A Legend of St. Bettelin

Hermit, and Patron of Stafford, towards A.D. 800

{64} BRIGHT luminaries in the heavens, which guide the traveller across the desert, are found, when viewed through a glass, to be double stars, not single, though each seems to be one. Suns which reign separately in their separate systems, far apart from each other, mingle their rays, as we see them, and blend their colours, and are called by one name. They are confused, yet they are used by the wayfaring man, who is not hurt by his mistake.

So it is with the beacon light which the seaman dimly discerns from afar. It has no definite outline, and occupies no distinct spot in the horizon; it cannot be located amid the haze and gloom, but it gives him direction and confidence.

So is it with his landmarks by day; one, two, three high trees are set on a hill—nay, when close, we can count a dozen, yet in the distance they look like one, nor can we persuade ourselves that they are many. What matters it to those who are tossing at sea so long as they remind them of the green home which they are approaching, and shape their course towards it? {65}

And so with the herbs of the field. We call them simples, and we use them in medicine as such, and they do certainly put disease and pain to flight. Yet they are compounded of many elements, and some of these, not the whole plant, is the true restorative. Often we do not know that this is the case; but, even when we do, we are not nearer to the knowledge of what the healing element is, or how it may be detached and used separately. We cannot extract the true virtue of the medicine from the impure drug, and we think it better to administer it in combination with other elements which may be useless, or even inconvenient, than to wait till we can duly analyse it.

And to take a more sacred instance, and more closely connected with the subject to which these remarks are tending. It has before now happened that profane or fanatical violence has broken in upon the relics of the Saints, and scattered them over land and water, or mixed them with the dust of the earth, or even with the mouldering bones of common men, nay of heretics and sinners. Yet could it not destroy the virtue of the relics; it did but disperse and conceal them. They did more, they were seen less. What says St. Basil about the Forty Martyrs who were burned, and whose relics were cast into the river, in the Licinian persecution? "These are they who have taken occupation of this our country, as a chain of fortresses, and secure her against hostile invasion, not throwing themselves upon one point, but quartered upon many homes and the ornament of many places."

And what the malice of foes has done to the {66} bodies of the Saints, the inadvertence or ignorance of friends has too often done to their memories. Through the twilight of ages—in the mist of popular credulity or enthusiasm—amid the ambitious glare of modern lights, darkening what they would illustrate—the stars of the firmament gleam feebly and fitfully; and we see a something divine, yet we cannot say what it is: we cannot say what, or where, or how it is, without uttering a mistake. There is no room for the exercise of reason—we are in the region of faith. We must believe and act where we cannot discriminate; we must be content to take the history as sacred on the whole, and leave the verification of particulars as unnecessary for devotion, and for criticism impossible.

This applies of course in no small degree to the miraculous incidents which occur in the history of the Saints. "Since what is extraordinary," says Bollandus, "usually strikes the mind and is impressed on the memory in an especial way, it follows that writers about the Saints at times have been able to collect together nothing but their miracles, their virtues and other heavenly endowments being altogether forgotten; and these miracles, often so exaggerated or deformed (as the way of men is) with various adjuncts and circumstances, that by some persons they are considered as nothing short of old women's tales. Often the same miracles are given to various persons; and though God's unbounded goodness and power certainly need not refuse the Saint the same favour which He has already bestowed upon that (for He applies the same chastisements and punishments to the {67} sins of various persons), yet what happened to one has often in matter of fact been attributed to others, first by word of mouth, then in writing, through fault of the faculty of memory, which is but feeble and easily confused in the case of the many; so that when inquiries are made about a Saint, they attribute to him what they remember to have heard at some time of another, especially since the mind is less retentive of names than of things. In this way, then, while various writers at one and the same time have gone by popular fame, because there were no other means of information, it has come to pass that a story has been introduced into the history of various Saints which really belongs to one only, and to him perhaps not in the manner in which it is reported.

