Guthlac's footsteps, a monastic community came into being here in the 8th century. Croyland Abbey was dedicated to Saint Mary the Virgin, Saint Bartholomew and Saint Guthlac. During the third quarter of the 10th century, Crowland came into the possession of the nobleman Turketul, a relative of Osketel, Archbishop of York. Turketul, a cleric, became abbot there and endowed the abbey with many estates. It is thought that, about this time, Crowland adopted the Benedictine rule. In the 11th century, Hereward the Wake was a tenant of the abbey.
In 1537, the abbot of Croyland wrote to Thomas Cromwell, sending him a gift of fish: "ryght mekely besychinge yowr Lordshippe favourably to accept the same fyshe, and to be gude and favourable Lord unto me and my poore House."  Despite these representations, the abbey was dissolved in 1539. The monastic buildings, including the chancel, transepts and crossing of the church appear to have been demolished fairly promptly but the nave and aisles had been used as the parish church and continued in that role.
During the English Civil War the remains of the abbey were fortified and garrisoned by Royalists in 1642 under governor Thomas Stiles. After a short siege it was taken by Parliamentarian forces under the command of Oliver Cromwell in May 1643.    and this appears to have been when serious damage was done to the abbey's structure. The nave roof fell in 1720, the main south wall was taken down in 1744. The north aisle of the nave was refurbished and remains in use as the parish church.
Crowland is well known to historians as the probable home of the Croyland Chronicle of Pseudo-Ingulf, begun by one of its monks and continued by several other hands.
The church contains a skull which is identified as the skull of the 9th century Abbot Theodore, who was killed at the altar by Vikings. The relic used to be on public view until it was stolen from its display case in 1982. The skull was returned anonymously in 1999.
John Clare wrote a sonnet entitled 'Crowland Abbey', which was first published in The Literary Souvenir for 1828 and reprinted in his last book, The Rural Muse in 1835. 
The abbey has a small two manual pipe organ. A specification of the organ can be found on the National Pipe Organ Register. 
Crowland Abbey is claimed to have been the first church in England – and among the first in the world – to have a tuned peal or ring of bells (circa 986). According to the Croyland Chronicle, the Abbot Egelric, who died in 984, supplied the peal of bells:
"He also had two large bells made, which he called Bartholomew and Bettelm also two of middle size, which he called Turketul and Tatwin and two small ones, to which he gave the names of Pega and Bega. The Lord abbat Turketul had previously had one very large bell made called Guthlac, and when it was rung with the bells before-named, an exquisite harmony was produced thereby nor was there such a peal of bells in those days in all England." 
However, the histories attributed to the 11th-century Abbot Ingulf are now thought to be 14th-century inventions of Pseudo-Ingulf, thus casting doubt on the charming story of the origin of the bells.
Less controversially, the chimes of the present bells were the first to be broadcast on wireless radio by the BBC on 1 November 1925.  At 90 feet, the 'pull' or ropes are the longest in England. 
The churchyard contains the war grave of an airman of the Second World War. 
St. Guthlac and Crowland Abbey
Politically, Crowland, was originally located at the border between the old Mercian kingdom and that of the Gyrwe, situated on the western border of the Fenland, by Bede called the “regione Girviorum”.
In the Tribal Hidage, this region was divided into a northern and a southern part, each assessed at 600 hides. The border was formed by the River Nene, which ran from Peterborough just south of Crowland to the Wash. Later in 749 Mercia established a hegemony over East Anglia, but Guthlac did not live to experience this. Nevertheless, he may have felt the encroachment of his former life into his new world.
Geographically, the landscape offered a fluid liminality constantly recreated through the shifting courses of rivers and streams through the fenland and into the Wash. In spring, when the rivers would flood, heavy sediments from the erosions of winter would end up clotting the waterways and channel the streams along new and constantly shifting routes.
Socially this landscape was barely livable and although spiritual friendship was established between Guthlac and some followers, this was initially not a site intended for a religious community.
Here at the crossroad of water and land, Guthlac would try to bridge the abyss between his semi-pagan past (the burial mound), his warrior ancestry (mirrored in his spiritual fights with Britons) and the new Christian thinking about people and places, which was in the Mercian crucible (from warrior-economy based on people to lordship based on land). This would later be unpacked in detail by his early chronicler, St. Felix, who wrote his first Vita soon after the death of the saint in 714.
Quatrefoil with stories from the life of St. Guthlac, Crowland Abbey. Source: Wikpedia According to the close reading of the vita, recently carried out by Lisa M. C. Weston, Guthlac was – in the words of Felix – constantly negotiating models of these past and present communities and lifestyles – the old warrior-world and the new monastic (Christian) thinking of lordship as based on the exploitation of landed resources and the accompanying new behavioural and cultural models and mind-sets.
Central to this conflict was the movement between two different literary cultures – that of the old oral warrior poetry and the new world of literacy and liturgy.
Above all, this became framed in his Vita through a series of nightly spiritual battles between British-speaking demons and the newly converted hermit, throwing verses from psalms and other scripture in their faces.
In the first night he is called to battle the temptation to return to his former life as a warrior and potential hero. In the second he is tempted by the demons to adopt an extreme asceticism and immoderate fasting. Finally, the third night he is demonised by multiple shrieking and frightening monsters trying to drag him into the fens or devouring by setting his hermitage on fire while raising him up on spears. However, it is at this point he identifies the monsters as a delusion because they speak the British tongue of his youth and he is able to expel them in favour of a solitary austere existence.
