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Ch. 14: St. Godric of Finchale

A personage quite as interesting, though not as famous, as Cuthbert or Guthlac, is St. Godric; the hermit around whose cell rose the Priory of Finchale. In a loop of the river Wear, near Durham, there settled in the days of Bishop Flambard, between 1099 and 1128, a man whose parentage and history was for many years unknown to the good folks of the neighbourhood. He had come, it seems, from a hermitage in Eskdale, in the parish of Whitby, whence he had been driven by the Percys, lords of the soil. He had gone to Durham, become the doorkeeper of St. Giles's church, and gradually learnt by heart (he was no scholar) the whole Psalter. Then he had gone to St. Mary's church, where (as was the fashion of the times) there was a children's school; and, listening to the little ones at their lessons, picked up such hymns and prayers as he thought would suffice his spiritual wants. And then, by leave of the bishop, he had gone away into the woods, and devoted himself to the solitary life in Finchale. Buried in the woods and crags of the "Royal Park," as it was then called, which swarmed with every kind of game, there was a little flat meadow, rough with sweet-gale and bramble and willow, beside a teeming salmon-pool. Great wolves haunted the woods; but Godric cared nought for them; and the shingles swarmed with snakes,--probably only the harmless collared snakes of wet meadows, but reputed, as all snakes are by the vulgar, venomous: but he did not object to become "the companion of serpents and poisonous asps." He handled them, caressed them, let them lie by the fire in swarms on winter nights, in the little cave which he had hollowed in the ground and thatched with turf. Men told soon how the snakes obeyed him; how two especially huge ones used to lie twined about his legs; till after many years, annoyed by their importunity, he turned them all gently out of doors, with solemn adjurations never to return, and they, of course, obeyed.

His austerities knew no bounds. He lived on roots and berries, flowers and leaves; and when the good folk found him out, and put gifts of food near his cell, he carried them up to the crags above, and, offering them solemnly up to the God who feeds the ravens when they call on him, left them there for the wild birds. He watched, fasted, and scourged himself, and wore always a hair shirt and an iron cuirass. He sat, night after night, even in mid-winter, in the cold Wear, the waters of which had hollowed out a rock near by into a natural bath, and afterwards in a barrel sunk in the floor of a little chapel of wattle, which he built and dedicated to the blessed Virgin Mary. He tilled a scrap of ground, and ate the grain from it, mingled with ashes. He kept his food till it was decayed before he tasted it; and led a life the records of which fill the reader with astonishment, not only at the man's iron strength of will, but at the iron strength of the constitution which could support such hardships, in such a climate, for a single year.

A strong and healthy man must Godric have been, to judge from the accounts (there are two, both written by eye-witnesses) of his personal appearance--a man of great breadth of chest and strength of arm; black-haired, hook-nosed, deep-browed, with flashing grey eyes; altogether a personable and able man, who might have done much work and made his way in many lands. But what his former life had been he would not tell. Mother-wit he had in plenty, and showed insight into men and things which the monks of Durham were ready enough to call the spirit of prophecy. After awhile it was whispered that he wrought miraculous cures: that even a bit of the bread which he was wont to eat had healed a sick woman; that he fought with daemons in visible shape; that he had seen (just as one of the old Egyptian hermits had seen) a little black boy running about between two monks who had quarrelled and come to hard blows and bleeding faces because one of them had made mistakes in the evening service: and, in short, there were attributed to him, during his lifetime, and by those who knew him well, a host of wonders which would be startling and important were they not exactly the same as those which appear in the life of every hermit since St. Antony. It is impossible to read the pages of Reginald of Durham (for he, the biographer of St. Cuthbert, is also the biographer of St. Godric) without feeling how difficult it is to obtain anything like the truth, even from eye- witnesses, if only men are (as they were in those days) in a state of religious excitement, at a period of spiritual revivals. The ignorant populace were ready to believe, and to report, anything of the Fakeer of Finchale. The monks of Durham were glad enough to have a wonder-working man belonging to them; for Ralph Flambard, in honour of Godric, had made over to them the hermitage of Finchale, with its fields and fisheries. The lad who, in after years, waited on the hermit, would have been ready enough to testify that his master saw daemons and other spiritual beings; for he began to see them on his own account; {312} fell asleep in the forest coming home from Durham with some bottles; was led in a vision by St. John the Baptist to the top of a hill, and shown by him wonders unspeakable; saw, on another occasion, a daemon in St. Godric's cell, hung all over with bottles of different liquors, offering them to the saint, who bade the lad drive him out of the little chapel, with a holy water sprinkle, but not go outside it himself. But the lad, in the fury of successful pursuit, overstepped the threshold; whereon the daemon, turning in self-defence, threw a single drop of one of his liquors into the lad's mouth, and vanished with a laugh of scorn. The boy's face and throat swelled horribly for three days; and he took care thenceforth to obey the holy man more strictly: a story which I have repeated, like the one before it, only to show the real worth of the evidence on which Reginald has composed his book. Ailred, Abbot of Rievaux (for Reginald's book, though dedicated to Hugh Pudsey, his bishop, was prompted by Ailred) was capable (as his horrible story of the nun of Watton proves) of believing anything and everything which fell in with his fanatical, though pious and gentle, temper.