"Moreover it often happens that, without denying that a certain miracle may have occurred, yet the occasion and mode of its occurrence, as reported, may reasonably create a doubt whether this particular condescension, be it to man's necessity or his desire, became the majesty of the Eternal. At the same time, since His goodness is wonderful, and we are not able to measure either the good things which He has prepared in heaven for the holy souls He loves, or the extent of His favours towards them on earth, such narratives are not to be rejected at hazard, though they seem to us incredible; but rather to be reverently received, in that they profess to issue from that Fountain of Divine goodness, from which all our happiness must be derived. Suppose the very things were not done; yet greater things might have been done, {68} and have been done at other times. Beware, then, of denying them on the ground that they could not or ought not to have been done."

These remarks apply among others to St. Bettelin, whose brief history is now to be given, though miracles are not its characteristic. He is the patron of the town of Stafford, where he was once held in great honour; but little certain is known of him, down to his very name. Various writers speak of Bettelin, Beccelin, Barthelm, Bertelin; whether he owned all these at once, or whether but some of them, whether a portion of his history belongs to another person, or whether it is altogether fabulous, is not known. A life of him has come down to us which is attributed to Alexander, a Prior of Canons Regular of St. Augustine, in the beginning of the thirteenth century; but though this Prior is well spoken of, little credit can be placed in the letter of its statements. Two other writers, Ingulphus and Felix, contain incidental mention of him, which is more trustworthy. We will put these notices together, under the guidance of the learned Suyskin, the Bollandist.

Bettelin was a disciple of St. Guthlake's, in the eighth century, and one of four who followed him in a hermit's life, in the island of Croyland, on the southern border of Lincolnshire. Cissa had been a pagan, of noble blood and great in the world, but had left all to follow Christ and St. Guthlake, and succeeded him as Abbot. Till the Danes came, he lay in a high marble tomb, on the right of his spiritual father in the Abbey of Croyland. Egbert was more in St. Guthlake's confidence than any of {69} his brethren; he may have been his confessor. Tatwin had formerly been ferryman at the passage from the mainland to the Island. These, with Bettelin, who made the fourth, and came nearer the Saint's person than the rest, lived in separate cottages, close to Guthlake's oratory and under his guidance. All this we learn from Ingulphus, himself Abbot of Croyland, towards the end of the eleventh century.

Something of a painful and a guilty nature hangs over the first years of Bettelin; legend and history agree in testifying as much as this. It is sometimes said that no story is without foundation; and at any rate this maxim is so often true as to make it fair in a particular case to be biassed primā facie by such reports as are in circulation, though in details or in the letter they may be simply untrue. Thus an alleged fact against a man's character may be clearly disproved, and yet may be the spontaneous result of a general and prevalent impression founded on real facts. A statesman may in his day be popularly considered timid, when he is but prudent, or crafty, when he is but far-seeing; or a monarch indulgent and paternal, though he is weak; or a commander cruel and relentless, because he is stern in manner and determined in purpose. Here is a basis of truth and a superstructure of error. A rumour is spread that political parties are breaking up, or that some illustrious person is estranged, or that some foreign influence is at work in high places. It may be formally and totally and truly contradicted; it may be possible to explain it, to show how it originated, to refer it to the malice or {70} the impertinence of this or that individual; and yet, though not a truth, it may be the shadow of a truth, unsubstantial, yet attached to it, the exponent of facts which discover themselves in the event. And in like manner the author of a marvellous Life may be proved to a demonstration to be an ignorant, credulous monk, or a literary or ecclesiastical gossip; to be preaching to us his dreams, or to have saturated himself with popular absurdities; he may be cross-examined, and made to contradict himself; or his own story, as it stands, may be self-destructive; and yet he may be the index of a hidden fact, and may symbolise a history to which he does not testify.

Now as to St. Bettelin. Some cloud, it has been said, hung about his early years, which made him ever after a penitent. A wild extravagant tale is recorded by Prior Alexander. We are told how that he was a king's son, and noble in person, and a good Catholic; and how he shrunk from the license of his father's court; and how, to preserve his purity, he went over to Ireland, where he was received by a certain king or chieftain, who had a fair daughter; and how in a strange land he found the temptation, and fell beneath the sin, which had frightened him from his own. He carried off his beautiful mistress to England, and sought for shelter and concealment in the woods. A wretched childbirth followed, and a tragical issue. While the father was seeking assistance, wolves devoured mother and infant. Bettelin remained a penitent in the wild, till St. Guthlake, who was leaving Repton in Derbyshire, where he had entered into both {71} clerical and monastic orders, took him with him to Croyland.