On the basis of this he is able to transcend the old world and wholeheartedly enter the new, playing out his role as miles Christi and divine councillor for the future king of Mercia, Æthelbald, who gained sanctuary with Guthlac while exiled to the east. It is Æthelbald who according to the Vita, founded a monastery at Crowland immediately after the death of the saint in 716. During the next 200 years, the cult continued to grow and in the monastery was turned into a Benedictine Abbey. The popularity of the cult is witnessed by a series of the survived manuscripts containing the Vita of Felix as well as later poetic rewritings of his life and deeds. It was during these rewritings Guthlac changed his shape from solitary spiritual warrior and into a more ordinary post-conquest saint.
An artist’s Impression of Crowland Abbey in the late middle ages © Crowland Abbey As it stands today, the Abbey at Crowland is partly a ruin. Nevertheless it is a fascinating witness to the local history of the Fens in the 13 th century.
The remains of the present building are the remains of a concerted effort of Henry de Longchamp, the abbot of Crowland from 1191-1236 and his successors to rebuild the church after a fire in 1179. They worked hard to recreate Crowland as an important pilgrimage centre publishing new variations of his legend and making the life of the saint a central feature of the decorative scheme of the new Abbey Church. This turned it into one of the most opulent and flamboyant of the East Anglian abbeys.
The Abbey Church had a nave with three aisles covered by nine bays and an apsidal choir of five bays. It measured 83 m x 27 m. As it stands today, only the northern aisle is roofed this is used for the modern parish church.
However, an inkling of the decorative scheme, which used to embellish the church can be found on the facade of the still-standing west front. This was once brightly coloured. Right on top of the doorway arches is a quatrefoil illustrating the high-medieval and more placid version of Guthlac. Now the focus was on the traditional accoutrements of a typical medieval saint: miraculous healings, books, buildings etc.
Exactly the same shift can be discerned through a careful exploration of the so-called Guthlac roll, which stresses the saint building a chapel – something which the early Vita does not mention at all. Instead the Vita tells us that Guthlac turned a ruined burial mound or tumulus into his rustic ascetic cell. Thus Guthlac became – in the words of John Black – “primarily the defender of a religious foundation in its battles to retain holdings and power”.
Inside the church is a small museum telling the story of Guthlac and Crowland Abbey.
This is a very interesting post! There's a useful article by George Henderson ('The Imagery of St Guthlac of Crowland' in 'England in the Thirteenth-Century', ed. W.M. Ormrod (Woodbridge, 1985)) which talks about the differences between the iconography of the Guthlac Roll and Felix's Vita - for instance, the scourge with which Guthlac drives off the demons, given to him by St Bartholomew, doesn't appear in the early hagiograpy but features prominently in various later depictions of Guthlac, including the seal of the Abbot of Crowland. Do you know whether it's common for hermits to fight off demons with such weapons?
Thank you, and thanks for your reading tip! I first became aware of Guthlac while studying the 14th-century Lytlyngton Missal of Westminster, where I noticed that he shared several liturgical items with Edward the Confessor, and I would really like to read more about him. Thanks again!
Unfortunately I know very little about hermit saints. My area of expertise (though I wouldn't call myself an expert) is royal saints and they are a different lot altogether, despite the mutual embrace of humility and - especially in the case of Edward the Confessor - the Pauline disdain for worldly things. Consequently, I don't know whether other hermit saints also took up arms, as it were, against their tormentors. I thought victory in these cases generally were achieved through endurance rather than active opposition, but it would be very interesting to do a broad comparative study of hermit saint iconography.
Who was St Guthlac ??
Guthlac at Crowland Abbey, with a devil at his feet
11 April is the anniversary of the death in 714 of St Guthlac, a soldier who took up the life of a hermit at Crowland in the Lincolnshire fens, and subsequently became one of Anglo-Saxon England’s most important saints. Guthlac was born into a noble Mercian family and began his life like any other Anglo-Saxon nobleman, as a warrior his was the Mercia of the newly-discovered Staffordshire Hoard, a kingdom of great wealth and power, and we might imagine Guthlac carrying weapons adorned like this. Inspired by “the valiant deeds of heroes of old”, according to his biographer Felix, Guthlac fought in the army of the king of Mercia, and spent his youth as leader of a warband. And then one night, at about the age of twenty-four, he went to bed brooding on his usual concerns:
When.. Guthlac was being storm-tossed amid the gloomy clouds of life’s darkness, and amid the whirling waves of the world, he abandoned his weary limbs one night to their accustomed rest his wandering thoughts were as usual anxiously contemplating mortal affairs in earnest meditation, when suddenly, marvellous to tell, a spiritual flame, as though it had pierced his breast, began to burn in this man’s heart. For when, with wakeful mind, he contemplated the wretched deaths and the shameful ends of the ancient kings of his race in the course of the past ages, and also the fleeting riches of this world and the contemptible glory of this temporal life, then in imagination the form of his own death revealed itself to him and, trembling with anxiety at the inevitable finish of this brief life, he perceived that its course daily moved to that end. He further remembered that he had heard the words: ‘Let not your flight be in the winter neither on the sabbath day.’ As he thought over these and similar things, suddenly by the prompting of the divine majesty, he vowed that, if he lived until the next day, he himself would become a servant of Christ.
Felix’s Life of Saint Guthlac, trans. Bertram Colgrave (Cambridge, 1956), pp.81-3.
