St Sigebert: East Anglia’s first martyr king

St Sigebert, from a window in St Peter and St Paul, Felixstowe © Simon Knott

29 October is the Feast of St Sigebert, a lesser known seventh-century East Anglian  saint who was the founder of the church in East Anglia. Sigeberht was probably the first Christian king of East Anglia – that is, if we discount his father Raedwald, who was baptized at the court of King Ethelbert of Kent but later maintained altars to both Woden and the Christian God, incurring Bede’s disapproval. One of several sons (or possibly stepsons) of Raedwald, there was originally little prospect that Sigebert would inherit the throne and he went to study at a monastery in Gaul. However, after the assassination of his brother King Eorpwald in around 627, Sigebert was thrust into power as king alongside his brother Ecgric. His most important act as king was to invite Felix, Bishop of Chalons in Burgundy, to evangelise the East Angles and establish a see at Dommoc, which may have been the old Roman fort of Walton Castle. Felix was East Anglia’s first bishop, and according to tradition he also established a monastery at Soham in the Fens. Place name evidence would suggest that Felix was associated with Felixstowe and the two villages called Flixton in northeast Suffolk. It was also in Sigebert’s reign that St Fursey established the monastery of Cnoberesburh.

Sigebert was more interested in the monastic life than ruling his kingdom, however, and founded a monastery which he himself entered. When the pagan king of Mercia, Penda, invaded East Anglian territory in around 640, Sigebert was reluctantly dragged from his monastery by his thegns and compelled to lead them in battle. Sigebert refused to bear arms and carried only a staff, and was cut down by the pagan enemy. This is as much as Bede tells us, but the twelfth-century Liber Eliensis (a late and somewhat unreliable source) adds the intriguing detail that Sigebert’s monastery was at a place called Betrichesgueorde, i.e. Beodricsworth, which was what Bury St Edmunds was called before the middle of the eleventh century, when it became indelibly associated with East Anglia’s more famous royal martyr. No evidence of seventh-century monastic activity has ever been found at Bury, but the idea of Bury as the site of Sigebert’s monastery is not intrinsically implausible. We know from Abbo of Fleury’s Passio Sancti Eadmundi (c. 985) that the wooden Church of St Mary to which the body of St Edmund was taken in the early tenth century was already venerable, so Beodricsworth was thought of as a holy place for some reason – and being the site of Sigebert’s monastery is as good a possibility as any.

There is also an intriguing possibility that the Staffordshire Hoard, discovered in 2009, could be evidence of Penda’s war with the East Angles. Many archaeologists are prepared to associate the hoard with Penda, and the prominence of Christian symbolism among the treasure would suggest that it was booty captured in battle by the pagan king. Although East Anglia was not Penda’s only enemy, the fact remains that the only other site at which cloisonné work of the same quantity and quality as the Staffordshire Hoard has been found is Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, which was probably the tomb of King Raedwald. If the same craftsmen or their apprentices continued to work for Sigebert, as seems likely, then the attribution of some or all of the Staffordshire treasure to the Christian East Anglia of King Sigebert is as likely a provenance as any.

In comparison with the cult of St Edmund, which reached epic proportions in the high Middle Ages in Suffolk and beyond, the cult of St Sigebert was subdued. Robert Patterson speculated that this could have been due to the lack of relics: Sigebert was killed in the heat of battle and his body was presumably not identifiable or buried in a location that anyone remembered. Furthermore, he was succeeded by a cousin (Anna) so there was no political motive for the continuing cult, and if Sigebert did indeed found a monastic community at Beodricsworth then it may have been destroyed by Penda (it would certainly have been destroyed by the Vikings in 869). However, Sigebert’s feast day appears in the Bury Psalter in the Vatican Library, which was produced in Bury St Edmunds in the middle of the eleventh century, during the abbacy of Leofstan (1044-1065). However, Sigebert never had a chapel – nor even an altar – in the great Abbey Church, where both St Botolph and the obscure St Jurmin had shrines at the head of St Edmund’s shrine in the presbytery. Jurmin, along with Anna and his son Firminus were translated to Bury from Blythburgh in the abbacy of Anselm (1121-48).  The main reason for the Abbey of St Edmund’s almost complete neglect of Sigebert was probably the lack of any relics of the king – the Abbey claimed to possess the bodies of Botolph, Jurmin, Anna and Firminus. The cult of a foreign saint might flourish without relics but, if the saint was local, relics were the least pilgrims could expect.

