Godric of Finchale, Hermit and Pilgrim
May 21 is the Commemmoration of Saint Godric of Finchale, Hermit and Pilgrim.
“Saint Godric of Finchale (or Saint Goderic) (c. 1065 – 21 May 1170) was an English hermit, merchant and popular medieval saint, although he was never formally canonized. He was born in Walpole in Norfolk and died in Finchale in County Durham, England. Saint Godric’s life was recorded by a contemporary of his: a monk named Reginald of Durham. Several other hagiographies are also extant. According to these accounts, Godric, who began from humble beginnings as the son of Ailward and Edwenna, “both of slender rank and wealth, but abundant in righteousness and virtue”, was a pedlar, then a sailor and entrepreneur, and may have been the captain and owner of the ship that conveyed Baldwin I of Jerusalem to Jaffa in 1102. After years at sea, Godric reportedly went to the island of Lindisfarne and there encountered Saint Cuthbert; this will not have been a physical encounter as Cuthbert had long been dead and was by then interred at Durham Cathedral. This encounter changed his life, and he devoted himself to Christianity and service to God thereafter.
After many pilgrimages around the Mediterranean, Godric returned to England and lived with an elderly hermit named Aelric for two years. Upon Aelric’s death, Godric made one last pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and then returned home where he convinced Ranulf Flambard, the Bishop of Durham, to grant him a place to live as a hermit at Finchale, by the River Wear. He had previously served as doorkeeper, the lowest of the minor orders, at the hospital church of nearby St Giles Hospital in Durham. He is recorded to have lived at Finchale for the final sixty years of his life, occasionally meeting with visitors approved by the local prior. As the years passed, his reputation grew, and Thomas Becket and Pope Alexander III both reportedly sought Godric’s advice as a wise and holy man.
Reginald describes Godric’s physical attributes:
“For he was vigorous and strenuous in mind, whole of limb and strong in body. He was of middle stature, broad-shouldered and deep-chested, with a long face, grey eyes most clear and piercing, bushy brows, a broad forehead, long and open nostrils, a nose of comely curve, and a pointed chin. His beard was thick, and longer than the ordinary, his mouth well-shaped, with lips of moderate thickness; in youth his hair was black, in age as white as snow; his neck was short and thick, knotted with veins and sinews; his legs were somewhat slender, his instep high, his knees hardened and horny with frequent kneeling; his whole skin rough beyond the ordinary, until all this roughness was softened by old age…
St Godric is perhaps best remembered for his kindness toward animals, and many stories recall his protection of the creatures who lived near his forest home. According to one of these, he hid a stag from pursuing hunters; according to another, he even allowed snakes to warm themselves by his fire.”
Reginald of Durham recorded four songs of St Godric’s: they are the oldest songs in English for which the original musical settings survive. Reginald describes the circumstances in which Godric learnt the first song. In a vision the Virgin Mary appeared to Godric with at her side “two maidens of surpassing beauty clad in shining white raiments.” They pledged to come to his aid in times of need; and the Virgin herself taught Godric a song of consolation to overcome grief or temptation (“Saintë Marië Virginë”).
The novel “Godric” (1981) by Frederick Buechner is a fictional retelling of his life and travels. It was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.”
“Godric was born at Walpole in Norfolk (England) around the year 1065. He was a peddler of some sort – a traveling salesman, indeed – whose wanderings led him to sea for a period of around sixteen years, during which time he became a part-owner of a number of vessels, one of which he went on to captain. There is, in fact, some indication that he may have been operating more or less as a pirate, and that his lifestyle was as far removed from the ways of Christian living as that of pirates generally is.
Godric’s maritime exploits brought him to the island of Lindisfarne off the Northumbrian coast, and here he became acquainted with tales of St Cuthbert, Lindisfarne’s greatest saint. Godric’s life was transformed by his encounter with Cuthbert (who, even centuries after his death, must have remained an almost tangible presence on Lindisfarne), and he experienced a profound conversion.