“He contemplated the wretched deaths and the shameful ends of the ancient kings of his race in the course of the past ages, and also the fleeting riches of this world and the contemptible glory of this temporal life” – in other words, he lay in the dark and thought about the chief theme of Anglo-Saxon heroic poetry, which is that earthly glory is splendid and beautiful but is always passing into nothingness.
What stories did he reflect on, if Felix’s description has any basis in reality? It would be wonderful to know. Perhaps the tales of his ancestors in the tribe of the Guthlacingas, or the kings of the royal line of Mercia – but those stories are all lost to us, and we can only speculate. Whatever it was, the sudden awareness of death brought about a great change in Guthlac: he gave up his military life and became first a monk at Repton and then a hermit at Crowland, exchanging battles with the king’s enemies for fierce struggles against demons. His story was vividly brought to life by a later Crowland artist, working probably at the beginning of the thirteenth century, who produced a series of pictures illustrating Guthlac’s life on a long roll of parchment (now British Library Harley Roll Y. 6). Above is Guthlac bidding farewell to a soldier’s life then we see him receiving the tonsure at Repton:
The Crowland artist has fudged the truth here in showing Guthlac receiving the tonsure from a bishop Repton was a double monastery (i.e. for men and women) under the rule of an abbess, and the Life is clear that Guthlac received the tonsure under Abbess Ælfthryth. I wrote about Repton, still a fantastically evocative place for imagining Guthlac’s Mercia, here. (Right)
Then left we see Guthlac, looking pensive, arriving at Crowland in the wilds of the Lincolnshire fens, on St Bartholomew’s Day 699:
(Compare the same scene rendered in stone at Crowland). Guthlac established a hermitage for himself in an earthen mound, and there he underwent many trials, including being assailed by devils which were vividly imagined by the Crowland artist:
He overcame the devils with the help of St Bartholomew, his patron, and became a miracle-worker and counsellor to kings. You can see illustrations below.
After he died and was buried at Crowland, a monastery was later founded at the site of his hermitage. As well as the Life written by Felix, there are two Old English poems about him, and a post-Conquest account, produced by Orderic Vitalis at the direction of the monks of Crowland, who were ever enthusiastic workers in Guthlac’s cause. This is what Crowland Abbey looks like today, a magnificent structure even now it’s half in ruins:
Venerable Guthlac of Crowland, Wonder-Worker
St. Guthlac of Crowland (c. 673-714) is one of the greatest hermit-saints of the early English Church and is considered to be the most popular pre-Norman English saint after St. Cuthbert. Orthodox Christians call him &ldquothe English St. Anthony the Great&rdquo. Crowland Abbey Church, situated in the quiet village of Crowland in Lincolnshire close to the Cambridgeshire border in the district known as the Fens&mdashthe site of ascetic life of Guthlac&mdashattracts Orthodox and other Christian pilgrims every year. The Fens is a low, flat area of parts of present-day Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk, formerly well-known as a dominantly marshy region, though the swampland was reclaimed chiefly from the 17th to 19th century.
As is generally known, numerous desert fathers in ancient times, especially in Egypt, lived in deserts. However, the hermits of the British Isles chose small islands, shores, cliffs, sometimes forests, mountains and hills as their &ldquodeserts&rdquo as Britain does not have natural deserts. Guthlac was unique even for English saints as he preferred to live as a hermit, surrounded by dangerous and impassable bogs and swamps from all sides. His spiritual labors and experiences in all respects resembled the life of the venerable monks of the Egyptian deserts.St. Guthlac and his sister St. Pega
The birth of the great hermit Guthlac was accompanied by marvelous miracles. The parents and all the relatives felt that this child would surely become a man, great in the eyes of God and in the eyes of men. Guthlac was an obedient boy he avoided all the usual childish games and pranks or idle talks. He grew into a very clever adolescent, his face always shone with a particular spiritual joy he was innocent in all his activities. However, with time his temper changed very radically: he became more and more inspired by deeds of contemporary heroes and those of the old times. A sort of belligerent mood awoke inside him. It was said that at that time Guthlac for some time served in the Mercian army. At the age of 15 Guthlac formed his own gang and together with other youths gave himself up to banditry, robbery, bloody raids on neighboring settlements and other horrible crimes.
He and his band then became a real plague for the surrounding districts and their population. He spent about nine years in such grave crimes and brigandage until one day he suddenly remembered about the Lord and a very strong awe and fear of God appeared in his heart. As was the case with many other former thieves who, realizing their way of life, repented and served the Lord and people for the rest of their lives, Guthlac was spiritually transformed, confessed all his previous sins to God and firmly decided to be His faithful and ardent servant. He gave back all his loot to the people and called upon his gang members to do the same. After that, following the Lord&rsquos revelation, Guthlac came to the double Monastery of Repton in the present-day county Derbyshire which was in Mercia. He wished to start serving Christ as a monk there.
At that time the monastic house was ruled by Abbess Aelfrith. Guthlac was tonsured and lived for around two years there. This monastery was the burial place of many members of the Mercian royal family. It existed for many years afterwards and was connected with several other important saints. The Abbey Church of St. Wistan with its early English crypt and the abbey ruins in the village of Repton are a site of pilgrimage to this day. Guthlac lived at Repton in extreme abstinence. First the brethren were not very friendly with him because he totally refused any alcohol drinks but then, seeing his genuine ascetic life, love and kindness, they became his close spiritual friends. In Repton Guthlac soon learned the whole Psalter by heart. He studied the Gospel and teachings of the Holy Fathers very thoroughly and zealously practised everything he found in their instructions. Once he read the Lives of the Egyptian desert fathers he began to have a strong and fervent desire to imitate their way of life in order to be closer to Christ Whom he loved most of all. So the saint resolved to live alone in the wilderness, somewhere in the back of beyond. With the blessing of the holy elders the ascetic began to search for such a place.
