ST WALSTAN OF BAWBURGH
In the year 975 a child was born in the village of Bawburgh, a few miles to the west of Norwich in Norfolk(1). His parents were called Benedict and Blide and were nobles related to the English Royal Family of the House of Wessex. His mother indeed was a kinswoman of King Ethelred and his son Edmund Ironside(2). This child was baptized Walstan.
From the example of his parents, who possessed books, the child Walstan studied the Scriptures. In particular he was troubled by the meaning and implications of a verse in the Gospel of St Luke (14, 33): 'Whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple'. At the age of seven Walstan received instruction in the Faith from Bishop Theodred of Elmham with the assistance of Fr Ælred, the parish priest of Bawburgh. At this early date the child Walstan pledged to renounce all for love of God, asking not for an earthly crown as he of noble blood might perhaps expect, but for a crown of thorns and an eternal reward. He vowed to devote himself to God in humility and anonymity, forsaking the material security of his home and his ties of nobility.
Shortly before his thirteenth birthday, Walstan told his parents that he must now leave their home. Although forewarned of their son's renunciation in a dream, Benedict and Blide were reluctant to let their son depart. Eventually, however, they realised that this was God's Will for him and they consented to his wish(3).
Thus Walstan left his parents' home and took to the road. Almost at once he met two beggars to whom he gave his rich garments. He then walked on northwards, clad in the poorest of clothes, with no outward sign of his parents' wealth. Within an hour or so the path had taken him to the village of Taverham, only a few miles north of Bawburgh, where he rested. A landed peasant called Nalga saw him and, in need of a labourer, offered Walstan work. The latter agreed.
Walstan soon gained a reputation for hard work and piety and also developed an affinity with the poor and was charitable in the extreme, giving both his food and clothing to those less fortunate than himself. Often he would carry out his work barefoot, having given away even his shoes. Nalga's wife, seeing him thus, once gave him new shoes and extra food. Within a short time Walstan had given all away to two passing beggars, one of them barefoot. When Nalga and his wife heard this, they were angry with him, but Walstan answered that the men had been sent providentially by God to find out whether he, Walstan, loved God more than himself: 'I shod Christ in the poor man', he said. The wife sneered at this and ordered Walstan to take a cart to the forest to fetch a load of briars, treading the thorns well down with his unshod feet. Miraculously, Walstan appeared to be treading on rose leaves and the thorns, as soft as petals ever were, gave out a sweet fragrance. Seeing this, Nalga and his wife fell at Walstan's feet and begged forgiveness. Thus did Walstan 'forsake all' to be the Lord's disciple and win 'a crown of thorns'.
Over the years Walstan became known and loved for his prayer and fasting, hard work, chastity and love for all. As a sign of His approval, God allowed miracles to occur through His servant. Animals were brought to him to be healed and people too claimed cures through his prayers and ministrations. Whatever he did, God blessed. Everything prospered through his labours. All the while he continued to live in poverty, keeping his royal identity a secret and giving away the money he earned. Such was the secret of his anonymity that even his parents, only a few miles away at Bawburgh, never came to suspect that the good-hearted labourer at Taverham, of whom they must have heard, could be their son.
So it was that Nalga and his wife, having no children of their own, grew to love Walstan and made him many gifts, wanting to make him their heir. True to his self-denial in accordance with the Gospel, he refused all this, continuing to labour on the land for thirty years of unbroken service. Finally, he did accept from Nalga the gift of two white calves and a small wagon. However this was not for covetousness sake but to fulfil God's Will, an angel having commanded him to do so.
In May 1016, at the start of hay making, Walstan was mowing with another labourer when an angel appeared to him, saying: 'Brother Walstan, on the third day after this thou shalt depart this life in peace and enter Paradise'. At once Walstan put down his scythe and went in search of the village priest. The next day, being a Saturday, Walstan stopped work at midday in accordance with the laws of the Church, for this was the eve of the Sabbath Day. Then there could be heard the ringing of heavenly bells and an indescribable unearthly music: the heavens opened and angels appeared ringing to the glory and praise of the Undivided Trinity.
