The Anglo-Saxon hermit, St. Guthlac, had a career reaching from aristocratic warrior over monastic visionary to patron saint of Crowland Abbey
They were ferocious in appearance, terrible in shape with great heads, long necks, thin faces, yellow complexions, filthy beards, shaggy ears, wild foreheads, fierce eyes, foul mouths, horses’ teeth, throats vomiting flames, twisted jaws, thick lips, strident voices, singed hair, fat cheeks, pigeons breasts, scabby thighs, knotty knees, crooked legs, swollen ankles, splay feet, spreading mouths, raucous cries. For they grew so terrible to hear with their mighty shrieking that they filled almost the whole intervening space between earth and heaven with their discordant bellowing.
From: Felix’s Life of Saint Guthlac ed. by Bertram Colgrave, Cambridge University Press (1985), p. 103
The Historical Guthlac was born sometime around AD 670. In his earliest vitae we are told that he belonged to a line of the Mercian royal stirps and this was the reason for his initial career as an Anglo-Saxon warrior. However, at some point in his youth he became a monk at Repton in Derbyshire. Two years later, he moved further east where he took up the life of a hermit at Crowland on the border of the fens finding shelter in an ancient British burial mound. Later, in the 10th century, his hermitage became a very wealthy monastery.
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 AD 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 vitae soon after the death of the saint in 714.
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 AD 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.
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 13th 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 stands; this is used for the modern village 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 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.
Tradition and Tranformation in the Cult of St. Guthlac in Early Medieval England
By John R. Black
In: The Heroic Age. A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe. (2007) Issue 10.
Guthlac Betwixt and Between: Literacy, Croos-Temporal Affiliation and an Anglo-Saxon Anchorite.
By Lisa M. C. Weston
In: The Journal of Medieval religious Cultures (2016) Vol. 42, No 1, 2016
Crowland Abbey by Rex Slye, author of a number of books about life in the fens in the old days. © Rex Slye