St Werburgh's Day

Today is St Werburgh's Day.  Werburgh is the patron saint of the city of Chester and so her story features prominently in our pilgrimage work.  Her story is a good one but, sadly, not well known amongst Cestrians.  So we're trying to change that through our living history and storytelling work.  And this year, her tale will be amongst those in a major exhibition at the Grosvenor Museum - 'Discover a Medieval City: Places, Voices, Journeys'.

Werburgh was the daughter of Wulfhere, King of Mercia and Erminilde of Kent.  She studied under her aunt Etheldreda, the first Abbess of Ely, and when Etheldreda died, Werburgh came to be second Abbess. 

Her most famous miracle took place when she was at Weedon Bec on one of the abbey's farms, and Werburgh was helping sow seeds for crops in an attempt to avert the famine which was ravaging the land, when a great flock of wild geese descended and began to eat the seeds.  Werburgh was angered as the food was intended for the poor and so she chased the geese and penned them into a sheep pen.  Although the geese had wings, they did not fly out of the pen, and you might consider that a small miracle in itself.  Werburgh told the geese they should be kept there for one night as punishment, but they were God's creatures and wouldn't be harmed and would be released the next day. 

That evening, one of Werburgh's servants, walking past the pen, decided he would like some goose stew and so took one of the geese, killed it and ate it.  When Werburgh found out, she gathered what was left of the stew, the bones and the skin and feathers and began to pray.  The goose was restored to life!  It joined its fellows and when they were released from the pen, they never came back to trouble the fields again.  And that is the story of Werburgh and the goose.

Some years later, in 699, Werburgh died and was buried at Threekingham in Lincolnshire, one of the churches which had been set up by the Abbey.  This was the time of the great spread of Christianity in England and every new church was required to have a relic in order to be consecrated so there was great demand for the remains of saints.  Thinking that she might be a saint, the people of Threekingham then dug up Werburgh's remains and found that her body was a fresh as when she had been buried, a decade earlier.  Taking this as proof of her sanctity, she was moved to Hanbury in Staffordshire.  There she remained until 907 when the Danes were approaching that area.  The nuns of Hanbury feared Werburgh's relics would be stolen and so moved her remains to Chester, 80 miles away.  That same year the city walls had been rebuilt to keep out the Vikings, so it was the perfect place for her to rest.

Werburgh's relics were installed in the Minster Church of St Peter and St Paul.  In 1092, the Normans turned this into the Abbey of St Werburgh and later still it would become Chester Cathedral.  The people of medieval Chester revered their saint, and pilgrims came from as far away as Salisbury and Southwark, as souvenir pilgrim badges depicting Werburgh's miracle of the goose have been found in those places. 

Henry Bradshaw, a monk of St Werburgh's abbey in the 16th century wrote about how her relics protected the city of Chester many times.  On one occasion a great fire was ravaging Bridge Street but when the reliquary was carried to the seat of the fire it stopped.  Another time, the Welsh were attacking the city and the reliquary was carried to the city walls.  But the Welsh showed no respect and one man flung a stone at the relics.  Immediately, he and the rest of the attackers were struck blind.

In the fourteenth century her shrine was reworked to attract more pilgrims and the quire had newly carved misericords, including one depicting the miracle with the geese.  Her feast day being in winter on 3rd February would never attract too many pilgrims so it was decided that the translation day, when her relics had been moved, had been 21st June.  This idea was nothing new, it had also happened with Thomas Becket in Canterbury for the same reason.  So Werburgh got a second feast day, and this one at the start of the great Midsummer Fair in Chester.

You'll be hearing more about Midsummer Fair and its associated Minstrels' Court on here soon...