Orthodox America


  Invitation from Britain


Andrew Bond

 ORTHODOX BRITAIN: Where to go and what to see

This is not intended as a survey of modern Orthodox parishes in Britain, the majority of which have only a very short history. Rather, it is a very brief attempt to introduce readers of "Orthodox America" to the places associated with the early saints of this country, and to spark an interest in making a pil grimage.

     Those who know nothing of the history of Britain assume that all the relics of the saints are treasured and enshrined for veneration. Others, who know all about the Reformation, fear that nothing has survived and that the most they will see is empty spaces where shrines once stood. True, some holy places have suffered in this way, but more ancient churches, shrines and relics survive than you might suppose. Where, then, should an Orthodox pilgrim go in Britain? And what will he see?

      Traveling southeast from London, it is an easy drive to the Kent coast where in the early 7th century St. Eanswythe, daughter of the Saxon King Eadbald of Kent, founded a convent at Folkestone. The ground on which the convent stood has long since fallen into the sea. St. Eanswythe's relics were moved several times as churches were destroyed and rebuilt. Clearly, St. Eanswythe had pious guardians who foresaw the gathering storm clouds and hid the precious relics. In 1885, during the Victorian restoration of the present parish church, established in 1138, a cavity was discovered in the north wall of the chancel which held a Saxon lead casket containing the relics of the saint. The shrine of St. Eanswythe is now graced by an icon written by Abbot David of St. Seraphim's, Walsingham, and presented during an Orthodox pilgrimage in 1981.

     Not far from Folkestone is Canterbury where the only known Roman Church in Britain, St. Martin's, can be seen. A congregation is believed to have worshipped here during the latter part of the Roman occupation. On display in the Beaney Institute, Canterbury, is a horde of silver spoons and other implements dating from the fourth century, Two such items are clearly decorated with the CHI-RHO  monogram denoting their religious use. After the Saxon invasion, St. Martin's ceased to be used for Christian worship until the year 562 when King Ethelbert brought home his new queen from Gaul. Bede, in his History, says of Queen Bertha: "There was on the east side of the city a church dedicated to St. Martin which had been used by the Roman Christians in Britain. To this church the Queen, accompanied by Bishop Luidhard, came to worship." The building was at that time about the size of the present chancel. The Roman walls are still identifiable.

     Some 20 miles northwest of London is the town of St. Albans, named after the Protomartyr of Britain who was martyred there. The cathedral (Anglican) authorities at St. Albans have carefully collected together all the known fragments of the saint's shrine and rebuilt it on the original site behind the High Altar. The area has been fenced off, votive candles can be offered and there is an icon of St. Alban. But the shrine, alas, is empty-a monument as much to the bigotry of the 16th century Protestants as to our first Christian martyr.

     Relics of the saints do survive in a number of places. St. Eata's relics rest in Hexham Abbey; St. Tello's in Llandaff Cathedral in South Wales; St. Candida's at Whitchurch Canonicorum, Dorset; St. Cuthbert's at Durham; and St. David's relics are enshrined in St. David's Cathedral, Wales, in a reliquary donated by the Orthodox Church. The relics of St. Edward the Martyr are the only ones of a major local saint to be in the care of the Orthodox Church, St. Edward's new shrine is in the monastery church at Brookwood. Secondary relics can also be seen in many places, such as the cross of St. Cuthbert at Durham, and the staff and bell of St, Fillan in the Edinburgh Museum of Antiquities. St, Petroc's reliquary can be seen in Bodmin, parts of St. Werbuga's shrine were used to build the bishop's throne in Chester Cathedral, and fragments of the original shrine of St. Boisil can be seen in the Jedburgh parish church.

    Access to East Anglia from London is also quite easy. A Saxon church associated with St. Cedd can be visited on a headland near Bradwell-on-Sea, Essex; across the bay are the remains of St. Osyth's Priory. (SGOIS has recently published the icons of both these saints,) Further north in Suffolk is Felixstowe (Felix' Town) where St. Felix landed c. AD 63, and Dunwich where he established his cathedral, In Saxon times Dunwich was a port, but that part of the coast was--and still is--subject to land erosion, The town of Dunwich was swallowed up by the sea and today it is the smallest of villages consisting of only a few houses.

    Further north along the coast is the estuary of the River Yare, which in Roman and Saxon times was more open to the sea. The present town of Great Yarmouth stands on a sandbank which now encloses the estuary, making it an inland waterway. Overlooking this area is the massive Roman fortress of Burgh Castle. In the 7th century the Irish monk St, Fursey was given land within the abandoned fortress on which to establish a monastery. Thanks to recent excavations, remains of the monastery and its cemetery are now identified. Burgh Castle is still impressive and worth visiting,

    The West Country offers endless delights, Traveling west from London, it is possible to see four places connected with St. Edward the Martyr. Firstly Brookwood where his shrine is now situated, then Shaftesbury where his shrine was located before the Reformation destruction, Corfe Castle in Dorset where he was originally buried. The most nearly extant Saxon church in England at Bradford on-Avon also has some associations with St. Edward; it is believed that his relics were taken there for safe-keeping during the time of the Danish raids.

     Glastonbury is a world of its own; it has, one can say, an almost magical attraction. It is a classic example of the Christianization of an ancient pagan center of influence. Locally, traditions concerning the introduction of Christianity to Britain speak of the coming of St. Joseph of Arimarhea to Glastonbury, although the Greeks consider Apostle Aristobulos of the Seventy to be the first bishop in Britain. Whatever the truth of the matter, Glastonbury does have a very long history going back to the earliest centuries. Little remains of the abbey church, but the more complete Lady Chapel, although roofless, has an altar, and Orthodox services are held here two or three times a year.

    On the way to Cornwall is Braunton where St. Brannock lived. According to tradition, pious hands buried his relics under the floor of the church to save them from destruction in the 16th century. But the exact spot is unknown. In Cornwall we find a similar story at St. Endellion. The shrine of St. Endelienta, which is built of catacleuse stone (as solid as granite), is located in the Collegiate Church, but it has never been opened to ascertain whether or not it still contains the relics, St. Endellion is only one of the many villages in Cornwall associated with one saint or another; unfortunately, the limited scope of this article precludes any elaboration.

     Indeed, in these few paragraphs it has been possible to do little more than introduce the subject and give a few examples of the types of things to see. With a little research and an explorer's spirit, the Orthodox pilgrim will find in Britain some unexpected treasures. St. George Orthodox Information Service is always willing to answer questions and give suggestions to those intending to visit places of Orthodox interest here. An exciting itinerary awaits you. So, while the dollar is strong, act in faith: pack your bags, forget the Libyan crisis--and come to Britain! 

Andrew Bond


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