– – – Exploring The Countryside and Lanes of Dorset – – –
Its time for a new ‘Theme for the Week’, and this week I thought we would look at some unusual, even quirky, Dorset churches…..or, quirky things that are in Dorset churches 🙂 ! And there are a few! And we start with a church with an unusual dedication, the church of St Candida and Holy Cross……although its not only the name that is unusual!
St Candida and Holy Cross, Whitchurch Canonicorum
The unusually named St Candida and Holy Cross Church stands in a small village which actually has an equally unusual name. It stands in the village of Whitchurch Canonicorum. The name comes from St Wite who is in fact the saint to whom the church is dedicated, Candida being the Latin translation of Wite.
Now, what is unusual about this church is that inside stands the tomb of St Wite and this is known to still contain her remains. This is virtually unique since it is the only parish church in England to still bear its saint’s remains, and also the shrine is the only one in the country to have survived the reformation, apart from at Westminster Abbey where the tomb of Edward the Confessor still stands intact.
The limestone and marble shrine, erected in the 13th century, is in two parts with the coffin on top containing a lead box inscribed in Latin, ‘Here lie the relics of St Wite’. When this was opened in 1900, it was found to contain the bones of a small woman.
Beneath the coffin is a base with three oval openings and the reason for that design was so that pilgrims could insert diseased limbs etc in order to receive healing. Items such as handkerchiefs belonging to people too sick to travel would also be inserted. It seems to be still used today for written prayers.
The identity of St Wite has to an extent been lost over time but local tradition suggests that she was a Saxon holy woman who lived a hermit life along the cliffs, possibly lighting beacons to help sailors. It is thought that she was killed by Danish pirates on one of their raids.
Another theory has it that she is Gwen Teirbron, a 6th century holy woman from Breton. This explanation is plausible as many Breton’s travelled to the west of England in 919-921 AD and they often brought their saint’s bodies with them. Other suggestions are that St Wite was male, and was in fact a monk from Wessex – unlikely since the name has always been used in the feminine form. And finally, there is a theory that she was an evangelist who died in Germany.
The traditional and original belief that she was a Saxon Holy Woman has stood for over 900 years so it seems that this is the most likely identity.
The church itself is a large village church that predates Norman times although it has been much altered and extended over the centuries to become the grand building it is today. Such is its grandeur that it is often referred to as The Cathedral of the Vale, the ‘vale’ referring to the Marshwood Vale in which it stands.
The shrine of St Wite is a fine, but comparatively simple structure, and it may well be that it is this very simplicity that saved it from destruction during the Reformation when all others were destroyed. Could those 16th century vandals have just overlooked it as being of no importance because it was so plain? I guess we will never know!
Just one other interesting fact about St Wite before we finish – she is still remembered today in the periwinkles that grow on the nearby Stonebarrow Hill in Spring. These are known locally as St Candida’s Eyes!
Thanks for stopping by.
Until next time,
Your friend The Dorset Rambler
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