Such is the fable; but it so happens that we seem to be able to produce in this instance the real facts of the case, of which it is but the symbol and record; and though very different from the above, yet they are so far like it, as, alas! to be even more criminal and dreadful than it. One Felix, a contemporary of St. Guthlake, wrote the life of the latter, shortly after his death, from the information of the Saint's disciples. Among these was Bettelin; from him, who was at that time living with St. Guthlake on the most familiar terms, Felix learned the account of St. Guthlake's last days upon earth. Now Felix also tells us, in an earlier passage of the Saint's life, what the crime of Bettelin was; and, as it would appear, from Bettelin's own mouth; for there was no one else to tell him. If this be so, we have both a warrant for the authenticity of the story and a great evidence of St. Bettelin's humility.

"There was a certain clerk," says Felix, "by name Beccelin, who offered himself for a servant to that great man St. Guthlake, and proposed to live to God holily under his training. Into this person's heart the evil spirit entered, and began to puff him up with the pestilential conceits of vainglory; and next, after he had thus seduced him, he proceeded to suggest to him to seize the deadly weapon and to kill the master, under whose training he had begun to live to God, with the object, after taking him off, of succeeding to his place and receiving the veneration of kings and princes. Accordingly, on a day when the aforenamed clerk had come (a he was {72} wont on the twentieth day) to shave Guthlake, the man of God, afflicted by monstrous madness, and thirsting with exceeding desire for his blood, he made up his mind to murder him.

"Then the Saint of God, Guthlake, to whom the Lord did never fail to impart a prescience of things to come, having cognizance of the guilt of this new wickedness, began to question him. 'O, my Beccelin!' he said, 'why under this carnal breast hidest thou the old enemy? Why not vomit forth these pestilential waters of bitter poison? For I know that thou art deceived by the evil spirit; wherefore confess the guilty meditations which our enemy, the accuser of the human race, has sown within you, and turn away from them.' On this Beccelin, understanding that he had been seduced by the evil spirit, cast himself at holy Guthlake's feet, acknowledging his sin with tears, and humbly asking pardon. And the man of blessed memory not only forgave him the fault, but even promised him his aid in future troubles."

Thus speaks a contemporary author who knew the parties; and it is certainly a remarkable passage in St. Guthlake's history, though that does not here concern us, that through life, up to his very deathbed, he was waited on in his bedroom by one who had all but turned the barber's razor into a weapon for his destruction. There is nothing to show that Bettelin did not continue to shave him, as before this occurrence. As to Bettelin himself, this part of his history reminds us of St. Brice, though the offence of the latter was of a far less serious die. Brice succeeded St. Martin in the see of Tours; {73} but in St. Martin's lifetime, his proud boyish spirit showed itself in a scorn and ridicule of the Saint, which approached to the sin of the children who mocked Elisha.

If Bettelin was called to a stern penitence for this great sin, his master, who was to have been the victim of the sin, became a pattern for the penitence. "Recollecting," says Prior Alexander, "that the ancient fathers went about their deserts in sheep-skins and goat-skins, not in linen or cloth, but made use of goat-skins, raw and untanned, conforming themselves also to our first parents who, on their rejection from the paradise of pleasure, received from God coats made of skins, and knowing that the kingdom of God is not meat and drink, they lived on barley bread and muddy water, with great abstinence." On St. Guthlake's death Bettelin took the news, by the Saint's previous directions, to St. Bega, Guthlake's sister.

What happened to Bettelin after that event does not clearly appear. Ingulphus says that he remained and died in Croyland; and he speaks of the marble tomb which contained his relics, as well as Cissa's, near St. Cuthbert, in the Abbey of Croyland. And this is not incompatible altogether with the legend which connects him with the town of Stafford, and which is as follows:—

Where the town now stands, the river Sow formed in those times an island which was called Bethney. Here St. Bettelin stationed himself for some years, and led a life so holy, that the place which profited by his miraculous gifts in his lifetime grew into a town under his patronage after his death. {74}