And here a few words must be said to persons with whose difficulties I deeply sympathise, but from whose conclusions I differ utterly: those, namely, who say that if we reject the miracles of these saints' lives, we must reject also the miracles of the New Testament. The answer is, as I believe, that the Apostles and Evangelists were sane men: men in their right minds, wise, calm; conducting themselves (save in the matter of committing sins) like other human beings, as befitted the disciples of that Son of Man who came eating and drinking, and was therefore called by the ascetics of his time a gluttonous man, and a wine-bibber: whereas these monks were not (as I have said elsewhere) in their right minds at all.

This is, or ought to be, patent to any one who will compare the style of the Apostles and Evangelists with that of the monkish hagiologists. The calm, the simplicity, the brevity, the true grandeur of the former is sufficient evidence of their healthy- mindedness and their trustworthiness. The affectation, the self- consciousness, the bombast, the false grandeur of the latter is sufficient evidence that they are neither healthy-minded or trustworthy. Let students compare any passage of St. Luke or St. John, however surprising the miracle which it relates, with St. Jerome's life of Paul the First Hermit, or with that famous letter of his to Eustochium, which (although historically important) is unfit for the eyes of pure-minded readers and does not appear in this volume; and let them judge for themselves. Let them compare, again, the opening sentences of the Four Gospels, or of the Acts of the Apostles, with the words with which Reginald begins this life of St. Godric. "By the touch of the Holy Spirit's finger the chord of the harmonic human heart resounds melodiously. For when the vein of the heart is touched by the grace of the Holy Spirit, forthwith, by the permirific sweetness of the harmony, an exceeding operation of sacred virtue is perceived more manifestly to spring forth. With this sweetness of spirit, Godric, the man of God, was filled from the very time of his boyhood, and grew famous for many admirable works of holy work (sic), because the harmonic teaching of the Holy Spirit fired the secrets of his very bosom with a wondrous contact of spiritual grace:"--and let them say, after the comparison, if the difference between the two styles is not that which exists between one of God's lilies, fresh from the field, and a tawdry bunch of artificial flowers?

But to return. Godric himself took part in the history of his own miracles and life. It may be that he so overworked his brain that he believed that he was visited by St. Peter, and taught a hymn by the blessed Virgin Mary, and that he had taken part in a hundred other prodigies; but the Prologue to the Harleian manuscript (which the learned Editor, Mr. Stevenson, believes to be an early edition of Reginald's own composition) confesses that Reginald, compelled by Ailred of Rievaux, tried in vain for a long while to get the hermit's story from him.

