There is a tragic paucity of primary sources about our Holy Father Botolph of Iken, and many of the hagiographical accounts that do exist were written many centuries later and are often riddled with error and anachronism. The tragedy is made more acute when one considers that there are at least 78 historic or current churches dedicated to him in Britain, far more, it should be noted, than any other Pre-Conquest British Saint, and that his veneration extended not only throughout England but Scandinavia as well. In what follows we have tried to discern the basic outline of St Botolph’s life from the rare, fragmentary glimpses of him that we get in the couple of Anglo-Saxon sources as well as the later hagiographical narratives. For a fuller presentation of this timeline, complete with comprehensive academic referencing, please refer to a booklet on the Life of the saint which the College OLM is currently in the process of preparing for publication. We hope though that this simple time line will give an overview of this extraordinary Suffolk Saint and situate him a little within the spiritual milieu of the 7th Century. Please note all dates are approximate and indicative.
615 – St Botolph is born of probable noble, Anglo-Saxon parentage.
620s – He enters a monastery in England as a youth to begin his spiritual formation.
630s – 647 – As an adolescent or young adult St Botolph travels to Gaul to complete his monastic training. In the turbulent period of the early 7th century this may have been as much about protection as it was about piety or education. We know that many young members of the Anglo-Saxon nobility – both young men and women - were sent across to monasteries and convents in Gaul to escape the dangerous threat of the rampaging Pagan Mercians. From the sources it seems that he spends a significant period of time at St Fara’s great double monastery in Brie, called Eboriacum, but later renamed Faremoutiers in her honour. Here he meets the saintly daughters of King Onna of East Anglia, Saethyrth and Aethelburga, and forms a spiritual friendship with both of them. Jointly they persuade him to go back to their father’s kingdom to establish a monastery and write letters of recommendation.
Despite his reputation as a Pioneer of the Rule of St Benedict in England, therefore, we know that his formation at Faremoutiers-en-Brie would have been strongly influenced by the Celtic Rule of the famous Irish missionary St Columbanus, which we know was observed there in conjunction with the Rule of St Benedict as well as other Frankish monastic rules of the period. This would have entailed that St Botolph’s monastic training was of highly ascetical character, combining extensive monastic services, with distinctively prolonged chanting of the Psalter, together with rigorous emphasis on spiritual discipline and obedience as well as the importance of intellectual study of the Scriptures and Writings of the Fathers.
647 - 651 – Botolph returns to England and travels to Rendlesham in Suffolk, the ancient capital of the East Anglian Wuffings Court, taking with him recommendations from Onna’s daughters. After some negotiation, King Onna allocates him land at Icanho (Iken), a marshy spur, “surrounded on all sides by the branches” of the River Alde which would have made it something of an East Anglian “Holy Island”. Strategically, the monastery was ideally placed through being close to the royal court in Rendlesham, and just a few miles south of the diocesan see that St Felix had established at Dommoc (Dunwich).
651 – 653 – The raiding of the belligerent pagan Penda, King of the Mercians, causes Onna to go into exile as well as leading to the ransack and destruction of many East Anglian monasteries and churches, including St Fursey’s monastery at Cnobheresburg (Burgh Castle). It is likely that St Botolph travels widely over these years by river and land, preaching the Gospel and establishing churches. The entry in the Schelswig Breviary states that he founded a church along the banks of the River Thames dedicated to St Martin of Tours, which again indicates his Gallic background and missionary inspiration. Arnold-Foster suggests that this church could have been at Bladon near Woodstock on the bank of the River Thames
653 – If he hasn’t met St Cedd already, as would seem quite likely given St Botolph’s strong associations with Essex and East Mercia where St Cedd was also strongly active, he certainly encounters him at the Baptism of King Sieghburt of Essex which took place at St Gregory’s Church in Rendlesham. It is possible that St Botolph accompanied St Cedd in his missionary activity in Essex at the time of all the upheaval in Suffolk. Whilst the Venerable Bede, tellingly, doesn’t mention St Botolph by name, some scholars have speculated whether he is the anonymous “priest” referred to in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History as accompanying St Cedd around this time?
654 – The entry from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle laconically states, “In this year Onna was slain and Botwulf began to timber his minster at Icanho”. The terms “timbers” probably indicates that there had been some temporary structure in place before this which may have been abandoned for some period of time during the chaos of Penda’s raids. It is also possible that the timbering of the minster, under Onna’s successor, King Aethelhere, was as a memorial to Onna.
