Saint Guthlac, Warrior and Hermit

Speaker: Douglas Clinton

21 January 2020

2020 marks the 20th anniversary of the founding of the Thurcaston and Cropston Local History Society. We celebrated this anniversary with a glass of bubbly at the beginning of this first meeting of 2020, which was also our first meeting in our new venue, Thurcaston Memorial Hall. (Membership has increased so much over the years that we needed to change our venue!) With the increased space, we were able to make use of our display boards, focussing on two Saxon artefacts, discovered locally by the late Mr Brian Kimberley and donated by him to the care of the Society. It was good to have space to see them and to find out all about them.

Our meeting focussed on Saint Guthlac, Warrior and Hermit. Speaker Douglas Clinton introduced us to this ‘local’ saint via his timeline and his family tree. Guthlac (c. 674 - 714) was the son of a nobleman in the English kingdom of Mercia. His sister Pega is also venerated as a Saint. As a young man, Guthlac fought in the army of Æthelred of Mercia, fighting the British on the borders of Wales. At the age of 24, he became a monk at Repton Monastery, Derbyshire. Two years later he sought to live the life of a hermit, moving to the island of Croyland, now Crowland, on St Bartholomew's Day AD 699. Crowland then was an uninhabited island, accessible only by boat, and deep in the wild and desolate marshland separating Mercia and East Anglia. Here Guthlac built a shelter, cut into the side of a burial-mound, in which he lived austerely for the rest of his life. We are told he was tormented by demons, but consoled by visions of angels. His reputation for sanctity and for performing miraculous healings spread far afield and continued to grow after his death. (For much of our knowledge of Guthlac, we are indebted to Saint Felix, his life-long friend, whose biography of Guthlac was written c. 735.)

Guthlac’s sister Pega became an anchorite, and, according to a thirteenth-century writer, initially lived near Guthlac at Crowland. On one occasion, apparently, the devil took her form and tried to persuade Guthlac to break his vow never to eat before sunset. To prevent further attempts of this nature, Guthlac ordered Pega to leave the island. She did, and they never met again. She became a solitary in the neighbourhood of Crowland, and Peakirk, Pega's Church, is named for her. The Feast Day of St. Guthlac is April 11th. He is often depicted with St. Bartholomew, his patron, who gave him a scourge with which to do penance and to defeat the demons.

Several Leicestershire and Lincolnshire churches are dedicated to St Guthlac, most recently the church of St Guthlac in Knighton, Leicester. Knighton lies at the northernmost edge of Guthlaxton, an ancient hundred of Leicestershire. At the time of the Domesday Book, Guthlaxton was one of Leicestershire's four wapentakes, an Anglo-Saxon administrative district. It covered a large area, including Market Bosworth, Hinckley, Lutterworth and Wigston Magna. The wapentake’s original meeting place was at ‘Guthlac’s stone’, which was apparently sited next to the Fosse Way.

Our speaker raised a lot of interest and fielded quite a few questions.