St Beornwald of Bampton



Lady Chapel window

 

One of Bamptons most charming secrets is its home-grown saint, St Beornwald. His annual saint’s
day, December 21, is celebrated at St Mary’s Church, but few know much about him. I’ll try to
answer a few questions about him, in the hope of making him a better known member of our
twenty-first century community. Along the way I’ll try to shine a little light on the 11th century world
in which he lived and why his life mattered.

What was the Bampton religious community like in Beornwald’s time?

As so often happens, we are indebted to John Blair at Queens College Oxford for the fundamental
research about this area:

“Bampton parish church seems to have been one of those collegiate churches, lesser than cathedrals
but greater than the ordinary run of churches, which were known by the 10th century as the "old
minsters". In the 13th century it still controlled a huge parish covering nearly half of Bampton
hundred and containing several daughter churches; it had a large "rectory manor" and it was served
by a team of three vicars, perhaps the direct successors of pre-Conquest minster priests, whose
houses stood around the churchyard. In the late Anglo-Saxon period this must have been the mother
church of the whole low-lying region between the Thames, the Windrush, and the Cotswold
foothills.”


To be more precise, the vicars mentioned lived in the very area where the present vicar lives, the
land bounded by Cheapside, Church Street, and Church View. Among them lived a holy man, and
this is recorded in a Charter from William I in 1069. In it the scribe records: “these are the bounds of
the land which King Eadwig gave to the holy man at Bampton and the community.” Now Eadwig
only ruled from 1055 until 1059, so we can say with confidence that the holy man was already
recognised by 1059. We have two sources which give the saint’s name, one in Latin and one in
French: “S. Brenwaldus apud Bamptonam and Saint Bernold en Bentone.” The name “Beornwald”
essentially means “man of the woods.” Three general Saxon compilations record him in the century
that followed and one of them uses the term martyr to describe him. This cult of St Beornwald
continued for four hundred years, at least in West Oxfordshire.

Who was Beornwald?

There is no evidence of a monastery in Bampton, so it is more likely that Beornwald was the leader
of the Bampton religious community. In these communities in the 11th century, the leader would
have been a priest, and not a monk or abbot. Blair says that probably “Bampton had a secular
minster on the old pattern: a group of priests based on a central church, but following a way of life
more clerical than monastic.”

Was he really a saint?

In the 11th century there was no expectation that a candidate for sainthood would be examined by a
committee and approved by the pope. In fact, the first undoubted papal canonisation was in 993.
Up to the time of St Beornwald, bishops had the right to create saints in their diocese, and the
process was more an acclamation rather than an election. By this standard, Beornwald was a saint
in that he inspired a faithful following that endured in the area for several hundred years.

What connections do we have with St Beornwald?

Our most physical connection with St Beornwald is the surviving portion of his shrine in the north
transept of St Mary’s. The location may seem surprising, but it is not unique among English saints of
this era. For example, St Augustine’s shrine was originally in the north transept of his monastery
church in Ramsgate.

On the east wall of the north transept to the left of the altar is the remnant of a shrine. The height
suggests that this was at an earlier stage a covered reliquary like that of St Frideswide in Christ
Church Cathedral Oxford. At its foot is a marble slab with a recess for a commemorative brass which
has been lost. It may be that the shrine was demolished at the time of the Reformation, or even by
17th century Puritans, who detested any church decorations that smacked of idolatry or Papism.

 

 




 

Shrine remnants




The marble slab of
St Beornwald's shrine