He found some local people in the Fens and one of them, named Tatwine, showed him a small, uninhabited isle right in the middle of this extreme swampy region. Also Tatwine told Guthlac that nobody had been able to live there because of hordes of evil spirits, or demons, who dwelt there. Guthlac at once felt that it was his calling to live on that very spot and to struggle with these demons there in the Name of the Savior. So at the age of about 26 Guthlac settled on this tiny and dangerous isle, called Crowland, and he stayed there as a true hero, the warrior of Christ, for the remaining 15 years of his life. By Divine providence, Guthlac arrived on Crowland on the feast-day of the Holy Apostle Bartholomew (August 25) and this saint from that time became his main patron.
The hermit had numerous temptations and harsh tribulations during his life on that isle. The wretched spirits vexed him for years until he once finally drove them away from the isle. It is supposed that these were also attacks made by local Britons who had taken refuge in the Fens and who wanted to make Guthlac leave Crowland. The saint usually won his battles against the temptations by the sign of the cross, by reading the Psalter, especially Psalm 90, and by petitions for &ldquoemergency&rdquo help to his patron-saint, St. Bartholomew. Among his most frequent temptations were despair, the memory of his former sins that &ldquowould never be forgiven him&rdquo and the memory of the outside world&mdashwith much courage he struggled with all these thoughts and every time with the help of God was the winner. Many times angels appeared to him for consolation and in the final years of his life an angel descended to his cell every night and conversed with him till the morning.
Here are several examples from the Life of Guthlac illustrating his warfare with the demonic powers. Once two demons appeared to him and spoke with the hermit in a very friendly way, though flattery and meaningless instructions were seen in their words. By these sly speeches they intended to deceive the hermit and to lead him into self-delusion. They said how they honored his self-denial and hard labors for the sake of Divine service. They also recommended him to fast six days a week and to relax his fasting and rest more on the seventh day. The saint, ignoring them, cried to the Lord imploring Him to protect him: and the demons disappeared like smoke.
Another time Guthlac was praying in the quiet of the night. Suddenly a multitude of wretched spirits approached him. Their appearance was indescribably ugly, they uttered horrifying and terrible noises and soon they filled up all his dwelling. The demons then seized the man of God and grabbed him to the bog and dipped him into the dirty water. Then they threw him into a thicket of brambles so his body was all bleeding. The saint prayed unceasingly and relied on the help of God. Then they beat him with iron bars and commanded him to go away from that island forever. But Guthlac did not heed their threats and pledged to remain there despite their attacks. After that the demons on their ugly wings raised him high up into space where he felt cold and dark. Next he felt that they threw him into hell where there was only fire, torture, suffering and thousands of demons. There he saw how evil spirits tormented the souls of unrepentant sinners and they were about to start tormenting him as well. The holy man exclaimed that he was not afraid of the cursed spirits but he was waiting only for the will of God, his only Master. Suddenly the Holy Apostle Bartholomew appeared before him and the demons scattered like dust. With the help of the apostle the saint was returned to his cell where angels sang him wondrous songs.
One day in the middle of the night demons burst into the saint&rsquos hut and set it on fire (with a phantom fire). The next moment they started beating the ascetic with spear points. Guthlac immediately started singing the verses from the Psalter and the demons vanished with their fire. In the next case, as the man of God was reading his evening prayers he suddenly heard the lowing and roar of wild animals. He then saw hideous creatures that resembled beasts and snakes that were drawing near him. A lion&rsquos muzzle threatened him with its fangs, then something like an enraged bull with a bear&rsquos head followed it. All of them howled and grunted very loudly. The soldier of Christ armed himself with the shield of faith and with the sign of the cross made all these demonic powers run away.
Finally, peace came and following many years of struggle the tempters left that site forever and the place since then became holy. As a reward for his tireless and fearless labors for the glory of the Lord, Guthlac was granted with great wisdom, the spirit of prophecy, clairvoyance, and ability to heal many diseases and to expel demons from possessed people. His Life tells stories how Guthlac saw the future as if it were the present saw the events that were occurring at a great distance from him saw the thoughts and intentions of hearts of many people was a very close friend to wild animals - beasts, birds and fishes - he always supported, fed and protected them and the nature, in return, served him as its master.
With time the fame of Guthlac, the extraordinary great ascetic and man full of the grace of God, spread all over Mercia and finally all England. Though the saint never left Crowland several other ascetics and future saints became his disciples. More and more people flocked to his hermitage: the young and old, the sick and suffering, poor and rich, peasants and nobles: all flocked to Guthlac and received bodily and spiritual healing, good advice, and consolation. Sinners received heartfelt instructions and changed their way of life. The names of the closest disciples of Guthlac are Cissa, Bettelin (both of them were locally venerated as saints), Egbert and Tatwine.
