AN INTRODUCTION TO THE LIFE OF ST JOHN OF BRIDLINGTON
Preliminary remarks by the author
I hope as I go through what I have prepared, there won’t be too many repetitions or overlaps – obviously there’ll be some with what was said this morning; I found both lectures very illuminating, and just to mention them very quickly: Prof Mayr-Harting, about the pastoral canons, I found that particularly interesting and, thinking of St John of Bridlington, the recruiting of new canons or novices – as I’ll mention, John came from what we might describe as the landed gentry, so that fits very neatly. And Rob Lutton – there are quite a few things that connect with what you were saying this morning. I found the political context very interesting. So the political background and whether Prior John de Thweng connected with the larger political scene is a big question.
Until I came to Bridlington in 1999 I’d never heard of St John of Bridlington, but very quickly I began to hear bits and pieces about him: why do we have roads named after St John, the window in the Priory with St John in the centre, with Robert the Scribe and George Ripley . So very quickly I picked up the vibes about St John of Bridlington . There seemed to be a lot of people interested but nobody knew very much . There’s been a few publications, but nothing you could put your finger on, and everything had gone out of print . One thing which for me really turned the tide and set me on track was in 2003 when a young Russian student arrived at the door of the Rectory one spring afternoon and her name was Juliana Drezvina – some of you may well know her – and she has in fact sent her apologies that she can’t be here this weekend . Juliana had come with a friend from Oxford where she was a student and she wanted to be shown round the Priory and as we went round she asked about St John . She explained how she was investigating the two St Johns – St John of Bridlington and St John of Beverley and the history of their cults, more particularly the blurring of the cults of the two saints . She said she had written a draft of her findings so far: ‘Would you like me to send you a copy?’ So I said ‘yes please!’ and it came on an email a couple of days later . It was a paper, not complete – she wasn’t claiming it as fully researched, but it was comparing the two cults and when I looked at the footnotes there were so many references, I thought – if I’m going to do something about St John of Bridlington, this is a great start . So I owe her a debt of gratitude because she pointed me to the most important manuscripts, particularly in the British Library and the Bodleian, because at that time I had very little idea how to go about finding out about St John . In 2005 I was lucky to be granted a sabbatical -only three months, but it enabled me to go the Vatican secret archives, to see the Bull of canonisation, to refute the people who said John was never canonised, an accusation I’ve seen in writing as well as informally . And then the British Library and the Durham Chapter Library; so I was able to spend time finding things out .
SLIDE 1 Picture of St John of Bridlington by Sharon Winter
There’s John looking a bit like an Augustinian canon, and there are two of the Hartlepool fishermen as they were perishing . So a question to get us started:
Where do we find out about Prior John de Thweng who became St John of Bridlington? Very briefly, and chronologically from the very earliest, we have the Middle English verse life, probably written by a minstrel who knew John man-to-man and who probably came to sing on a regular basis . It’s a verse life, and I picked up what you were saying, Philip [Weller], about rhymed lives of the saints . And the date is roughly the year John died; we can’t be sure about that but he’s talking about him as the prior, there’s no hint of canonisation coming up, and he speaks as if he knew him man-to-man . It’s very interesting that the manuscript is in Yale university library and it’s appended to the ‘Fire of Love’ by Richard Rolle, who was mentioned by you, Rob (Lutton); and it only came to light because an American scholar called Margaret Amassian published the life with a commentary in a document published by Helsinki University in 1970 . So that’s quite a journey for our most important first-hand knowledge of St John of Bridlington . I’m very grateful to Dr Doyle of Durham University who told me about the verse life . We’ll hear a little bit from it in a while.
Then there are a number of other sources . There’s Canon Hugo – mentioned also by Rob Lutton – in Acta Sanctorum, c1390; then the Kirkstall Abbey chronicle, in which there’s just a short mention of ‘Lord John Thwing’, about the same date, 1390 . Then we come to the Papal Bull of 1401; John Capgrave’s collection, about 1516 when the story of St John of Bridlington was added to the already existing stories . Lastly Canon Thomas Ashby, a manuscript in Durham, about 1530, picking up particularly the stories of the miracles which he’d collected from other places.