A wild, yet not unpleasing, fable is left us as a record of the Saint's history in this retreat. He had concealed his name when he took possession of the island; and on his father's death, who was king of those parts, the usurper of St. Bettelin's throne determined, without knowing who he was, and from inbred hatred, as it appears, of religion, to eject him from his island hermitage. However, perhaps the romantic narrative which is now coming will run better in rhyme; so we set off thus:—

St. Bettelin's wonted prayers are o'er
And his matins all are said,
Why kneeleth he still on his clay-cold floor
By the side of his iron bed?
Ah! well may he kneel to Christ in prayer,
For nought is around him but woe and fear;
By tomorrow's sun the Saint must roam
Far from his cell and his long-lov'd home.
But who would drive this hermit good
From his islet home and his rough old wood?
He is no man who hath sought the wild
In a wayward mood like a frolicsome child,
Who hath wander'd away from his mother's side
Deep in the merry greenwood to hide.
A golden crown he had cast away
To watch all night and to fast all day;
He was of those whom the Lord doth drive
To the weary wild with devils to strive,
For the banner'd Cross must be everywhere,
Wherever the fiend doth make his lair,
And devils trembled and angels smil'd
When the hermit knelt in the weary wild;
While the peasant arose his beads to tell
When the hermit rang his vesper bell.
But what hath the world to do with him,
That it grudgeth his home by the river's brim?
Hath it not woods and streams at will?
But so it hath been and it must be still,
Earth may be broad and its bosom wide,
But the world cannot rest with the cross by its side;
And the king hath said with a scornful smile,
"The hermit hath chosen a fair green isle,
By the river clasp'd around;
And the turf is soft round his sweet chapelle,
I warrant too he sleepeth well
To that gushing river's sound;
A Saint should not dwell in so fair a scene;
And that river sweet with its islet green,
I swear by high heaven it shall be mine
In spite of this hermit St. Betteline."
And he bade the hermit prove his right
To his islet home in a deadly fight,
And if no champion can be found
He must quit by tomorrow this holy ground.
And who is there for Christ the Lord
To don his armour and draw his sword?
And will not a knight put lance in rest
To do this hermit's poor behest?
If for Christ they will not fight,
Foul shame on England's chivalry,
Their dancing plume and armour bright
Are but summer pageantry.
But let the worldlings pass along,
A Saint in prayer is wondrous strong.
"Lord," he saith, "I do not grieve
This sweet place for aye to leave,
For if Thy love abide with me,
Barren cliff or flowery lea,
All is well that pleaseth Thee;
But for Thy glory's sake arise,
Cast down the strong, confound the wise."
He rose from his knee, and then there stole
A low sweet voice to his inmost soul,—
"Man to Saints and Angels dear,
Christ in heaven hath heard thy prayer."
Oh how that whisper deep and calm,
Dropp'd on his weary heart like balm.
Then St. Betteline rose, for the morning red
Through his lattic'd window was sweetly shed.
On the red tipp'd willow the dew-drop gloweth,
At his feet the happy river floweth,
And sweetly the lightly-passing breeze
Bendeth the wood anemones,
And all things seem'd to his heart to tell,
Thou shalt ring again thy chapel bell.
Then a man rode up to his lowly door,
One he had never seen before,
A low mean man, and his armour bright
Look'd all too large for his frame so slight;
But his eye was clear and his voice was sweet,
And it made St. Betteline's bosom beat
As he spoke, and thus his greeting ran,—
"In the name of the Holy Trinity,
Hermit, I come to fight for thee."
"Now Christ bless thee, thou little man,"
'Twas thus St. Betteline said,
And he murmur'd, as meekly he bow'd his head,
"The brightest sword may be stain'd with rust,
The horse and his rider be flung to the dust,
But in Christ alone I put my trust."
And then to the lists together they hied,
Where the king was seated in pomp and in pride,
And the courtiers cried with a merry shout,
"The hermit hath brought us a champion stout."
But, hark! through the forest a trumpet rang,
All harshly it rose with a dissonant clang;
It had a wild and unearthly tone,
It seem'd by no Christian warrior blown,
And into the lists came a giant form
On a courser as black as a gathering storm;
His vizor was clos'd, and no mortal sight
E'er saw the face of this wondrous wight,
But his red eye glow'd through that iron shroud,
As the lightning doth rend a midnight cloud;
So sable a knight and courser, I ween,
In merry England never were seen;
A paynim knight he seem'd to be,
From a Moorish country beyond the sea.
Then loud laugh'd the giant as on he came
With his armour bright and his eye of flame,
And he look'd on his rival full scornfully,
For he hardly came up to the giant's knee;
His vizor was up and it show'd to view
His fair long hair and his eye of blue
Instead of a war-horse he did bestride
A palfrey white which a girl might ride;
But on his features there gleam'd the while
That nameless grace and unearthly smile,
Stern, yet as holy virgin's faint,
Which good old monks have lov'd to paint
On the wan visage of a soldier Saint.
And his trumpet tone rung loud and clear
With a thrilling sound on the 'wilder'd ear,
And each bad man in his inmost heart,
He knew not why, gave a sudden start.
The paynim had laugh'd with a scornful sound
As he look'd for an easy prey,
And he wheel'd his gallant courser round
And address'd him to the fray.
But what hath the dwarfish warrior done?
He hath sat like a warrior carv'd in stone,
He mov'd not his head or his armed heel,
He mov'd not his hand to grasp the steel.
His long lance was pointing upwards still,
And the wind as it mov'd his banner at will
Show'd work'd on the folds an image good,
The spotless lamb and the holy rood.
But men say that his stature so dwarfish and small,
None could tell how, seem'd stately and tall,
And all at once on his foe he turn'd
A face that with hidden lustre burn'd;
Ah! what aileth thee now, thou sable knight?
Hath that trumpet tone unnerv'd thee quite
That the spear doth shake in thy hand for fear?
The courser is stopp'd in his wild career,
And the rider is rolling afar on the ground
His armour doth ring with a hollow sound,
From the bars of his vizor a voice is heard,
But no man could tell that fearful word,
'Twas the cry of a fiend in agony,
Then vanish'd from earth his steed and he;
The black knight had fallen before the glance
Of that angelic countenance.
But how hath the angel vanish'd away?
Oh! how he went no mortal could say,
But a wild shriek rung through the misty air,
And each man said to his neighbour in fear,
St. Michael hath smitten the fiend with his spear."

