Growing up in a small village in East Anglia, I always harboured a feint disappointment that the church in our village was not dedicated to a more important saint – an Andrew, a Peter, a Mary, or a James perhaps. Instead, it was dedicated to a little-known ecclesiastic with a strange name who didn’t even feature in the encyclopaedia.
Despite this minor misdeal, we were compensated by the knowledge that a small doorway in the south side of the chancel was at least a curiosity, if not of some repute. It was at least significant enough to feature on the cover of the monthly parish magazine.
The doorway dates from the late 12th century: its Norman origin belied by the somewhat uneven chevron moulding around the circumference of the semi-circular arch. But it is the carving in the tympanum which attracts our interest. This medieval tableau depicts a slightly crude, two-dimensional mermaid in the moment of being assailed by two wild beasts. They are characters acting out a story. The question is: what is the story and who are the protagonists?
The mermaid is the central figure of the trio. Her posture is one of startled surprise with her arms thrown into the air. Either side of her head, her hair erupts in a rough thatch. The features of her face have sadly been obliterated by lichen. Primitive U-shaped etchings in her torso make do for breasts and at a stiff right angle from the rest of her, her lower body morphs into a fish – with fins and a tail.
To her left is a square slab – which has been interpreted by some commentators as an altar, but which could just as easily be a trousseau chest. Or a harbour wall. Or just about anything else.
The mermaid is flanked on either side by “wild beasts” and as a child I stared at these creatures for long hours without ever successfully identifying them. The left-hand monster, vaulting towards the mermaid in rampant assault, is carved in profile. It could perhaps be a wolf, or a fox or maybe a dog, though its cloven hooves or claws suggest something more dangerous. The beast on the right, however, is striking a heraldic posture. It has a feline mien, the ears of a cat and yet stands like a horse. Some observers have offered the suggestion it is actually a sheep and a representation of the Agnus Dei. But the way its right foreleg is curled beneath it dissuades me. Furthermore, its long tail curling beneath its body like a Celtic scroll is definitely not that of a sheep.
Destined forever to be misidentified and misinterpreted, we might as well just call them “mythical beasts” and move on.
If this scene is indeed telling a story, to my knowledge no one has yet identified the legend it depicts. Perhaps it has been forgotten? But more likely, I think, is that it is a scene from the imagination of the stone carver.
But what is unique about this crude stone carving?
Well, firstly, the mermaid is a pagan symbol, denoting the siren calls of lust and sin. Though I suspect they must surely exist, other carvings of mermaids on church exteriors in England are virtually unknown. (Though there seem to be plenty on wooden church furniture and on capitals in church interiors).
The doorway therefore poses two teasing questions. What is a pagan symbol doing on a building of Christian worship? And secondly, the church is three days walk from the sea. What was the significance of a mermaid to this land-locked village?
Neither are questions we can answer with any authority. But maybe the dedication of the church can lead us towards an answer?
We have few details about the life of Botolph (or Botwulf) and those that we have were written four hundred years after his death by an eleventh century monk, Folcard. However, what is reasonably certain is that he and his brother Adulph were Saxon nobles living in East Anglia in the seventh century. They were sent to a Benedictine Abbey in France for their education and Adulph later become a bishop in Holland, whilst Botolph returned to England.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (a collection of annals recording the history of the Anglo Saxons and existing in multiple copies of an original manuscript from 9th century Wessex) records for the year 654: “in this year Anna (King of the East Angles) was slain and Botwulf began to build the minister at Icanhoh”.
Icanho (meaning “ox hill” in early English) has been identified as the parish of Iken on the southern bank of the estuary of the River Alde in Suffolk. It is one of the most remote corners of East Anglia as I found out when I first visited just over ten years ago.
It was a late November morning and not the usual time of year to be setting off for the coast. East of Woodbridge, Suffolk extends for a further ten miles before finally succumbing to the North sea. It as if civilisation has given up trying to wrestle this land from the tides and has abandoned it to its fate. There are only sparse homesteads. Gentle agriculture intersperses with bracken and broadleaved woodland: mainly birch, with the incidental Scots pine and punctuated by odd patches of gorse. There is the occasional pig farm and fields given over for the growing of turf. Flocks of clouds roll in from the North Sea. Oyster catchers call out from the coast. Otherwise, one gets the feeling that very little happens here.
A sign to the right points the way to Orford Castle built by Henry II in the twelfth century in an attempt to re-establish influence over this lawless corner of his kingdom. But I ignore the sign and turn left to drive north in the direction of Snape. There is no other traffic on the road and I have the feeling I am on the road from nowhere to nowhere. Then, at a bare crossroads, sheltered by a few pine trees, a sign directs me to Iken. I bump along the single track road. Dunes of sand have built up on the verges of the road.
I catch sight of the river Alde to my left. These are the upper reaches of the estuary where the river transforms from a narrow stream to a wide estuary bed. The far bank, Snape Warren, is a quarter of a mile distant. This morning, the tide is out and only a mere trickle of water runs through the mud flats. The square turret of a church tower peeks out over the canopy of a clump of trees. A barn owl is hunting over the fen beyond.