So quite a lot of material to look through, but my problem is – and has been all along – apart from Middle English which I’ve had a bit of help with anyway, all the rest are in Latin, well beyond my O level Latin! But I’ve had a lot of help: Gerald Moxon who until recently was a member of the Roman Catholic church here in Bridlington, worked on the major sources; he died a couple of years ago, but his work has been carried on by Rob Lutton – many thanks – so I have had experts to help with the Latin.
We will look at his early life as a boy and a novice, then his life as a Canon under the three monastic headings of Prayer, Study and Hospitality, followed by his popularity after Canonisation in 1401.
John’s early life
John was born in about 1320 in the village of Thwing in the Wolds, nine miles west of Bridlington . His parents were of some social standing, ‘respectable Catholic Christian parents devoted to God in the kingdom of England… and had honourable origins’ . The family name was probably de Thweng . This may have been a branch of the North Riding family of de Thweng which was settled at Kilton Castle near Loftus in Cleveland as early as 1257 . They had estates at North Cave, Foxholes and Thwing . It is said that he was baptised in the church at Thwing.
SLIDES 2 & 3: Thwing church and window
His earliest education was at his local village school from the age of five . The school would have been conducted by a priest or clerk, but that wasn’t in the church – we can probably guess from what was said earlier that he was educated by one of the Augustinian canons . Hugo writes:
However, whenever he came out of school with his companions, and they as is their way applied themselves to childish sports and aimless dashing about, running this way and that, he himself would fly to the church . There on his own he gave himself up to prayer and devotion in a remarkable fashion at such a young age; as if taught by the grace of the Holy Spirit he utterly rejected all moral hazards and boyish habits, so that nowhere or only rarely there appeared in him any sign of boyish frivolity . A remarkable thing – who would ever be willing to believe it – that a five-year-old should abandon the activities and games of boyhood, and be given up to holiness and devotion.
He remained at the Thwing school for several years, taking a private vow of chastity at the age of twelve . He became a novice at the Priory aged 14, but during the six years of his novitiate spent two years as a student at Oxford . Mind you, there’s a big question there, because searching the registers of the students at Oxford, we don’t find John de Thweng . So what was he doing? Was he going to lectures?
After returning home he had a period as tutor to the children of a local worthy family, and finally entered the monastery at the age of twenty.
On the Monday nearest before the feast of the martyr St Valentine (1340), John of Thweng received the canonical habit, as also did his companion, John of Snaith . And the following year on the Wednesday on which ashes are given, they were professed.
SLIDE 4: Priory buildings, c 153
There’s the great tithe barn and the enormous central tower . We can be sure that the main features shown in this picture would have been there when St John of Bridlington entered the Priory . After joining the Priory community, he became novice master, then cellarer, then sub-prior.
- In 1356 he was elected prior, but declined the invitation.
- In 1361 he was again elected and this time accepted and became prior.
- In 1379 he caught the plague and died on October 10th.
The date of his death has been taken as his feast day.
SLIDE 5: St John window in the Priory
SLIDE 6: Opus Dei: the canonical hours
So here we have the day running from vigil during the night to matins, prime, terce, mass, sext, none, vespers and compline .- the daily pattern of worship . And that does fit with the pattern described in the Bridlington dialogue . I know there were varieties of the opus dei, as Prof John Harper would remind us if he was here, but I think this was the ordinary pattern . What about John and the life of prayer? Here’s a little bit from the Middle English verse life:
When people pray to him for help, he passes on their requests to God as many can bear witness.
Often, while others slept, he would be awake, praying earnestly to God and, living a good and religious life, he was always the first to be ready to attend church.
Also he loved often to pray on his own and many times he was caught up in a trance.
It often happened that, after matins, unknown to anybody, while others were asleep, he devoted himself to contemplation . In true sincerity (without pretence) he worshipped the very blessed true cross and in his imagination kissed Jesus, hanging there .
From Canon Hugo:
On whatever night, John used to rise with the others also for the office of Matins, and frequently before the others, and devoted some time in the choir to devout prayers and holy meditations. When the office of Matins was over, he sometimes returned with the community to the dormitory, and going into his cell he would pretend that like the others he was going back to sleep in his own place, but afterwards when he perceived that his other brothers were sleeping, he would return from the dormitory to the church unnoticed; sometimes either there or in the chapter-house or other dedicated place he spent the rest of the day right until dawn in contemplation, psalms and other devout prayers.
