Spurious Saints

In 2010, Northern Earth invited readers to send in place-names and lore associated with saints – but not the bona fide type of saint. What we were looking for was spurious saints… here are some of the dubious divines we received.

Contributors were John Billingsley, Mary Frankland, Jeremy Harte, Andy Norfolk, Gus Smith and Paul Williment

 St Aldate

I remember a church in Oxford from undergraduate days called St. Aldate’s – ‘Aldate’ actually refers to the Church being at the Old Gate to the town, not a saint at all. PW

St Alkelda

There’s a holy well in Middleham, N Yorkshire, dedicated to St Alkelda. However, some suspicion attaches to this saint, as Alkelda is very close to hallikeld, meaning ‘holy well’. She has two church dedications – Middleham and Giggleswick, which also has its own ‘miraculous’ well (The Ebbing and Flowing Well). MF

St Allan

In Cornwall, St. Allan is back-dedicated from the river Allan on which it stands. JH

St Ambrose of the Ambry

There’s a house near Hebden Bridge (W Yorkshire) called St Ambrose’s Well. When I moved here in 1975 it was called Ambry Well. It acquired the saint when new owners moved in and renovated it (including carving the holy name over the porch) during the 1980s, renaming it St Ambrose Well.

Who is St Ambrose? Well, obviously this one is the patron saint of cubby holes. Ambry is a version of aumbry, which as many will know is a name for a kind of cupboard. The well at this ex-farmhouse has long been enclosed – in a kind of cupboard known locally as an ambry. JB

St Asda, patron saint of shoppers

On the S edge of Wakefield there’s a large Asda supermarket, with a Catholic Church beside it. The church is known locally as St Asda’s. My wife used to teach near there, and I asked her what the church was really called, but she didn’t know. Speaks for itself, I think. GS

St Thomas a Becket’s Well

The village of Pecket Well, above Hebden Bridge, looks across to another hilltop village, Heptonstall. When the clouds part sufficiently, you can see the ruined church of St Thomas a Becket in Heptonstall, erected in the 13th century as the chapel of ease for the upper Calder valley. When a new church was required in the 19th century, it was in the churchyard beside it, but Becket being an unreconstructed Catholic saint, the new church was dedicated to St Thomas the Apostle.

However, the literati of the period were loath to lose old Thomas, and putting two and two together – unsuccessfully – they ‘realised’ that Pecket Well must be derived from Becket, and thus the well was either founded or blessed by the Canterbury saint himself. The lack of evidence for Becket venturing into these remote parts being no impediment, numerous references to Pecket Well in the latter half of the 19th and early 20th centuries confidently assert the correct name as Becket’s Well (“vulgarly known as Pecket Well”, remarked the Rev. Whalley of Todmorden). And today? Mama, we are all vulgar now. JB

St Carantoc

Traditions of St. Carantoc were localised at Carhampton, Somerset, by folk-etymology; the place-name is actually from OW carrum, ‘of the rocks’.

St Dennis

St Dennis in Cornwall is suspect because it probably comes from the Cornish for fort (dinas). AN.

St Eustachius

Stachy’s Well in Dorset, named after a local landowner (you can find the Stachies in the Lay Subsidy Rolls) was interpreted enthusiastically as St. Eustachius’ Well and the church accordingly rededicated in Victorian times. There are other examples of back-dedicated wells scattered liberally through the third section of my English Holy Wells, the one where I deposited everything that didn’t make the grade as medieval evidence. JH

St Everilda

St. Everildis (Everild, Everilda) is the patron of Everingham, although the village name derives from the folkname Eoforingas (or maybe the personal name Eofor with connective –ing-). Everildis does exist as a name, but it’s German rather than OE. JH

St Ivel

The spurious saint must surely be St. Ivel, although I have yet to find out how the cheese came to yield the saint, unless it’s the other way round. I remember seeing a set of advertising cards in which monks from the local abbey were down in the dumps, facing a Christmas without dairy products, until at the last minute St. Ivel came to their rescue and all was soft cheese spread and jollity. JH

St John ‘Sinjun’

John Field in Field-Names (1993: p241) notes that the field-names St. John at Stanton St. John in Oxfordshire and St. John’s Field at Walkern in Hertfordshire. both derive from singett, ‘burnt place’. JH

St Johnstone

Best known as the name of the Scottish Football League team representing Perth, the name comes from ‘St John’s Toon’, the town of St John – Perth parish church being dedicated to St John the Baptist. There is, lest we know our truly obscure saints, no connection with a St John Stone, an English friar martyred by Henry VIII in 1539 (and canonised in 1970 after careful consideration). JB

St Kilda

No-one seems to know the etymology of this, but the most probable suggestion is a misread Norse island name Skildar, ‘the shields’, which was meant for a different group anyway. JH

St Monday, patron saint of absenteeism

St Monday these days seems to be linked to unauthorized absence from work after a heavy weekend. In the past it was regarded simply as a holiday. I first came across it in a booklet published by Caderdale Museums about the history of the textile trade. It was contrasting the situation for handloom weavers and spinners before the Industrial Revolution, who could afford to enjoy St Monday, and the situation later, when industrialisation had driven prices down to the point where such workers could barely scrape a living however long they worked.

