Walstan of Bawburgh

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(date uncertain),

confessor. This local saint of Norfolk, almost unknown elsewhere, is not mentioned in any known liturgical document, but there is plenty of evidence for an unofficial cult of some importance; both a Latin and an English Life survive. The former was written on a wooden triptych covered with vellum which hung over his shrine in the church of Bawburgh, near Norwich. As well as the vicar there were six chantry priests; the offerings at the shrine were so large that they paid for rebuilding the chancel in 1309 and were mainly due to the farmers and labourers of Norfolk who came on 30 May to obtain a blessing on themselves and on their animals. The popular cult grew and attracted pilgrims from a distance. The north chapel, which contained the shrine, was demolished at the Reformation. Bale recorded then that ‘All mowers and sythe followers seek him once in the year.’

The Legend says he was born at Bawburgh, the son of a prince, but at an early age he left home and travelled north to dedicate himself to the poverty of the Gospel through seeking employment as a farm labourer. He took service with a farmer who was so pleased with him that he wished to make him his heir. Walstan refused, but asked instead for a cow in calf. This was given him; two calves were born and they eventually took his dead body to Bawburgh church, passing, it is claimed, through a solid wall and leaving visible cart-tracks on the surface of the ford near Costessey. Walstan had died in a field, praying for all the sick and for cattle. The date given for his death is 1016, but this is incompatible with the claimed presence of the bishop and monks of Norwich at his funeral. There are various folkloric elements in the English Life, which was written in verse in the late 15th century.

This cult is interesting as an example of veneration by humble folk of one who shared the same round of agricultural pursuits as themselves and had attained sanctity in doing so. But the writers could not resist the temptation of giving him an aristocratic pedigree and of bringing the bishop and monks to his funeral. Paintings of Walstan survive on at least five Norfolk screens; he is depicted crowned or with a sceptre, holding a scythe and sometimes accompanied by two calves.

M. R. James, ‘Lives of St Walstan’, Norfolk Archaeol. Soc. Papers, xix (1917), 238–67; N.L.A., ii. 412–15; F. Husenbeth, Life of St Walstan (1859); C. Twinch, In Search of St Walstan (1995).

Subjects: Christianity.

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