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Guthlac, Saint

Hermit; b. about 673; d. at Croyland, England, April 11, 714

Guthlac, Saint, hermit; b. about 673; d. at Croyland, England, April 11, 714. Our authority for the life of St. Guthlac is the monk Felix (of what monastery is not known), who in his dedication of the “Life” to King Aethelbald, Guthlac’s friend, assures him that whatever he has written, he has derived immediately from old and intimate companions of the saint. Guthlac was born of noble stock, in the land of the Middle Angles. In his boyhood he showed extraordinary signs of piety; after eight or nine years spent in warfare, during which he never quite forgot his early training, he became filled with remorse and determined to enter a monastery. This he did at Repton (in what is now Derbyshire). Here after two years of great penance and earnest application to all the duties of the monastic life, he became fired with enthusiasm to emulate the wonderful penance of the Fathers of the Desert. For this purpose he retired with two companions to Croyland, a lonely island in the dismal fenlands of modern Lincolnshire. In this solitude he spent fifteen years of the most rigid penance, fasting daily until sundown and then taking only coarse bread and water. Like St. Anthony, he was frequently attacked and severely maltreated by the Evil One, and on the other hand was the recipient of extraordinary graces and powers. The birds and the fishes became his familiar friends, while the fame of his sanctity brought throngs of pilgrims to his cell. One of them, Bishop Hedda (of Dorchester or of Lichfield), raised him to the priesthood and consecrated his humble chapel. Aethelbald, nephew of the terrible Penda, spent part of his exile with the saint.

Guthlac, after his death, in a vision to Aethelbald, revealed to him that he should one day become king. The prophecy was verified in 716. During Holy Week of 714, Guthlac sickened and announced that he should die on the seventh day, which he did joyfully. The anniversary (April 11) has always been kept as his feast. Many miracles were wrought at his tomb, which soon became a center of pilgrimage. His old friend, Aethelbald, on becoming king, proved himself a generous benefactor. Soon a large monastery arose, and through the industry of the monks, the fens of Croyland became one of the richest spots in England. The later history of his shrine may be found in Ordericus Vitalis (Historia Ecclesiastica) and in the “History of Croyland” by the Pseudo-Ingulph. Felix’s Latin “Life” was turned into Anglo-Saxon prose by some unknown hand. This version was first published by Goodwin in 1848. There is also a metrical version attributed to Cynewulf contained in the celebrated Exeter Book (Codex Exoniensis).

JOHN F. X. MURPHY


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