As to origin, Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable notes: “St. Monday. A holiday observed by journeyman shoemakers and other inferior mechanics, and well-to-do merchants. 1. In the Journal of the Folk-lore Society, vol. 1 p.245, we read that “While Cromwell’s army lay encamped at Perth, one of his zealous partisans, named Monday, died, and Cromwell offered a reward for the best lines on his death. A shoemaker of Perth brought the following, which so pleased Cromwell that he not only gave the promised reward, but made also a decree that shoemakers should be allowed to make Monday a standing holiday. 2. “Blessed be the Sabbath Day, / And cursed be worldly pelf; / Tuesday will begin the week, / Since Monday’s hanged himself.” GS

St Nectan

I’m sure a lot of you have heard of St Nectan’s Glen and Kieve near Tintagel, Cornwall. This is a wonderful place and incredibly evocative with a sense of power and spirit of place that overwhelms some people. So surely it must be associated with St Nectan, when there are even legends that place him there? Well, maybe not.

The name St Nectan’s Glen is quite recent – we don’t tend to use the word glen in Cornish. In 1799 the kieve was known as Nathan’s Cave and was probably named after either Nathan Williams or Nathan Cock, who lived in the area and died in the 18th century. AN

St Nicholas of Shoreditch

Nicholes feld, from a landowner, had turned into Saynt Nicholas Felde in 1545. JH

St Oswald of Oswestry

The cult of St. Oswald at Oswestry is a back-dedication, according to Margaret Gelling, from an original ‘Oswald’s tree’ where the qualifier refers to some ordinary chap who happened to have the same name as the Northumbrian saint-king. Others – including the Oswestry Tourist Board, naturally – disagree. JH

St Rumbold

Nothing to do with Rombald’s Moor at Ilkley: Rumboldswick in Chichester appears in 1224 as Wikes Reinbaldi, from a landowner Regenbald; but in 1524 a testator was leaving money for the light of St. Rumbold’s chapel. JH

St Swithin

Dedications to St. Swithin in the New Forest, and the St. Swithin’s Wells of Copt Hewick and Stanley, are likely to be back-dedications from ME/dialect swithin, ‘moor cleared by fire’ ( James Rattue, Source 4, 1995, p6). St. Swithins in Ilford (Essex) looks much the same, being recorded as Swithins in 1777. JH

St Ump

St Ump, patron saint of those who carry heavy loads, spent most of his life carrying a heavy stone cross by way of penance. He finally laid down his burden at St Ump’s Cross (now Stump Cross), near Halifax. Before that, he spent many years living as a hermit in Stump Cross Caverns in the Yorkshire Dales, which also bear his name. [Gus Smith: “I made this up”]

Miracles of St Assumption 

The church at Margaret Marsh in Dorset is dedicated to St. Margaret, but the place-name is from a secular Margaret.  Stow Marys in Essex takes its affix from the personal name de Marisco, but the church is dedicated to St. Mary nonetheless.  The church at Kirkby Stephen, Cumbria, is not dedicated to St. Stephen, according to the indignant village website, and used to be St. John’s, but all the Victorian authorities give it as St. Stephen’s. The affix in the place-name is definitely Stephen, but appears to record a landowner. Elstow in Bedfordshire has early forms beginning Aeln-, suggesting derivation from the personal name Aelna. By c.1270 there were forms such as Helenstoe, and the dedication of an abbey to St. Mary and St. Helen in the late 11th century shows they were thinking on these lines even then. The church at Wilford in Nottinghamshire is dedicated to St. Wilfred, which looks suspiciously as if influenced by the place-name. St. Botolph’s Bridge in Colchester first appears as pontem Godulfi in the 13th century; by 1563 it was Botolph’s Bridge, so the back-dedication here must be post-Reformation.

St Rhadegund

St. Rhadegund’s Way on the Isle of Wight, which started life as the Roadgang.

Published in NE124 (Winter 2010), pp.10-13