"You wish to write my life?" he said. "Know then that Godric's life is such as this:--Godric, at first a gross rustic, an unclean liver, an usurer, a cheat, a perjurer, a flatterer, a wanderer, pilfering and greedy; now a dead flea, a decayed dog, a vile worm, not a hermit, but a hypocrite; not a solitary, but a gad-about in mind; a devourer of alms, dainty over good things, greedy and negligent, lazy and snoring, ambitious and prodigal, one who is not worthy to serve others, and yet every day beats and scolds those who serve him: this, and worse than this, you may write of Godric." "Then he was silent as one indignant," says Reginald, "and I went off in some confusion," and the grand old man was left to himself and to his God.

The ecclesiastical Boswell dared not mention the subject again to his hero for several years, though he came after from Durham to visit him, and celebrate mass for him in his little chapel. After some years, however, he approached the matter again; and whether a pardonable vanity had crept over Godric, or whether he had begun at last to believe in his miracles, or whether the old man had that upon his mind of which he longed to unburthen himself, he began to answer questions, and Reginald delighted to listen and note down till he had finished, he says, that book of his life and miracles; {316} and after a while brought it to the saint, and falling on his knees, begged him to bless, in the name of God, and for the benefit of the faithful, the deeds of a certain religious man, who had suffered much for God in this life which he (Reginald) had composed accurately. The old man perceived that he himself was the subject, blessed the book with solemn words (what was written therein he does not seem to have read), and bade Reginald conceal it till his death, warning him that a time would come when he should suffer rough and bitter things on account of that book, from those who envied him. That prophecy, says Reginald, came to pass; but how, or why, he does not tell. There may have been, among those shrewd Northumbrian heads, even then, incredulous men, who used their common sense.

But the story which Godric told was wild and beautiful; and though we must not depend too much on the accuracy of the old man's recollections, or on the honesty of Reginald's report, who would naturally omit all incidents which made against his hero's perfection, it is worth listening to, as a vivid sketch of the doings of a real human being, in that misty distance of the Early Middle Age.

He was born, he said, at Walpole, in Norfolk, on the old Roman sea- bank, between the Wash and the deep Fens. His father's name was AEilward; his mother's, AEdwen--"the Keeper of Blessedness," and "the Friend of Blessedness," as Reginald translates them--poor and pious folk; and, being a sharp boy, he did not take to field-work, but preferred wandering the fens as a pedlar, first round the villages, then, as he grew older, to castles and to towns, buying and selling--what, Reginald does not tell us: but we should be glad to know.

One day he had a great deliverance, which Reginald thinks a miracle. Wandering along the great tide-flats near Spalding and the old Well- stream, in search of waifs, and strays, of wreck or eatables, he saw three porpoises stranded far out upon the banks. Two were alive, and the boy took pity on them (so he said) and let them be: but one was dead, and off it (in those days poor folks ate anything) he cut as much flesh and blubber as he could carry, and toiled back towards the high-tide mark. But whether he lost his way among the banks, or whether he delayed too long, the tide came in on him up to his knees, his waist, his chin, and at last, at times, over his head. The boy made the sign of the cross (as all men in danger did then) and struggled on valiantly a full mile through the sea, like a brave lad never loosening his hold of his precious porpoise-meat till he reached the shore at the very spot from which he had set out.

As he grew, his pedlar journeys became longer. Repeating to himself, as he walked, the Creeds and the Lord's Prayer--his only lore--he walked for four years through Lindsey; then went to St. Andrew's in Scotland; after that, for the first time, to Rome. Then the love of a wandering sea life came on him, and he sailed with his wares round the east coasts; not merely as a pedlar, but as a sailor himself, he went to Denmark and to Flanders, buying and selling, till he owned (in what port we are not told, but probably in Lynn or Wisbeach) half one merchant ship and the quarter of another. A crafty steersman he was, a wise weather-prophet, a shipman stout in body and in heart, probably such a one as Chaucer tells us of 350 years after:--

"--A dagger hanging by a las hadde hee About his nekke under his arm adoun. The hote summer hadde made his hewe al broun. And certainly he was a good felaw; Full many a draught of wine he hadde draw, From Burdeaux ward, while that the chapmen slepe, Of nice conscience took he no kepe. If that he fought, and hadde the higher hand, By water he sent hem home to every land. But of his craft to recken wel his tides, His stremes and his strandes him besides, His herberwe, his mone, and his lode manage, There was none swiche, from Hull unto Carthage. Hardy he was, and wise, I undertake: With many a tempest hadde his berd be shake. He knew wel alle the havens, as they were, From Gotland to the Cape de Finisterre, And every creke in Bretagne and in Spain."