It was his practice to put no earthly occupation before divine office, but if he saw some responsibilities coming upon him, because of which he could not be present in choir at the established hours and times, then before everything else with one of his brethren he would recite with great devotion of heart the hours of the day and also the Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary, together with the Office of Christ’s Passion joined together with other devotions of his . Then he used to confess his sins to his confessor humbly and with a contrite heart, and afterwards he would hear Mass, or prepared himself devoutly to celebrate Mass, approaching the altar with the greatest reverence and fear . Often, while John stood at the altar, as they asserted who helped him in the office of the altar, such a great fear came over him that in the coldest season of the year a great quantity of water dripped from his head, and sometimes he seemed like one totally dissolved in sweat: however, when he saw this and what had happened to him, he never wanted it to be made known to anyone.
As we look back, John became famous for the many answers to his prayers . The sources taken together mention a total of 15 miracles while John was alive and 12 after his death . The latter includes five summaries . Nearly all these references occur in more than one source; the most prolific are Hugo, Capgrave and Ashby.
SLIDE 7: Sharon Winter’s St John again
The best-known of these is the story of the Hartlepool sailors . Here it is as told by Canon Hugo . This is the most famous story, the one people are most likely to know:
On a certain occasion, when Blessed John was Prior, while five men from the village called Hartlepool in the diocese of Durham were sailing on the sea, a storm came upon them and their boat . The surge of the sea swept over them to such an extent with its swelling waves that it almost overwhelmed them immediately, so that according to reason there seemed to them to be no hope of escape; however, these men, to whom Blessed John was personally unknown, yet had heard much about his life and his holiness . Seeing themselves in such great danger they began with tearful voices to call on God with one accord, to deign by the merits of the same Blessed Prior of Bridlington to free them mercifully from those very waves of the sea . And while they kept on devoutly praying in this way, behold, there appeared to them someone dressed in the habit of a Canon Regular, who came to them and laying his hand on their boat led them safe to the shore .
These men indeed, released from the danger of death in this way, hurried to the monastery as quickly as they could . Immediately they came into John’s presence, whom they had not seen anywhere before in the flesh, they went on their knees before him and began to tell in order the whole story of what had happened to them, giving thanks to him for their escape . Blessed John however roundly rebuked them for their words of gratitude, stating that at that time he had been in his monastery . He advised them to keep quiet and go into the church, and there to render devout thanks to God and the blessed Virgin Mary for this reason, and to put nothing down to him, but everything to God, who alone works wonders.
Five other sources, including the Papal Bull of 1401, contain this story.
I’ll only touch on this briefly because Rob Lutton spoke of the Priory as a centre of learning and the books that we know were in the library. Capgrave mentions Prior John’s love of the Scriptures; in the prior’s words, ‘The Gospel of John is far above all rules in the healthiest instruction like a mistress’, that is a mistress who teaches
Bridlington Priory was well known as a centre of learning and study, following in the Augustinian tradition . At the heart of the monastic library were copies of the Gospels and many other Biblical books . There were also volumes of commentaries and other writings from the Fathers of the Church, including St Augustine . The scriptorium would have been a busy place, with the canons copying many of the most important texts, for internal use and perhaps also for other communities in the north of England.
The most prolific single author in Bridlington was Robert the Scribe, the fourth prior . Bishop Bale lists 21 of Robert’s books . They were mostly Biblical commentaries and were listed by Leland on his pre-Dissolution visit to the Priory . Some 6 or 7 are extant today e .g . Yale University Library has a copy of Robert’s commentaries on Romans and 1 and 2 Corinthians.
SLIDE 8: British Library St Mark, list of books
In the British Library is a glossed copy of St Mark’s Gospel which used to belong to the Priory library . There were also glossed copies of St Luke . In the back there is a list of books ‘in the large bookcase’ of that library . Some 117 volumes are listed; included are many by Robert the Scribe and by well-known Church Fathers, including Anselm, Ambrose, Augustine and Hugh of St Victor . There also smaller books, more like pocket books.1
Therefore we can be sure that by the time of John the Prior in the 14th century, the Priory library contained a comprehensive collection of manuscripts.
John would sometimes visit the various churches and communities which we saw on the map provided by Henry Mayr-Harting this morning – churches which depended on the Priory, and the Priory depended on them, and which would also receive visiting officials and dignitaries in Bridlington.
The author of the Middle-English life describes the Prior at table:
When entertaining frequent guests of varying rank, he was expert at making them feel at ease as they sat at table and, although he ate little himself, he always appeared happy and cheerful.
