The Orthodox Church has variously been called ‘The Church of the Saints’, ‘The Church of the Holy Spirit’ and ‘The Church of the First Millennium’. Since the wellsprings of holiness in these Isles appear to many to have run dry in the Second Millennium, the Orthodox Church seems therefore to have a special role to play in this the Third Millennium.
Indeed, as the only Orthodox church in Suffolk, it appears to be for us to stand for the heritage of local holiness. All the more so here in Felixstowe as this is the landing-place, or ‘wadgate’ in Old English, of the Apostle of East Anglia, St Felix. For this town is the starting-place of the Christian Faith in the whole of Suffolk and indeed East Anglia. Moreover, this historic peninsula, bounded by St Felix’ town at one end, is bounded at the other by the earliest English town, Ipswich, and the burial ground of the first English kings at Sutton Hoo.
In this Third Millennium, the offering of Felixstowe Orthodox Church is then to call us back again to the holiness of our founding fathers and mothers who pray for us in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Fr Andrew Phillips,
St Audrey’s Day, 23 June / 6 July 2002
Introduction: Holy Suffolk
From olden times Suffolk was known as ‘selig’, meaning in Old English ‘blessed’ or ‘holy’, on account of its many churches. Although recently this has been corrupted to ‘silly Suffolk’, the fact is that Suffolk has produced many saints.
The vast majority are unknown, unrecorded by history, simple folk who kept the commandments. Others like the martyr St Jurmin are little known, others like King Sigebert, who introduced Christianity to Suffolk in the early seventh century, are slightly better known. Nevertheless, four holy people stand out not only in the local history of Suffolk and East Anglia, but also in national history. Their fame and grace spilled out across our borders to neighbouring counties and even overseas. For that reason all four of these Saints of God figure on the icon-screen of St Felix and St Edmund Orthodox church in Felixstowe. And their icons and the services composed to them are to be found on the parish website at www.orthodoxengland.org.uk. They are St Felix, St Audrey, St Botolph and St Edmund.
St Felix, Apostle of East Anglia
Felix was born at the end of the sixth century in Burgundy in what is now eastern France. As a young man he became a monk and priest, perhaps under the influence of the Irish monastery of St Columban at Luxeuil in Burgundy. It was here that he met a royal exile from East Anglia, Sigebert, to whom Felix introduced Christianity and baptised.
When in 630 Sigebert returned to East Anglia, he asked Felix to come and evangelise his kingdom and Felix was duly consecrated, apparently by Honorius, the saintly Archbishop of Canterbury. Sailing up from Kent, local tradition has it that Bishop Felix made landfall at the ruined Roman fortress at what is now Felixstowe. Although some believe that Bishop Felix made his base at Felixstowe, most believe that his See was fixed further up the Suffolk coast at the then thriving port of Dunwich.
Bishop Felix set about missionary work all over East Anglia. Suffolk lore says that it was he who taught local people how to build churches with the flint that lies so abundantly on Suffolk fields. Apart from his Cathedral and a School which we believe were in Dunwich, and his activities in and near the Felixstowe peninsula, for example at Hallowtree and near Sutton Hoo, he was also active in the north of the county. Here at Beccles and in the village of Flixton (believed like Felixstowe to have been named after St Felix), he preached the Faith. Also he seems to have sailed up the Stour and been active in the south of the county, at Sudbury as well as in central Suffolk, founding with the future St Sigebert, a monastery at what is now Bury St Edmunds.
Outside Suffolk St Felix is also said to have founded the oldest church in Norfolk at Babingley, near Sandringham. The nearby villages of Shernborne and Flitcham, which is said to have been named after St Felix, retain links with St Felix. The holy bishop also preached near Swaffham at Saham Toney and perhaps at Cockley Cley where a very ancient church still stands. The saint was also present near Yarmouth at Loddon and Reedham and in this area he worked closely with an Irish missionary, St Fursey. Finally tradition tells that Bishop Felix founded a monastery at Soham in Cambridgeshire.
Bishop Felix worked with the full approval of the pious King of East Anglia, Sigebert. After he died in 635, Sigebert was succeeded by his cousin, Anna. This man was the father of several holy children, the most famous of whom is St Audrey, who was baptised and instructed in the faith by Bishop Felix, thus ensuring the continuation of his apostolic work after his repose. Bishop Felix passed away on 8 March 647 and was at once honoured as the Apostle of East Anglia and a Saint.
