Meeting a saint in West Dorset
A Traveller's Tale by Carol Buxton
A statue on the church tower shows a woman holding a flaming torch. All images: © Carol Buxton
On the northern edge of the village of Whitchurch Canonicorum, in the Marshwood Vale, Dorset, lies the Church of St Candida and Holy Cross. It is remarkable in that it houses the only shrine in a parish church in England to have survived the iconoclasm of the Reformation with its relics intact. The only other shrine is that of Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abby. The saint here is the somewhat obscure Saint Wite (Latinised as ‘Candida’), after whom the church is named.
Relics confirm the deep yearning of generations of Christians for a visible and tangible remnant of the holy men and women who acted as God’s agents. In the Middle Ages not only clerics, but royalty, aristocrats, and the common people sought to be close to the bones or belongings of dead saints, which were invested with numinous power. To the faithful, interaction with relics was a desirable component of a meaningful spiritual experience. Over time they became commodities that were exchanged, traded, forged, reproduced, and stolen.
Exterior of the church of of St Candida and Holy Cross
Nothing is known of Saint Wite from historical records. The parish history tells us that local tradition identifies her as an Anglo Saxon holy woman who lived as a hermit on the cliffs above Charmouth, two miles away, possibly lighting beacons to guide sailors. A statue on the church tower shows a woman holding a flaming torch.
With few exceptions there was no absolute definition of a saint in the Anglo Saxon era. It wasn’t until the twelfth century that the popes took control of the process of canonization. Evidence of posthumous miracles, or of an exceptionally virtuous life, were sufficient indicators to be considered a saint. Saint Wite may have been killed by Danish pirates, who are known to have raided the coast here in the ninth century. The fourteenth century church tower has a carved stone set into it which shows a Viking longship and a Viking axe.
The Viking longship and axe carved into the church tower
It was believed that through a saint’s miraculous agency one could supplicate God and be confident that He would listen. The power of the saints to effect protection worked best if they were bodily present as relics, each particle encapsulating the essence of the deceased holy person in its entirety. The early cult of saints believed that the saint’s soul lived simultaneously in heaven and in the tomb.
If there had been a cult surrounding Saint Wite in Saxon times it fell into obscurity during the following centuries, but was reinvigorated in the early thirteenth, when the shrine containing her relics was erected in the church. The chronicler William of Worcester, and John Gerard (in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries) both mentioned Saint Wite’s relics, while Thomas More referred to the custom of offering her cakes and cheese on her feast day, 1st June.
The first mention of a church here was in 881 CE, when Alfred the Great built and bequeathed Hwitan Cyrcian, ‘white church’ to his youngest son Æthelweard. Nothing remains of that structure, but rebuilding was begun by Benedictine monks in 1190, when ownership was given to St Wandrille's monastery in Normandy, France, following the Norman Conquest. The earliest parts of the church date from this time.
In 1190 it was granted to the Bishop of Sarum, later called Salisbury. A century later it was handed over to Robert de Mandeville, Lord of Marshwood Vale, who made extensive renovations and Saint Wite’s shrine was built into the north wall inside the church. By the early fifteenth century the parish had become one of the largest in England. The shrine would have been a huge attraction for pilgrims, and as a result, a major source of revenue.
The shrine of Saint Wite in the church of of St Candida and Holy Cross, Whitchurch Canonicorum, in the Marshwood Vale, Dorset. It is one of only two that remain in the country today
From the thirteenth century the norm was for saintly reliquaries to be raised on bases, as is the case here. A Portland stone coffin, topped with a Purbeck marble slab, rests on a stone base, which has three almond-shaped apertures into which pilgrims placed diseased limbs for healing, or articles belonging to the sick. These expensive materials contrast markedly with the local rubble and Ham stone from which the exterior of the church is made.
In 1900, refurbishment of the church walls dislocated the shrine, re-opening an ancient fracture in the stone coffin. One end was removed to repair it, revealing a lead casket. This too was removed and found to contain the remains of a small woman, who had died aged about 40. The words ‘HIC-REQUECT-RLIQE-SCE-WITE’ (‘Here rest the remains of St Wite’) were inscribed on the lid. Everything was repaired and reassembled and Saint Wite continues to lie in peace in the church.
In his address to the twentieth World Youth Day in 2005, Pope Benedict XVI reminds us that:
‘By inviting us to venerate the mortal remains of the martyrs and saints, the Church
does not forget that, in the end, these are indeed just human bones that belonged
to individuals touched by the living power of God. The relics of the saints are traces
of that invisible but real presence which sheds light upon the shadows of the world
and reveals the kingdom of heaven in our midst.’
Saint Wite’s legend lives on. Prayers and supplications continue to be left on the shrine, although none are currently allowed in accordance with Covid-19 protocol. In 2008 her cross was adopted as the county’s flag, a white cross, bordered in red, with a yellow background. It is officially registered with the Flag Institute as The Dorset Cross.