In 1977, as well as uncovering the 1 ½ meter limestone cross shaft from the base of the tower, the excavations on the North wall of the nave discovered the clay foundations of a wooden building which dates to the Middle Saxon Period- in all likelihood the very minster that St Botolph himself constructed and worshipped in. Moreover, at exactly the same time that St Botolph was timbering his minster at Iken, we know that St Cedd, the Apostle to Essex, was also establishing his own minsters at Bradwell and Tilbury. His church, dedicated to St Peter at Bradwell, still stands and displays a Kentish style that St Botolph would have known and may well have copied at Iken, with its tri-partite structure (narthex, nave and altar, which can also be seen in the layout of the Anglo-Saxon Church at Brandon) and perhaps also, a triple-arched chancel.
654 – 669 – During this period, St Botolph’s monastery becomes an important monastic and missionary centre, no doubt with a good sized library and scriptorium, given the centrality of this to the Columbanian tradition and Coelfrith’s comment on the extent of his learning below. Whilst no styluses have been found at Iken to date, which is again attributable to the ferocity of the pagan desecration, important examples have been found at Blythburgh and Brandon.
In this period, St Botolph develops a reputation as a holy elder and in particular as a powerful intercessor and excorcist, conquering the demon-filled marshlands for Christ by the sign of the Cross. Whilst the later medieval lives may have employed a certain amount of poetic licence, all traditional Christians will recognise that St Botolph’s life would have involved real spiritual struggle against demonic forces, especially given the success of his missionary work throughout East Anglia. This missionary success has been indicated recently through further archaeological excavations in the local vicinity of Iken. Thus there is evidence of another small church directly across the river from the minster at Iken on Barber’s Point, as well as a possible church just next to the minster on top of the ancient pagan earthwork at Yarn Hill in addition to a larger monastic site a few miles South at Burrow Hill in Butley, which in Anglo-Saxon times was an island cut off from the mainland by tidal mudflats crossed by a causeway. In this sense, we are talking more about a monastic archipelago centred around Iken rather than just an isolated monastery.
During these years, apparently following a snake bite, no doubt from a distant ancestor of the adders which can still be found in Iken’s marshes, St Botolph made a further missionary journey to a place “remote from the sea, in a vast solitude, with a river flowing through the valley, and accessible through forests or jungle” where he dedicated two churches to Sts Peter and Paul. Again it’s difficult to identify this with any accuracy, given the non-specific reference and the terrific spread of churches now dedicated to St Botolph, but it’s plausible that this missionary journey could have been in deep Warwickshire. There are several dedications of churches which are now to St Botolph along the Anglo-Welsh border and we know that by the close of the 7th Century, shortly after St Botolph’s repose, it had a daughter house at the Double Monastery of Much Wenlock. Alternatively, or in addition, this missionary journey could have been in the region of Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, perhaps as part of a visit to the new monastery at Lastingham of his monastic contemporary, and possible co-labourer, St Cedd’s.
670 – Bede’s teacher, Abbot Coelfrith of Jarrow, visits Botolph’s monastery in Ikenhoe following his ordination by Bishop Wilfred. He stays at the monastery for some months, working possibly in the monastery’s bakery. The author of Coelfrith’s Life describes St Botolph as “a man of unparalleled life and learning, and full of the grace of the Holy Spirit”. It’s likely that Bede’s silence may further give weight to St Botolph’s Frankish and Irish, as opposed to directly Ionian or Roman, influences which were aspects of the story of England’s conversion to Christianity outside of the Venerable Bede’s Romano-centric narrative.
17 June 680 – On this day, in the words of his Norman biographer Abbot Folcard, St Botolph reposes “in the presence of the brethren, in the monastery which he had built”. The reference in the later Life to his “age and infirmities” suggests that he was well over sixty at the time of his death. His successor is said to have been Edelheg who is named in the charter of Much Wenlock. Sadly, around 870 the same Viking hoard who martyred King Edmund, also raised Iken to the ground, presumably killed its monks and looted the monastery of its sacred possessions, books and relics. The Anglo-Saxon cross that was discovered at the base of the West tower by Dr Stanley West in 1977 is thought to have been erected in his memory around the 9th to 10th Century.
HOLY FATHER BOTOLPH OF IKEN, PRAY TO GOD FOR US!