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Guthlac [St Guthlac]locked

  • Henry Mayr-Harting

Guthlac [St Guthlac] (674–715), hermit, was one of the most famous and influential holy men in the first 120 years of English Christianity, his fame owed in no small degree to the well-structured and vivid life of him written c.740 by the learned East Anglian monk, Felix. Guthlac was a member of the Mercian royal dynasty, a descendant of Icel; his father was Penwalh, his aristocratic mother, Tette. He was named after the tribe of Guthlacingas. The record of many such tribes, which contemporaries once recognized as distinct groups within the larger Anglo-Saxon settlements (for example, the Gumeningas, whose pagan sanctuary was at Harrow), survives only in names such as this. Guthlac was born in 674, one year later than Bede. From the age of fifteen he spent nine years as a warrior, leading a band of companions apparently as something of a freebooter, rather like the mythical Beowulf. Many of his military ventures, lucrative in booty so it was said, were doubtless directed against the hostile Welsh; but the feuds and infighting within the early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms probably also gave him plenty of opportunity. He experienced a conversion to a religious way of life and joined the double monastery at Repton (where surviving archaeological remains seemingly date from the eighth and even the seventh centuries). Guthlac spent two years at Repton under Abbess Ælfthryth, received the Roman tonsure, and learned the monastic way of life and worship. He then opted for solitude, made for the East Anglian fens, with 'black waters overhung by fog', and, being guided thither by one Tatwine, established his hermitage on the island of Crowland, where he remained for some fifteen years until his death in 715, probably on 3 April. The likely chronology of Guthlac, therefore (and there have been confusions about the dates), is that in 698 he joined Repton and in August 700 finally settled, after a previous inspection, at Crowland. He came to Crowland on St Bartholomew's day (24 August) and thereafter regarded this saint as an active force in his religious experience.

Guthlac's biographer drew on information from a priest called Wilfrid, said to be a frequent visitor to the saint, and one Cissa, Guthlac's successor in the Crowland hermitage; and he drew on several hagiographical models, such as Athanasius's life of Anthony, Gregory's Dialogues, the anonymous life of Fursa, and Jerome's life of Paul the Hermit, for his presentation of the material. Knowledge of Guthlac comes, therefore, shaped in Felix's cultural and learned mould. It might be doubted whether it is possible to get behind the tissue of received hagiographical motifs to the ‘real’ Guthlac. For instance, Felix follows the fourth-century bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius (whose Greek life of Anthony was known in the west from the sixth-century Latin translation of Evagrius), in recounting Guthlac's numbers of visitors as a hermit; but he also gives much circumstantial detail and names several names. Moreover, the very number of hagiographical models known to Felix obviously gave him flexibility to apply them to hard information which he was in a good position to obtain. In describing the general pattern of Guthlac the hermit's struggles with demons (and it is interesting for the population of East Anglia and perhaps for racial attitudes of the time that these demons spoke the British language rather than English) Felix follows the general lines of that of Athanasius's Anthony. Now they tempted him to despair, now to excess in fasting. One night they would come to his den (made in the side of an old barrow into which treasure-hunters had dug) as ghastly shrieking humans with wild faces, filthy beards, scabby thighs, and swollen ankles; another night they would assume the shapes of hostile beasts, roaring, hissing, or croaking (there is presumably a psychological reading beneath the literal one). In this respect the life approximates to a tract on how to master diabolical power and shows confidence that it could be thoroughly mastered. One should remember, however, that the life of Anthony was as likely to have been known to Guthlac (probably from his Repton days, though he was organized to read and write on Crowland), as it was to Felix. At the same time, in a long tradition of hagiography, Guthlac's obedience to God's commands is pointed up by the obedience of the animal world to him, illustrated, for instance, by his ability annually to direct the swallows where to nest.

