This year marks 19 years since Wessex Society adopted St Aldhelm (spelled Ealdhelm in the West Saxon dialect of Old English) as the Patron Saint of Wessex and started to raise awareness of the saint and his day as the Day for Wessex. Since then St Ealdhelm’s day (25th May) has been officially recognised as Wessex Day, while support for Ealdhelm himself as our Patron Saint is growing.
Eric Pickles said in the House of Commons on 25th May 2013:
“Recent events remind us that we are stronger as a society when we celebrate the ties that bind us together. Whatever one’s class, colour or creed, let’s have pride in Britain’s local and national identities. It’s right to celebrate the kingdom that paved the way for a united England: for today, the only way is Wessex.”
But who was Ealdhelm? Well, unlike other British patron saints, Ealdhelm was not only real he was also a native of Britain, indeed of Wessex, probably born in Wiltshire. He lived between c640 AD and 709 AD. He was a poet, a musician, a singer and an orator, was the greatest scholar of his time, and copies of his writings still exist.
He was the first abbot of Malmesbury and went on to found many churches across Wiltshire and Somerset. Ealdhelm is claimed to be the founder of the church of St. Michael-intra-muros in Bath and the 7th century cross in Bath Abbey could be that of St. Ealdhelm. Bishopstrow in Wiltshire is said to derive its name from the time when Ealdhelm as Bishop planted his ash-staff in the ground whilst delivering a sermon but the sermon lasted so long that the staff took root and become the “Bishop’s Tree”, hence Bishopstrow. The churches at Bradford-on-Avon and Doulting, near Shepton Mallet are also claimed to be founded by Ealdhelm. At Frome he is reputed to have founded a monastery. Wells and Glastonbury were re-founded by Ealdhelm.
He later, in 704AD became the first bishop of the new diocese of Sherborne. He died in the visitation of his diocese at Doulting, near Shepton Mallet on 25 May 709. There is a legend that after his death, his body was taken in procession or translation of 7 miles a day for 7 days from Doulting to Malmesbury for burial. His burial site at Malmesbury became a centre for pilgrimage until after the Norman Conquest.
He was the first person in the West Country to be canonised
The journey on which his body was taken, was one of seven stages each of seven miles. The exact route is not known, but according to William of Malmesbury there were crosses still standing in his time erected at each spot where the corpse rested.
The suggested route was Doulting - Frome - Westbury - Bradford - Bath - Colerne - Littleton Drew - Malmesbury. This route joins all the major locations where Ealdhelm founded churches or monasteries.
To honour this day, in previous years members of Wessex Society have staged various events on 25th May such as walking the whole 49 mile route in relay between Doulting and Malmesbury over which St Ealdhelm’s body was carried in 705AD.
This year, we will be replicating that relay but this time – age taking its toll on many Wessex Society members – it will be by car in order to visit as many Ealdhelmian sites as possible.
Why not join us. We aim to start from the church at Doulting at 10:30, stopping off for a pub lunch somewhere along the way.
We hope to see you there.