Posted by: anna | December 16, 2009

St Birinus

Icon of St Birinus by the hand of Sergei Fyodoroff – Winchester Cathedral. Icon image taken from the Western Saints Icons project. Today we commemorate St Birinus, Bishop of Dorchester and apostle of Wessex.

From Baring-Gould:

S. BIRINUS, B. OF DORCHESTER. (a.d. 650.) [Roman Martyrology. Hereford Kalendar, not that of Sarum. Authorities: Bede, H. E. iii. 7; Roger of Wendover, Florence of Worcester, Henry of Huntingdon, &c] Birinus, monk of S. Andrew’s monastery in Rome, a child of illustrious parents, though apparently not of Roman but of Teutonic race (Birinus is probably Bjorn or Baerin or Berin, a compound expressive of Bear in some form, High or Low German), came to England at the instigation of Pope Honorius, though probably as the result of his own convictions, for he declared to thfc Pope that he “would sow the seed of the holy faith in the inner parts beyond the dominions of the English, where no other teacher had been before him.” He received episcopal consecration from Asterius, bishop of Genoa. A story, not told by Bede, but by later historians, who incorporated legend in their records, with slightly differing details, is that Birinus, having celebrated the holy sacrifice before going on board ship, left behind him his corporal, which was the gift of Honorius. When he remembered it, the ship was already out at sea ; in his sorrow, Birinus threw himself overboard and made for shore, recovered the corporal, and returned over the water to the ship, which remained stationary in spite of an off-shore wind. When the heathen mariners saw that his garments were not wet, they were amazed, and eagerly desired baptism. The ship was driven by the wind and weather to the coast of the Gewisse, or West Saxons, where he landed, 634. The voyage was represented in a window at the abbey church of Dorchester, but nothing remains of it but a few fragments of painted glass. Finding that all the inhabitants were pagans, he determined to preach the word of God there, before proceeding further.

Next year he was at the court of Cynegils, king of Wessex ; Oswald, the saintly king of Northumbria, was also there, having come to demand of Cynegils the hand of his daughter Cuneberga in marriage. Cynegils was baptized in the presence of Oswald, who stood sponsor to him, and, as Bede says, “by an alliance most pleasing and acceptable to God, first adopted him, thus regenerated, as his son, and then took his daughter in marriage.” The union, according to later Roman usage, would have been regarded as incestuous, and demanded a special and expensive dispensation. The baptism is supposed to be represented on the font in Winchester Cathedral, and Robert of Gloucester thus recounts it in his Chronicle :
“Saint Birin the bishop, a holy man was,
That into this land, through the pope Honorius, sent was
To turn king of Westsex, Kingils, to Christendom
And that land of Westsex, and to this land he come.
S. Birin him to Christendom turnde through Gode’s grace
And as God wolde, S. Oswald was in thulke place ;
And of holy font stone this great king did nome
And his Godfader was, in his Christendom.
S. Oswald and this other king, through our Lourde’s grace
Provided S. Birin to his will, a place
That Dorchester is called, that beside Oxenford is,
As in the east south, and seven mile I wis.”

While Oswald remained with Cynegils, they consulted together concerning the establishment of a bishop’s see, and as the kingdom of Mercia was without a bishop, Dorchester near Oxford was fixed upon as being convenient for the two kingdoms. The jurisdiction of the bishop extended therefore over the modern dioceses of Winchester, Lichfield, Worcester, Hereford, Bath and Wells, Salisbury, Lincoln, Ely, Oxford, Gloucester and Bristol, Exeter, Peterborough, and Chester. This arrangement was evidently but a temporary one, for Cynegils began to rebuild the cathedral at Winchester, but died before it was completed, in the thirty-first year of his reign, having enjoyed the happiness of a long-extended peace. His remains are placed with those of King Ethelwulf in a mortuary chest in Winchester Cathedral, on the screen on the north side of the sanctuary. After the death of Cynegils, his son Kenwalch succeeded. ” He refused to embrace the mysteries of the faith, divorced his wife, the sister of Penda of Mercia, and married another.” This proceeding called down on^him the wrath of the redoubtable Penda, who attacked, defeated, and drove him from Wessex. For three years he took refuge with Anna, the Christian king of the East Angles, and there, considering the political necessity of the case, or growing tired at once of the new wife and of the position of a dethroned king, he returned to the embraces of Penda’s daughter and the Christian Church. He wd baptized by Bishop Felix, of East Anglia, in 646. He was then restored to his kingdom. He set to work at the completion of the church at Winchester, and it was consecrated on Christmas Day, 648. We have no record of the labours of Birinus during the time he had the spiritual charge of the kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia. History only sums up the events of his life by informing us that he planted Christianity firmly everywhere, and consecrated churches. He gave his spirit to heaven on the 3rd December, having governed his church fourteen years. He was buried at Dorchester, but his body was removed to Winchester by Bishop Hedda, and an entrance to a vault in the cathedral bears his name amongst those of others whose bones repose therein.


Holy St Birinus, pray to God for us.

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