October 7 – 99 Fathers of Crete; Osgyth

The 99 Fathers of Crete (date unk.) started out as John and His Thirty-Five Companions (not a good name for a rock band, but perhaps for a swing orchestra?), who left Egypt for Cyprus to practice asceticism in exile. There they met thirty-nine other exile-seekers, bringing their total to 75. They all moved to Pamphylia, where they picked up twenty-four more exilophilic monks, bringing their total to 99. (Addition facts provided as a courtesy for our friends with liberal arts degrees.) With Christ as their leader, they figured they made a nice, round 100, and one imagines they had to keep turning down any further groups. “No, really, we’ve got enough, thanks.” To allow the Pamphylians to be exiles too (as was only fair), they moved to Crete, where they lived in two caves, except John who lived separately as a hermit. “Let’s all die on the same day,” they said, and petitioned God that this might be so.

Whether through not eating, or praying on his knees until he was stiff, John eventually couldn’t stand up straight. One day he was crawling about gathering food when a shepherd, thinking he was a sheepophagous wild beast, shot him with an arrow. He ran to find what he had felled, and was aghast to see it was a man. “Forgive me!” he cried. Of course John forgave him, blessed him, and died, almost in the same breath. The other 98 monks all died on the same day, one at a time, between the third and seventh hours. (That’s about one every 2 minutes and 26 seconds. You’re welcome.)

Osgyth (d. 700) was the daughter of the pagan King Penda of Mercia, but raised in a convent, for reasons unstated. She was married against her will to King Sighere of Essex, to whom she gave an heir. (By the usual method.) After some time she got her husband to agree to let her go back to the convent and be a nun like she’d always wanted. A generous man, Sighere didn’t just send her to the old monastery; he gave her a parcel of land in Chich, and built a new abbey just for her. Unfortunately Chich was on the Viking Raiders Sightseeing Map™, and sure enough some Vikings came by to see what they could see. As was not uncommon, they saw red, and went about killing people. They beheaded Osgyth where she stood, for instance, and a healing spring sprang up where her head hit the ground. Undaunted, her body picked up the head and walked back to the monastery with it, knocking three times at the door before falling down dead. (Liberal arts majors may be interested to know that there is a word—cephalophore—for a saint who carries his or her head after having it amputated.) The Vikings destroyed the nunnery, but left the church of Peter & Paul standing (it’s still there).

Osgyth’s body was taken away by her grieving parents to Aylesbury, but returned to Chich six years later (some of it is still there), which was just enough time for the village to be renamed St Osyth. (The missing “g” has been sought ever since. You turn your back for six years. . . .) Of course it soon became a pilgrimage destination, despite the fact that Bede* (who died a mere 35 years after Osgyth) never mentioned her. Clearly medieval pilgrims didn’t rely entirely on the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum to find destinations. The Bishop of London rebuilt the monastery in 1121, dedicating it to Peter, Paul & Osyth. (Finally, a good name for a rock group.) Nearby St Osyth’s Beach now caters to naturists, which means natural photographers can get some great shots there. Osgyth was for many years prayed to for deliverance from “fire, water, and all misadventure.”