01 February 2019

The light of London

Saint Eorcenwald, Bishop of London
At London in Englonde noʒt fulle longe tyme
Sythen Crist suffride on crosse and cristendome stablyde
Ther was a byschop in that burghe blessyd and sacryd
Saynt Erkenwolde as I hope that holy mon hatte
In his tyme in that ton the temple aldergrattyst
Was drawen don that one dole to dedifie new
For hit hethen had bene in Hengyst dawes…

  - From the Middle English poem St Erkenwald, written ca. 1386
The first of February is the feast of the translation of the relics of Saint Eorcenwald, Abbot of Chertsey and Bishop of London – one of the saints of Barking.

We don’t know much about the early life of Eorcenwald, except that he was probably of high birth and was an early convert to Christianity, probably under Saint Mellitus of Canterbury. He took holy orders, and was appointed by Saint Theodore of Tarsus as bishop for the East Angles at London. He sold away his share of his family’s wealth in order to establish two Benedictine houses of prayer – in this way anticipating the great Benedict of the North, Saint Biscop. For men, he established the abbey at Chertsey over which he himself presided as Abbot; and for women he established the cloister at Barking, over which his sister Æþelburg was placed as Abbess, with the saintly Mother Hildalíþ as her tutor. The two monastic siblings remained very close lifelong, and would accompany each other on journeys when the occasion arose. Saint Eorcenwald suffered from gout, and was not able to stand or walk for long distances without great pain – he had to be carried on a rickshaw by one of his brother-monks when the need arose for him to journey.

A Middle English poem, of which the first verses are quoted above, survives, recounting one of the miracles Saint Eorcenwald performed at Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London. When repairs were being made to the building, the workers uncovered the body of a man wearing a crown and holding a sceptre. Saint Eorcenwald then held a Liturgy and prayed for the soul of the man whose corpse had been disturbed – and later asked the man who he was. The man’s soul replied that in life he had been a great lawgiver among men, renowned for the fairness of his judgements, but that he was kept out from the gates of the Heavenly City because he had died a heathen, without the laver of regeneration. At this Saint Eorcenwald began to weep piteously over the body, saying that he wished he could have baptised the man in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Upon saying this, the soul of the man leaped up in joy, and he thanked Saint Eorcenwald for washing him with his tears in the name of the Holy Trinity – and thereupon the soul of the righteous judge departed and the body crumbled away into dust.

A peacemaker by temperament, the most significant duty Saint Eorcenwald had as Bishop of London under Archbishop Saint Theodore was one of reconciliation. He attempted firstly to reconcile the differing religious customs of the native Celtic Britons (who had their own long-held religious tradition) with those of their newly-Christianised invaders, the Saxons (who largely adopted Roman customs under the patronage of Pope Saint Gregory of Rome). Further, Saint Eorcenwald was instrumental in healing the long and abiding grudge over ecclesiastical jurisdictions in the English North between Archbishop Saint Theodore of Canterbury and Bishop Saint Wilfrid of York. That dispute was settled and the two saintly men forgave each other in the Abbey at Chertsey where Saint Eorcenwald ruled, shortly before Archbishop Theodore reposed. Saint Eorcenwald himself would repose in the Lord at his sister’s cloister at Barking around the year 690.

In the time of Saint Bede the Venerable, Eorcenwald’s relics had already gained a reputation for working wonders, and custody over them was a matter of some dispute between the three great houses of worship which he had favoured – St Paul’s in London, St Peter’s at Chertsey and St Mary’s at Barking. As the monastics of the three houses were arguing, a heavy storm broke. In the midst of the rain, the sun shone through a gap in the clouds, pointing the way to St Paul’s in London – and by this wonder the dispute was settled, and thither were his relics moved. The relics of Saint Eorcenwald were translated twice – the first time on 14 November 1148 into a new shrine in the Cathedral, and the second time on 1 February 1326.

Holy and Righteous Bishop Eorcenwald, pray to God for us sinners!

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