We live in the rural north east, often called the Land of the Northern Saints. The figures of St Cuthbert, Aidan and Wilfrid, Bede, Oswald, Cedd, Chad, and of course Hilda loom large, and tourists flock to the relics at Durham Cathedral and to Lindisfarne, always known locally as Holy Island.
In this short piece however, I would like to wander from the beaten path to Finchale (pronounced Finkle) Priory, a stage of the camino ingles, on the banks of the River Wear near to Durham. There, we can reflect on the life of the lesser known St Godric, traveller, master mariner, and finally, hermit.
The ruins of Finchale Priory stand on impressive, wooded slopes at a wide point of the river, and when we visited, was set against a deep blue sky quite without clouds. The Priory was founded in 1196 and for much of its existence before the suppression served as a holiday house for the Benedictine Abbey at Durham. It was built on the site of St Godric’s hermitage which was a mile or so up- river, hidden, we are told by his contemporary biographer Reginald of Durham, by thorns and undergrowth.
Godric was born in Norfolk in 1065 to humble but virtuous parents, a year before the Conquest. As a young man he was a sailor and travelled widely as a merchant seaman for many years. It is reported that on one of his voyages, he visited Holy Island where the spirit of St Cuthbert led him to change his life and to henceforward devote himself to God. He made several pilgrimages in the Mediterranean, including to Santiago de Compostela, until he came back to England, when he lived for two years with a hermit called Aelric . After Aelric’s death, Godric travelled once more to Jerusalem on pilgrimage. On his return from this last adventure, he committed himself to the rigours of the hermit life, having been granted a place for a hermitage by Ranulphus Flambard, Bishop of Durham. He lived there for sixty years, reportedly on a diet of wild honey, crab apples and nuts, and sleeping on the earth. His hardships were extraordinary. In about 1138, he was beaten and robbed by Scottish marauders.
Yet we read that his hut became a refuge for creatures seeking protection and shelter, and people came to visit him to ask for counsel and advice. He was held in great reverence by the local peasants. As well as humble seekers, Thomas Beckett, Aelred of Rielvaux and even Pope Alexander III visited him to ask for his advice. Godric was said to have premonitions and visions of far distant events.
Given the exaggeration traditional in such an account, a picture emerges from Reginald’s pages of a powerful man of remarkable physical endurance and spiritual attainment. Even on a pleasant early autumn day, the awesome sight of the chilly River Wear and the towering trees clothing the steep banks, inspire the warmly clothed and well lunched visitor with a sense of the tenacity of purpose, faith and conviction of this extraordinary man. He wrote hymns too, leaving us the oldest hymns in the language which survive with their music. Reginald of Durham tells us that Godric learnt the first song in a vision in which the Virgin Mary appeared to him, flanked by ‘two maidens of surpassing beauty clad in shining white raiment.’ A basic search on the internet allows the hymns to be heard in their simple beauty.
We can reflect on the richness of his experience of his long life, which is almost divided into two segments; the adventurer and skilled mariner who had visited so much of the world, seen such sights and had so much experience of places and people, and then the hermit devoted to God and living in a small hut in a wild and lonely place, wrapped in prayer and meditation and yet finding time to share his wisdom and compassion with others and composing his hymns of praise.
Although, like many medieval saints, Godric was never formally canonised, his legacy in the area is still strong. A local church and school are dedicated to him. On his death on May 21st 1170 at the age of 105, on a day of spring sunshine, Godric was afforded the funeral rites of a Benedictine monk, his body laid in a tomb beneath his chapel. And some twenty- five years after his death, Finchale Priory was founded on the site of his grave.
Today, his burial place is marked by a cross in the grass.
Oblate of Stanbrook