Two miracles in High Wycombe and a muddy shoe in Marlow

St. Wulfstan’s prayer book.
A picture of King David from what is almost certainly St. Wulfstan’s own prayer book.

St. Wulfstan was the Saxon Bishop of Worcester both before and for nearly thirty years after the Conquest. He was a genuinely good and holy man. So good, in fact, that he very nearly became the Patron Saint of England when the idea was created along with the Order of the Garter in 1350. (There is still a movement to get him to replace St George!)

Although the saint is well known in historical circles, it isn’t so well known that two of his many reported miracles took place in High Wycombe, (though one was more likely to have been just outside in Bradenham).

Although a deeply pious and religious man, Wulfstan wielded great power and loyalty. He was made Bishop on the recommendation of both King Edward the Confessor, and the future King Harold Godwinson. Indeed, Harold probably would not have become king if it wern’t for Wulfstan, as it was the Bishop who persuaded the Northerners to accept him. Wulfstan was later a trusted advisor to both William I and William II, regularly attending the courts of both Saxon and Norman Kings, especially at Easter, Christmas and Whitsuntide.

Indeed, it was on one of these trips that he performed his first (minor), Wycombe miracle. His retinue had stayed overnight in a decrepit Wycombe inn, reputedly on the London Road. Next morning, the building began to creak and sag alarmingly. Everyone but the Bishop ran outside. Realizing he was still indoors they shouted for him, but no one was willing to re-enter. Wulfstan stood firm and rebuked their panic and refused to leave the building until the animals had been released. As he walked out of the inn it shook violently and collapsed. The house had delayed its fall while the Bishop was still in it.

The Crypt of Worcester Cathedral, which would still be recognized by St Wulfstan
The Crypt of Worcester Cathedral, which would still be recognized by St Wulfstan

Another tale is told of the Bishop’s piety – he had a particular liking for roast goose. One day, possibly after one of his many night-long vigils and fasts, he had not had breakfast when he was called upon to say Mass. As he entered the church he passed near the kitchen and the smell of goose made his thoughts wander to his dinner. However, his conscience reproached him and he vowed before the altar that from that day onwards, he would never eat meat; he stayed a vegetarian for the rest his life – except for festivals when he ate fish.

The second, and more impressive Wycombe miracle, took place after he had consecrated a local church, often said to be All Saint’s in Wycombe, but St Botolph’s in Bradenham is more likely as it has stonework from that date and the patron of the new church, Swertlin (some texts say Swertin or Swertling) lived there. Indeed his brother, Herding, held a substantial estate there. During the dinner after the ceremony, Wulfstan was told of a maidservant who had a tumour in her head which caused her tongue to stick out and made eating difficult and chewing impossible. He had a gold bezant which was said to have been pierced by the spear of Christ (there were several reputed spears at the time, which was before the famous “discovery” of the spear which saved the first Crusade). Wulfstan dipped this bezant in water to hallow it, and sent the holy water to the maid, who was cured.

The Bishop once lodged overnight at Marlow and, as was his invariable practice, he told his servants that he was going to the church. Unfortunately, this was a considerable way along a road deep in mud – and a storm of snow and sleet was raging. One of his clerks, a man called Frewin, was keen to make Wulfstan changed his mind and led him where the mud was deepest. Wulfstan plunged in mud to his knees and lost a shoe, but he gave no indication that he realized the trick. Eventually he returned to the inn half dead with cold, gently rebuked the impudent clerk and dismissed the offence with a smile – before sending him back to find the lost shoe!

by Gerry Palmer

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