SHRINE-CANOPY OF ST. EDBURGA, QUEEN AND FOUNDRESS
An 'unknown' shrine in Oxfordshire
By Fr. DESMOND MURRAY, 0.1'.
VERY few ancient shrines of the Saints remain in England today. There is the shrine of St. Edward the Confessor, Westminster, which alone is thought to contain its relics, unless we allow that of St. Candida or Witte at Whitechurch, Dorset, and the few poor relics of St. Eanswithe at Folkestone, Kent.
The few others that remain are parts of the structure which once held the relics, i.e., the base of the shrine of St. Osmond in Salisbury Cathedral, with its three foramina or circular openings on each side, similar to that at Whitechurch. The shrine of St. Thomas of Cantitupe at Hereford; the few carved stones of the once fine shrine of St Werburgh at Chester; similarly at St. Albans, Oxford, Lincoln and Dorchester, Oxon; of those dedicated to St. Alban, St. Fredeswide, St. Hugh and St. Birinus. Apart from these, all other shrines of the saints, together with their relics were utterly destroyed at the time of the Reformation.
It is surprising then that one more shrine-canopy can now be added to this short list, for the shrine of St. Edburga, Eadburga or Idaherga, as she was variously called, was only discovered in comparatively recent years.
THE true nature of this structure was first recognised in 1890.
In 1910 Sir W. St. John Hope discussed it in the Archaelogieol Journal, pointing out that it must have once belonged to some monastic church from which it was moved to its present position. This is conjectured to be Bicester Priory. which was dedicated to this saint and is about 12 miles from Stanton Harcourt. the church where it can now be seen.
It is known to have been moved there in the year 1537. at the time of the suppression of the smaller monastic houses.
Bicester was a small Augustinian Priory founded in 1182, of which no remains can he found today.
St. Edburga was one of the many saints belonging to the family of Penda, king of Mercia, who lived in the 7th century. She may be the same saint who was queen of the king of Northumbria. On his death she returned to the South, the kingly residence was at Kings Sutton not far north of Oxford.
Kent was then under the rule of her brother Eadbatd and she quickly founded a nunnery of which she became first abbess and built a large basilica at Lyminge. It was here that only two years ago a whole Jute settlement was unearthed, containing many graves
and ornaments; some of these relics can now be seen in the museum at Maidstone.
MENTION is made of St. Edburga in the Cotton MS (Galba, E., IV.) where in one of the registers of Christchurch a jewelled silver arm shrine is listed amongst the relics of mans other saints.
The older editions of Dunces Lives. give the feast day of St. Edburga or Idaberga as occurring on June 20.
The shrine at Stanton Harcourt, shows 12 Armorial Shields, one of which contains the royal arms Mr. Greening Lamborn, who wrote a short account of the shrine in Country Life (May 29, 1942) gives the photos from which the line-drawings have been made. He noticed that this particular
shield was the same as that on the seal of the Priory at Bicester.
From Bloomfield's Deanery of Bicester we learn that " the Priory church was enlarged in 1300 and that the image and shrine of St. Edburg were thenceforth often mentioned in Accounts and Oblations to the Relics ".
One of the other Armorial shields has been identified as that of Henry Lacy. Earl of Lincoln. a contemporary patron of the Priory and most probably the donor of the shrine. He was married in 1294, so that the work would not be earlier than that date.
The shrine is truly a magnificent example of mediaeval work, perhaps the finest now in existence in England. almost perfectly preserved after so many centuries of strange vicissitudes.
CONSTRUCTED of Purbeck marble, with some of the original gildings and colouring remaining, in beauty of design and craftsmanship — it can be matched only to the finest among the royal tombs at Westminster — says E. H. Greening Lamborn.
He also says it is one of the supreme achievements of English Gothic art at its zenith, in the earliest years of the 14th century.
For a long time the structure was thought to he a tomb-canopy. but the material and workmanship. between the superstructure and its present modern base, show without doubt, that it is the canopy pedestal of a mediaeval shrine.
A very similar and almost contemporary structure (the same writer says). is to be seen in Hereford Cathedral. in the shrine of StThomas. where two iron uprights. with the holes for the others remain.
The present base of freestone is of course comparatively modern and must have been added when the shrine was moved to its present position. Part of the original base is built into the west end of one of the Harcourt tombs, in the adjoining chapel; this has been identified by its material and workmanship. Skelton in his Antiquities of Oxford 1823 gives a very good engraving of this pedesta I.
Originally the present structure was much lower, for half the base
of the four uprights have added at some time.
The usual custom with shrines was to have openings in the sides. so that pilgrims could touch the feretory, when by their visit and prayers they asked the saint to intercede for them, or to obtain a cure for • their particular bodily ailment.
Such openings are shown in the tomb shrine of St. Witte; in the present case, when the relics were lowered by pulleys to rest upon the top of the shrine, this would not be necessary. been
THE Harcourts received the manor of Stanton in the days of Henry I. Writing in 1657 Anthony Wood called the shrine the tomb of Isabel Canville, one of the early Harcourts. so this false description has been followed sinIcehe canopy now stands against one of the side windows. upon a raised base like an altar-tomb. resembling a sepulchral monument, and may have been used as an Easter Sepulchre.
This practically unknown shrine is a treasure which every Catholic should surely know about, for it is a part of our heritage, and Catholics should try to visit it when in Oxfordshire.
The only work on the Shrine of English Saints is that by Charles Wall : Shrine of British Saints, 1905. (Antiquary's Books).