|Stoke Festival's 'Werburgh Wander', 2019, Via Marg Hardcastle on Twitter|
Over the next few days of Celtic Advent I thought that it might be nice to learn about two female saints with an intimate connection to the wild spirit of swans and geese. We have already learned that these water birds are more often found in relationship with the feminine and yet we tend to hear their stories in relation to male saints, such as St Martin and St Hugh. Instead, let's sink into the tales of St Werburgh & St Pega, both of whom have feast days during Christmastide.
St Werburgh, whose Feast Day is at Candlemas on 3rd February, was an Anglo-Saxon princess born around 650 CE in Stone, Mercia (now in Staffordshire). Her father was the Christian King, Wulfhere of Mercia, & her mother St Erminhilda of Kent. She was a nun for most of her life & began her training at home with her mother and St Chad, later Bishop of Lichfield, who himself had been a student on Lindisfarne. Chad controversially followed the ways of Celtic Christianity, both before & after the Synod of Whitby which voted to place the British Church under the control of Rome. Later, Werburgh, who was instrumental in convent reform, followed in the wake of her grandmother & great-aunt as Abbess of Ely Cathedral.
|St Werburgh statue|
Werburgh died in Trentham, Staffordshire & was buried there in 700 CE. It's said that her brother, Coenred, decided in 708 to move her remains to a more conspicuous place in the church at Hanbury, but I have discovered a tale which says that nuns from Hanbury stole her remains and took them home with them! It's said that at this time her body was found to be incorrupt, or preserved; a sure sign of saintliness. A year later, Coenred took holy orders and became a monk in Rome, which is when stories of Werburgh & her geese began to emerge.
|The Goff Window, St Peter & St Paul's, Weedon Bec, Northamptonshire|
The first was that, whilst living in Weedon Bec, Northamptonshire, she banished all the geese from the village & so protected the crops from damage. Interestingly, her distant cousin, St Mildrid of Thanet, is said to have done the same thing and was the protectress of wild geese in Kent. The geese were said to have done as she asked, a sure sign of relationship, rather than domination.
Often these relationships were reciprocal, as in one story of St Cuthbert on the remote Farne Island. One day, a group of ravens flew down and began to gather straw from the thatch of Cuddy’s roof. He chased them away but, three days later, one returned as he dug his garden and bowed its head to him with wings outspread in apology. Cuthbert told the raven that they were welcome to return and on their next visit they brought with them the gift of a lump of lard, which Cuddy kept and encouraged visitors to use for the purpose of waterproofing their shoes. So many of the stories of our wild edge early Christian saints are grounded in respect and sharing with non-human family. What I particularly love is that this isn't a paternalistic interaction, where we are the pinnacle of Creation beneficently choosing to care for 'lower animals'. No, in these stories the other-than-human beings have agency and a will of their own. We negotiate, rather than impose. We accept having a little less for the good of all. And it works. So it is with the geese of Mildrid & Werburgh.
|Wild goose on the Thames, Jacqueline Durban|
The other tale of Werburgh & geese is extraordinary, as her most famous miracle concerns her resurrection of a cooked goose.
Werburgh discovered one day that a large flock of geese was destroying her growing corn by feasting on it. To prevent this she gathered them up and began to keep them as though they were domestic geese. In the morning, she called them to send them out for day but discovered one missing. When she found that the goose had been eaten by her servants she demanded that the feathers and bones of the bird be brought to her.
When they had been gathered together she prayed over the remains and commanded that the goose should live; much like La Loba, Bone Woman, singing over the bones of dead creatures in Clarissa Pinkola Estes' 'Women Who Run With the Wolves'. The geese were, of course, delighted, cheering and crying out at the return of their lost sister. Werburgh quieted them & asked that no goose should ever enter that field again. On gaining their agreement she set them free to become wild geese once more and, from that day to this, their promise has been kept.
Here is a mutual contract between humankind & the wild, one which at its heart carries the requirement to share what we have without resentment, rather than believing that everything on the Earth is here for our own benefit, or fearing that we might suffer a lack. The wild geese of Spirit remind us.
|Werburgh & Her Geese by Dru Marland https://www.etsy.com/uk/shop/DruMarland|
And here is also a story of rewilding. At first, Werburgh thinks to control the geese by safely cloistering them in her convent. When she realises that she can't guarantee their survival she liberates them, because it matters more that they live than that she guarantees her own security. This is a reminder of how delicately balanced our relationship with all other-than-human beings can be, and that, especially in this age of climate change, our decisions must be based in mutual benefit for all beings, not just for us (and only a small number of us at that!). We aren't only individuals, a society, or even a species. But we are a community; part of a web of wellbeing and co-operation. The saints remind us.
Earlier I told the tale of Werburgh's body being stolen by the nuns of Hanbury & taking them back to be buried there. And there they remained until the Viking raids of the 9th Century threatened their safety. Then, they were relocated to within the walls of the city of Chester. By the 11th Century, Werburgh had come to be considered the patron saint & protector of the city. During the Middle Ages a badge of a basket of geese was given as proof of having made a pilgrimage to her shrine.
|15th Century St Werburgh pilgrim badge, via https://finds.org.uk/database/artefacts/record/id/424565|
St Cuthbert's remains were also moved due to the Viking raids. Having died on 687, his body was buried on Lindisfarne. In 875 Danish raiders took over the monastery & the monks fled, taking Cuthbert's remains with them. They wandered for seven years before finding them a resting place in Chester-le-Street. In 995 a further Danish raid prompted their removal to Ripon. There the saint 'revealed' that he wished to remain in Durham, and so he has.
Once, the bodies of saints mattered. It seems perhaps superstitious to us now but I find here an echo of prehistory when we believed that the ancestors became part of the land, when our barrows & stone circles held their bones and marked their passing, and, even further back, the time when our beloved dead were buried beneath the floors of our homes, part of life that included death. Once, we knew to keep the dead close. We have become so removed. And we understood that resurrection was a natural part of being, were reminded each spring in the return of green and living things, each autumn with the return of the wild geese. The monks of Lindisfarne didn't carry St Cuthbert's remains with them for nothing, and the nuns of Hanbury had reason to steal the body of St Werburgh. Once, we knew that there was power in bones; they anchor us, root us in place, remind us that we live on holy ground, whilst the wild beauty of life continues to spin and shine around us.
And, just a little aside to perhaps reflect upon. There was a time when 'goose' became euphemism for a sex worker. In the medieval period sex workers, licenced by the Bishop of Winchester to ply their trade in the Liberty of the Clink in Southwark, were known as the 'Winchester Geese'. As my friend, Christina Zaba pointed out, wouldn't it be powerful to imagine that the 'goose' in St Werburgh's resurrection miracle was a sex worker instead. And it would put quite a different slant on the story of St Martin, who hid amongst geese when he was trying to avoid being made a bishop and was given away by their cackling!
The Goose spirit may be even wilder than we realise!
|Misericord at Chester Cathedral depicting scenes from the life of St Werburgh, via: http://orthochristian.com/77344.html|