The story with St. Bettelin (also known as Beccel) is remarkable. As a priest Bettelin decided to come to Guthlac of whom he had heard very much and to ask his permission to stay with him forever on the island as his servant. But due to his spiritual weakness the priest was caught by the wretched spirit and decided to kill Guthlac, thinking that in this case he would abide in his dwelling and the faithful would venerate him instead. But the vicious thoughts of men were open to Guthlac and when Bettelin came up to him the saint said the first: &ldquoWhy have you, dear brother, allowed the evil spirit to conquer your mind? You have been deceived by him. Turn away from these artful designs and perfidious tricks of our common enemy&rdquo. Bettelin repented and in tears promised always to listen to the saint&rsquos words and the saint forgave him and kindly promised to guide him.
Guthlac&rsquos life recounts that two ravens used to live on Crowland and they much vexed the saint because they stole many small objects and (unlikely other creatures) did not listen to his commands. But Guthlac accepted their behavior with humility, showing the example of patience. Once a certain monk came to Guthlac and, having made notes on paper, left. Soon he returned but did not find the paper. The saint realized that they had been stolen by the ravens. He suggested the monk take a boat and row towards a tiny lake, while himself he prayed. The monk reached the lake and found his paper safe, lying among the thicket of reeds, as if someone had purposely placed it there.
Another time an ascetic called Wilfrid together with the future king Ethelbald of Mercia decided to pay a visit to Guthlac. Arriving at Crowland, they left Wilfrid&rsquos gloves in the boat. After sweet conversations on spiritual themes Guthlac asked them whether they had left anything in the boat, knowing already that one of the ravens had taken the gloves. The guests confirmed this and when they left his cell they saw the raven sitting on its roof with one glove in its beak. Guthlac commanded it to obey and the bird let it fall on the ground. Meanwhile three other guests arrived by boat and passed Wilfrid his other glove saying that a raven had dropped it as they were sailing nearby.
There lived a very pious youth who honored and helped his parents. But a wretched spirit got into him and the lad went mad. The wicked spirit seized his mind and will so the young man scratched and bit himself and tried to attack anyone who approached him. His family members tied him up and took him to a certain monastery where elders prayed for him for very long, but to no avail. Frustrated, the people did not know what to do. At that time someone told them that among the marshes, in Crowland, there lived a holy monk named Guthlac whose fame as wonder-worker spread far and wide. With great difficulty, but with hope for Divine protection, they took the young man to Guthlac. The man of God prayed in his chapel above the possessed youth for whole three days and in the end, sprinkling him with holy water, delivered him from the evil spirit forever.
Another man named Ecga also suffered a great deal from the unclean spirit. His state was so bad that he did not even understand what was happening to him. His kinsmen took him to Guthlac. The latter met them with Divine love, girded the sick man with his belt and the demon left him in the same minute. One day an abbot who was Guthlac&rsquos spiritual friend decided to visit him. Two monks from his monastery joined the abbot but on the way they asked him to permit them go and do one very important and urgent thing. When the abbot was conversing with Guthlac, the latter unexpectedly revealed him that his monks were not engaged in a pressing matter, but were visiting a widow with whom they drank strong alcoholic drinks.
On his return to the monastery the abbot asked the two monks what they had done and then put them to shame when they declined to confess. The monks prostrated themselves in tears and sincerely asked forgiveness. Another day two monks went to see Guthlac and before arriving decided to hide two flasks with beer that they carried under the grass. The saint greeted them with fatherly love, gave them instructions on salvation and then genially asked them: &ldquoWhy did you hide the flasks with beer under the grass and did not bring them with you?&rdquo Ashamed, the monks bowed to him and asked for his blessing.
A man named Offa once decided to come and see Guthlac. While he was making his way through a thicket in the darkness a large thorn penetrated his foot. The foot began to swell badly and the man with great difficulty limped to the hermit&rsquos island. Guthlac saw him and immediately gave him clothes to put on. As soon as Offa had done this, the thorn came out of his foot and flew away a great distance. Receiving spiritual consolation, Offa departed joyful and healthy. Once a bishop named Hedda who venerated Guthlac very much decided to visit him and offer him ordination to the priesthood. One of Hedda&rsquos companions, an intelligent young man, during the journey boasted that he would come and (using his knowledge and experience, received among holy men in Ireland) find out whether Guthlac was a true servant of God or not, whether he worked miracles through the powers of Holy Spirit or the power of Satan.
When Hedda arrived, they started talking and were soon impregnated with the vivifying power of the Gospel. Guthlac was so eloquent and wise and the spiritual light of Christ shone in him so brightly that it seemed to everybody that not a man, but an angel was speaking in front of them. Hedda implored Guthlac to accept his offer to become a priest and Guthlac agreed, saying that it was the will of God that he should serve Him in the altar. During the common meal Guthlac suddenly addressed the above-mentioned young man and said: &ldquoWhat will you say, brother, regarding the priest of whom you pledged to find out whether he was good or bad?&rdquo The young man prostrated himself in front of the saint weeping and Guthlac embraced him as a sign of forgiveness. Thus, Guthlac was ordained priest.
Shortly before his repose Abbess Edburga of Repton (whose relics were later translated to Southwell Minster in Nottinghamshire) who loved and venerated Guthlac sent him a shroud and a leaden coffin that she had prepared herself. She implored him to accept these gifts for Christ and she also asked him, knowing his prophetic power, to reveal who would be the following abbot of Crowland after him. Guthlac with humility accepted her gifts and predicted that the next abbot would be a man who then was still among the pagans but who was destined to come shortly and take baptism (he meant St. Cissa)&mdashand this prophecy was fulfilled in due time.
