Saint Wistan – the death and afterlife of an Anglo-Saxon saint

Speaker: Douglas Clinton

15 May 2018

At the May meeting of Thurcaston and Cropston Local History Society we heard from Douglas Clinton about St Wistan, his death and afterlife.  He described the story of the murder, sanctification and cult of the 9th century Mercian prince Wistan (aka Wystan or Wigstan).

It is thought Wistan died at Wistow Leicestershire in 849 AD. At that time it would have been the Bishop who awarded sainthoods not the Pope, so in Wistan’s case it would have been the Bishop of Leicester who gave his approval.

Wistan came from a line of Mercian kings descended from Offa.  He was the son of Wigmund and Aelfflaed (both offspring of Mercian kings).  Beorhtfrith was Wistan’s godfather, he wanted to marry Wistan’s widowed mother Aelfflaed, but Wistan refused, saying they were too closely related and it was against Church law.  Beorhtfrith went to visit him, supposedly in peace, but when they greeted each other he struck Wistan on his head with his dagger and his servant stabbed him with a sword, killing him and his companions.

Wistan’s death came prior to the Viking invasions.  The Vikings destroyed many documents so there is little written evidence of the time.  John of Worcester’s account, written two centuries later states “on 1st June on the eve of Whitsun Beorhtfrith son of Beorhtwulf King of the Mercians unjustly slew his kinsman St Wistan.  This man was the grandson of two Kings of Mercia”… when he died ”a column of light stretched up to heaven and remained visible for 30 days”. Wistan’s body was taken to Repton and buried in the tomb of his grandfather King Wiglaf.

Repton was a place of pilgrimage, but later St Wistan’s relics were moved to Evesham Abbey.  After the Norman Conquest, abbots questioned how saintly these local saints really were.  The Abbott of Evesham had Wistan’s severed head subjected to an ‘ordeal by fire’ which it survived unscathed!  In 1207 disaster struck Repton when the central tower of the church collapsed and broke the skull of St Wistan.

What ultimately became of his remains is unknown…