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.

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