Wessex Worthies: Saint Boniface

Born near Crediton in Devon and originally named Wynfrith, Saint Boniface (675-754) was the first Archbishop of Mainz, and is known as "the apostle to the Germans". Christopher Dawson, in his 1946 book The Making of Europe, has said that Boniface "had a deeper influence on the history of Europe than any Englishman who has ever lived". A bold claim, but does it hold up?

The young Wynfrith was noted for his academic prowess. Originally sent as a boy to the monastery at Exeter for his education, he eventually entered the monastery at Nursling in Hampshire, where he became director of the school at an early age, compiling the first known Latin grammar in England. King Ine and his witan (advisors) selected him to become part of a delegation to the Archbishop of Canterbury, where he honed his skills as a diplomat. This led to him being dispatched as a missionary to the Frisians, where he met with fierce resistance from their pagan king, Radbod. The mission ending in failure, Wynfrith became convinced that he needed a direct commission from the pope, Gregory II. This was granted in 719, along with his new name, Boniface, named in honour of an earlier martyr.

Boniface returned to Frisia following the death of Radbod, and found more success in winning converts to the new faith, assisting the now elderly Saint Willibrord of Utrecht. Willibrord wanted Boniface to take over from him after his retirement, but Boniface chose instead to lead a mission to the still unconverted German lands, under an order of protection from Charles Martel, who saw an opportunity to establish Frankish rule.

It was in Hesse that he performed his most famous deed, cutting down an oak tree that had been struck by lightning, and was thus sacred to Donar (Thunor/Thor). The locals seeing that he was not punished by the gods for this impious deed, converted to Christianity. The story was later embellished to have the oak felled by a divine blast of lightning, and split into four pieces of equal size, arranged in the shape of a cross. A later legend credits this as the origin of the Christmas tree, though in reality, Christmas trees are much too recent in origin for this to be the case.

But Boniface's most enduring legacy was the reform of the German churches, establishing the Rule of St Benedict and leaving behind a system of administration, and an alliance between the Carolingian dynasty and the papacy, that was to form the basis of the so-called "Holy Roman Empire". He and his missionaries were active in bringing Roman learning and Roman civilisation to the Germanic world, making the claim made by Dawson in the opening paragraph more than just empty hype.

In 754, at the age of 79, Boniface undertook one last mission to Frisia. At a mass baptism event, he was ambushed by armed robbers. His companions tried to defend themselves, but he urged them to lay down their arms and trust in God. This went exactly as you might expect. His body was initially transferred to Mainz, before being translated to the Benedictine abbey (later cathedral) in the Hessian city of Fulda, where his remains are kept to this day. They are a major pilgrimage site, even attracting a papal visit in 1980. There is also a shrine at the Catholic church in Crediton, Boniface's feast day is observed on June 5th in the Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox churches.

Wessex Worthies: Sebastian Cabot

Sebastian Cabot (1474-1557) was the son of the famous Venetian explorer John Cabot (1450-1500), and followed in his father's footsteps in leading expeditions from Bristol. Late in life, he claimed to have been born there, but he appears to have been suffering from cognitive decline by that point, and most modern historians believe that he was born in the Venetian Republic.

Cabot left a note on his famous map of the New World claiming to have reached North America with his father in 1494, three years before the famous voyage of the Matthew, This may have been a transcription error in subsequent copies of the manuscript, or Cabot may have been trying to nudge the date forward a few years in order to advance Spanish or Portuguese territorial claims over those of England or France.

Better attested is his 1504 voyage from Bristol, in which he took two ships, the Jesus and the Gabriel past Cuba and as far as the Chesapeake Bay. Unfortunately, by the time he returned, Henry VII, who had sponsored the voyage, had died, and his son Henry VIII showed little interest in exploring the New World at the time. He later relented, and tried to sponsor a voyage in 1521, but the Drapers' Company was reluctant to fund it, and the voyage was abandoned.

Interestingly, David Hackett Fischer devoted a section of his book Albion's Seed to the fact that the English settlement of the Chesapeake Bay area was dominated by Wessaxons. And there exists to this day a Wessex Society of Newfoundland (no connection to this website beyond the name), which promotes the Wessaxon heritage of the island. Sebastian Cabot, whether or not he was a native son of Wessex, surely stands along with his father as the person most responsible for these historic links.

Wessex Worthies: John Locke

John Locke (1632-1704) of Wrington in Somerset is often called the "father of liberalism", though he is noted more as an apologist for the Glorious Revolution of 1688 than as an originator of Enlightenment thought. His work attracted comparatively little attention during his lifetime, but garnered renewed interest in the period leading up to the American War of Independence.

Locke's work is often contrasted with that of another Wessex-born philosopher, Thomas Hobbes. Both men believed that humanity originally existed in a state of nature where all people were equal and free, But where Hobbes believed that this led to rampant egoism that needed a strong despot to control it, Locke was far more optimistic. For him, the purpose of the state was to secure the natural rights of the individual. He was a supporter of a constitutional monarchy, and of religious toleration, but only for the different Protestant denominations. Catholics and atheists were still considered to be beyond the pale.