When he could, he engaged minstrels who played beautifully and he would listen to them devotedly as they helped him be aware of God . He was often generous to them with money or in kind, as they reported on their travels.
Maybe this was indeed written by a minstrel!
Some noblemen visited the Priory to see if what they had heard about John the Prior was true . They were received and dined in the appropriate manner, but although their host, the Prior, drank from a silver cup, as was the custom for noblemen, it contained only water . One of the visitors asked if he could taste from the Prior’s cup, even though his own cup was full of wine . John, not wishing to reveal his secret abstinence, said a prayer over his cup and the nobleman, after tasting it, declared he had never tasted better wine!
John always had a heart for the poor . He remitted the rents of poor tenants, maintained poor scholars out of the wealth of the monastery, and fed and clothed the poor . The compassion he showed as Cellarer never left him and became the theme of his time as Prior.
The Middle English source again:
He was both liberal and generous in distributing food and drink – and in works of charity and that especially to the poor, for he would both feed and clothe them . Also he showed mercy to all who approached him in their need . He was a supreme source of help to all and cared for those from every walk of life.
He knew well how to comfort those in distress and cheer them, and he would care for those who were sick.
Going back to what was said this morning, he was after all an Augustinian priest and his pastoral care knew no bounds.
As far as we know, John enjoyed good health well into his fifties . However, bouts of the plague were sweeping the country and monastic communities were not immune from such infections. The contemporary historian Thomas Walsingham records that a Magna Pestis occurred in the north of England in 1379, the year of John’s death . If you read the account of his deathbed it does sound as if he caught the plague or something very similar.
Just two short summaries of his life and work. First, from Hugo:
Indeed, this blessed Servant of God, throughout the nineteen years or thereabouts in which he was head of the monastery, although he had been very much involved in many tasks to meet the needs of the monastery, still as far as he could made time assiduously for prayer and contemplation . Right until his death, when that blessed soul left the prison of his body seeking the heavens, he led a perfect and most religious life, and shone forth in the greatness of such great merits, as the tongue cannot easily unfold.
Secondly, in the Chronicle of Kirkstall Abbey, a Cistercian monastery near Leeds, we find a short entry about John of Bridlington, written soon after his death and before his canonisation . I love this quotation . The author sums up the life of the ‘Lord John Thwyng, of sacred memory’:
This same prior, most devout before God, had learnt to glory in the cross of the Lord, and in no other thing, for he was either ascending upward on Jacob’s ladder to his Lord by the steps of contemplation, or he was going down on the steps of compassion to his neighbour.
Canonisation and its impact
Soon after the death and burial of Prior John in 1379, reports of miracles at his tomb began to circulate . The historian Thomas Walsingham reported in 1389:
At that time, in the Priory of canons of Brydlingtone, which is in the diocese of York, at the tomb of John, sometime prior there, miracles so numerous and so manifest were formed that they struck almost all England with amazement.
John de Thweng soon became well known amongst senior clergy and members of court, in his own diocese of York and beyond . The family who did most to help the cause of canonisation was the Nevilles of Raby . William Sleightholme, a canon of Bridlington and contemporary of John, was their family confessor, providing a close link with the life of the Prior . There were family links by marriage between the Thwengs and the Nevilles . William Sleightholme was confessor to John in his days as Prior, and also to Margery Kempe . So the silent witness of William Sleightholme was quite significant.
In 1386, Alexander Neville, Archbishop of York, commissioned his vicar general Robert Dalton to examine the miracles . The report of miracles soon attracted the attention of Richard II, who in 1388,
on account of his reverence for John de Thweng deceased, late Prior, licensed the Prior and Convent of Bridlington to surround the Priory with walls and houses of stone and to fortify and crenellate such walls and houses.
The Priory gatehouse, the Bayle, dates from this period.
In 1390 Pope Boniface IX granted a remission of penance to pilgrims who visited the Priory and/or gave money for the fabric of the church.
In 1391, at the request of Richard II, Pope Boniface asked the Bishop of Palestrina to conduct an enquiry into the miracles . The Bull of Canonisation gives a list of the miracles and some details of the background to the investigation.