Not long before Guthlac&rsquos repose the future king Ethelbald visited him again. At that time he was persecuted by the reigning king and abandoned by everybody. Guthlac encouraged him, saying that God would help him to succeed to the throne, but for this he should be patient and indulgent to others, to forgive all his enemies. &ldquoDo not fear, but be steadfast, for the Lord is your Helper&rdquo. This phrase he used to repeat to others as well, encouraging them to put their hope in God alone in difficult situations. Notably, soon after his death Guthlac appeared to Ethelbald in a vision and reassured him again and repeated his promise. And soon Ethelbald became king and in gratitude for Guthlac&rsquos miraculous help he ordered the building of a monastery on the site of the heroic spiritual battles of Guthlac.
Eight days before his repose Guthlac fell seriously ill. He started preparing for his meeting with the Creator. He fell ill in Holy Week and died on the Bright Wednesday 714. His faithful servant Bettelin was with him during the days of his sickness. On Easter Sunday in spite of his grave illness Guthlac offered up thanks to God and served the Liturgy, after which he delivered an extremely inspired sermon. The day before his demise Guthlac gave his last instructions to Bettelin and ordered him upon his death to go to his sister&rsquos hermitage and ask her to arrange his funeral. Right before his death Guthlac took communion for the last time and took his last breath. At the same moment the whole of his cell was filled with the sweetest aroma, everything around was lit up with an unearthly light (in comparison with which the sun was dusk) and the air was filled with the sound of angelic singing.
On the same day Bettelin came to the hermitage of Pega, Guthlac&rsquos sister, who had lived for many years as an anchoress in a place now called Peakirk in present-day Cambridgeshire near the city of Peterborough. (Today this village, which means &ldquoPega&rsquos church&rdquo, has a parish church dedicated to St. Pega). Both Pega and Bettelin then sailed down the Welland to Guthlac&rsquos hermitage. It was said that on the way Pega cured a blind man in the present-day town of Wisbech in Cambridgeshire which indicates that the sister of such a great saint was a wonder-worker as well. On their arrival in Crowland the companions discovered that the whole island and the saint&rsquos dwelling were covered with the brightest light that only could be imagined and the fragrance around could only be compared with ambrosia and honey. Pega buried the body of her saintly brother in his chapel on the third day of his death, and she inherited his personal Psalter and scourge for casting out demons which she was later to donate to Crowland Abbey and they were kept there as great relics.Crowland Abbey in Lincolnshire-the site of St. Guthlac's hermitage
Many miracles occurred in the first year near Guthlac&rsquos grave. A year after his death had passed, Pega decided to translate her brother&rsquos body into a new coffin. The maiden of Christ invited many clergy and together they opened the tomb. They were so surprised that for some while they could not say a word: the body of the saint was absolutely intact, by his look and flexibility of his limbs he resembled a sleeping man, rather than a dead man and all the garments on him were absolutely unchanged as if he had been dressed in them on the same day. Everybody thanked God for His miracles and translated the relics into a new coffin which was installed in a place of honor in the chapel (later in the abbey church). It was said that Pega later (in c. 719) made a pilgrimage to Rome where she died and was buried. In the medieval period it was recorded that her relics rested inside an unnamed church of Rome and there were reports of miracles from them (her feast-day is January 8/21).Inside the Crowland Abbey
Veneration for St. Guthlac flourished throughout the Middle Ages. The Abbey of the Virgin Mary, St. Bartholomew and St. Guthlac grew into a large and prosperous monastery which every year received thousands of pilgrims who venerated the relics of St. Guthlac and other saints that were kept there, with countless cases of miracles. In the 9th century King Wiglaf of Mercia and Archbishop Ceolnoth of Canterbury (as writes David Farmer) especially venerated Guthlac who cured the latter from ague. In about 870 the pagan Danish invaders attacked Crowland Abbey and looted it, killing the Holy Abbot Theodore (whose head is kept and venerated in the Abbey Church of Crowland to this day) with many monks when they were serving the Liturgy and since then all of them have been venerated as martyrs.
However, in the following century the abbey was restored by the saintly Abbot Thurketyl (of Danish origin: 787-875, feast&mdashJuly 11) who at the same time was its great benefactor. Soon afterwards both the popular and liturgical veneration of Guthlac spread all over England and petitions were offered up to him in all the dioceses of the English Church. At least nine ancient churches were dedicated to him and later a small Augustinian monastery in honor of Guthlac was founded in the city of Hereford. In 1136 the new translation of St. Guthlac&rsquos relics into a richly embellished shrine took place (by that time, after 1066, Crowland had become Roman Catholic). The famous &ldquoCrowland Chronicle&rdquo was written by the monks of Crowland and was of a considerable renown. Notably, it was one of the abbots of Crowland, John Litlington, who founded Magdalene College in Cambridge in about 1428.
Sabine Baring-Gould (1834-1924: an Anglican priest from Devon and a hagiographer, hymnographer, novelist, researcher of English folklore, folk songs, lives of ancient local saints and medieval legends) wrote that St. Guthlac is considered as the spiritual father of the University of Cambridge. John Clare (1793-1864: an English poet who devoted his poetry mainly to nature) dedicated one of his sonnets to Crowland Abbey. The Abbey was always noted for its bells, and the first &ldquotuned peal&rdquo in England was performed precisely in this Abbey.
