Guthlac is one of the most famous saints from the early period of Christianity in Britain.
Guthlac’s early life and religious conversion
Guthlac was from a tribe named the Guthlacingas who lived in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia. In the earliest account of his life by the monk, Felix, we hear that Guthlac was born around 674 CE, roughly one year later than Bede, and died in 715.
As a young man Guthlac was a warrior in the Mercian borderlands. After nine years of fighting, however, he experienced a religious conversion. He gave up his life as a soldier, and became a monk at the abbey of Repton for two years. While there he was disliked by his fellow monks on account of his desire for a penitential life and his abstinence from alcohol. Feeling that that he needed isolation in order to better contemplate God, Guthlac retreated to the fens – then a marshy, unpopulated region in eastern England – and took up residence in an ancient burial mound which had been partially excavated by treasure-hunters.
Life as a religious hermit
By choosing isolation, Guthlac was seeking to emulate the so-called ‘Desert Fathers’. These were hermits, monks and ascetics who lived in the desert in Egypt in the 3rd century CE, in the very early days of Christianity. For Guthlac, the marshy fens were a kind of English desert – a place of solitude where he would have to endure physical trials. He spent 15 years in the burial mound which was on an island in the middle of a marsh – now modern-day Crowland in Lincolnshire, where an abbey was founded in the 8th century. Guthlac lived a life of penance: he fasted every day, only eating barley bread and drinking marshy water in the evenings, and wore simple animal skins for clothing. He was often tormented by demons and the descriptions of these devils in the earliest account of his life are vivid and terrifying.
Like many of the Desert Fathers, Guthlac was revered as a holy man and a spiritual counsellor. He was visited in his cell by various people seeking his advice including Bishop Headda, who was made Bishop of Leicester in 709, the Abbess Ecgburgh who was the daughter of King Aldwulf of the East Angles and, perhaps most important of all, the Mercian king, Æthelbald (r. 716–757).
A series of miracles
During his life, many miracles were associated with Guthlac. Sources tell us of how he was able to predict the actions of birds and animals, who would come to his call. According to Felix, two swallows came to nest in Guthlac’s cell every year. They would enter his home, sit on his shoulders, sing a song and afterwards seek a sign from the saint about where they should build their nest. A year after he died, Guthlac’s sister Pega opened his grave and found the saint’s body miraculously uncorrupted. It was subsequently moved to a shrine which became a place of veneration.
Legacy and writings about Guthlac
Surviving manuscripts reveal that Guthlac’s cult was enormously popular. Two Old English poems about him survive in the Exeter Book, he is the subject of a homily in the Vercelli Book and he is mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Even after the Anglo-Saxon period, and long after his death, his cult still had widespread appeal. He is the subject of a beautiful illustrated manuscript roll dated to the late 12th or 13th century, and the South English Legendary contains a poem about him.
Further information about the life of Guthlac can be found here via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
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