Christianity was introduced to Mercia, one of the Kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchies, in 653 AD. A monastery was founded at its capital, Repton. Soon afterwards, a religious settlement was established at Burton by Saint Modwen who hence became its patron saint. She was an Irish noble woman who became an abbess and made a pilgrimage to Rome.
She, together with two other accompanying nuns Lazar and Althia, visited Burton on the way and founded a church dedicated to God and Saint Andrew on an island on the river Trent. She named the island Saint Andrew’s Isle, or Andressey. They stayed for seven years before continuing to Rome.
On her return journey, she built another church across the river at the foot of Mount Calvus, later known as Scalpcliffe Hill, this time dedicated to Saint Peter on the site of the current church in Stapenhill. She undertook further missionary work in Scotland, where she died at a place called Lanfortin near Dundee. A traditional story tells that on her death, her companions saw her soul taken to heaven by silver swans, which became her emblem, as depicted by the large White Swan in Stapenhill gardens. Her body was returned to Burton for burial; she was reputed to be 130 years old. A shrine to Saint Modwen was built at the church on Andressey but this was destroyed by the Danes in 874 AD who left their heritage on a number of place names, most notably, Broadholme and Horsholme which are the names of two of Burton’s other neighbouring islands; ‘holme’ being Danish for water meadow or island. Her remains were reputedly recovered and ended up at Burton Abbey when it was established in 1002 AD by Wulfric Spot, a Saxon nobleman. A new shrine was established in the Abbey church and was reputedly visited by William the Conqueror.
Some of Modwen’s alleged remains were transferred from the chapel on Andresey to Burton abbey and a shrine built there. The move evidently took place between 1008, when the abbey’s dedication was recorded as ‘St. Benedict and All Saints’, suggesting that Modwen’s bones were not then within the abbey church, and the abbacy of Leofric (1051-66) who despoiled the shrine.
There is known to have been an altar to Modwen in the abbey church by the time of Abbot Geoffrey Malaterra (1085-94). An undated grant by William I (1066-87) makes the strong suggestion that he visited her shrine. The Abbot promoted Saint Modwen and increasing her importance.
When Abbot Geoffrey took over Burton Abbey in 1114 he knew little about the saint whose bones his Abbey possessed and was very intrigued to find out more. He re-built the shrine and wrote to Ireland for information, he was sent a ‘Life of Modwenna’ written by Conchubranus (or Conchobhar), an itinerant Irishman searching for materials about an Irish abbesses. Abbott Geoffrey edited this and added a few stories of Modwen’s time in Burton and telling of her posthumous miracles. It was called ‘Life of Saint Modwenna’.
Amazingly, the Conchubranus book still survives and has recently been edited and translated by Professor Robert Bartlett of Saint Andrew’s University. For the first time we know what the monks believed and taught about Modwen. Conchubranus’ book contains references to Modwen’s time in Burton, of her establishing both churches, and talks about the Burton monks possessed her bones and her name. In Conchubran’s time in Ireland, Burton was also known as ‘Mudwennestow’, meaning ‘Modwen’s holy place’.
Some relics of Saint Modwen were re-discovered in 1201 which prompted a renewed interest in her cult. Additional miracles were attributed to her, and she was depicted on the seal of Abbot Nicholas (1216-22). A new shrine was built in the abbey church in the early 15th century, and it was probably that shrine which by the 1530s had an image of the saint with a red cow and a staff said to be helpful to women suffering labour pains.
By the late 13th century, Saint Modwen was known in monasteries with earlier links to Burton including Winchester, where Abbot Geoffrey of Burton had been prior; Reading, where Abbot William Melburne had been a monk; and Wherwell nunnery, Hants. near Winchester. In addition, the two cathedrals of Canterbury and Salisbury have relics of her. No other English parish church however, has been dedicated to her outside of Burton, although there was a small chapel dedicated to her in Offchurch, Warwickshire. In the 1530s there was an image to Modwen in Ashbourne church, Derbyshire; she was also depicted in medieval window glass, mentioned in 1798, at Pillaton Hall, in Penkridge.
When the chapel on Andresey was dedicated in the early 13th century by Bishop Geoffrey Muschamp, it was called Saint Andrew’s church, and its keeper was given 1s. a year by Abbot William Melburne. There was still an altar dedicated to Saint Modwen on the island by 1280. When the chapel was rebuilt by Abbot Thomas Feld in the late 15th century, it was known as St. Modwen’s and contained her supposed tomb.
In Tudor times, St Modwen’s Holy Well was in a chapel on Andrew’s Island between two branches of the River Trent at Burton. It was famous for the cure of King’s Evil and other extraordinary cures. The water had long been used by the monks for brewing the famous Burton Ale and pilgrims came to partake of the water and possibly the ale too. The offerings received from the pilgrims visiting the shrine in the 1530s just before the dissolution, was around £2 a year.
The Abbey was the centre of life in Burton until Henry VIIIs Dissolution in 1538. During this period, the Saint Modwen cult in Burton was officially suppressed.
