01 December 2018

Venerable Botwulf, Abbot of Icanho

Saint Botwulf the Abbot

Today, the first of December, we celebrate the translation of the relics of yet another great Benedictine monk of England and widely-beloved saint, Botwulf the Venerable, Abbot of Icanho – after whom over sixty-four churches in England were once dedicated. One of the earliest East Anglian saints and a particular patron of travellers and pilgrims, Botwulf the Venerable kept steadily and humbly to his work despite the political and religious turmoil that surrounded him, and indeed founded a significant number of monasteries further afield than his own native Suffolk.

Botwulf, an East Angle born around 615, was the elder of two brothers, the younger being Æðelwulf. While they were both yet young, the East Angles fell away from Christianity and began again worshipping heathen idols – however, thanks to the vigorous missionary efforts of the Irish mystic Saint Fursey, who founded a monastery at Burgh, the relapse into heathenry was blessedly only temporary. The brothers Botwulf and Æðelwulf took their education at Saint Fursey’s monastic school at Burgh, and were tonsured as monks there. When the heathen Penda King of Mercia attacked the East Angles, the two brothers fled southward into Sussex, where they joined a monastery in Bosham led by Saint Deicola.

As one may witness from his patronage, Botwulf did not keep the Benedictine rule of stability particularly well: he travelled to Francia to learn the spiritual disciplines from the monks there; and upon his return he became, like Saint Fursey, a determined missionary in various parts of his native England. He founded a monastery at Icanho, and dedicated it to the memory of the lately-reposed Anna King of the East Angles, who had fallen in battle against another Mercian invasion. It is said that Saint Botwulf struggled mightily against, and drove away, the dæmons that lived in the brackish fens that surrounded the site of the monastery – the land afterward became blessedly fertile and good for the monks and the surrounding freeholders to reclaim and farm. It is on this account that Botwulf became especially beloved of workers of the earth, and is often shown in holy art depicting him with a scythe or a plough.

The abbot Botwulf became widely known as a starets, a beloved elder and spiritual father to many (both monks and layfolk, both high and low in earthly stead), and his monastery grew in renown throughout England. As it says in his English hagiography:
All loved Botwulf: he was always humble, modest, friendly and mild in communication, proved the truth of his sermons by the example of his life… He taught his monks the rules of Christian perfection and the decrees of the Church Fathers. He thanked God both in good and sorrowful times alike, knowing that He makes everything for the good of those who love Him.
Very much like his northern contemporary and fellow-monastic Saint Hilda, Abbot Botwulf took the commonality and the poverty of the monastic life very seriously. One time in particular, he gave away the whole of the monastery’s stock of foodstuffs to the poor, and was scolded by his brother-monks for his profligacy. However, the brothers were soon stunned into awed silence when they beheld boats sailing upriver to Icanho bearing gifts from wealthy donors. Botwulf, a keen river-man from his youth, boated all through the newly-rechristened East Anglia preaching the Gospel and making the East Angles steadfast in their twice-found faith; it is for this reason that many of the churches dedicated to Saint Botwulf – from Lincs in the north and Shropshire in the west down to Kent and Sussex in the southeast – stand on riverbanks. Whether from Icanho or in his travels afield within England, the holy abbot wrought wonders and gave good rede to his monastic sons. Icanho became renowned as a great centre of holiness, drawing thither for spiritual and practical help all kinds of folk from princes and abbots down to farmers.

Again like Saint Hilda, Saint Botwulf was stricken in his later years with a lingering illness, from which he gave forth no complaint but instead gave thanks to God and turned his attention inward. Indeed, he reposed in the same year, 680, as his sister-abbot in the north. As it turned out, his relics travelled as far abroad and themselves worked wonders as he had during his life; many of them found their way to Ely, Bury St Edmunds, Thorney and London, where a number of churches were righted in his honour. Saint Botwulf’s memory has been cherished faithfully by many generations of English Catholics (and also Orthodox Christians), as well as Christians in the Teutonic countries like Sweden, Denmark, Frisia, Saxony and Kievan Rus’.

Venerable Elder Botwulf, our father among the Saints, pray to Christ our God for us sinners!

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