The details concerning visitors to Guthlac's hermitage show his continuing connections with the highest echelons of lay and clerical society as well as, according to Felix, his attracting the poor and afflicted. The priest Wilfrid, long bound to Guthlac by the bonds of spiritual friendship, was a frequent visitor. Bishop Headda, who had been consecrated to Lichfield in 691 and became bishop of Leicester in 709, also visited, and with him his secretary (librarius) Wigfrith. Wigfrith had opined that having lived among the Irish he could tell a true hermit from a false one and would be able to do so in Guthlac's case; when the party sat down to a meal, Guthlac asked the astonished secretary what he now thought of the man whom he had promised to judge. A number of miracles had to do with the exercise of prophetic powers through similar insights into his visitors. Bishop Headda insisted on ordaining Guthlac a priest. There is a suggestion of reluctance in this on the part of Guthlac, who was now approaching the end of his life; possibly the bishop's object was not only to venerate the holy man's powers, but also to control them by drawing him more tightly into the organized hierarchy of the church. Other visitors were monks from Abbess Ecgburh, daughter of King Aldwulf of the East Angles, enquiring who would take over the hermitage after Guthlac's death. They received the answer that it was one who had not yet been baptized (Cissa might none the less have been an aristocrat). Altogether this aspect of the life particularly justifies the view, as does its dedication to King Ælfwald of the East Angles (r. c.713–749), that, though a monk himself, Felix had a lay audience as well as a clerical one in mind and that the work, like Bede's Historia ecclesiastica, was written for 'the public church'.

The most interesting and important of all Guthlac's visitors, however, was Æthelbald, king of the Mercians (r. 716–57), in the days before he was king. He was in exile from Mercia, being grandson of Penda's brother Eowa and hence seen as a rival to his second cousin Ceolred, who became king in 709. Guthlac prophetically told Æthelbald that he knew of his afflictions and that God had heard his prayers and would make him a ruler (principem populorum). After Guthlac's death, Æthelbald returned to Crowland, clearly at the crisis of the struggle for the Mercian kingship, stayed in the hut 'where he used to stay when Guthlac was alive' (Felix, 165), and received a vision of reassurance from the saint. Obviously this is written with a strong element of retrospect in the light of Æthelbald's known veneration for Guthlac (which does not invalidate it), for the king chose as his burial place Repton, where Guthlac had entered religion. Not only did Æthelbald embellish Guthlac's shrine at Crowland, but it has been plausibly argued that it was also he who was originally responsible for introducing the saint's cult, with relics, into Hereford, where by the tenth century a church was dedicated to Guthlac, which archaeology suggests goes back to the ninth or even the eighth century. Unfortunately Guthlac cannot be fitted into his place in the Mercian royal genealogy; but his staunch and doubtless morally effective support for Æthelbald, by no means a saint, must have owed less to bonds of spiritual friendship than to a sense of close relationship in their earthly lineage.

The prime mover of Guthlac's cult was his sister Pega, who opened the saint's grave after twelve months, found the body undecayed, and moved it to the shrine embellished by Æthelbald. This cult gathered new momentum in the late Anglo-Saxon period and in the twelfth century: several manuscripts of Felix's life date from this time; the eleventh-century Leofric missal contains a Guthlac mass; a Crowland calendar from the mid-eleventh century lists his translation as 30 August, and an Ely calendar of the eleventh century, attested by three manuscripts, has his commemoration as 26 August. The finest testimony to his cult is the Guthlac roll (BL, Harley Roll, Y.6), depicting the saint's life in eighteen roundels.


  • Felix, Life of Saint Guthlac, ed. and trans. B. Colgrave (1956)
  • C. W. Jones, Saints' lives and chronicles in early England (1947)
  • H. Mayr-Harting, The coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England (1972)
  • A. Thacker, ‘Kings, saints and monasteries in pre-viking Mercia’, Midland History, 10 (1985), 1–25
  • J. Roberts, ‘An inventory of early Guthlac materials’, Mediaeval Studies, 32 (1970), 193–233
  • D. W. Rollason, Saints and relics in Anglo-Saxon England (1989)