10 May 2021

Church Dedications

This is a subject which has aroused some interest. I here repeat a piece I first published November 12. 2019

 People often assume that when the Anglicans describe an ancient parish church as 'dedicated to Saint X', they are giving accurate information. Sadly, this is very often not the case.

I draw attention to English Church Dedications by Nicholas Orme (Exeter, 1996). Orme regretfully pointed out that the work of Frances Arnold-Foster, on whose reliability many (including Bishop Kirk) had based their conclusions, was to all intents and purposes useless as far as medieval evidence is concerned, since she provided what, in 1899, were then regarded as the dedications of English churches and did little or no research. Later writers were hardly better. In fact, Orme's research in medieval sources demonstrated that a very high percentage of such dedications was invented by Georgian antiquaries or Victorian High Churchmen. Earlier writers were unaware of this, and equally unaware that so great were the discontinuities of the English Reformation that pretty well everywhere the dedications were forgotten very soon after the sixteenth century ruptures. Exceptions occurred in towns, where a plurality of churches meant that people had to retain some way of distinguishing each one from the others; and where, in the countryside, two villages needed to distinguish themselves (Snoring S Cosmas; Snoring S Damian).

Thus, in Devon, I had seven village churches. Of these seven, one retained the dedication it can be shown to have had in the Middle Ages. One is now known to have been dedicated to S Andrew, but was attributed in 1742 to S Mary, probably on the ground that the parish fair happened close to February 2. The other five churches have completely lost their original dedications, and the ones they now enjoy are post-medieval conjectures.

That Andrew dedication is interesting. Saxon and Norman bishops, when they went round consecrating unconsecrated churches (a lot of this happened in the twelfth century), worked from books descended lineally from those brought here in the Saxon period, and were marked with a preference for the Saint to whom S Gregory and the Augustinian Mission had been so devoted. (It was of course Pope Gregory who added S Andrew to the Libera nos.)

So the comparative popularity of S Andrew is yet another indication of the profound Romanita of Saxon England.


Anybody with an academic interest in the assertions I make in my penultimate paragraph will find the evidence in the (fairly) new HBS edition of Leofric.


Joshua said...

Out of curiosity, what percentage of original dedications have been rediscovered from historical research into pre-Reformation diocesan records and suchlike?

Oliver Nicholson said...

One of the other interesting observations of Professor Orme is that Victorian antiquarians all too readily assumed that dedications to S. Thomas Becket were suppressed at the Reformation, so that (e.g. at Bovey Tracey) it was "restored" by them where it had never been before - often on the basis of the parish revel being near the feast of his translation.
Most entertaining is his indication that the dedication of Bradnich church to a non-existent S. Disen is actually a metathesis of the mediaeval dedication to S. Denis (he of Paris) - indignant local folk have dug up an obscure S. Disenburga to justify S. Disen, but the written evidence is against them.
I guess a church may be dedicated to whoever one wishes - N. Orme also shows how even in the Middle Ages local saints got squeezed out by apostles and suchlike Big Names in Heaven (though the dedication of Washfield church to Our Lady is mediaeval - despite Orme's doubts).

Colin Spinks said...

Dear Father,

Apart from whether one gives the correct Saint, is it strictly accurate to describe a church as "dedicated to x"? If so what exactly does this mean, and how is this different or not from "under the patronage of x"?

Chris said...

Even in towns things could go astray - as I understand it, there is no evidence as to whether the (lost) church of St John in the city of Exeter was dedicated to the Baptist or the Evangelist.

Elsewhere, from your comment about villages, I would love to know on what evidence the church in Burgh St Peter, Norfolk, was attributed to St Mary.

Michael Ortiz said...

Fascinating thoughts, Father. Of course, papal apologist Austen Ivereigh says the signers have a neurotic fear of modernity! Rex Mottram call your office!

Fr John Hunwicke said...

In my most honest moments I might admit to having a neurotic fear of Austin Ivoreigh.

Simon Cotton said...

Re Chris's question, memory says that the present dedication at Burgh S. Peter to S. Mary was due to a Victorian incumbent. In Norfolk and Suffolk thousands of mediaeval wills survive, and it is usually possible to establish the correct mediaeval dedication of a church from them. Francis Blomefield, the great 18th c. Norfolk historian gives the dedication as Saint Peter. Re Cosmas and Damian, they usually stayed together as a joint dedication, as at Stretford in Herefordshire.

Farmer's boy said...

I meant to respond to this earlier. The Anglican parish church in East Devon where I reside is dedicated to St Mary. As a pre-Reformation bell in the tower bears an inscription to Our Lady this is an almost certain indication that the dedication is also pre-Reformation. Invariably a bell would have a patronal invocation.