Role of Saints in Society
Medieval Saints primarily had the role of intercessors, however their veneration was also a major part of religious life. Patron Saints both provided an intercessor for an identified group and generated income for the Church; the group who venerated the Saint would give money in his or her name, to improve their chances of salvation, and as doctrine developed, reduce their time in purgatory. For the wealthy founding a monastic house, church or chantry chapel was therefore common, with the nobility also having private chapels built within their homes. Once built, the founder or his heirs usually chose the Saint the building was designed to venerated, perhaps of links with their birthdate, family, profession or major income source or to favour a monastic order, in return for prayers for the souls of themselves, their family, overlords etc. We can use the cult of St Blaise to explore how this worked in practice, starting with the dedication of churches and private chapels.
Importing St Blaise
From the evidence discovered Blaise’s arrival in England was linked to the Crusades. He was the Patron Saint of the city state of Ragusa, now Dubrovnik and it is thought that the unknown knight who founded St Blasius, Shanklin IOW and a little later, Sir Stephen de Haccombe, founder of St Blaise’s, Haccombe, Devon, visited his shrine on their return from duties in the Holy Land.
His Cult was established in Northern England, by Bernard, the deposed Archbishop of Rasuga, who met Richard I, during his return from the 3rd Crusade. Richard survived a shipwreck and was washed ashore at Lokrum, near Ragusa, in 1192. To give thanks to God for his survival, Richard funded the construction of the great Cathedral of St Mary 7 St Blaise, Ragusa and repairs to the Benedictine Monastery Church in Lokrum (Penman 2011). Bernard later fled to England to seek Richard’s protection, when he fell foul of his flock, eventually becoming part of King John’s court. After the Pope appointed his replacement in Ragusa in 1203, John appointed Bernard as Bishop of Carlisle, a poor and difficult See, previously vacant for sometime (Crosby 1994). It is thought that Bernard talked much of St Blaise, to his flock and members of the Royal Court, encouraging his cult to grow in wool rich England.
The Churches of St Blaise
Three of the four English churches of St Blaise, could be considered “wool churches” , as their construction was partially or wholly founded on fortunes built from wool. The churches were founded between the 12th & 14th Centuries, and surprisingly are all outside the traditionally recognised “Wool Church” areas of East Anglia and the Cotswolds. They are all listed buildings at Grade 2 or above. Unlike the traditional wool churches, founded by merchants or guilds, 3 of the St Blaise churches were all founded by individuals: returning Crusaders, thankful for their survival and a Bishop, descended from farming stock. The final church, founded by a long forgotten individual, was remodeled by the local Abbey, when it became a Parish church. This last example is similar to the foundation of the great wool churches, by wool merchants or wool related guilds. Building of these ceasing between the Reformation and the English Civil war, due to the decline of the wool trade. The 3 churches founded by local families / Bishop, also provided an opportunity to demonstrate their wealth and status within their community and beyond.
St Blaise, Milton, Berkshire
The Manor of Milton was held by Abingdon Abbey from 956, when the local Thane, gifted lands given to him by King Edwy. Abingdon was a Benedictine monastery and the 6th richest in England at the dissolution. Prior to The earliest ecclesiastical building was a 10th Century chapel. The community at this time was a chapelry of the parish of Sutton Courtenay (Page & Ditchfield 1924) . A chapelry is a community within the bounds of a larger parish, with a chapel, subsidiary to the Parish Church. This allowed parishoners to worship locally, where the journey, to the Parish Church was long. The Abbey demolished the Saxon church and built the current St Blaise in the 14th Century, some parts have survived the later Victorian improvements.
Abbeys were granted manors by Kings or nobles, to provide an income, they were expected to farm the land themselves, or use lay brothers, bailiffs or tenants-in-chief (lesses) to manage smaller parcels of land, known as Granges. The majority of the work would be undertaken by the local peasantry, who would sublet small parcels of land for crops (heriots) and graze animals on common land; the unfree villein being expected to also work a set number of days on the Lord’s lands. They would then derive income from the land through rents and produce. In return they were expected to pray for the Royal or Noble family in perpetuity and provide a certain number of knights or their financial equivalent to the King (knight’s fees) as required. So the Manor of Milton would have been managed by lesses on behalf of the monks. Additional income would be obtained from the lesse by charging for the use of the fulling mill to finish cloth woven in the village and to trade at the various markets and fairs (Manco 2013) (Ponstan 1972).