Now, that Saturday afternoon Nalga went to the market in Norwich, which was then under the government of the Danish King Canute. To his amazement he heard there a proclamation that anyone knowing the whereabouts of Walstan, son of Benedict and Blide and kinsman of the English King Edmund of the House of Wessex, should inform the authorities. Nalga learned that the Danes under Canute were about to take over the whole of England. The proclamation warned that whoever was sheltering Walstan must deliver him up forthwith or else forsake both his wealth and his life. Alarmed, Nalga hastened back to Taverham. 'What shall I say', he asked, 'when I tell the Danes that all the while I have kept thee, heir to the Kingdom of England, here'. Walstan answered that he must tell the truth and that he was his servant. He then disclosed the angelic revelation and asked Nalga to tell the priest to come to him on Monday when Walstan would be at work so that he could confess and take communion.
Thus it was that on Monday 30 May 1016 the village priest came to Walstan as he was mowing in the fields. He had worked with his scythe until the morning ended and then his hour came. As the priest prepared to give Walstan communion, he realised that he had no water to wash their hands. Walstan prayed and at once a spring gushed up before him as he knelt in prayer. Having then taken communion, he told those gathered there that after his repose, they were to place his body on the wagon and yoke it to the two white calves. No one should lead them, but the calves should go where God pleased. He then besought God that every sick labourer and beast should obtain healing of their infirmity, provided that they asked with reverent devotion. At that a voice was heard from heaven, saying: 'O Holy Walstan, that which thou hast asked is granted. Come from thy labours and rest'
With that Walstan gave up the ghost and a white dove was seen flying upwards.
As directed, Nalga and the people of Taverham laid Walstan's body on the wagon and attached the calves to it. The calves then proceeded along the banks of the River Wensum and through a wood. At the deepest point of the river they crossed, passing over the water dry shod and those who followed passed along dry wheel tracks and hoof prints. The white calves came to Costessey Wood nearby and stopped to rest. Here a second spring gushed forth and flowed with clear water.
The procession, gaining in numbers, then continued, crossing marsh and mire, until they came to Walstan's birthplace, Bawburgh, near where the land rises away from the banks of the River Yare. Here they paused again and a third spring gushed up. The calves then mounted the steep hill to the Church and entered through an opening in the wall, made by angels, which then closed up behind them. They remained there until the third afternoon when Bishop Ælfgar of Elmham came with monks for the funeral service.
The Bishop, knowing from his predecessor Theodred something of Walstan's childhood, listened attentively to Nalga and the local people. They told him of the many wonders of Walstan and the Bishop made diligent enquiries as to the truth(4). Then, being satisfied, he allowed the relics to be venerated as those of a Saint and sent notice to that effect to all the neighbouring churches (5).
The body was enshrined in a chapel in the north transept of Bawburgh church. With the Bishop's blessing and by popular consent (6), the site became a place of pilgrimage. Through Walstan's intercessions, the Lord bestowed miracles of healing on man and beast alike and all those who sought healing at the three springs were rewarded with cure. In particular the possessed were exorcised, the deaf and dumb were healed and those with troubled eyesight had it restored by bathing their eyes in the water from the spring at Bawburgh. And in 1047 the enhanced church and shrine chapel were rededicated by Bishop Æthelmar of Elmham to Mary the Mother of God and St Walstan.
The veneration of St Walstan survived 'the first reformation of the English Church'(7); the 'Old Faith' continued for a while yet. St Walstan was portrayed in a number of mediæval churches with other 'Eastern Saints'. Thus at Great Ryburgh in Norfolk, he may be seen with St Felix, St Audrey and St Withburgh. At Fritton on the Norfolk-Suffolk border, he is portrayed together with St Felix, St Fursey, St Audrey and St Withburgh. At Foxearth on the Essex-Suffolk border he is shown on a screen together with St Alban, St Felix and St Edmund. His portraits depict him with a scythe and a crown or sceptre, at times with the two white calves in the background. St Walstan was particularly beloved of East Anglian farmers and farm workers. Indeed his shrine continued as a site of pilgrimage until the second reformation of the English Church. Sadly at that 'reformation', the holy relics were burned and the shrine chapel destroyed in 1538.