St Audrey of Ely
Audrey was born in 630 on the royal estate of the East Anglian Kings at Exning in west Suffolk, and was the daughter of Anna, the future King of East Anglia. Her Old English name was ‘Aethelthryth’, meaning ‘noble strength’, which later came to take the form ‘Etheldred’ and then ‘Audrey’. Baptised by the Apostle of East Anglia, St Felix, it was he who also instructed her in the Faith.
As a young woman Audrey was strongly drawn to the monastic life through the influences of St Felix and also St Felix’ friend St Aidan and the disciple of the latter, the future Abbess Hilda. However, in c. 652 she was obliged to marry a noble from the Fens. As her dowry she received the town of Ely and the surrounding Isle. Before the marriage could possibly be consummated, her husband died in 655. Although she had hoped to start monastic life in Ely, in 660 she was once more for political reasons obliged to marry the fifteen-year old King of Northumbria and thus became the Queen of Northumbria. This marriage too she refused to consummate and probably often visited the monastery of her old friend St Hilda in Whitby. Finally, in 672 she separated from her husband by mutual consent and then began for her the life she had been destined for. Now at last she was made a nun at the monastery of St Ebbe in the north of England.
In 673 Audrey returned to Ely. Here she set up a monastery for both monks and nuns and became its Abbess. She donated to it extensive lands in east Suffolk around the town of Woodbridge. She lived here in an exemplary manner, leading ‘a heavenly life in word and deed’. Giving up royal luxury, she wore simple clothes and ate only once a day. She spent many hours a day in church at prayer and obtained the gift of knowledge of the future. In fact she prophesied her own repose in 679.
In the year 696 it was discovered that her body was incorrupt, ‘as if she had died and been buried that very day’. Several miracles occurred and it was clear that Audrey was a saint, as had long been thought. For centuries after St Audrey was venerated as a saint and became the greatest woman-saint of East Anglia. Her shrine in Ely attracted pilgrims from far and wide and many girls were and are still named after her. Even today her right hand remains intact and is venerated at the Roman Catholic church in Ely. St Audrey is indeed a source of ‘noble strength’ for Christians today.
St Botolph of Iken
Botolph (correctly Botulf) was born of a noble East Anglian family in about 615. After baptism as a child, he probably received instruction from the Irish missionary Fursey who had settled in East Anglia in about 631. It seems that Botolph may have become a monk at St Fursey’s monastery at Burgh Castle in the north of Suffolk.
After this Botolph travelled widely. He may well have obtained monastic experience in Sussex and then in northern France. Returning to England, he may have travelled to both Northumbria and Shropshire. He also seems to have spent time in Lincolnshire at the town of Boston, which seems to be named after him and where the local church is dedicated to him. He then came back to East Anglia and in 654 he began building a monastery at Iken near Aldeburgh by the Suffolk coast. A remote spot on the southern bank of the winding estuary of the River Alde, this was an ideal site for monastic life. The thatched church which stands on that site is still today dedicated to St Botolph.
Here Botolph suffered much from evil spirits whom he expelled with the sign of the cross. He gathered a community of monks who cultivated the land, turning desolate marshland into fruitful farmland. Abbot Botolph was revered for his miracles, holiness, gift of prophecy and charity to the needy, always practising what he preached. Taking advantage of the extensive river network in East Anglia, from here he sailed along rivers to do missionary work all over East Anglia, especially in Suffolk, but also to Essex and Kent. Famed as a man of holy life and learning, ‘full of the grace of the Holy Spirit’, Botolph received the visits of many monks from elsewhere.
A model Abbot, Botolph, wearied by age and care, reposed on 17 June 680 and was at once revered as a saint. His fame spread all over England and altogether sixty-four ancient churches were dedicated to him. Although the majority of these were in eastern England, there are dedications to him in parts of England, perhaps in remembrance of his travels. Notably all four Gates of the City of London had chapels inside them dedicated to St Botolph. His fame even spread abroad, especially to Holland, northern Germany and Denmark. And by the eleventh century veneration of him was even taken to Kiev. He is considered to be the patron-saint of travellers and also traders and is remembered in connection with good weather and abundance of crops.
St Edmund, King and Martyr
Edmund (correctly Eadmund) was born in 841 of devout Christian parents. His name means ‘blessed protection’. As a child he learnt the importance of prayer and knew the psalms by heart.