Ever the seafarer, his conversion of heart manifested itself in a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. In the early Middles Ages as in Late Antiquity, the idea of pilgrimage exercised a powerful hold over the imaginations of the holy, symbolizing as it did both the wanderings of the Israelites in the desert as they passed from Egypt to the Promised Land, and the wanderings of Christians exiled by sin from Paradise and living in this world as “strangers and pilgrims” en route to the New Jerusalem. Christ himself, who had “nowhere to lay his head”, was essentially a pilgrim, and pilgrimage was understood as a way of conforming oneself with Christ and of following in his footsteps.
This last aspect of following in Christ’s footsteps was one which Godric interpreted with a certain literalness. While in Jerusalem he visited the river Jordan, and, contemplating his own feet, vowed: “Lord, for love of your name, who for men’s salvation walked barefoot through the world, and did not deny to have your naked feet struck through with nails for me; from this day I shall put no shoes upon these feet”. Godric always remained faithful to this vow – even in old age (he lived to be around 100) amid the biting winters of the North East of England.
Further pilgrimages took him to Santiago de Compostella, the shrine of Saint Giles in Provence, to Rome, to Cumberland in North West England (where he obtained a copy of the Psalms which was to provide the material and inspiration for his life of prayer and contemplation), and back to Jerusalem, where he spent time working in a hospital and living with the hermits of Saint John the Baptist and worked in a hospital for several months.
Cuthbert remained his inspiration, however, and it was a vision of Cuthbert in which the saint promised him a hermitage in England that promoted him to return to the land of his birth – this time to Durham, where Cuthbert lay buried – and eventually became a hermit in the forest around Finchale (just outside Durham) in the hunting grounds of the rather disreputable Bishop Ranulf Flambard (the first man to escape from the Tower of London).
Godric embarked upon a life of austerity and mortification, wearing a hair shirt under a metal breastplate, under the guidance of the prior of Durham. Many people sought his advice either in person or from a distance (the latter group included both St Thomas à Becket and Pope Alexander III), and Godric developed a reputation for miracles, for prophecy and for an affinity (characteristic of hermits) for the wild animals among which he lived.
His gift of prophecy extended to foretelling not only his own death both also the deaths of others. Though he seafaring days were now behind him, his prophetic charism enabled him to know when a ship somewhere was in danger of being wrecked, and he would cease from whatever he was doing in order to offer up a prayer.
Godric’s prophetic visions were also the occasion for the Blessed Virgin (among others) to teach him songs, and the four which are recorded by his biographer Reginald are the oldest examples of English verse for which we possess the original musical settings survive, and also the first to favour rhyme and metre over traditional Anglo-Saxon techniques of alliteration.
He died in 1170, tended and mourned by the monks of Durham, having given expression during the course of his extended life to the vocations of both the pilgrim and the hermit.”
A reconstruction drawing of the Hermitage at Finchale Priory in c1180. The history of this site begins with St. Godric living here in a hermitage from 1115 until his death in 1170. Goderic was a former well-travelled seafarer who devoted his life to Christianity and became a hermit. The buildings then became the property of the Prior of the Convent of Durham. This site is now in the care of English Heritage (2011). http://www.heritage-explorer.co.uk/web/he/searchdetail.aspx?id=10796
“We know a good deal about medieval saints (and non-saints) who came from upper-class families. Godric of Finchale is one of those rare men of humble origin about whose varied career a good deal is known. It took a long time for him to find his true calling. Many of us are late bloomers, and it is consoling to know of a saint who was a peddler, a pilgrim, a sailor, a ship’s captain, a bailiff, and a sacristan before he discovered that God wanted him to be a hermit.
Godric was born in Norfolk, England, of Anglo-Saxon peasant stock. Normally he would have stuck to small farming. Instead, he chose to be a travelling peddler. Apparently he had gifts as a bargainer. In 1089 he made his first pilgrimage to Rome. (There was always this piety in his makeup.) On returning to England, however, he decided to expand his commercial efforts. Now he went to sea, trading in Scotland, Flanders and Denmark. He was so successful that he bought a share in two ships, becoming a captain of one of them. In 1101 he went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, presumably in his own ship. On the return trip he visited the shrine of St. James at Compostela in Spain. Back in England he took a job as a bailiff (property manager), but before long he was again a pilgrim to Rome and Saint-Gilles in southern France. He made yet a third pilgrimage to the Eternal City, this time with his aged mother as companion. It is a fair guess that he got his piety from this dauntless old lady, who is said to have made the journey barefoot!