Unfortunately, in 1539 by order of Henry VIII Crowland Abbey had been dissolved together with many other English monasteries and the relics of Guthlac were most probably destroyed. However, popular veneration for him has never ceased and in recent times he has been again been venerated by Christians of different denominations living in England. The present large Abbey Church of Crowland is a part of the original huge monastery church. The abbey is very attractive both inside and outside and, among other things, contains some medieval sculptures relating the life of Guthlac. Around the abbey there are ancient monastic ruins and the former west façade of the holy monastery.
Some Anglican churches (besides Crowland Abbey) are currently dedicated to Guthlac in the following places: Astwick in Bedfordshire, Branston in Leicestershire, Fishtoft in Lincolnshire (Fishtoft is situated on the site of one of the former isles of the Fens the church tower has a medieval statue of the saint and ruins of the ancient priory cell can be found nearby), Knighton in Leicestershire, Little Ponton in Lincolnshire, Market Deeping in Lincolnshire, Passenham in Northamptonshire, Stathern in Leicestershire, Little Cowarne in Herefordshire. The Catholic Church of St. Mary and St. Guthlac is situated in the village of Deeping St James in Lincolnshire.
Guthlac was a descendant of the royal house of Mercia, and born in the region of the Mid-Angles. His childhood was remarkably innocent and devout but as he advanced towards man’s estate, he eagerly took up the profession of arms, collected a band of followers, engaged in many feuds and petty wars with his rivals and opponents, and from these encounters fathered abundant spoil. At the age of twenty-four his conversion took place, in conseequence of his serious reflections one night on the vanity of the world. This call from God he obeyed without hesitation and without reserve, and leaving all he had, betook himself to the double monastery of Repton, then governed by the Abbess Elfrida. There he received the monastic habit and though the brethren were a little displeased with what they considered his singularities and excessive austerities, still he was greatly esteemed, and lived with much edification.
Guthlac spent two years at Repton, during which he studied assiduously, and then resolved to retire into perfect solitude. For this purpose he chose the Island of Croyland, in the midst of a vast marsh, and began that wonderful life in which he persevered to the end of his course. He experienced frequent and most violent assaults from evil spirits, but was victorious over all, by the grace of God and the help of St Bartholomew, on whose festival he had taken possession of the island. Many miracles were wrought by him and by a singular privilege, beasts and birds and things inanimate were obedient to him. He received frequent visits from Prince Ethelbald, then a persecuted exile, but afterwards the powerful King of Mercia. Guthlac, whose gift of prophecy was most remarkable, predicted his future greatness, but solemnly warned him to forsake his vices, and rule with moderation and justice.
Many others came to visit him for their spiritual benefit, and among them was St Hedda, the Bishop of Dorchester. Sweet and consoling was the conference of the two saints, and at its conclusion St Hedda consecrated the oratory at Croyland, and insisted on promiting St Guthlac to the priesthood, which was done before he quitted the island. Some time before St Guthlac was called to his eternal rest, the holy Edburga, who was now Abbess of Repton, sent him a leaden coffin and a shroud for his burial. After spending fifteen years in his solitude, he was seized by his last short sickness on the Wednesday of Holy Week. He sent a message to his sister, St Pega, to say that it had been no lack of brotherly love which had kept him from seeing her in this life, but a desire that they might meet with more joy in the world to come but that she should now come and preside at his burial. He predicted the exact day of his death, and left with his attendant a secret message for his sister and his friend Egbert, to the effect that for a long time he had been visited morning and evening by an angel, from whom he had received great light and the knowledge of future events.
On the Wednesday of Easter Week, he himself took the Holy Viaticum from his altar, and, as he foretold, gave up his soul to God with great joy. Angelic songs were heard in the island, and the sweet odours of sanctity were sensibly perceived by those present. St Pega came, as invited, to order the burial of the Saint. Ethelbald was overwhelmed with sorrow at the loss of his saintly father, and when the sacred body was translated after twelve months, and found entirely incorrupt, erected a beautiful monument over it and a little later, when he was King, founded the great Abbey of Croyland (Crowland). St Guthlac had four holy disciples living in separate cells near him. They were Cissa, from whom Feliz the writer of his life gained much information St Bethlin, honoured at Stafford Egbert, the saint’s especial friend and Tatwine. They continued to live in the same way even after the foundation of the Abbey.
Troparion of St Guthlac (Tone 4)Father Guthlac you followed the ways of the prophet Elijah,/ and the straight path of the Forerunner./ You became a dweller in the cisterns* of Croyland/ and in that wilderness brought forth fruit an hundredfold both conquering the demons and healing the sick./ Intercede with Christ our God that our souls may be saved.
Kontakion of St Guthlac (Tone 2)
You abandoned royal estates and the life of a warrior to live by silence and prayer,/ by this you inspired the English peoples, holy Father Guthlac./ Wherefore we acclaim you/ as the father of English monasticism.
- , prayers to Guthlac , Gradual of Crowland Abbey , Lives of Cuthbert in prose and verse, with services for Cuthbert, Benedict and Guthlac with musical notation , cartulary of St Guthlac’s Priory, Hereford
I haven’t included several medieval calendars and litanies, if that is the manuscript’s only reference to him.
Guthlac is one of the most famous saints from the early period of Christianity in Britain.
Guthlac&rsquos early life and religious conversion
Guthlac was from a tribe named the Guthlacingas who lived in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia. In the earliest account of his life by the monk, Felix, we hear that Guthlac was born around 674, roughly one year later than Bede, and died in 715.