From 855 Edmund’s movements have been traced by historians. In that year we know for example of his presence in Hunstanton Norfolk at a place now called St Edmund’s Point, where still today may be found St Edmund’s well and the ruins of St Edmund’s chapel. From here his movements have been traced to Attleborough in Norfolk from where he went to Wessex. On 5 November 855 Edmund took part at a great Council of the English nobility in the Wessex capital, Winchester. Here the gathered nobles allied themselves to fight the growing menace of the pagan Danes, the Vikings.
Towards the end of 856 the young prince Edmund was chosen as King of East Anglia at the royal palace at Caistor St Edmund outside Norwich. On Christmas Day 856, aged only fifteen, he was anointed and crowned King of East Anglia at Bures, a strategic crossing-place on the Suffolk-Essex border. The image we have of Edmund is that of a devout and noble King, so dedicated to the defence and well-being of his people that he did not even marry. He was ‘wise and honourable…humble and devout…bountiful to the poor and to widows like a father.., raised up by God to be the defender of his Church’. However, a great storm broke over his peace-loving kingdom in 865 with a full-scale Danish invasion of East Anglia.
Edmund organised resistance as he could to the invasion and was active at Orford, near Framlingham and elsewhere even outside East Anglia in order to defend England from the Danes. Thus in 868 he fought alongside the future King Alfred the Great to deliver Nottingham. In East Anglia he was also active in building or rebuilding a defensive dyke to the east of Cambridge, known still today as ‘St Edmund’s Ditch’ in the area of ‘St Edmund’s Fen’. In 869, however, the Danes returned to East Anglia with a huge army. They sacked many monasteries, including Ely ands Soham. In the late autumn Edmund the King gave battle at Thetford in Norfolk and although inflicting heavy losses, he was forced to retire to Hoxne in north Suffolk.
Here he refused Danish offers of peace at a price and remained faithful to Christianity, saying: ‘It is needful that I alone should die for my people, that the whole nation should not perish’. Edmund was seized by the Danes, refusing to defend himself, though he had defended others. The Danes insulted him and beat him. Refusing to renounce his faith, Edmund said: ‘Living or dead, nothing shall separate me from the love of Christ’. Then Edmund was tied to an oak-tree, whipped and had arrows fired at him. Calling on the name of the Saviour to the end, Edmund was finally beheaded. It was Monday 20 November 869. The Danes then left the area, flinging Edmund’s head into thick brambles nearby. Later people who came searching for the head of the Martyr, were alerted to its presence by the howling of a wolfhound.
Edmund was buried at a chapel at Hoxne and miracles soon followed. The most extraordinary of these was that within a generation the Danes who had martyred him had accepted Christianity and were themselves venerating their victim, Edmund, as a saint. At the beginning of the tenth century Edmund’s body was moved to the monastic town of Bedricsworth which then became known as Bury St Edmunds. In the centuries to come, this became a great shrine and one of the finest and largest monasteries in all England. All the more so since for some five centuries Edmund the noble champion was to become not only the patron-saint of East Anglia but also the patron-saint of all England. Edmund was indeed a national hero, the light from the East, a ‘blessed protection’ for East Anglia and all England.
We have spoken of four saints with very different destinies. One was a Bishop and a Confessor. Another, his spiritual daughter, was a Queen and an Abbess. A third was an Abbot and a Missionary. The last was a King and a Martyr.
Two, St Audrey and St Edmund, are associated with sites inland, at Exning and Ely and at Hoxne and Bury St Edmunds. Two, St Felix and St Botolph, are associated with sites by the sea, at Felixstowe and Dunwich and at Iken and Boston. Sea and land are thus united in these saints of God.
The first three, St Felix, St Audrey and St Botolph all belong to the golden age of English churchmanship, which lasted from the beginning of the seventh century to the end of the eighth. The last, St Edmund, helped lay the sacrificial foundations of the silver age of English piety during the tenth century. We might well wonder if together these saints cannot even now inspire us to attain to a bronze age of churchmanship in England in our own Third Millennium.
One of the extraordinary things about these saints is that if we were to draw lines connecting up the places associated with them, Felixstowe, Exning, Iken and Hoxne, we would find that in such a way a cross is drawn over Suffolk, linking south to north, and east to west. In fact, together they consecrated Suffolk to Christ and that is why we must remember them and call on them today, that they might consecrate Suffolk to Christ once more.