After that Roman pilgrimage, Godric finally gave signs of having made up his mind – partially, at least. He sold all his goods and began to experiment with a hermit’s life in a forest in northern England. To better learn the eremitical ropes, he returned to the Holy Land, spent some time with other hermits in the desert of St. John the Baptist, and worked for a while in the crusader hospital in Jerusalem. Back in England, he became a peddler again for a while. Then he went to Durham, was engaged as sacristan of a local church, and attended school with the choirboys at St. Mary-le-Bow. Finally he settled down for good in the woods of Finchale on the River Wear. He was by then over 40.
The life of a solitary is pretty drastic. St. Godric made it even more so, doing penance for the sins of his youth. He had no spiritual guidance at first. That was remedied when Roger, the prior of the monastery at nearby Durham, gave him a rule of life to follow.
The routine was typically eremitical. Long prayers of the liturgy were followed by silent contemplation of the mysteries of faith, all carried on in penitential austerity. Loneliness itself had its challenges: not from the wild beasts of the forest, which he quickly befriended, but from diabolical manifestations; grave illnesses; a near-drowning; and even being beaten up by Scottish soldiers who believed he had a hidden treasure. Godric stuck to his rule nevertheless. Gradually he won the respect of neighboring villagers and monks, and even received a letter of encouragement from Pope Alexander III.
How did the Hermit of Finchale appear to those who received permission to speak with him? A contemporary writer noted that he was “strong and agile, and in spite of his small stature his appearance was very venerable. He had a broad forehead, sparkling grey eyes, and bushy eyebrows that almost met. His face was oval, his nose long, his beard thick. ” Visitors found him a good listener, always serious, and sympathetic to those in trouble. Among his charismatic gifts were prophecy and the knowledge of distant happenings.
St. Godric also became noted as a writer of hymns. His lyrics are among the oldest to employ rhyme and measure rather than the alliteration characteristic of Anglo-Saxon verse. The tunes to which he set the poems were simple ones, taught him, he said, in various visions. Four of these melodies and texts have been preserved in the British Museum and were recorded in 1965.
Stricken with a long illness at the end of threescore years in his little hermit’s cell, Godric died May 11, 1170. His tomb then became a shrine at which many miracles of healing were performed, especially on women. Like many ancient saints, Godric was never formally canonized, but his cult has continued at Finchale, at Durham, and among the Cistercian monks.
Men and women called belatedly to the religious life should find in St. Godric of Finchale a sympathetic patron. Before he finally settled down, he, too, had been around!”
Tomb of St Godric, Finchale
“Crist and Sainte Marie by Saint Godric of Finchale” (1065-1170) is significant as one of the oldest known surviving songs using the English language (although parts are in Latin). Only four songs by the mystic and hermit Saint Godric survive, with the surviving manuscript (from a little later) shown in this film-clip. Also pictured is a representation of the Saint himself, and a photo of the ruins of the priory at Finchale where he died, aged 105.
A live performance by Lumina Vocal Ensemble with singers are Saam Thorne (solo), Rachel Sag and Michele de Courcy can be found at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tx2PTmToxME
Kyrie eleison, Kyrie eleison
Crist and Sainte Marie
Swa on scamel me iledde
That ich on this erthe ne silde
With mine bare footen itredde
Kyrie eleison, Kyrie eleison
Christe eleison, Christe eleison
Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy
Christ and St. Mary
Have brought me to this altar
So that I may not touch
The ground with my bare feet
Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy
Christ have mercy, Christ have mercy.
For the songs of Godric, see: http://aclerkofoxford.blogspot.com.au/2012/05/songs-of-godric-of-finchale.html
See further: Francis Rice “The Hermit of Finchale: The Life of Saint Godric” [Pentland Press, Limited, 1994]
The Priory of St John the Baptist and St Godric, Finchale