It would seem that even before the canonisation process was complete, there existed in the proximity of John’s tomb at the Priory written records of his life and deeds . These must have been available to visitors and pilgrims, along with various artifacts and even relics connected with the former prior. The Bull states:
The faithful, however, who are eager to enquire fully into such matters may study them if they consult the authentic books in which the facts are faithfully noted . The votive offerings also placed about the tomb by the faithful in memory of his deeds and miracles and the pictures and other signs set about the tomb, afford a great evidence of the truth of these.
Capgrave, at the end of his account, says that he has only mentioned some of the miracles connected with St John . Indeed, those who are anxious to learn the very many other things that the Lord has worked in our holy patron and incessantly continues to work, will find books in the same monastery in which are described countless kinds of benefit.
So there seems to be good evidence of these early records, well before the canonisation.
Henry Bolingbroke, Earl of Derby, made an offering at Bridlington in 1391 on his return from a crusade in Prussia, and in 1400, when he was king, granted a safe-conduct to John de Gisburne, canon of Bridlington, to visit Rome about the canonisation proceedings . We know there was money available for him to do this.
SLIDE 9: The Bull of Canonisation
The process of canonisation was completed on 8th October, 1401. The volume containing the copy of the Bull in the Vatican Secret Archives is entitled Bonifacio IX, 1401, Anno 12, Libra 136 . It is a large book made up of parchment leaves, bound in thicker parchment . The entry is in hand-written Latin and occupies ten folios . Difficult to read [on the slide] but here is a section for which I paid the Vatican Archives 120 euros, which declares John of Bridlington Saint and Confessor – which distinguishes him perhaps from other Johns such as (Bishop) John of Beverley.
The mandate for the ‘translation’ of the remains of John the Prior to a new tomb and shrine was dated 7th October, 1401, i .e . the day before the Bull of Canonisation.
It was not long before work on the new resting place began, sited east of the central crossing in the Priory church and behind the high altar . In 1403 Henry IV assigned an annual payment of 110 marks, a very large sum, out of the revenues of St Mary’s Church, Scarborough, which had been confiscated from Citeaux Abbey because of the French wars, ‘for making a new shrine in honour of the body of St John of Thweng, late Prior’ . Two years later the king went one better and gave Scarborough Church to the Priory, to become its most valuable possession.
The actual translation to this splendid shrine was carried out on 11th May, 1404 by the Archbishop of York, Richard Scrope, and the bishops of Lincoln and Carlisle . What was the shrine actually like? The only description we have of the shrine itself comes from Richard Pollard’s account of what he found at the Priory when visiting as Henry VIII’s commissioner in June, 1537:
The Reredos at the high Altar representing Christ at the Assumption of our Lady and the 12 Apostles, with divers other great Images, being of a great height, is excellently well wrought and as well gilted, and between the same and the East Window is Saint John of Bridlington Shrine, in a fair Chapel on high, having on either side a stair of Stone for to go and come by . Underneath the said Shrine be five Chapels with five altars and small Tables of Alabaster and Images.
SLIDES 10 & 11: The shrine of St John – two possibilities
Here are two drawings of how the shrine might have appeared until the dissolution in 1537, both based on Pollard’s description and a tantalisingly burnt fragment of a manuscript in the British Library . John Walker gave me this picture, drawn in the 1920s by Canon Purvis . Here is the wooden casket on a stone plinth . (probably it was just the wooden casket that was burned in the Market Place in 1537) . Pilgrims probably went up the steps on the north side and left on the south side . Another picture is by John Earnshaw, using the same description, especially the burnt fragment; it looks as if the casket was designed to be carried on feast days, with poles at the sides.
It is thought that some of the shrine’s woodwork survived and is now part of the screen in St Oswald’s church, Flamborough . Several inscribed ships are clearly seen there, probably cut by sailors visiting St John’s shrine . (photos by John Walker).
SLIDE 12: Inscribed ship
After the announcement of the canonisation in 1401, and the Translation of John’s remains in 1404, his popularity spread quickly in both the monastic world and in secular society, amongst royalty, the aristocracy and commoners alike . Not surprisingly, the Augustinian community in England was quick to commemorate their brother canon, now to be remembered as a saint and confessor . The General Chapter of all Monasteries of the Augustinian Order (Canons Regular) which met in Northampton in 1404 issued a decree that John’s feast was to be celebrated on 10th October each year in all Augustinian houses.
We can imagine this command being obeyed with enthusiasm, especially in the north of England; there were 16 Augustinians houses in Yorkshire alone.
