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Neot [St Neot]locked

(d. in or before 878)
  • Michael Lapidge

Neot [St Neot] (d. in or before 878), monk and hermit, lived in Cornwall at some time probably in the mid-ninth century and was subsequently venerated as a saint. His name is preserved in modern St Neot, Cornwall, and St Neots, Huntingdonshire. No source contemporary with his lifetime records any detail concerning his life, and therefore every detail, including even the spelling of his name, is a matter of uncertainty. He is first mentioned in the life of King Alfred by Asser, who reports that on one occasion Alfred had gone to Cornwall to do some hunting and made a detour to the church where St ‘Gueriir’ lies in peace; Asser adds that 'St Niot now lies there as well' (Life of Alfred, chap. 74). Asser was writing in 893, and the events to which he refers took place before the battle of Edington in 878, which must accordingly be the terminus ante quem for the death of the saint. Unfortunately the identity of the church cannot be determined with absolute certainty: St ‘Gueriir’ is unknown, and is possibly an error for Guenyr or Gwinear, an Irish saint who was culted in the far west of Cornwall. It is probable, nevertheless, that the church in which the saint's remains were preserved is modern St Neot on Bodmin Moor, some 8 miles from Bodmin. This inference is confirmed by the next surviving source in which Neot is mentioned, namely the Vita prima sancti Neoti, composed some time in the mid-eleventh century by a British-speaking native of Cornwall. In this text (c. 5) it is related that Neot went to Cornwall to seek retreat as a hermit, and chose a place called 'Neotestoc', 'some ten mile-stones [lapidibus] from St Petroc's monastery', that is to say, from Bodmin. The implication is that Neot was buried in a church near or on the site of his hermitage.

The Vita prima sancti Neoti supplies further information concerning Neot's life, but it is difficult to know how much (if any) is historical fact, and how much is hagiographical fiction. Thus it is said (c. 1) that Neot was born 'in the territory of the eastern Britons which is now called England' (the name Niot or Neot cannot be explained in terms of Germanic philology, however, and is arguably Cornish). He became a monk of Glastonbury (c. 2), and learned monastic discipline there under Prior Æthelwold. (If this prior is taken to be identical with Bishop Æthelwold, who spent the 940s and early 950s at Glastonbury, was decanus or 'dean' there, and who died in 984, then the Vita is patently anachronistic on this point.) According to the life, Neot next sought out his hermitage on Bodmin Moor, where he spent seven years (cc. 5, 6). He subsequently went to Rome (c. 6), on his return from where he went back to the site of his hermitage, where he built a monastery and where he was visited by King Alfred, whom he castigated for his evil behaviour before giving him his blessing (cc. 8, 9). Neot subsequently died—the day of his death, 31 July, is given, but not the year—and after seven years the church in which he was buried was rebuilt and his remains translated and rehoused in its northern side (c. 10). The hagiographer next describes the advent of Guthrum and the viking armies in England and the problems they posed for King Alfred (c. 11); and then relates the famous story of how Alfred, having taken refuge at a swineherd's cottage near Athelney, was so absorbed in his problems that he failed to notice that the bread being baked by the swineherd's wife was burning (c. 12). Neot later appeared to Alfred in a dream and helped secure the king's victory over the vikings at the battle of Edington (cc. 13–16).

The remainder of the Vita prima sancti Neoti pertains to the translation of St Neot's relics to Neotesberia (modern St Neots in Huntingdonshire). According to the hagiographer, Neot appeared in a dream to the sacristan of Neot's church in Cornwall and instructed him to steal the relics; having done this, the sacristan was pursued by the inhabitants of 'Neotestoc', but found refuge with a powerful English landowner named Æthelric and his wife, Æthelflæd (c. 18). Æthelric endowed a church on the River Ouse at St Neots, where the saint continues to perform miracles, and where his translation is celebrated on 7 December (cc. 21–3).

Although the hagiographer's narrative lacks any chronological frame of reference, it squares roughly with the evidence of other (post-conquest) sources. From book 2 of the later twelfth-century Liber Eliensis (which is based on an earlier twelfth-century treatise entitled Libellus quorundam insignium operum beati Æthelwoldi episcopi, itself a Latin translation of a lost tract in Old English dating from the period of Æthelwold's bishopric), it is learned that a layman named Leofric and his wife, Leofflæd, in combination with Bishop Æthelwold and Abbot Byrhtnoth of Ely, established c.980 a monastery at Eynesbury, Huntingdonshire, now known as St Neots (Liber Eliensis, bk 2. 29); and this monastery is known to have possessed the relics of St Neot no later than c.1014. It would seem, though the Liber Eliensis makes no mention of the fact, that the stolen relics of St Neot were received at Eynesbury during the approximate period between 980 and 1014, whence the foundation came in due course to be known as St Neots. The Leofric mentioned in the Liber Eliensis is possibly identical with a landowner who had frequent dealings with Æthelwold and who owned estates at Brandon; since no layman named Æthelric is found in contemporary records, it is likely that the author of the Vita prima sancti Neoti simply confused the names of the monastery's founder and his wife. In any event, the cult of St Neot soon spread to other centres: according to Orderic Vitalis, Crowland claimed to have acquired the saint's relics in the early eleventh century; and by c.1080 a relic of the saint was owned at Bec in Normandy. The Vita prima sancti Neoti served as a quarry for later hagiographers: for a late eleventh-century homily on the saint in Old English and for a Latin life, known as Vita II or the ‘Bec’ life, which probably dates from the twelfth century. St Neot is recorded (but sporadically) in litanies and liturgical calendars from the mid-eleventh century onwards. The universal feast of St Neot is 31 July; but he was also commemorated in south-west England and Cornwall on 20 October, and at St Neots, Huntingdonshire, on 7 December.

Sources

  • Asser's Life of King Alfred: together with the ‘Annals of Saint Neots’ erroneously ascribed to Asser, ed. W. H. Stevenson (1904)
  • Alfred the Great: Asser's Life of King Alfred and other contemporary sources, ed. and trans. S. Keynes and M. Lapidge (1983)
  • E. O. Blake, ed., Liber Eliensis, CS, 3rd ser., 92 (1962)
  • G. C. Gorham, The history and antiquities of Eynesbury and St Neot's, 2nd edn (1824)
  • G. H. Doble, S. Neot, patron of St Neot, Cornwall, and St Neot's, Huntingdonshire (1929)
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