Sir William Bassett was at Meynell Langley, Derbyshire, at the end of August 1538 when he received instructions from Thomas Cromwell “that such images as you know… so abused with pilgrimages or offerings… you shall for avoiding that most detestable offence of Idolatry forthwith take down”. Sir William carried out his task and replied to Cromwell, as follows:
Right honourable my inespecial good lord, according to my bounden duty and the tenor of your lordship’s letter lately to me directed, I have sent unto your good lordship by this bearer, my brother Francis Bassett, the images of St Anne of Buxton and St Modwen of Burton upon Trent which images I did take from the places where they did stand, and brought them to my own house within 48 hours after contemplation of your said lordship’s letter, in as sober manner as my little and rude wits would serve me. And for that there should no more idolatry and superstition be there used I did not only deface the tabernacles and places, where they stand but also did take away the crutches, shirts and sheets with wax offered, being things that did allure and intice the ignorant people to the said offerings, also giving the keepers of both places admonition and charge that no more offerings should be made in those places till the King’s pleasure and your lordships be further known in that behalf. My lord, I have locked up and sealed the baths and wells at Buxton and none shall enter to wash them till your lordship’s pleasure be further known. Whereof I beseech your lordship that I may be ascertained again at your pleasure and I shall not fail to execute your lordship’s commandment to the uttermost of my little witt and power. And the trust that they did put in those images and the vanity of the things, this bearer, my brother can tell your lordship better at large than I can write for he was with me at the doing of all and in all places, as knoweth good Jesus, whom ever good lordship in his blessed keeping. Written at Langley with the rude and simple hand of your assured and faithful orator and as one ever at your commandment, next unto the King to the uttermost of my little power.
Signed William Bassett (Knight)
On 1st September, Thomas Thacker, Steward to Cromwell, wrote to his Master telling him that Francis Bassett had delivered to Austin Friars (Thomas Cromwell’s main residence) in London, “the image of St Modwyn with her red cow and her staff which women labouring of child in those parts were desirous to have with them to lean upon and to walk with“. This is the best available description of the statue.
Thomas Cromwell fell from grace a few years later and was arrested being accused of many crimes, most significantly treason. Cromwell was condemned to death without trial and beheaded on Tower Hill on 28 July 1540 (the day of the King Henry VIII’s marriage to Kathryn Howard). Following his death, an inventory was taken of his belongings which showed an extensive collection of treasures that had been confiscated from the church for supposed destruction. It has not been possible to identify the images of St Anne and St Modwen mentioned in the letter from Sir William Bassett.
Following removal of the shrine, the keeper was ordered not to accept any more offerings. Some elements of the cult, however, persisted. The name Modwen, which had some popularity before the Reformation, continued to be given to girls in Burton until at least 1585. Saint Modwen’s well on Andresey Island was recorded in 1686, still there in at least 1738, was said to work great cures. There was a 16th century attempt to rename the Island, Saint Modwen’s Isle, but this did not stick and it reverted to Andresey (Andrew’s Island).
When the chapel on Andresey passed to the Pagets as lords of Burton manor in 1546, it measured 60 by 27 feet. It was still standing in 1699 and possibly as late as 1837, but by 1857 the chapel site had gone. The area around the chapel was known as St. Modwen’s Orchard by 1760, when it was marked by a water-filled ditch. The ditch can just be seen today next to what is now known as the Cherry Orchard.
A modern monument to commemorate Saint Modwen was erected on Andressey Island at the end of the twentieth century. You may even have seen it but not registered who, or even what, is is supposed to depict. I certainly did! Strangely, it is half a mile away from where the original Saint Andrew’s Church and later Saint Modwen’s chapel stood.
The parish church still celebrates Saint Modwen’s day on 29th October (although the date appears to have been changed a number of times over the centuries).
One of Abbot Geoffrey’s stories in Professor Bartlett’s translation is included below.
A Miracle of St. Modwen – abridged from the ‘Life of Saint Modwenna’ by Abbot Geoffrey of Burton (c1120 AD), translated by Professor Robert Bartlett.
When St Modwen returned to England from Rome she came to the place called Scalpcliffe and saw there, by the hill, an island in the River Trent. It was secluded from men and had an isolated hermitage, and she loved the place very much. She stayed there for seven years and built a church dedicated to St. Andrew. To this day the island is known as Andressey, or Andrew’s Isle. At that time the area was a desolate wilderness, with woods and wild animals, but no people.
There lived at Breedon a saintly hermit who heard of Modwen’s reputation and used to visit her. He brought her writings on the lives of the saints which they read together, encouraging each other in their faith with the examples of the saints.
One day the hermit arrived but had forgotten the book. Modwen was grieved, and they decided to send for it. The hermit instructed two of Modwen’s companions where the book might be found, and Modwen instructed the two virgins to get into a boat and make all speed to fetch the book. They were rowing down the river when a strong wind sprang up which caused great waves on the Trent and filled the girls with fears of drowning and death.
When they reached a place called Leigh the wind got up further and they leant to one side and the boat overturned. They sank to the bottom of the river, and were trapped under the boat.
Modwen and the hermit began to grow anxious that they had been a long time. The thought occurred to Modwen that perhaps they had been drowned. She was desolate and blamed herself for having sent them and held herself responsible for their deaths. But the hermit consoled her, and suggested that they turned to prayer. They prostrated themselves on the ground and tearfully prayed to God for the lives of the girls. At length a bell rang and they rose, and noticed that a dry path had been miraculously opened up on the river bed. The water was divided in an astonishing manner into two parts, standing like a wall to the right and the left of the path.
Modwen and the hermit set off at once down the path on the river bed and came to the upturned boat. On one side of it the girls’ fingers were visible where they had clutched at the gunwale of the boat. The hermit tried to lift the boat but could not. It was as heavy and immovable as if it had grown roots into the river bed. He asked Modwen to try. She did so and the boat lifted as quickly and easily as if it had no weight at all. They found the two girls alive and well, safe and sound, preserved by the grace of God. There was mighty rejoicing and they all gave thanks to Almighty God for the miraculous saving of the girls, for his great wonders and the great marvels he had performed.
Once the boat was turned right way up they all climbed in and at once the waters rushed back into the river bed and bore them along with waves so that it should be clearly understood that God himself had divided the waters and saved the girls in answer to the prayers of the two saints.