SLIDE 13: Breviary calendar
As to be expected, Bridlington Priory itself would have led the way in the commemoration of St . John . The medieval breviary (an office book from about 1380), which is preserved in the Bayle Museum near the Priory church, has a very clear entry to that effect in its liturgical calendar . John is added between the saints Dionysius (Denys) and Paul (Bishop Paulinus) on October 10th.
As well as entries in monastic calendars, there were a number of Offices of St John (set services for his feast days) in use in Augustinian houses . Philip Weller will be describing these later on.
It was not only in northern England that John was remembered . His name would have been added to the calendar in monastic houses up and down the country . Examples which survive are from the Brigittine Syon Abbey in Middlesex, the Augustinian Osney Abbey in Oxfordshire, the Augustinian house at Llanthony Secunda, Gloucestershire and the Augustinian Canonesses of Lacock in Wiltshire . He is also mentioned in a Dutch breviary and a Franciscan psalter of Italian provenance in Paris – evidence of how far John’s fame spread and that the Priory became a centre of Pilgrimage.
By the fifteenth century, pilgrimage had become an important and integral part of religious and cultural life in England . Saints were seen as miracle-workers and intercessors and so the ‘sacred spaces’ with which they were associated became popular and much visited . Pilgrims travelled long distances in the hope of a cure or blessing, to fulfil a vow, to deepen their faith and devotion, or simply to see new and exciting places.
The availability of relics of the saints always made sites more desirable, as did the granting of papal indulgences . Pilgrims collected souvenirs and badges which proved that they had visited.
After 1401, St John’s fame spread far and wide and Bridlington was placed well and truly on the pilgrimage map . Records have survived which show that a great diversity of people visited the Priory and John’s shrine, from royalty and members of the aristocracy, to parish clergy and ordinary people . As a result of such visits, John’s popularity grew across the country and abroad.
Certainly, papal support and royal patronage did much to help the cause of St John . Without their aid, what had been a local cult would never have become a national movement . Continuing papal approval of what was happening in Bridlington was demonstrated in 1409 when Pope Gregory XII granted to Prior Thomas and his successors the right to wear the mitre, ring and other episcopal insignia within the Priory and in its churches.
SLIDE 14: Henry V
Royal patronage was soon forthcoming from the House of Lancaster . Prince Henry went on pilgrimage to Canterbury in both 1403 and 1407, and, in accordance with an earlier vow, visited Bridlington in May 1408 with Thomas, Earl of Arundel . At that time they were involved in putting down the Welsh rebellion.
Henry V named John of Bridlington as his special patron in the will he made in July 1415 before leaving England for the Agincourt campaign.
Returning to England after Agincourt, late in 1415, King Henry landed at Dover and proceeded to Canterbury . In 1421 he took his new French wife Catherine of Valois, daughter of Charles VI, on a pilgrimage tour of the kingdom . It was an amazing itinerary: Bristol, through Hereford to Shrewsbury; then Weobley, Kenilworth castle, Coventry and Leicester . Catherine travelled through Hertford, Bedford & Northampton and arrived in Leicester to meet the king on the eve of Palm Sunday . There Henry distributed Maundy money and celebrated Easter . His brother Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester was also with him.
Together they visited Nottingham, Pontefract and York . Henry came to Beverley and Bridlington without his wife; Catherine was pregnant so stayed behind in York . Sadly, whilst travelling between the two shrines, Henry received news from London of the death in France of his other brother, Thomas, Duke of Clarence . Despite that news, in Beverley and Bridlington the king gave thanks at the shrines of both St Johns for his victorious campaign in France before continuing the pilgrimage to Lincoln, Walsingham and Norwich.
Henry’s companion at arms, Thomas, Earl of Arundel, was not as fortunate as his royal master . He was invalided home after the battle of Harfleur and died, at the age of 34, only a few days after he made a new will on 10 October 1415, which included a number of pilgrimage bequests . He recalled the vow he had made when visiting Bridlington Priory with Prince Henry.
As the fifteenth century progressed, the cults of the two St Johns seemed to merge . With Bridlington and Beverley being only 20 miles apart and having saints with the same name, confusion was inevitable.
