Credit Lewis Clarke
The perfect day to celebrate county
Professor Nick Groom, Professor of English at the University of Exeter, puts the case for St Boniface to be made patron saint of Devon in an article for the Western Morning News
Here in the West Country, if you were asked to name a patron saint then the likelihood is that you would initially elect St George. A true cosmopolitan, he is the patron saint not just of England but also as far afield as Armenia, Byzantium, Canada, Ethiopia, Istanbul, and Moscow, to name but a few. Alternatively, Cornish residents could offer St Piran, who has been adopted as the duchy’s figurehead having long been the guardian of tinners. Yet, what about Devon? Well, as it stands the county doesn’t have a patron saint – but all that is about to change.
Recently, with renowned folksinger Jim Causley and the Boniface Link Association, I approached the local authorities to champion their suggestion that St Boniface be made our patron and that we celebrate June 5th – his Feast Day – as the country’s ‘Bonifeast’. While the Boniface Link Association has been active for more than twenty years, connecting with towns and cities in Europe relating to the saint, this particular idea to make the Feast of St Boniface a day to celebrate all good things specifically Devonian really came from Jim, during a commemorative event held in South Zeal on June 5th last year, for which he wrote a celebratory new song.
There are, of course, other saints, most notably Saint Petrock and Saint Sidwell who do, at first glance, have commendable claims to the title.
St Petrock’s links with Devon are, however, slim. He was a Welshman who studied in Ireland before founding monasteries at Bodmin and Padstow. He also has strong – if inadvertent – links with Brittany, where a cult sprang up to honour him after his body was stolen by an over-zealous French churchman and donated to the Abbey there, before being taken back and returned to Bodmin by Henry II. But apart from several church dedications in Devon, St Petrock is first and foremost a Cornish saint: ‘the captain of Cornish saints’, as one writer described him in 1655.
St Sidwell is a better Devonian candidate than St Petrock. She was martyred just outside Exeter city walls, struck down by reapers with their scythes – perhaps on the orders of her wicked step-mother. She is an agricultural – or ‘green’ – saint; a sacrificial spirit that lives in the husbandry of the land, and so she is often depicted carrying a scythe, emphasizing her affinity with farming and haymaking.
St Sidwell is certainly a powerfully symbolic and locally distinctive figure, and is also almost unique to Devon – in fact, she is barely known outside the county – but she is also a folk heroine who may never have lived. St Boniface, on the other hand, is an international historical figure – he has even been called the ‘first European’. He was certainly one of the most important figures in medieval culture for his work in England, the Netherlands, and Germany, and as such he situates Devon at the heart of Western world in the Middle Ages.
Boniface was born in Crediton in 680 of Saxon and British parentage, and educated near Exeter, after which he spent much of his life on the continent. He famously cut down Donar’s sacred oak, the holy tree of the Germanic tribes, and to the amazement of the people watching was not instantly struck down by the hammer of the gods; instead, the tree straightaway split into four.
St Boniface’s exploits were renowned throughout the Western world, and his deeds were also woven into seasonal traditions such the Yule log at Christmas, as well as the tradition of the decorated Christmas tree itself. Most people think that seasonal fir trees were established in England in 1840 by Prince Albert and popularized by an engraving of the royal family gathered around their tree in the 1848 Christmas supplement to the Illustrated London News; but in fact, Queen Victoria had grown up with the tradition as her mother was German, and throughout the eighteenth century in Britain the Hanoverian royal family had celebrated the season with Christmas trees. The tradition has its origin then in earlier celebrations of St Boniface in northern and central Europe, as, once Boniface had felled the pagan oak, a fir tree reputedly grew in its place.
St Boniface is therefore a Devon saint with great international appeal, as well as having had an abiding influence on our most cherished customs. While there may be other attractive Devonian saints such as St Sidwell, none has the global reach of St Boniface. He is has been celebrated across Europe with festivals, an opera, and even a musical, but is barely known in his home county.
We should celebrate Devon, so why not make the Feast of St Boniface –the Bonifeast – your day to celebrate Devon this year?
Date: 4 June 2019