As a young man Guthlac was a warrior in the Mercian borderlands. After nine years of fighting, however, he experienced a religious conversion. He gave up his life as a soldier, and became a monk at the abbey of Repton for two years. While there he was disliked by his fellow monks on account of his desire for a penitential life and his abstinence from alcohol. Feeling that that he needed isolation in order to better contemplate God, Guthlac retreated to the fens &ndash then a marshy, unpopulated region in eastern England &ndash and took up residence in an ancient burial mound which had been partially excavated by treasure-hunters.
Life as a religious hermit
By choosing isolation, Guthlac was seeking to emulate the so-called &lsquoDesert Fathers&rsquo. These were hermits, monks and ascetics who lived in the desert in Egypt in the 3rd century, in the very early days of Christianity. For Guthlac, the marshy fens were a kind of English desert &ndash a place of solitude where he would have to endure physical trials. He spent 15 years in the burial mound which was on an island in the middle of a marsh &ndash now modern-day Crowland in Lincolnshire, where an abbey was founded in the 8th century. Guthlac lived a life of penance: he fasted every day, only eating barley bread and drinking marshy water in the evenings, and wore simple animal skins for clothing. He was often tormented by demons and the descriptions of these devils in the earliest account of his life are vivid and terrifying.
Like many of the Desert Fathers, Guthlac was revered as a holy man and a spiritual counsellor. He was visited in his cell by various people seeking his advice including Bishop Headda, who was made Bishop of Leicester in 709, the Abbess Ecgburgh who was the daughter of King Aldwulf of the East Angles and, perhaps most important of all, the Mercian king, Æthelbald (r. 716&ndash757).
A series of miracles
During his life, many miracles were associated with Guthlac. Sources tell us of how he was able to predict the actions of birds and animals, who would come to his call. According to Felix, two swallows came to nest in Guthlac&rsquos cell every year. They would enter his home, sit on his shoulders, sing a song and afterwards seek a sign from the saint about where they should build their nest. A year after he died, Guthlac&rsquos sister Pega opened his grave and found the saint&rsquos body miraculously uncorrupted. It was subsequently moved to a shrine which became a place of veneration.
Legacy and writings about Guthlac
Surviving manuscripts reveal that Guthlac&rsquos cult was enormously popular. Two Old English poems about him survive in the Exeter Book, he is the subject of a homily in the Vercelli Book and he is mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Even after the Anglo-Saxon period, and long after his death, his cult still had widespread appeal. He is the subject of a beautiful illustrated manuscript roll dated to the late 12th or 13th century, and the South English Legendary contains a poem about him.
Further information about the life of Guthlac can be found here via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
Saint Guthlac, Warrior and Hermit
2020 marks the 20 th anniversary of the founding of the Thurcaston and Cropston Local History Society. We celebrated this anniversary with a glass of bubbly at the beginning of this first meeting of 2020, which was also our first meeting in our new venue, Thurcaston Memorial Hall. (Membership has increased so much over the years that we needed to change our venue!) With the increased space, we were able to make use of our display boards, focussing on two Saxon artefacts, discovered locally by the late Mr Brian Kimberley and donated by him to the care of the Society. It was good to have space to see them and to find out all about them.
Our meeting focussed on Saint Guthlac, Warrior and Hermit. Speaker Douglas Clinton introduced us to this ‘local’ saint via his timeline and his family tree. Guthlac (c. 674 - 714) was the son of a nobleman in the English kingdom of Mercia. His sister Pega is also venerated as a Saint. As a young man, Guthlac fought in the army of Æthelred of Mercia, fighting the British on the borders of Wales. At the age of 24, he became a monk at Repton Monastery, Derbyshire. Two years later he sought to live the life of a hermit, moving to the island of Croyland, now Crowland, on St Bartholomew's Day AD 699. Crowland then was an uninhabited island, accessible only by boat, and deep in the wild and desolate marshland separating Mercia and East Anglia. Here Guthlac built a shelter, cut into the side of a burial-mound, in which he lived austerely for the rest of his life. We are told he was tormented by demons, but consoled by visions of angels. His reputation for sanctity and for performing miraculous healings spread far afield and continued to grow after his death. (For much of our knowledge of Guthlac, we are indebted to Saint Felix, his life-long friend, whose biography of Guthlac was written c. 735.)
Guthlac’s sister Pega became an anchorite, and, according to a thirteenth-century writer, initially lived near Guthlac at Crowland. On one occasion, apparently, the devil took her form and tried to persuade Guthlac to break his vow never to eat before sunset. To prevent further attempts of this nature, Guthlac ordered Pega to leave the island. She did, and they never met again. She became a solitary in the neighbourhood of Crowland, and Peakirk, Pega's Church, is named for her. The Feast Day of St. Guthlac is April 11th. He is often depicted with St. Bartholomew, his patron, who gave him a scourge with which to do penance and to defeat the demons.
Several Leicestershire and Lincolnshire churches are dedicated to St Guthlac, most recently the church of St Guthlac in Knighton, Leicester. Knighton lies at the northernmost edge of Guthlaxton, an ancient hundred of Leicestershire. At the time of the Domesday Book, Guthlaxton was one of Leicestershire's four wapentakes, an Anglo-Saxon administrative district. It covered a large area, including Market Bosworth, Hinckley, Lutterworth and Wigston Magna. The wapentake’s original meeting place was at ‘Guthlac’s stone’, which was apparently sited next to the Fosse Way.