June 17 – Botolph

Botolph (ca. 610–ca. 680), of East Anglian noble stock, traveled with his brother Adulph to Gaul, where with the (subsequently sainted) sisters of King Ethelmund of East Anglia, they learned monasticism. After a time, Botolph was tonsured a Benedictine monk and sent back to England to establish a monastery. He went to the East Anglian king (either Ethelmund, Anna, Ethelhere, or Ethelwold) and asked for a parcel of land. He turned down a chunk of the royal estates, saying, “Give me something nobody already owns; I’d hate to be a bother.” So he got a chunk of swamp in the Fens, probably on a (then-) island—now a hill called “the Anchorage”—near modern Iken.

There he was attacked by demons, who sought to drive him off with tumult, threats, horrible apparitions, and genetically modified sphagnum. Using prayer and his trusty cross, he drove them away, and established his monastery, Ikenhoe. Within seven years, he had gathered a community of monks who filled in some swampland, planted crops, and prayed a lot (as is their wont). When not abboting, Botolph worked as a traveling missionary in lower East Anglia and nearby kingdoms. He served for a time as spiritual director to (St.) Ceolfrid, later teacher and ward to the young (albeit not yet Venerable) Bede*. Ceolfrid refers to Botolph as a man of “remarkable life and learning” who was “filled with the grace of spirit,” and we have no record of anyone ever putting one over on ol’ Ceol.

Botolph spent his last days suffering from a nasty but unnamed illness, although he died at peace. The monastery was destroyed by the Danes (I could not find a date). A large Saxon cross was discovered there in 1977, however, carved with dog and wolf heads, his traditional emblems—so put away your doubt it’s the right place.

He was widely popular throughout England throughout the Middle Ages. The city of Boston, in Lincolnshire (some 100 miles north of Iken on the A17), takes its name from either “Botolph’s Town” or “Botolph’s Stone,” and was for some time thought to be the location of Ikenhoe (despite the name). St. Botolph’s Church in Boston is the largest parish church in all of England, and its tower, “the Boston Stump,” is, at 272 feet, the fourteenth tallest tower in that fair country (as of this writing). In all there are between 64 and 71 churches named after him in England alone, including not three, not five, but four parishes in London, namely at Billingsgate, Aldersgate, Aldgate, and “without” Bishopsgate (land prices inside the walls near Bishopsgate perhaps being prohibitive). These (churches, not gates) may have been named because they were associated with travelers, of whom Botolph is the patron, or because as some sources have it his bones rested there on their journeys to their final destinations.

And what journeys those bones had. He was first interred at Ikenhoe, then transferred by Edgar I to Burgh in 970, then to Bury St Edmunds by Cnut some 50 years later. Legend has it that during one of these removals the entourage came to a stream barring their way, but the night was too dark to risk a crossing. Suddenly a shaft of light from heaven (which was not the moon, mind), shone out, and they crossed in safety. St Botolphs Bridge, in West Hythe, commemorates this event.

Botolph (along with his brother) finally came to rest at Thorney Abbey (no date), where most of him remains. His head, however, went to Ely Cathedral, and other bits of him went to Westminster Abbey “and other houses.”

In addition to travelers, he is the patron of “the various aspects of farming,” although whether separately or collectively, I was unable to determine. He also watches over a number of towns in England, one in the United States (can you guess which?), and two bridges.