St. Botolph and Æpslea

I keep stumbling across Anglo-Saxons. Last week I discovered Peace Meadow. This week’s wanderings took me to the Bedfordshire village of Aspley Guise where I discovered an Anglo-Saxon saint. After a good start we got totally lost in the woods (mud! mud! glorious mud!). The walk was rather longer than it should have been, but it was a glorious winter morning, so not too much of a hardship. When we found ourselves again we ended up at the Church of St. Botolph.

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Who was St. Botolph, I wondered? I have seen the dedication before, but had no idea where it came from. Thanks to Google I now know that he was a 7th century East Anglian saint, who founded a monastery near Aldeburgh in Suffolk. He died in 680 but his monastery survived until it was destroyed by Danes in 870. His relics were then divided between Ely, Thorney, and Westminster Abbey. Churches dedicated to St. Botulph were built at the four gates of the City of London, Aldersgate, Bishopsgate, Aldgate and Billingsgate. Three of these survive, but Billingsgate was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. St. Botulph, whose remains wandered about the country, became known as the patron saint of wayfarers and travellers.

St. Botolph’s church itself is largely Victorian, thanks to over enthusiastic restoration and rebuilding work, although there has certainly been a church on the site since at least the late 12th century. Aspley itself first appears very much earlier in an charter of the Anglo-Saxon King Edgar dated 969, in which he grants 15 hides in “Æpslea” to his thegn Alfwold with dire threats of hell fire to anyone who might try to hinder the gift. As translated by George Herbert Fowler this reads:

“In the name of our Lord Jesu Christ. Every generous gift of kings should be strengthened by the witness of writings, lest after-ages, from ignorance, fall unhappily into a distraught error. Wherefore I, Eadgar, by permission of divine grace King and Chief of all Albion, grant to my faithful servant called Alfwold by name known to the learned of this island, and to his heirs for ever, a certain piece of land, to wit [the land of] fifteen husbandmen in the place which by the vulgar is called Æpslea; so that he, while life be with him, may hold it as he wish wit hall that is useful – to wit, fields, pastures and woods – and after the term of his life may leave it freely to whatever heirs he will. But be it aforesaid that the land is free from all burthen of land service, three things excepted – to wit, warfaring, and the repair of bridge and castle. If therefore any one wish to change our gift to something else than we have settled, may he be cut off from the fellowship of Holy Church, and be wretchedly punished by the everlasting flames of the pit, along with Judas the betrayer of Christ and his accomplices, unless he shall have made good his fault against our decree by fitting amends. The land aforesaid is bounded by these marks from place to place”.

The charter then goes on describe the boundaries of the land in detail, in terms which are a miniature natural history of the 10th century parish: “thence on to the white moor, and afterwards by a fen to the chief field, up to the little knoll; thence to the apple tree where three land boundaries meet” … “from the deer-gate over the heath to the combe” … “from the maple tree on to the long corner, always by the High Wood to the tall thorn tree”. It is extraordinary that a single document can paint such a vivid picture of the landscape as it was over 1000 years ago. Unfortunately given that I could not follow even a modern set of directions without going astray – although I would normally consider myself to have a reasonably good sense of direction! – I wouldn’t fancy my chances of managing to walk the bounds of Anglo-Saxon Æpslea even if the apple and maple trees were not long gone. [You can find the full text of the charter here]

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