But gradually there grew on the stout merchantman the thought that there was something more to be done in the world than making money. He became a pious man after the fashion of those days. He worshipped at the famous shrine of St. Andrew. He worshipped, too, at St. Cuthbert's hermitage at Farne, and there, he said afterwards, he longed for the first time for the rest and solitude of the hermitage. He had been sixteen years a seaman now, with a seaman's temptations--it may be (as he told Reginald plainly) with some of a seaman's vices. He may have done things which lay heavy on his conscience. But it was getting time to think about his soul. He took the cross, and went off to Jerusalem, as many a man did then, under difficulties incredible, dying, too often, on the way. But Godric not only got safe thither, but went out of his way home by Spain to visit the sanctuary of St. James of Compostella, a see which Pope Calixtus II. had just raised to metropolitan dignity.

Then he appears as steward to a rich man in the Fens, whose sons and young retainers, after the lawless fashion of those Anglo-Norman times, rode out into the country round to steal the peasants' sheep and cattle, skin them on the spot, and pass them off to the master of the house as venison taken in hunting. They ate and drank, roystered and rioted, like most other young Normans; and vexed the staid soul of Godric, whose nose told him plainly enough, whenever he entered the kitchen, that what was roasting had never come off a deer. In vain he protested and warned them, getting only insults for his pains. At last he told his lord. The lord, as was to be expected, cared nought about the matter. Let the lads rob the English villains: for what other end had their grandfathers conquered the land? Godric punished himself, as he could not punish them, for the unwilling share which he had had in the wrong. It may be that he, too, had eaten of that stolen food. So away he went into France, and down the Rhone, on pilgrimage to the hermitage of St. Giles, the patron saint of the wild deer; and then on to Rome a second time, and back to his poor parents in the Fens.

And now follows a strange and beautiful story. All love of seafaring and merchandise had left the deep-hearted sailor. The heavenly and the eternal, the salvation of his sinful soul, had become all in all to him; and yet he could not rest in the little dreary village on the Roman bank. He would go on pilgrimage again. Then his mother would go likewise, and see St. Peter's church, and the Pope, and all the wonders of Rome, and have her share in all the spiritual blessings which were to be obtained (so men thought then) at Rome alone. So off they set on foot; and when they came to ford or ditch, Godric carried his mother on his back, until they came to London town. And there AEdwen took off her shoes, and vowed out of devotion to the holy apostles Peter and Paul (who, so she thought, would be well pleased at such an act) to walk barefoot to Rome and barefoot back again.

Now just as they went out of London, on the Dover Road, there met them in the way the loveliest maiden they had ever seen, and asked to bear them company in their pilgrimage. And when they agreed, she walked with them, sat with them, and talked with them with superhuman courtesy and grace; and when they turned into an inn, she ministered to them herself, and washed and kissed their feet, and then lay down with them to sleep, after the simple fashion of those days. But a holy awe of her, as of some saint and goddess, fell on the wild seafarer; and he never, so he used to aver, treated her for a moment save as a sister. Never did either ask the other who they were, and whence they came; and Godric reported (but this was long after the event) that no one of the company of pilgrims could see that fair maid, save he and his mother alone. So they came safe to Rome, and back to London town; and when they were at the place outside Southwark, where the fair maid had met them first, she asked permission to leave them, for she "must go to her own land, where she had a tabernacle of rest, and dwelt in the house of her God." And then, bidding them bless God, who had brought them safe over the Alps, and across the sea, and all along that weary road, she went on her way, and they saw her no more.