I am just 3 miles as the crow flies from the sea. A couple of miles downstream, the river will encounter the shingle spit of Orfordness. This natural spit of land runs like a natural dam for nine miles south of Aldeburgh and is constantly being built up by the tides of the North Sea washing shingle down from the East Coast. It is this spit which prevents the river Alde from bursting forth into the sea at Aldedurgh and constrains it instead to flow south before finally disgorging its water into the sea near Orwell.
It is on this long and tortuous journey that the River Alde bends through the marshes in a wide ox-bow enclosing the church of Iken on its promontory. Almost entirely surrounded by the estuary and marshland, Botolph’s monastery would have been reachable perhaps only by a narrow causeway.
Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a more remote place in East Anglia. On the winter’s morning when I visit there is no one else around. There is no village at Iken. Even today. Only a few outlying farms.
Composting vegetable matter, beneath the water and therefore in the absence of oxygen, produces methane, phosphine and diphosphine: the principle components of marsh gas. Phosphine spontaneously combusts in contact with oxygen producing the phenomena we know of as “will-o-the-wisp”. In Saxon times, the marshes were quite likely haunted by these will-o-the-wisps and stories would have abounded of how these marshes were inhabited by demons.
So why would Botolph have built his monastery here?
If the land was bequeathed to him, is easy to understand why: the land had no other purpose.
On the other hand, perhaps the reason for building the monastery here was to isolate the community from the rest of the world. In such case, they could hardly have found a more suitable place.
In either case, whoever lived here would have needed more than just the grace of God to keep the spirits at bay, the demons at arms-length and the sirens from invading. It is easy to see how local legends and folk-tales could have circulated.
Botolph remained at Icanhoh as its abbott until his death in 680. It is recorded that he was buried by his disciples in the monastery on 17th June and this has remained his annual Feast day ever since.
Two centuries later however, the monastery was destroyed by Danish invaders and Botolph’s remains were removed for safe-keeping. Probably they were first taken to Burgh (near Woodbridge) but we also know that in 1020, King Cnut authorised for them to be taken to the abbey at Bury St. Edmunds. In later years, some his relics were sent to Thorney Abbey near Peterborough, whilst his skull was dispatched to Ely cathedral. Other body parts were conveyed from place to place. In particular, it seems they were taken to London, including to Westminster Abbey.
The church that stands at Iken today tells a story similar to many English country churches – begun in the Norman times, it was added to, extended and altered over the coming centuries. One curiosity inside the church is a large piece of stone about five feet in length and lying on its side just opposite the entrance. This stone had once been part of the base of the tower, but extracted during alterations in 1977 when it was discovered that it was actually the shaft of a Saxon cross which had been placed here to commemorate the life of St Botolph after the Vikings had destroyed the monastery in 870. Although badly weathered, it still bears the unmistakeable Saxon scroll carvings.
At some time, probably before the Norman Conquest, Botolph was elevated to being the Patron Saint of Travellers. Why travellers?
The only answer I am able to find is that, rather than from any fame as a traveller throughout his lifetime, it was for the peregrinations of his remains that he acquired the accolade. It doesn’t seem entirely convincing and I would love to find some other explanation, but if it exists, it is not forthcoming.
There are about 70 churches in East Anglia dedicated to St Botolph and it is possible that these were founded by Botolph’s disciples after his death. However, another theory also presents itself.
These churches share one thing in common – they are often located at the site of what would have once been the entrance gate of medieval cities, as if their function was to welcome the traveller. There were four in London, all at the gates of the medieval city: Aldersgate, Aldgate, Bishopsgate, and Billingsgate. And there was also an important one in Cambridge.
Standing on the corner of Silver Street and Trumpington St, St Botolph’s was once the entrance to the University city. One can picture young scholars of the middle ages, arriving from London, pausing on arrival at their destination to say a prayer of thanksgiving to Botolph. Or alternatively, recent graduates, about to set foot on the path of life, pausing to ask for his intercession.
So what then of St Botolph’s in Stow Longa – hardly a medieval metropolis? It turns out that the church stands on the side an old drovers road. In days gone by, shepherds drove their flocks, probably from Northamptonshire and Leicestershire along this lane towards London. And though nowadays the lane is little used, in the past, at certain times of year it would have been a bustling thoroughfare of traffic.
In the late middle ages however, the legend of St Christopher, helping a young child to ford a river by carrying him on his shoulders gained in popularity and Christopher was also made the patron saint of travellers. The popularity of his story grew in subsequent years, to the extent that it has almost put poor Botolph out of a job.
To conclude our essay though, let us then return to the carving on the tympanum on the doorway in Stow Longa. In the light of what we now know of Botolph’s life, can we attach any further significance to it?
We have no evidence of it even being connected with the life of St. Botolph at all, but the presence of a mermaid makes a convincing argument for it being so. Perhaps the carving on the tympanum at St Botolph’s, Stow Longa, illustrates some lost Saxon folk-tale about Botolph taming the wild beasts emerging from the river Alde? We can only guess.