What makes the legend still more extravagant is, that the miracle does not seem to have answered the purpose of maintaining St. Bettelin in his insular position. For the Saint, in Plot's words, "disturbed by some that envied his happiness, removed into some desert mountainous places, where he ended his life, leaving Bethnei to others, who afterwards built it, and called it Stafford, there being a shallow place in the river hereabout that could easily be passed with the help of a staff only." Ethelfleda built Stafford, the widow of Ethelred, earl of Mercia, in 918. "Now whereabout," Plot continues, "this desert place should be that St. Bertelline went to, though histories are silent, yet I have some grounds to think that it might be about Throwley, Ilam, and Dovedale; and that this was the St. Bertram who has a well, an ash, and a tomb at Ilam."

Yet, after all, some facts are needed to account for the honour in which St. Bettelin was held at Stafford. Those facts, however, are not found in history. We know little or nothing more than that he was the patron of the town, where a Church was built under his invocation. The fame of miracles would, of course, explain an increase of devotion shown to him there, could we once trace the circumstances which first introduced his name ecclesiastically into the place. {79}

Of these miracles wrought in his Church the record of one remains, appended at a later date to the history of Prior Alexander, and its matter-of-fact tone curiously contrasts with the wild fable already related, which goes immediately before it.

"There was," says the anonymous writer, "in the town of Stafford a man named Willmot, a cook by trade. This man for many years, almost sixteen, had lost his sight, so as not to be able to go out of doors without some one to lead him. At length, after many years, he was brought to St. Bertellin's Church in the same town, for the purpose of recovery; and while he knelt in prayer before the altar of St. Bertellin, and the priest, whose name was John Chrostias, offered up the Eucharist in the mass to the Supreme Father, the aforementioned blind man regained his sight, and first saw that Venerable Sacrament, rendering thanks to the Supreme God, who had renewed His ancient miracles, for the love of blessed Bertellin. This miracle took place in the year of our Lord 1386."

And this is all that is known, and more than all—yet nothing to what the angels know—of the life of a servant of God, who sinned and repented, and did penance and washed out his sins, and became a Saint, and reigns with Christ in heaven.

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