However, local veneration has continued right up to the present time and people have continued to bathe their eyes in the springs, place moss from the springs on their eyes, especially that from Bawburgh, and also give the waters to sick animals. At Taverham one may still find 'Walstanham Plantation', the reputed site of Nalga's farm and the Saint's repose. In the nineteenth century, if not more recently, local Catholics baptised their sons 'Walstan'. Annual pilgrimages were revived at the beginning of the twentieth century; that of 1912 united five hundred people. They have continued regularly ever since. Healings have taken place within living memory. As recently as 1989 St Walstan was declared 'Patron-Saint of British Food and Farming'. And in 1998 there took place the first Orthodox pilgrimage to Bawburgh, which is to be continued in the future (8).
Holy Righteous Walstan, pray to God for us!
(1) The Life of St Walstan provides a good example of a local saint. His veneration never spread outside the Eastern Counties. Details of his Life were no doubt compiled by the East Anglian bishops of the first half of the eleventh century, but all was later lost. The Life as it now appears was probably written down only in the fourteenth century and the versions that we have are later still. We have therefore removed from its retelling here mediæval anachronisms such as Walstan's first communion at age seven. (Right up until the end of the twelfth century, confirmation and therefore communion followed baptism very closely, usually within weeks or months in accordance with ancient Christian tradition).
(2) According to the Life of St Walstan, his mother Blide was related to Elgiva, the first wife of King Ethelred 'the Unready'. Ethelred's fateful rule had begun from the martyrdom of his half-brother Edward the Martyr on 18 March 978 and lasted until 23 April 1015 when he died. Ethelred would never have been King if it had not been for Edward's martyrdom. Everything this hapless man undertook went awry and he not only managed to lose most of his Kingdom to the Danish Canute at the beginning of the eleventh century but also married a second time into the Norman ruling family, thus ensuring the Norman Invasion in 1066. He was succeeded by his valiant son Edmund 'Ironside', who nearly defeated the Danish Cnut or Canute. Edmund fathered two children between 1016 and 1017 but he himself died on 30 November 1016. Blide or 'Blythe', whose name means 'Joy', reposed in old age. She was revered as a saint at Martham, some fifteen miles to the north west of Norwich where she was buried. Here a chapel was dedicated to her and there was a local cult in Norfolk. We do not know the date of her feast.
(3) It is interesting to note the resemblance between the Life of the Righteous St Walstan and that of St Alexis of Rome, 'the Man of God', commemorated on 17 March.
(4) The Bishops of Norfolk referred to in the Life are all historic figures. Their See was then at North Elmham in central Norfolk. This was transferred to Thetford and then Norwich only later by the Normans. Theodred II was bishop from 980 to 995, Ælfgar from 1001 to 1021 and Æthelmar from 1047 to 1070.
(5) This would have been the starting-point of the first written Life of St Walstan - since lost.
(6) In Orthodox theology these few words are the very definition of the difference between 'glorification' (popular consent and veneration) and 'canonisation' (official investigation and episcopal blessing and confirmation). Some do not realise this and incorrectly deny the existence of the canonisation process in the Orthodox Church. Of course that process is very different from that in the Roman Catholic Church. The latter only developed its present canonisation process in the Middle Ages.
(7) See Carol Twinch, In Search of St Walstan, Norwich 1995, P. 36.
(8) For a description of the 1998 Orthodox Pilgrimage, see Orthodox England, Vol 2, No 3.
(c) Orthodox England - Published within the English Deanery of the Church Outside Russia: with the blessing of the Very Reverend Mark, Archbishop of Great Britain and Ireland.