SLIDE 15: Combined pilgrim badge
The visits of Henry V must have brought both shrines to the attention of many potential pilgrims and encouraged visits to these towns in the East Riding . At some stage there was co-operation between the guardians of the shrines and a combined pilgrimage badge was issued, probably around 1440 . It had two figures – Thweng is depicted as a ‘monk’ with staff and book on the left, Beverley as a bishop on the right, with a central cross between the two figures . The names Beuerley and Bridlinton were inscribed across the base.
SLIDE 16: Bridlington badge
Amongst other pilgrim badges found in the silt of the river Thames in recent times is one made in the shape of a capital ‘B’ and having a monk-like figure at the centre – Bridlington and its saintly Prior . This badge formed the basis for the logo of the Priory 900 celebrations in 2013.
One of the first ‘important’ pilgrims to Bridlington was Margery Kempe of Lynn in Norfolk . She was hardly a typical pilgrim, rather a ‘religious professional’, devoted as she was to the sacraments and all places and relics connected to the life and death of Christ . Canon William Sleightholme of Bridlington, friend and confessor to John de Thweng, became her adviser and confessor . She made at least two visits to Bridlington; in July 1413 she left York for Bridlington where she visited the shrine and Canon Sleightholme . She returned in September 1417 . The list of pilgrimage sites in her autobiography is impressive; it includes Jerusalem, Compostela, Rome, Assisi, and Aachen . Bridlington was among impressive company!
Several well-known aristocratic families took St John as their patron saint as the fifteenth century unfolded, as Rob Lutton has indicated . The evidence for this is found in churches in various parts of the country and in surviving examples of Books of Hours, prayer books produced for devout and wealthy families . One such family was the Beauchamps of Warwick . Richard Beauchamp had assisted Prince Henry in fighting the Welsh rebellion and had been present at the surrender of Aberystwyth in May 1408 . He captured Welsh rebel Glendower’s banner, and was made a Knight of the Garter.
Richard’s will, dated 1435, gave detailed instructions for the building of the Beauchamp Chapel at St . Mary’s church, Warwick . He was to be buried there before the altar.
SLIDE 17: Warwick chapel
In that splendid chapel are a number of stained glass windows . To the right of the altar are four figures – St Thomas of Canterbury, St Alban, St John of Bridlington and St Winifred . They were installed in June 1447 and survived the vandalism of puritan troops during the Cromwellian period . More evidence of Richard’s devotion to St John and St Winifred is found in his will; he bequeathed his image in pure gold to be offered at the shrines of both saints.
It is not surprising that St John became a favourite with so many of the wellto-do families of England in the fifteenth century as there were ties through marriage between the Thwengs, Nevilles, Beauforts, Beauchamps and the House of Lancaster.
SLIDE 18: St John in the Beaufort Hours
Three surviving Books of Hours, all in the British Library, are good examples of this connection with the aristocracy . The ‘Beaufort Hours’ contain a beautifully decorated miniature of St John and part of an Office for his feast day . The book was probably produced by Flemish masters and its first owner was John de Beaufort, Earl of Somerset and Margaret de Holland, his wife . The Beauforts, like Henry IV, were descendants of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster.
The second manuscript, the ‘Hours of Elizabeth the Queen’, dates from about 1430 and contains devotional material relating to St John . It was probably owned by Cecile Neville, the wife of Henry, Duke of Warwick, son of Richard Beauchamp . Much later, in 1587, it was used by Mary Queen of Scots before her execution.
The third is the ‘Hours of the Blessed Virgin Mary’, another lavishly produced prayer book . It was owned by Sir Bertin Entwisle, a hero of Agincourt, and mentions both St John of Bridlington and St John of Beverley . Additionally, there is a Yorkshire book called the ‘Bolton Hours’ in York Minster Library; it contains part of an office for the 10th October feast of St John.
SLIDE 19: St John in the Porter Hours
Lastly, in the Morgan Library in New York is a lavish book, ‘Hours of the Virgin for Sarum Use’, produced in Rouen in about 1425 for an English aristocrat, Sir William Porter of Lincolnshire . A fine miniature of St John in Augustinian robes is included amongst more than sixty well known saints.
