Thursday, 8 March 2018

St Candida – a unique local saint with relics

St Candida and Holy Cross Church,
Whitchurch Canonicorum
At the village of Whitchurch Canonicorum in south west Dorset, set in a valley about a mile from the sea, is a unique English example of a local saint’s cult. It epitomizes the religious culture of the early Middle Ages and is still a place of pilgrimage.
Even the village’s name gives clues to its link to the saint: broadly translated it means the ‘white church that belongs to the canons’. However, ‘white church’ could be a play on words related to this saint whose relics are still stored in a lead lined coffin in the church’s north transept.
            The saint is known as St Whyte, St Wite, St Witta or St Candida,1 all alluding to the colour white. The church is dedicated to St Candida and Holy Cross and is the only non-urban church in England that retains the original medieval shrine and relics of the saint to which it was dedicated.2 Only Westminster Abbey’s shrine to St Edward the Confessor shares this status. How this saint’s relics survived the wholesale destruction of saints’ tombs and cults effected during the English Reformation is not known.
            Little is known about St Wite although evidence from 1900 when the tomb -marked in Latin with ‘Here rest the remains of St Wite’ - was opened for church repairs indicates that St Wite was a small woman aged around forty, probably a West Saxon who may have been killed during a Viking raid in 831 at nearby Charmouth.3
St Candida/Wite's tomb is above a foramina
The Oxford Dictionary of Saints offers three versions of the saint’s identity: A West Saxon woman; a Welsh saint whose relics were given to the church by King Athelstan (d. 939); and a monk, a martyred companion of the missionary St Boniface, whose remains were translated from Germany back to Dorset.4 Locally, there is speculation that Wite was a virgin hermit or anchoress and her hermitage was close to the current site of the church, which was built on the site of a previous church in the late twelfth century.5
The site is recorded as being given by King Alfred (d. 899) to his youngest son Ethelwald in 881 with the Anglo-Saxon name of Hwitancircian (Whitechurch) which indicates that it was already established as a place of worship.
Although Whyte or Wite was the church’s original dedication, it changed to Candida, occasionally varied with White, sometime between 1200 and the early sixteenth century. During the fifteenth century, the dedication of Holy Cross was added.6
            No Vitae (Life) was written about St Wite or has survived, but her relics are mentioned in much later writings of William Worcester (fifteenth century) and the Jesuit John Gerard (sixteenth century)7 indicating that the cult continued long after her death.
Locally, the church became known as the ‘Cathedral of the (Marshwood) Vale’. Pilgrims travelled to Whitchurch by tracks and paths to visit the Purbeck marble-topped tomb placed on a stone base (foramina) with three oval openings into which afflicted body parts were inserted for healing.8
These pious visitors made an important contribution to the local economy and sustained a nearby hostelry, the Shave Cross Inn built in the fourteenth century. After leaving the shrine, pilgrims could travel to the saint’s well at nearby Morcombelake which reputedly cured eye conditions. In late 2017, this author found that pilgrims still visit the tomb to place messages of hope, thanks and prayer into the oval openings, thus continuing a tradition that has lasted a millennium.
Pilgrim's messages in
            The cult of St Wite/Candida was just one of several hundred, possibly as many as one thousand, saints’ cults to be found in England from the seventh century onwards to the early Tudor period of the sixteenth century. It is an exceptional example of a local cult that would probably have been erased by the English Reformation which obliterated all others except that of the monarchs’ preferred cult of St Edward the Confessor whose shrine area became the royal mausoleum from Henry III onwards.9
It was one of several cults that existed in the south and south-west of England including St Aldhelm (Malmesbury), St Birinus (Dorchester/Winchester), SS Grimbald, Hedde and Swithun (Winchester), St Edward the Martyr (Shaftesbury), St Piran (Cornwall), St Sidwell (Exeter), St Petrock (Bodmin), St Cuthburga (Wimborne), St Edith (Wilton), St Melor (Amesbury), SS Augustine and Dunstan (Canterbury).
            The Dorset cult shared characteristics with the other cults. Pilgrims came to the saint’s tomb to seek intercession with God, both by prayer and physically touching the tomb. Physical access to the tomb was common, unlike modern times. Pilgrimage was an important aspect of religious practices as well as being economically beneficial to the church and its surrounding community.
It is highly probable that the saint’s feast day of 1 June was included in the regional church calendar of festivals and commemoration, and that prayers and liturgy had regular reference to St Whyte/Candida. However, unlike many other saints, there does not appear to have been any hagiographic Vitae written. This may be the reason that there are so many stories about who the saint may have been. Even the gender of Whyte/Candida is still under question, although it seems highly likely from the evidence of the tomb that the saint was female.

1.      Farmer, David Hugh. Oxford Dictionary of Saints. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, 447.
2.     Ibid.
3.     Syer, S. G. The Cathedral of the Vale, revised edition. Bridport: Creeds the Printers, 2005, 21.
4.     Farmer, op.cit., 447.
5.     Syer, op. cit., 21
6.     Ibid., 5
7.     Farmer, op. cit., 447.
8.     Syer, op. cit., 21.
9.     Tavinor, Michael. Shrines of the Saints in England and Wales. Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2016, 25.