As the area has been noted since Domesday as a rich agricultural area, producing a wide range of crops and having extensive meadowlands, the Abbey was fortunate in its gift. By the C14th, the meadowlands were used to farm sheep. The main industry of the village became wool, with fleeces washed in the local Ginge Brook (Oxford Diocesian Guild of Bellringers 2009). Abingdon, with its Abbey run markets, fairs and fulling mill, dominated the industry and gave local wool merchants the opportunity to become prosperous. The area was a reasonable distance from Southampton too, which facilitated the export of finished cloth. Today, the Parish Church is perhaps the only testament to this rich history:
The former woollen industry is commemorated by the dedication of the church to St. Blaise, the patron saint of wool-combers, and also by the Tadpole revel at Milton Hill on the day following the village feast on the third Sunday after Trinity, ‘Tadpole’ being probably a corruption of tod, or cleaned, wool. (A History of the County of Berkshire: Volume 4
Photos of the church are few and far between, but for a look inside please visit “My Grave Places”, the blog owner, Bill Nichols has taken some beautiful images
St Blaise Church, St Blazey, Cornwall
Although the site of a pre-existing settlement, the town adopted the name of its then new church, founded by the Bishop of Exeter, Walter De Stapledon, in 1309. There is disagreement about the prosperity of the wool industry in medieval Cornwall, with the parish history claiming that “by the 15th Century, when the existing parish church was built, (improving on De Stapledon’s building), the area was the centre of the local woollen industry”. However both Ryder (1964) & the Cornwall County Council historian disagree, claiming that prior to 1600, Cornish Wool was of poor quality, until selective breeding promoted a healthy wool industry.
An investigation of de Stapledon’s past and the main income source of his diocese indicates a possible reason for dedicating his newly founded church to St Blaise. De Stapledon’s parents were Devon farming stock, from the wool rich lands of East Devon, which supported the greatest number of sheep of all the divisions of Devon and Cornwall (Gladwin 2015). His family, were not wealthy but were ambitious and found a way to send Walter to Oxford. He then became Vicar of Aveton Gifford, Devon, before becoming a Professor of Canon Law at Oxford and Chaplain to Pope Gregory. He entered Royal service as Edward II’s Lord High Treasurer and was also appointed Bishop of Exeter (Britannica Biography). He was one of the wealthiest Bishops in the country, in part due to the income from the production of wool and wool cloth on his many manors. The income from one Manor – Chudleigh – in 1308, illustrates this:
“Rental of Manor £17, Income from fulling mill 20s to See of Exeter”. (Register of the Bishop of Exeter)
If we assume he could earn this from all his manors in Devon, Cornwall and other counties, then add the percentage owed from the sale of finished cloth and the income of any directly managed granges, we then begin to understand why he was so wealthy
This income was on the whole well spent, greatly improving Exeter Cathedral and founding Exeter College, Oxford, where he endowed a series of places for poor boys of potential, from his manors of Devon and Cornwall (Chudleigh History Society). However he was not sufficiently politically astute to avoid being caught up in the invasion of Queen Isabella and the deposition of Edward II. A London mob took exception to him spying on Isabella during her time in France. He tried to reach the Sanctuary of St Paul’s Cathedral, London and was beheaded with a bread knife on the its steps.
The people of St Blazey still celebrate St Blaise’s day by parading a wicker effigy of the Bishop and a ram through the streets, something to be explored in more depth in a future post about festivals. (Cornish Guardian). Blaise’s stained glass image was saved from the destruction of the Reformation and is thought to date from de Stapledon’s original church (Mattingly & Swift 2009). Other roundels in the window depict the lamb and woolcomb.
St Blaise, Haccombe, Devon
This small, 13th century church, in the Exeter Diocese, approximately 15 miles from the Bishop’s Palace in Chudleigh, was remodelled as an Archpresbytery, in the early 14th century.