Then with this fair mysterious face clinging to his memory, and it may be never leaving it, Godric took his mother safe home, and delivered her to his father, and bade them both after awhile farewell, and wandered across England to Penrith, and hung about the churches there, till some kinsmen of his recognised him, and gave him a psalter (he must have taught himself to read upon his travels), which he learnt by heart. Then, wandering ever in search of solitude, he went into the woods and found a cave, and passed his time therein in prayer, living on green herbs and wild honey, acorns and crabs; and when he went about to gather food, he fell down on his knees every few yards and said a prayer, and rose and went on.

After awhile he wandered on again, until at Wolsingham, in Durham, he met with another holy hermit, who had been a monk at Durham, living in a cave in forests in which no man dare dwell, so did they swarm with packs of wolves; and there the two good men dwelt together till the old hermit fell sick, and was like to die. Godric nursed him, and sat by him, to watch for his last breath. For the same longing had come over him which came over Marguerite d'Angouleme when she sat by the dying bed of her favourite maid of honour--to see if the spirit, when it left the body, were visible, and what kind of thing it was: whether, for instance, it was really like the little naked babe which is seen in mediaeval illuminations flying out of the mouths of dying men. But, worn out with watching, Godric could not keep from sleep. All but despairing of his desire, he turned to the dying man, and spoke, says Reginald, some such words as these:--"O spirit! who art diffused in that body in the likeness of God, and art still inside that breast, I adjure thee by the Highest, that thou leave not the prison of this thine habitation while I am overcome by sleep, and know not of it." And so he fell asleep: but when he woke, the old hermit lay motionless and breathless. Poor Godric wept, called on the dead man, called on God; his simple heart was set on seeing this one thing. And, behold, he was consoled in a wondrous fashion. For about the third hour of the day the breath returned. Godric hung over him, watching his lips. Three heavy sighs he drew, then a shudder, another sigh: {323} and then (so Godric was believed to have said in after years) he saw the spirit flit.

What it was like, he did not like to say, for the most obvious reason--that he saw nothing, and was an honest man. A monk teased him much to impart to him this great discovery, which seemed to the simple untaught sailor a great spiritual mystery, and which was, like some other mediaeval mysteries which were miscalled spiritual (transubstantiation above all), altogether material and gross imaginations. Godric answered wisely enough, that "no man could perceive the substance of the spiritual soul."

But the monk insisting, and giving him no rest, he answered,-- whether he wished to answer a fool according to his folly, or whether he tried to fancy (as men will who are somewhat vain--and if a saint was not vain, it was no fault of the monks who beset him) that he had really seen something. He told how it was like a dry, hot wind rolled into a sphere, and shining like the clearest glass, but that what it was really like no one could express. Thus much, at least, may be gathered from the involved bombast of Reginald.

Another pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulchre did Godric make before he went to the hermitage in Eskdale, and settled finally at Finchale. And there about the hills of Judaea he found, says Reginald, hermits dwelling in rock-caves, as they had dwelt since the time of St. Jerome. He washed himself, and his hair shirt and little cross, in the sacred waters of the Jordan, and returned, after incredible suffering, to become the saint of Finchale.

His hermitage became, in due time, a stately priory, with its community of monks, who looked up to the memory of their holy father Godric as to that of a demigod. The place is all ruinate now; the memory of St. Godric gone; and not one in ten thousand, perhaps, who visit those crumbling walls beside the rushing Wear, has heard of the sailor-saint, and his mother, and that fair maid who tended them on their pilgrimage.

Meanwhile there were hermits for many years in that same hermitage in Eskdale, from which a Percy expelled St. Godric, possibly because he interfered with the prior claim of some protege of their own; for they had, a few years before Godric's time, granted that hermitage to the monks of Whitby, who were not likely to allow a stranger to establish himself on their ground.

About that hermitage hung one of those stories so common in the Middle Ages, in which the hermit appears as the protector of the hunted wild beast; a story, too, which was probably authentic, as the curious custom which was said to perpetuate its memory lasted at least till the year 1753. I quote it at length from Burton's "Monasticon Eboracense," p. 78, knowing no other authority.

