Most EAST ANGLIAN saints can be traced back to Anglo-Saxon times. St Audrey or St Etheldreda (d.679) was Abbess of Ely, and the tombstone of her steward may still be seen there in the South Aisle of the Cathedral. She was a princess, and many of these early saints were members of the royal family. St Ethelbert was another royal, king of East Anglia, who was martyred in Hereford. He was there wooing his bride to be. The cathedral there is dedicated to SS Mary and Ethelbert.
St Guthlac was not of royal blood, but he was of noble birth. He cannot be called East Anglian as he came from Lincolnshire and lived in Mercia, but as there was cell established in his name at Swaffham I will include him. We know rather more of his life than we do of St Botulph; we can say that he too was not of royal blood, although he was a very popular saint in the middle ages. There are St Botulph churches as far apart as London and Boston in Lincolnshire, but his abbey was on the river Alde in Suffolk.
St Walstan was reputedly a royal scion, but his time was long after the East Anglian royal family had died out, so it is hard to reconcile this claim with the story of his life. He was born either in Blythburgh in Suffolk or Bawburgh in Norfolk. The similarity of the names of the two villages suggests a degree of confusion, but indications of his cult can be traced to both places. His shrine was certainly established in Bawburgh, where he was buried, and where St Walstan’s Well is again a place of pilgrimage.
The most famous East Anglian saint was undoubtedly another king, shot with arrows while tied to a tree by the Danish invaders. There are many churches dedicated to his name, especially in Norfolk. St Edmund‘s shine at Bury St Edmunds was one of the major pilgrimage destinations of pre-Reformation England, but Walsingham in Norfolk must rate as slightly more important in this respect. However, as Walsingham related to a vision of the Virgin Mary, not to a local saint, it should cannot feature in this lit of local saints.
All these saints were venerated in the Anglo-Saxon period, and the coming of the Norman kings spelled the end of local saints. This had more to do with the introduction of Papal Canonization by Pope Urban II (1089-99), which largely removed the possibility of the creation of saints on a purely local level. An exception is one Norwich based saint from this latter period. Her name is Mother Julian; she lived in the 14th century, but her reputation as a Divine did not become established until at least three hundred years later. Her writings were not widely known during her lifetime, and so far as they were read at all they seemed heretical to the orthodoxy of the time. In Norfolk she was known and respected as a spiritual guide among the populace. Canonization in the official sense has never been bestowed on her by the Roman Catholic church, although she is accepted as a saint with her official saint’s day.
Although the Reformation produced a fresh crop of martyrs on both sides, the Puritans did not go in for the creation of new saints. This is not true of the Catholic martyrs, and I will end this list of local saints with St Robert Southwell. He was born at Horsham St Faiths, an adjacent parish to Taverham where St Walstan had worked as a farm labourer. It is only a few miles from where I am writing this – now the site of Norwich International Airport! He was executed under Queen Elizabeth I (to whom he nevertheless professed his allegiance). Sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn, he was saved from the full horrors of that dreadful death by a bystander, who tugged at his feet while the noose was around his neck. Only his lifeless body remained to be disembowelled. This was in the year 1595.
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