Soldier, Monk, Hermit and early English Saint
Born c 673 Died 714
Guthlac was a minor Mercian royal, the son of one Penwahl and Tette at whose birth;
a human hand was seen shining with gold-red splendour, and reaching from the clouds of the heavenly Olympus as far as the arms of a certain cross, which stood in front of the door of the house
Despite this sign of heavenly approval Guthlac initially pursued an entirely secular career and became a leader of his own war band and took to a life of raping and pillaging, although his later biographer was to insist that he always returned one-third of what he stole to its original owners.
After nine years of these fun and games Guthlac apparently experienced a "a heavenly dream that instilled him with love and compassion for his fellow man"2. He consequently gave up the life of a soldier and entered the monastery of Repton Abbey in modern Derbyshire. Guthlac spent two years at Repton attending to his monastic duties before deciding that some greater penance was needed to atone for the crimes of his youth.
So in around the year 699 he resolved to live the life of a hermit and located an island, the "Crow Land", in the middle of the then rather desolate Fenland region of Lincolnshire.
With the permission of his monastic superiors he left the monastery at Repton and built himself a hermitage on the isolated Fenland island. He resolved on a rigid penance where he wore only animal skins and ate nothing until nightfall and then only barley bread and drank only water each day.
There he suffered the usual tribulations of saints, which in this case involved being beaten by some of the local inhabitants, terrified each night by visions of terrible monsters and being harassed by the local wildlife. Eventually Guthlac's sanctity shone through, the birds and fishes became his friends, the wild birds ate from his hands and even the pesky ravens returned the objects they had taken earlier. According to Guthlac himself;
With him who has led his life after God's will, the wild beasts and wild birds are tame.
Soon the fame of these various activities eventually drew many distinguished human visitors as well, Bishop Hedda came and formally consecrated his chapel and raised him to the priesthood and his relation Aethelbald was to spend part of his exile in his company. His sister Pega, who also incidentally became a saint, also visited, but unfortunately as the devil decided to take on the form of his sister and sought to persuade Guthlac to abandon his vow to abstain from food during the day, Guthlac was forced to send her away. On his death bed, he however made amends to his sister with the following explanation;
Go to my sister Pega and tell her that I have in this life avoided her presence so that in eternity we may see one another in the presence of our Father amid eternal joys
But after fifteen years of a strict bread and water regime Guthlac was taken ill during the Easter of the year 714, and announced that he had only seven days left to live. After giving detailed instructions for his burial he duly expired on the appointed day, being the 11th April 714, the anniversary of which was later celebrated as his feast day.
Guthlac was buried at his hermitage in Crowland and the customary miracles were later attributed to his tomb which became a centre of pilgrimage. A monastery, Crowland Abbey was established at the site of the former hermitage, and a minor but localised cult developed in the Lincolnshire area with at least nine churches being dedicated to his memory.
After his death Guthlac also appeared in a vision to his kinsman Aethelbald, where he prophesied that Aethelbald would one day become, a prophesy soon fulfilled as Aethelbald came to power in Mercia in 716 and became one of Mercia's most powerful kings who succeeded in bringing the whole of southern England under his own control. Aethelbald was to prove one of the most generous benefactors to the new foundation at Crowland which later grew into a rather wealthy monastery as the monks drained the surrounding fens and turned it into productive farmland.
The Vita Sancti Guthlaci or Life of Guthlac was later written by a monk by the name of Felix sometime early in the eighth century (and dedicated to Aelfwald who was king of East Anglia between 713 and 749), and whose author claimed that his account of Guthlac's life had been drawn from those who had known him well during his lifetime.
There are also two poetic versions of the Life of Guthlac written in Old English, generally distinguished by the names of 'Guthlac A' and 'Guthlac B', (the latter of which is often attributed to Cynewulf) and' which are contained in the Codex Exoniensis.
NOTES AND SOURCES
1 Quotation and translations of Vita Sancti Guthlaci from www.umilta.net/guthlac.html derived from Bertram Colgrave Felix's Life of Saint Guthlac (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1956)
2 As the Catholic Encyclopedia puts it in its entry for St Guthlac at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07092a.htm
3 Ann Williams, Alfred P. Smyth and D. P. Kirby A Biographical Dictionary of Dark Age Britain (Seaby, 1991)