"In the fifth year of the reign of King Henry II. after the conquest of England by William, duke of Normandy, the Lord of Uglebardby, then called William de Bruce, and the Lord of Sneton, called Ralph de Perci, with a gentleman and a freeholder called Allatson, did on the 16th day of October appoint to meet and hunt the wild boar, in a certain wood or desert place belonging to the abbot of the monastery of Whitby; the place's name is Eskdale-side; the abbot's name was Sedman. Then these gentlemen being met, with their hounds and boar- staves, in the place before-named, and there having found a great wild boar, the hounds ran him well near about the chapel and hermitage of Eskdale-side, where was a monk of Whitby, who was a hermit. The boar being very sore, and very hotly pursued, and dead run, took in at the chapel door, and there died: whereupon the hermit shut the hounds out of the chapel, and kept himself within at his meditations and prayers, the hounds standing at bay without. The gentlemen in the thick of the wood, being put behind their game, followed the cry of their hounds, and so came to the hermitage, calling on the hermit, who opened the door and came forth, and within they found the boar lying dead, for which the gentlemen in very great fury (because their hounds were put from their game) did most violently and cruelly run at the hermit with their boar-staves, whereby he died soon after: thereupon the gentlemen, perceiving and knowing that they were in peril of death, took sanctuary at Scarborough. But at that time the abbot, being in very great favour with King Henry, removed them out of the sanctuary, whereby they came in danger of the law, and not to be privileged, but likely to have the severity of the law, which was death. But the hermit, being a holy and devout man, at the point of death sent for the abbot, and desired him to send for the gentlemen who had wounded him: the abbot so doing, the gentlemen came, and the hermit, being very sick and weak, said unto them, 'I am sure to die of those wounds you have given me.' The abbot answered, 'They shall as surely die for the same;' but the hermit answered, 'Not so, for I will freely forgive them my death, if they will be contented to be enjoined this penance for the safeguard of their souls.' The gentlemen being present, and terrified with the fear of death, bade him enjoin what penance he would, so that he would but save their lives. Then said the hermit, 'You and yours shall hold your lands of the Abbot of Whitby and his successors in this manner: That upon Ascension Eve, you or some of you shall come to the woods of the Strag Heads, which is in Eskdale-side, the same day at sun-rising, and there shall the abbot's officer blow his horn, to the intent that you may know how to find him; and he shall deliver unto you, William de Bruce, ten stakes, eleven strut-towers, and eleven yethers, to be cut by you or some for you, with a knife of one penny price; and you, Ralph de Perci, shall take twenty and one of each sort, to be cut in the same manner; and you, Allatson, shall take nine of each sort, to be cut as aforesaid, and to be taken on your backs, and carried to the town of Whitby, and to be there before nine of the clock the same day before-mentioned; at the same hour of nine of the clock (if it be full sea) your labour or service shall cease; but if it be not full sea, each of you shall set your stakes at the brim, each stake one yard from the other, and so yether them on each side of your yethers, and so stake on each side with your strut-towers, that they may stand three tides without removing by the force thereof: each of you shall do, make, and execute the said service at that very hour every year, except it shall be full sea at that hour: but when it shall so fall out, this service shall cease. You shall faithfully do this in remembrance that you did most cruelly slay me; and that you may the better call to God for mercy, repent unfeignedly for your sins, and do good works, the officers of Eskdale-side shall blow, Out on you, out on you, out on you, for this heinous crime. If you or your successors shall refuse this service, so long as it shall not be full sea at the aforesaid hour, you or yours shall forfeit your lands to the Abbot of Whitby, or his successors. This I intreat, and earnestly beg that you may have lives and goods preserved for this service; and I request of you to promise by your parts in heaven that it shall be done by you and your successors, as it is aforesaid requested, and I will confirm it by the faith of an honest man.' Then the hermit said: 'My soul longeth for the Lord, and I do as freely forgive these men my death as Christ forgave the thieves upon the cross;' and in the presence of the abbot and the rest he said, moreover, these words: 'Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit, for from the bonds of death Thou hast redeemed me, O Lord of truth. Amen.' So he yielded up the ghost the eighth day of December, A.D. 1160, upon whose soul God have mercy. Amen."

Charles Kingsley