In 1658, an anonymous scribe made a copy of ‘an ancient triptych’, which concerned the life of the tenth-century St Walstan. This copy once belonged to the Norfolk parish church of Bawburgh, the traditional birth and burial site of the saint. The original medieval triptych is lost, but the copy is written in English and now filed as Item 8 of Lambeth MSS 935 in Lambeth Palace library. Known as the Lambeth Life, it is one of only two primary sources for the thousand year old legend, but has a unique secondary importance in that Walstan is declared to have been born in ‘Blyborow town’, rather than Bawburgh, Norfolk.
Until 1754, when Thomas Gardner published an historical account of Dunwich, Blithburgh and Southwold, the matter of St Walstan's birthplace being named as Blyborow (taken to be Blythburgh) had, for the most part, no other documentary support. His following continued to flourish in Norfolk, where the majority of representations or icons are to be found and where he is still celebrated as Patron Saint of Agriculture and Farm Workers.
Over the centuries, few if any Suffolk chroniclers included St Walstan in their deliberations, and it was only in 1917 that M.R. James idly suggested that the Lambeth Life was ‘... certainly better here in saying that [Walstan] was born at Blythburgh in Suffolk’. He gave no evidence that he had researched the matter, or that he had seen Gardner's account.
No historical connection can be made between the Lambeth Life and Thomas Gardner, but it is nevertheless interesting that in his account Gardner writes of St Andrew’s Walberswick: ‘The windows of St Christopher and St Wolstane seem to have been taken from this [the old church] and set up in the latter church, where all the Images, with the Tables of Saint George and King Harry, accompanied them.’ Gardner also gives an extract from the churchwarden’s receipts for 1487, where an amount of 8s. 4d. is paid ‘for mendying Seynt Krysteferys Wyndown’ while a lesser sum of 9d. is ‘for mendying Seynt Walsteneys Wyndown’.
If ‘Wolstane’ and ‘Walsteney’ are accepted as ‘Walstan’ (and further discussion would indicate this to be the case), a better explanation needs to be sought for why ‘Blyborow’ should have been named as his birthplace in the Lambeth Life. The Walberswick dedication adds nothing to the claim that St Walstan was born in Blythburgh, and the reference has been largely ignored by Suffolk historians. It is clear, though, that if the Walberswick window was moved from the old (marsh) church, it predated 1487 and thus heightens the importance of Walstan's inclusion at such a site.
A number of other Suffolk pre–Reformation icons or references have now been identified at Bury St Edmunds, Cavenham, Earl Stonham and possibly Ashby. There is also one other possible clue that might link St Walstan with the ancient See of Dunwich and the royal household of King Anna. In both the Lambeth Life, and the earlier Latin Life (first published in 1516 by Wynkyne de Worde and later by Butler as one of his ‘Lives’), Walstan is ‘royal’ by implication: he was ‘a Kings sonne’ (Lambeth Life) and of ‘distinguished royal stock’ (Latin Life). Furthermore, in the Lambeth Life his mother is named as Blythe and, in subsequent accounts, imbued additionally with sainthood. Can this Saint, or Queen, Blythe (or Blida) be linked to Blythburgh and Anna, King of the East Angles’.
Walstan’s father is named Benedict, and while we find no King Benedict at Blythburgh, due consideration should be given to why (a) his mother was named Blythe, with its obvious match with the name Blythburgh and the Blyth valley, and (b) why Blyborow Town appears in The Lambeth Life.
Rev. Alban Butler, The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Other principal Saints (Various editions);
M.R. James, ‘Lives of St Walstan’, Proceedings of the Norfolk and Norwich Archaeological Society, 19 (1917);
Miriam Gill, ‘The Saint with a Scythe’, Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History, 38 (1995);
Thomas Gardner, An Historical Account of Dunwich, Blithburgh, Southwold with remarks on some places continuous thereto (1754);
Carol Twinch, In Search of St Walstan (Norwich, 1995);
Merle Tidey, In and Around the Village of Walberswick (1987);
Tony Norton A Blyth Valley Saint (Blyth Valley ‘Team Times’, July 1999).
Carol Twinch, Rendham, March 2000
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