Phrases from Locke's Two Treatises on Government later found their way into the American Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson considered him to be one of the three greatest men who ever lived, along with Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton. However, the left-wing American historian Howard Zinn has accused him of overlooking disparities of wealth in his writings on equality, while from the right, Roger Scruton has criticised his ideas about the Social Contract for concentrating solely on the living, while ignoring the needs of those yet to be born.

However, even Locke's critics are forced to acknowledge his immense contribution to modern thought, Thanks largely to the worldwide influence of the United States his writings have, for good or ill, helped to define the global neoliberal order.

Wessex Worthies: Thomas Young

Andrew Robinson's biography of Milverton-born polymath Thomas Young (1773–1829) is entitled The Last Man Who Knew Everything. It seems like an apt description of a man who made notable contributions to the fields of medicine, physics, music theory and Egyptology.

Young was born to a Quaker family, the eldest of ten children, though he converted to the Church of England in 1804 in order to marry Eliza Maxwell. By the age of 15, he already knew Latin and Greek. He studied medicine in London and Edinburgh before finally obtaining his doctorate from the University of Göttingen in Lower Saxony. He became both a Fellow of the Royal Society and an honorary foreign member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

His achievements in medicine include deriving formulae for determining the wave speed of the pulse, and a child's dose of medicine.

In physics, he was an early proponent of the wave theory of light, as opposed to the particle theory favoured by Isaac Newton and others.

Young was one of the translators of the Rosetta Stone, which constituted a major advance in the study of Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Young died of complications from asthma at the age of just 55., and is buried at Westminster Abbey. His name lives on in the Thomas Young Centre at the University of London, and at Young Sound in Greenland.

Wessex Worthies: PC Wren

This article originally appeared in the Wessex Chronicle Volume 18, Issue 1 (Spring 2017)

An unusual entry into our Wessex Worthies series of biographies of prominent Wessaxons this time, as there is some doubt as to whether its subject actually qualifies for entry. Most “about the author” blurbs on the covers of his 30 novels and 9 collections of short stories will tell you that Percival Christopher Wren was born in Devon in 1885, a direct descendant of the famed architect Sir Christopher Wren. However, Wren was notoriously secretive about his life, and something of a fabulist to boot, so this could well be what we nowadays refer to as an alternative fact. Wikipedia, for what it’s worth, gives his birthplace as Deptford, London; Percy Wren, a humble schoolmaster’s son. It also lists his birth as being 10 years earlier, in 1875. He graduated from what is now St Catherine’s College in Oxford, but which was then St Catherine’s Society, a non-collegiate institution for poorer students. Could it be that the connection to Sir Christopher Wren was a way of elevating the status of a man who was self-conscious about his lowly origins? And who could blame a man who had the misfortune to be born in That London for wishing he had been born in Wessex instead?

Whatever his place of birth, Wren is chiefly known as the inventor of a genre of adventure fiction that was once hugely popular, but which has now fallen into disuse: the Foreign Legion story. Again, Wren’s own service in the Legion is a matter of controversy. No corroborating evidence exists to support the speculation that he had served as a legionnaire, and he refused to either confirm or deny it. It would appear, at least to my eyes, that he didn’t actually serve in the Legion, but wasn’t too upset by people thinking that he did. But his stepson, Alan Graham-Smith, always maintained that Wren was indeed a legionnaire, and was reportedly very upset by those who said otherwise.

He definitely served in World War I, however, in the 101st Grenadiers, a unit of the British Indian Army active in East Africa. After being invalided out in 1915, he concentrated on his fiction, though he had previously written a number of educational textbooks used in India. By far his best-known work is the 1924 novel Beau Geste, which has been filmed a number of times, and which spawned four sequels, two of which were also filmed. It was parodied by the Carry On team in Follow That Camel, and by Marty Feldman in The Last Remake of Beau Geste. The title of the latter proved to be prophetic as far as film is concerned, but it was adapted again for television in 1982 in an 8-part BBC serial written by Alistair Bell & Terrance Dicks and directed by Douglas Camfield.

PC Wren died in 1941, and is buried in the graveyard of Holy Trinity Church, Amberley, Gloucestershire. Whether or not he was born in Devon, he certainly loved the county. Consider this passage from Good Gestes:

“What would be the loveliest thing his mind could possibly conceive? What about a drive in the high dog-cart with Isobel?—through the glorious Devon countryside; the smart cob doing his comfortable ten miles an hour; harness jingling; hoof-beats regular as clockwork; Isobel's hand under his right arm; Devon lanes; Devon fields and orchards; Devon moors; glorious—beyond description.”

So whilst his birth in Wessex may be open to dispute, the fact that his heart, soul, and ultimately body belonged here is not.