Other evidence for the widespread fame of St John of Bridlington can be seen in:
- Music that was written to commemorate him – for example in the Wollaton Antiphonal and the three part Mass in his honour 2
- Relics of St John bestowed on the new foundation of Eton College by order of Henry VI , its founder
- Privileges granted to the Priory by the king
Henry VI wished St John to be his ‘continual advocate at the tribunal of God’ and in June 1445 granted the Priory considerable fiscal privileges in return for the daily celebration of mass and recitation of prayers for the well-being of himself and his queen while living, a daily Requiem Mass and a yearly obit after his death . Two years later a further bargain was struck; the Priory extended its services for the good of Henry’s soul, and Henry extended the fiscal exemptions and privileges enjoyed by the monastery . On 10th October 1447 the prior sealed an indenture whereby the Priory bound itself thenceforth to maintain ‘xij Quaresters and a Maister to teche hem both gramer and song, to admynister at oure Lady Mass daily with note’ . As well as singing Mass daily in the Lady Chapel, these boys were to gather each evening after vespers at an image of the Virgin in the Priory church to sing there a votive antiphon to the Virgin, followed by collects, prayers and Psalm 130 . We like to think that the Priory’s choral tradition can be traced back to that agreement in 1447!
Finally, as well as the Beauchamp Chapel window commemorating St John, three images have survived in other churches across the country:
- A window figure in the chancel of St Laurence’s church, Ludlow
- A window figure in the church of St Matthew, Morley near Derby
- A painted likeness on the screen in the church of St Andrew, Hempsteadby-Eccles in Norfolk.
SLIDE 20: The Hempstead Screen
The last of these is particularly interesting, because of its location and apparent origin . Hempstead church is close to the Norfolk coast, about midway between Cromer and Yarmouth . The village is very remote and the church has a thatched roof . The decorated rood screen has eight paintings of saints in eight wooden panels on either side of the central opening into the chancel . The figure of John is between St Denis of Paris and St Giles and is by a long way the most recent of all the saints represented . Unfortunately his image is badly mutilated following a ‘restoration’ in the 19th century . The painting is on plaster laid thinly on oak board and there is an attempt to show John in the correct Augustinian dress. Purvis writes,
The Hempstead figure is important, as it goes to prove the popularity of St John of Bridlington amongst the middle class . The screen was put up, not by a country family in their private chapel, but by the cloth-traders, weavers and farmers of 15th century Norfolk .
We may wonder how the people of Norfolk heard about St John of Bridlington . It may well have been through the seafarers of the east coast who traded between Newcastle and the south coast and all ports in between . Bridlington Quay had been under the Priory’s control for many years, since the early days of the wool trade which helped to make the community so wealthy . News of John’s miracles and of his canonisation would have been carried by sea, as the history of two churches in Kent indicate . Canon Purvis discovered that there had been altars to St John in the churches of St Nicholas, Dover (now demolished) and of St Peter at Sandwich, where services persisted right up to the time of the Dissolution of Bridlington Priory itself in 1537.
It seems fair to conclude that St John of Bridlington – the last English saint to be canonised before the Reformation – was known and honoured, not only in his own native Yorkshire but across the land, well over a century after his death.
1 I am greatly indebted to Rob Lutton for his transcription and translation of that list. There is more work to be done, to understand it and all its contents.
2 These are discussed in detail by Philip Weller in his paper in this collection
Suggested Further Reading
- An incomplete Middle-English verse-life, probably written by a visiting minstrel, around the time of John’s death in 1379 . The manuscript is in Yale University Library, appended to a copy of The Fire of Love by English mystic Richard Rolle (1290-1349) . The text, and a commentary by American scholar Margaret Amassian, were published by the University of Helsinki in 1970 .
- The life written by ‘Canon Hugo’ in about 1390, found in Acta Sanctorum under October 10th . He was almost certainly a Bridlington canon, probably a contemporary of John de Thweng.
- The Short Chronicle of Kirkstall Abbey, written around 1390, has a short passage about St John
- The Papal Bull of 1401, during the papacy of Boniface IX .
- A biography in Nova Legendae Angliae, a collection made by Augustinian Friar John Capgrave from King’s Lynn who died in 1464 . John’s life was added to Friar John Capgrave’s collection in the 1516 edition . It is a rather verbose and rhetorical account .
- A summary of John’s life, written in about 1530, by Bridlington Canon Thomas Ashby with details of some of the miracles attributed to John’s intercessions .
- Earnshaw, J .R ., A Reconstruction of Bridlington Priory, Bridlington, 1975 .
- Purvis, J .S ., St John of Bridlington, Journal of the Augustinian Society, Bridlington, 2, 1924 .
- Wardle, J .A ., St John of Bridlington, His Life and Legacy, York 2013 .