Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Guthlac

GUTHLAC, Saint (673?–714), was the son of Penwald, a man of rank and wealth in the land of the Middle-Angles, and Tette, his wife. Penwald was akin to the royal house of Mercia, being descended from Icel, one of the forefathers of the Mercian kings. Guthlac's biographer, Felix, dates his birth in the reign of Æthelred, king of Mercia (675-704); but as he appears to have been forty-one years old when he died in 714, he must have been born in 673, two years before Æthelred's accession. Legend told how a sign from heaven heralded his birth. The name by which he was baptised was derived from that of his tribe, the Guthlacingas; its meaning, 'the reward of battle,' was afterwards applied to his spiritual combats and their reward. The boy grew up fair-faced, quick-witted, gentle and refined. In his youth, however, he was influenced by the military ardour of his race; at one time he was in exile among the Britons; and in 688, as it seems, he gathered round him a band of his young fellow-nobles and plunged for nine years into the wild warrior life of the day. But there came an inward warning which made him always restore a third part of his plunder, and one night a stronger impulse moved him to vow that if spared till the morrow he would devote himself to God. The remonstrances of his followers and friends failed to shake his resolution; he went to Repton, where Abbess Ælfthryth seems to have ruled over a twofold community of men and women, and there, at the age of twenty-four, became a tonsured monk. His resolve to refrain from all strong drink gave some offence to his brethren, but he soon won their affections. He devoted himself to book-learning, and in two years he learned all the psalms, canticles, hymns, and prayers used in the choir services. Then, roused by stories told and read in the monastery to a desire for the life of a hermit, he set off for the most desolate region in all Britain, the vast fen that formed a no-man's-land between Mercia and East Anglia, A man named Tatwine told him of an island so dreary that no one had the courage to live in it. Guthlac at once, with Tatwine for his guide, made his way in a boat up the Welland to Crowland in the very heart of the fen, After paying a farewell visit of three months to the monks of Repton, whom he had quitted without leave-taking, he returned to take up his abode at Crowland with two servants, who were doubtless to help him in cultivating the soil. He settled at Crowland on St. Bartholomew's day, 24 Aug., apparently in 699. He built a hut on the side of an old burial-mound, supposed to be haunted, and there for fifteen years he led a hermit's life, clad in coats of skins, eating and drinking nothing save barley-bread and water, and that but once a day, after the sun was set, and tormented by visions of demons from whom he was rescued by his patron, St. Bartholomew. After some years, however, these trials ceased; birds and fishes had now become the hermit's friends, and a priest named Beccel or Becceline came and begged that he would take him for his scholar. Guthlac's fame was spreading far and wide, and the priest was tempted to slay him and take his honour for himself. He was meditating the crime while shaving Guthlac's tonsure, when a sudden appeal from his intended victim caused him to repent and become a faithful servant. He afterwards told how every day he heard Guthlac conversing with an unseen visitor, whom Guthlac on his deathbed acknowledged to have been an angel. Pilgrims of all classes began to visit the hermit. One of his guests was Bishop Hedda probably Hedda, bishop of Lichfield, 691-721 who was so impressed by Guthlac's holiness and wisdom that he begged to be allowed to ordain him priest. Guthlac consented, and the ordination took place at once in the hermit's oratory ,which the bishop seems to have consecrated on the same occasion. Another frequent visitor was an abbot named Wilfrith. Wilfrith brought Æthelbald, nephew of Penda, who had been driven into exile by Ceolred, king of Mercia, and took refuge with Guthlac. After dwelling fifteen years at Crowlaud, Guthlac was taken ill as he was at prayer on the Wednesday before Easter, and told Beccel that he should die in seven days. He was able on the seventh day to give his last instructions that he should be buried by the hands of his sister Pege, also a recluse, in a linen winding-sheet and a leaden coffin sent to him by Ecgburh, an East Anglian princess, now abbess of Repton. He died on the Wednesday in Easter week, 715, according to his biographer Felix; but the English 'Chronicle,' with more probability, places his death in 714. In 714 the Wednesday after Easter fell on 11 April, which was the day consecrated by the English Church to Guthlac's memory. Beccel at once took boat and fulfilled his mission to Pege, and three days later the hermit was buried in his own little church according to his desire. A year later Pege placed the body in a shrine, which soon became a famous object of pilgrimage. Among the earliest of the pilgrims was Æthelbald, whose accession to the Mercian throne in 716 fulfilled a prophecy of Guthlac's; and the building which he reared over Guthlac's relics grew into Crowland Abbey.

[Felix's Life of St. Guthlac, printed in Bollandists' Acta Sanctorum, 11 April, in D'Achery and Mabillon, Acta SS. 0.S.B. sæc. iii. pt. i., and in Birch's Memorials of St. Guthlac; Old-English version, ed. C.W. Goodwin, 1848; English Chronicle, ed. Thorpe (Rolls Series); Rev. C. Hole, 'Guthlac,' in Dict. of Christian Biography. A life of St. Guthlac, of little historical, but of great literary interest, is preserved in the Codex Exoniensis; it consists of two distinct poems, the earlier treating of the saint according to oral tradition, the latter following the account of Felix of Crowland. The Northumbrian poet Cynewulf (b. 730?) was probably the author of both poems; cf. Codex Exoniensis, ed. Thorpe, 1842.]

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