St Guthlac was an Anglo-Saxon saint who lived the latter part of his life in Lincolnshire. However a chapel dedicated to his name once existed in Norfolk, in the now deserted village of Stow to the on the West Acre Road near Swaffham. The hamlet was very small, and was located around Irelands Cottage, a place which may still be found on the map. It is interesting that the Anglo-Saxon word Stow (meaning Holy Place) was commonly used in conjunction with a saint’s name for a location closely associated with that saint. Thus we have Felixstowe which is associated with St Felix, the first bishop of East Anglia. His Cathedral of Dumnoc was almost certainly nearby in the Roman fort now lost to the sea. St Benet’s Stow was how the monk Ælfric referred to Fleury on the river Loire in France where St Benedict was buried. The full name of the Norfolk hamlet was Guthlacks-Stow. What was St Guthlac’s special connection with Norfolk I wonder?
The chapel appears to have been established in about 1160, but personally I think there must have been an association with Guthlac before this date. The word Stow is an Anglo-Saxon one; surely the place-name dates from the Anglo-Saxon period. By the twelfth century new settlements had Norman French names. I think the connection between Guthlac and this place in Norfolk goes back to his own time.
Nevertheless his most important link is with Lincolnshie. All the details we have of St Guthlac’s life suggest that he was interred in the Fenland village of Crowland where he had lived as hermit for many years. It was there that the Mercian king (a friend of Guthlac) established his shrine within a few years of his death.
Guthlac was the son of a Mercian noble and fought in the Mercian army as a young man, but as a penance for a violent attack on a colleague he joined the monastery at Repton. After some time in the monastery he determined to live a solitary existence as a hermit in the Fens and he and two companions went to Croyland (later known a Crowland). This was in homage to the early Christian fathers who retired to the wilderness. He ate cakes of unbaked barley meal and only allowed himself these meagre morsels after sundown. The damp surroundings frequently gave him Fen fever. It sounds a very uncomfortable existence.
It is revealing that the demons that attacked him in visions spoke in the British tongue, a language that Guthlac understood through having lived among Britons in the west of England. Obviously the British represented an alien and evil force to the English, despite their having already been Christian while the Anglo-Saxons were still pagans. The Britons had been driven out of the East by the Anglo-Saxons as is shown by a recently produced map of the genetic make-up of Britain. Undoubtedly we East Anglians killed many Britons and the results may still be seen in out genes.
The reason we know so much about Guthlac’s life is that his story was written down by Felix, a monk of East Anglia (not the bishop, who died before Guthlac was born). His Vita sancta Guthlaci was written within living memory of his time. I can even give you the date of his death, which occurred 1300 year ago in 714 on the 11 April, his feast day. The Abbey at Crowland became the richest in the Fens and Guthlac was a very popular saint. However, his popularity waned with passing of the Anglo-Saxon period, when the lives of the pre-Norman saints were regarded as rather old-fashioned. Crowland Abbey remained dedicated to St Guthlac just as Bury St Edmund Abbey remained the shrine of the martyred East Anglian king, but these saints both lost out to other ones. Edmund was superseded as Patron Saint of England by St George, while St Guthlac became a minor local figure instead of one of national importance.
In Norfolk the chapel at Stow had almost certainly already been abandoned before the Reformation, although it appears in a will dated 1464, when some money was left to repair the roof. Puritanism became rife in 16th century East Anglia and Protestant sensibilities were not favourable the preservation of the memory of medieval saints. By the 18th century Guthlac had lost his sanctified title and even his name had been corrupted to Goodluck! Goodluck Close is referred to in James Bell’s Gazetteer of England and Wales (1836), so St Guthlac had some vestige of a memorial 200 years ago. The exact site of the chapel is unknown, but the graveyard may have been identified from a number of medieval skeletons unearthed in 1959. There is now no visible reminder either of Goodluck or his close. There is a road named St Guthlac’s Close in Swaffham, but this modern development is not in the old hamlet of Stow.
St Guthlac has been more fortunate in the Fens. There the Abbey church of Crowland is still dedicated to him and being the parish church still holds regular services. Guthlac’s Scroll, originally from Crowland Abbey is now held in the British Library. This scroll contains a series of beautifully illustrated 13th century roundels telling the story of his life and death.