Nevertheless, it is surprising that there was not more veneration of a man whom the monks of Bury probably believed – at least from the late twelfth century onwards – to have been the founder of a monastery at Beodricsworth that pre-dated the establishment of secular clerks who looked after the body of St Edmund in the tenth century. It is surprising that the monks did not take advantage of the opportunity afforded by the Liber Eliensis to claim that Bury was originally a Benedictine foundation. There is a twist in the tale, however, since Sigebert has become a popular name among English Benedictine monks since the seventeenth century. On 21 November 1607 the last surviving monk of Westminster Abbey, Sigebert (or Sebert) Buckley, clothed two young English monks with the habit of St Benedict in the Gatehouse Prison at Westminster, thus ensuring the survival of the English monastic tradition originally brought to these shores by St Augustine in 597. Buckley had taken his religious name at Westminster Abbey after its restoration in the reign of Queen Mary, and it may be impossible to know whether he was named after the English monk-king or King Sigebert II of Austrasia, who was a noted founder of monasteries and patron of the Benedictine Order. However, since English monks traditionally took the names of saints, it seems reasonable to assume that the re-founder the English Benedictine Congregation was named after the undeservedly obscure East Anglian saint.


‘Roman Catholic Chapels of Norwich’ at the Norwich Historic Churches Trust Conference

NHCT logo

The second annual conference of the Norwich Historic Churches Trust took place yesterday, on Saturday 24 October at the King’s Centre, opposite St Peter Parmentergate. Unfortunately I missed the first three papers before lunch, but had the chance to visit St Peter’s in the interim (the church is not normally open to the public). The first paper I had the chance to hear was Stella Jackson’s account of working with closed churches in the Holland Group of parishes in South Lincolnshire. The Maintenance Co-operatives Project (MCP) is a pilot scheme to model best practice in providing care for closed churches, and consists of groups of volunteers formed in local areas. The Holland Group is clustered around Boston and includes All Saints, Benington, which is about to be reordered in order to turn it into a community hub.

I followed this with my paper ‘The Roman Catholic Chapels of Norwich’. Norwich was one of the few places in East Anglia where a small but enduring community of Catholics existed after the Reformation (around 3% of the city’s population before 1789). The presence of the Jerninghams at nearby Costessey and the Duke of Norfolk’s influence in Norwich helped the community’s survival. From the 1650s the Jesuits maintained a secret chapel in Norwich, and in 1687 they opened a short-lived public chapel in an old monastic granary close to the Guildhall. The chapel in the Duke’s Palace, under powerful aristocratic protection, was able to operate fairly freely. The congregation of the Duke’s Chapel moved to a new location in Willow Lane in 1786 and then to a new chapel in 1791, following the Second Catholic Relief Act which legalised public worship (St John the Baptist, Maddermarket). The influx of French émigrés in the years after 1789 led to the opening of additional Catholic schools and chapels, including the Holy Apostles in Willow Lane in 1827. In 1894, on the completion of the Church of St John the Baptist (now the Cathedral), the Willow Lane and Maddermarket congregations combined, but both of the old chapels still survive.

The final paper was delivered by Peter Aiers, Director of the Churches Conservation Trust for the South East, who spoke on the future for the traditional parish. He gave a review of the history of the parish and the way in which it affected the structure of churches. He argued that churches are public buildings for everyone, because the ‘cure of souls’, to this day, includes everyone in the parish regardless of personal faith. Parish churches embodied the identity of the laity. Peter Aiers advocated a passionate argument for churches as a heritage resource for all, and warned that the next generation does not always engage with churches as places of worship but may engage with them as a focus of local identity.

I am very grateful to Nick Groves for inviting me to speak at what was a very engaging and informative conference. The proceedings of the conference, including my paper, will be published in due course.


Lecture at Bury St Edmunds Record Office

St Edmund KM
The Church of St Edmund, King and Martyr (1836) with the house of Fr John Gage SJ (1761) to the right

Yesterday morning I delivered a lecture at the Suffolk Record Office, Bury St Edmunds branch entitled ‘Catholics in Bury St Edmunds, 1660-1789’. It was an appropriate location, as much of the material on the Catholic families of West Suffolk is held at the Raingate Street branch. The lecture was well attended and took place in the Record Office’s education room, which houses a significant part of the magnificent Cullum Library. In the talk, I introduced the various Catholic missions in the town during the period in question and explored possible reasons behind the success of Catholicism in Bury at a time when Catholic communities were struggling to survive in some parts of the country. Bury had the largest Catholic population proportional to its size of any other town in the south of England. I also drew attention to the very great historic significance of the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception (1761), now the Blessed Sacrament Chapel of the Church of St Edmund, King and Martyr in Westgate Street, which set the pattern for future chapels constructed after the Second Catholic Relief Act of 1791.