The original church was built in the C1230, by Sir Stephen De Haccombe, a crusader knight, who died C1243 and his heir Sir John Lercedekne (husband to Sir Stephen’s daughter). The de Haccombes were Norman French and were granted the manor by William I. Sir Stephen, who spent 5 years in the Holy Land in the army of the Bishop of Exeter, Walter de Branscombe, swore to build a parish church, should he return safely home (Oliver 1846). His homeward journey, took him to Rugasa where he visited the Cathedral of Mary & St Blaise and it is thought that he named the church in its honour (Jones 2014). With his manors located in a wool rich area, dedicating a church to the Patron Saint of Wool combers, would have seemed sensible. The church, is small but has a wealth of tombs and brasses of the de Haccombe family, to view them please visit the ipernity website
The improvement work, to create an Archpresbytery – a chantry of priests overseen by an Archpriest, was approved and started before de Stapledon’s death and is modeled on the Archpresbytery at Whitchurch (Stapledon reg folio 165).
A living was provided for 6, salaried chantry priests plus the archpriest, also the parish priest and 2 lay clerks appointed as assistants and general servants (Stabb 1908 -16). The Archpresbytery was endowed with the tithes of Haccombe and a couple of Cornish manors, belonging to Sir Stephen (Oliver 1846). The priests were requested to pray for the souls of the late Sir Stephen, John Grandisson – Bishop of Exeter, Sir John and his family and the Earls of Devon. They also assisted the Archpriest in his parish duties.
Today the church is part of the benefice of Shaldon, a parish encompassing 4 villages and hamlets, of which. Haccombe is the smallest, the village having been cleared by a later manorial occupant as it spoiled his view.
St Blasius and St John the Baptist, Shanklin, Isle of Wight
This church was founded during the reign of King Stephen (1135 – 54) as the private manorial chapel of Shanklin and dedicated to St John the Baptist. At over 850 years old it is the oldest of the 4 churches dedicated to St Blaise. However, the reason and exact dates for its later dedication to St Blasius (latin form of Blaise) are reported by the church historian as being something of a mystery. It remained in family ownership until 1835, when it was donated to the community, as the new Parish Church and modernised, stripping away much of the antiquity (Page 1912). It is currently part of the Diocese of Portsmouth. Whilst there is a crypt, the church website reports that access is blocked by the renovations.
It is thought that The Chapel was originally founded by a probable descendent of a man named Gozelin, who held the manor at Domesday. This later family were possibly known as D’Insula or D’Lisle – both meaning “Of the Island”. The manor, along with others in the vicinity of Southampton, on the mainland, was held in the Honour of Carisbrook (Woodward et al 1861). St Blasius first enters the records in 1170, when a chapel was endowed that owed fealty to the Mother Church in Brading .This suggests that the theory mooted by the Church History (website), linking St Blasius to Richard I’s shipwreck, some 22 years later, is unfortunately unlikely to be right. (St Blasius Old Parish Church, Timeline). This mysterious knight, reputed to have carved a Crusaders Cross into the stone doorpost of the church, either joined King Louis VII’s army for the 2nd Crusade of 1144 or served in or supported one of the military orders stationed in the Holy Land e.g, The Knights Hospitaller or the Knights Templar (Wikipedia, Military Orders). There were a variety of land and sea routes to the Holy Land, so its quite possible that he stopped in Rasuga and gave thanks to St Blaise’s but the truth is sadly lost in the mists of time.
We do know that by the early 14th Century, his descendants the D’Lisle’s of Wootton, who also held the manor of Shanklin, were established as one of the Islands leading families, holding the constableship of Carisbrooke Castle, under Edward II (Davenport Adams 1864). St Blaise remained in favour, according to the historical timeline of the Church, as by 1367, he was the Patron Saint of the Lisle family sanctuary within the church:
1367 was the date of the presentation of the “Chapel of St. Blays of Shanklyng Capella Sancti Johannes Baptisti de Shynling.”
This would confirm a theory in the Church history suggesting that either an altar in a side chapel or chantry chapel could have been dedicated to St Blaise, his name somehow surviving down the centuries. He is commemorated today in the North Window, a modern depiction, designed by Martin Evans of Glory Art Glass Sandown.
References and Bibliography
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