December 14, 2016

St Felix - from here to Eternity (EDP article)

He came to England from his native Burgundy in c 631. He fixed his episcopal see as the Bishop of Dunwich, then a thriving Suffolk seaport, ruling his diocese for 17 years. He died in c648. His name survives in Felixstowe. His legacy, according to the available 8th century sources, is nationwide and eternal.

The Venerable Bede in his "Ecclesiastical History of the English People" (c731) tells us how the evangelical exertions of Sigeberht, King of East Anglia, converted in exile, "were nobly promoted by Bishop Felix, who, coming to Honorius, the archbishop, from the parts of Bergundy, where he had been born and ordained… was sent by him to preach the Word of life to the aforesaid nation of the Angles "and delivered "all the province of East Anglia from long-standing unrighteousness and unhappiness." Praise indeed.

The only other documentary source - the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle - sings from the same hymn sheet. A gentler, kinder civilisation blew in from Christian Europe and the heathen English embraced it. Felix Culpa!

This felicitous 'golden age' - the century between Christian conversion and the Viking invasions - is usually consigned to the mists of romance. A time of wonders,  saints' miracles and folk tales.

Like the one about St Felix's triumphant entry to England. A tempest forced him inland up the Babingley River, between Castle Rising and Wolferton in West Norfolk. Such was its ferocity that he could not escape it unaided and a colony of beavers came to his rescue: a 'miracle' celebrated on the Babingley village sign which includes both Saint Felix and a beaver being handed a bishop's mitre by the grateful saint! A reminder that beavers were native fauna until the 16C and, incidentally, evidence that this faith-story is a very old one.

But we no longer have to abandon Felix's golden age to the 'non-history' which Christian scholar C.S Lewis calls "one of those phantom periods for which the historian searches in vain."
Because last month, at waterlogged Great Ryburgh, those down-to-earth diggers stuck their shovel in. Trial trenches put in by archaeologist Matt Champion ahead of landowner Gary Boyce's  planning application for a lake and flood defence system revealed 6 plank-lined Anglo-Saxon graves, believed to be the oldest of their kind found in Britain, alongside 81 coffins made from hollowed oak trunks.

Finding intact timber graves of this age is almost miraculous, due to wood’s tendency to leave little more than a smudge in the earth. “The combination of acidic sand and alkaline water created the perfect conditions for the skeletons and wooden graves to survive,” explained excavation leader James Fairclough.

Traces of a timber structure believed to have been a church were also found. The fact the graves face East, with timber posts but no grave goods, suggest the dead were Christians (not Roman or prehistoric.) Historic England believes the exceptionally well-preserved graves (with their consequent clarity of details of Anglo-Saxon practices) date from between the 7th and 9th centuries and were "the final resting place for a community of early Christians." The historic bishop St Felix would have been known to such a community.

Research continues as to where the bodies came from, how they were related and what their diet and health was like.
Meanwhile, to get an early prediction of what the archaeology might tell us about these converted Christian communities, I contacted Gary Rossin, director of the Historical and Archeological research project in Sedgeford. The Sedgeford dig has documented 300 Saxon Christian burials over 20 years but, intriguingly,  only 10 were in coffins - most were shroud or crouch burials. Coffins normally indicate status. 81 coffins is a lot of status.

Mr Rossin added that Christian conversion will often be archaeologically indicated by changes to a more ascetic diet - fish, eggs and milk often preferred to red meat - and the promotion of metalwork and literacy (for the monks, indicated by styli). These very rapid cultural changes following conversion were typically top-down, the model being St Felix's partnership with the convert King Sigeberht. "He probably wouldn't have gone direct to the village blacksmith," commented Mr Rossin.

Christianization would be evidenced in a new template, a new standardized ordering of society, new layouts of buildings and burials. While the new broom of Christianity didn't make a clean sweep of the existing culture, it nudged and pushed everything in a Christian direction. A society being led away - if not from a belief in the miraculous and supernatural per se - then at least from fetishistic beliefs and heathen practices towards a more rational and enlightened spirituality. St Felix rocks up and everything changes. Very quickly.

Felix really started something. We may think of our round-towered Saxon churches (Norfolk has 124 of the 185 still standing in England) as monuments of ancient Christianity  but Felix was there earlier, building in wood (the main material for church buildings in East Anglia for 400 years after him.) And his missionaries chose sites that have remained 'holy' longer than even stone can stand.  Ecclesiastical foundations and missionary stations were often established among Roman ruins, because of the desire for the ideals of Roman culture ('romanitas') and to associate Christianity with it. Early Christians also liked the way ruins marked off the religious world from the everyday.

The site of the ruined church of St James on the crest of a slight hill at Bawsey on what is now in the Gaywood valley of West Norfolk is thought to have provided the missionaries just this required division of the worldy from the holy, combined with an easy navigation into the world they wished to evangelize
What St Felix brought to these islands certainly endures. The unusual church of Saint Andrew in Great Ryburgh, with its Saxon round tower and distinctive cruciform shape (and chancel re-ordered in 1912 to give a feeling of space and light) is testament to the ability of Christianity to re-invent its evangelizing spirit through time. It is fitting to see, on its famous Screen, on which Saints are depicted and named, St. Felix included, as 1st Bishop of East Anglia, 630. 

Much else has altered, even East Anglian geography. St James' at Bawsey no longer occupies the 'otherworldy' location it did, flung out to sea on the raised Bawsey peninsula and marked off by a substantial ditch. It is now several miles inland.

The original hub of St Felix's mission, Dunwich, once a Roman fort and the capital of a Saxon Kingdom, denoted in Domesday Book as one of the largest ports on the east coast with a thriving fishing industry and around 3,000 residents,  is today a few cottages, a church, a pub, a small visitor centre and the ruins of a friary, with a population of about 100.

Coastal erosion, coupled with the growing spit of land, actually created by the 13C a near perfect harbour, where ships from the Continent could be safe from gales. Dunwich boomed. But by the 14C, the old port had to be abandoned. Over 400 houses were swept away in a single storm. In the 17C, the sea washed out the high street and reached the market place.  

St Felix's holy foundations appear to have been stronger. The coasts of East Anglia may crumble but his "Word of life to the aforesaid nation of the Angles" has lasted not just to Domesday but a thousand years beyond.

1 comment:

Lynne said...

Fascinating! HAd no idea about the beaver on the Babingly village sign!