Self-isolation, the South Lincolnshire experience – A feature for St Guthlac’s Day

This DeepingDo blog is primarily about news relating to the Deepings and/or South Kesteven but in the absence of any council meetings I’m branching out. My recent topical post about the Black Death of 1349 was particularly popular so perhaps historical context is what you all want?

The 11th April is the Saints day of our local hero, Guthlac of Crowland. Two of the five Deepings churches are named in his honour as well as one of the ‘colleges’ at Deepings school and the local freemasons’ lodge.

Guthlac on his way to Crowland. Photo: British Library

Guthlac’s big thing was ‘self-isolation’ which is as topical today as it has ever been. Here’s a potted history of Guthlac. Less is known about his sister, Pega, although she was also into self-isolation so I might write more about her at a later date.

Wilder even than the western woodland was the desolate fen-country on the eastern border of the kingdom stretching from the “Holland,” the sunk, hollow land of Lincolnshire, to the channel of the Ouse, a wilderness of shallow waters and reedy islets wrapped in its own dark mist-veil and tenanted only by flocks of screaming wild-fowl. Here through the liberality of King Wulfhere rose the abbey of Peterborough. Here, too, Guthlac, a youth of the royal race of Mercia, sought a refuge from the world in the solitudes of Crowland,…1

Yes, Guthlac wanted to get away from it all. Life had been pretty hectic up to the point when he arrived at the edge of the fens in AD 699. Loads of us who have moved to the Deepings can identify with that.

Guthlachttps://www.bl.uk/people/guthlac was born into a noble family in AD 674, As a teenager he started fighting, as a warrior on the side of Æthelred of Mercia2. He fought for about 9 years before experiencing a spiritual encounter after which he entered a monastery at Repton. He only stayed there for two years because the other monks didn’t get on with him because he didn’t drink alcohol. Still, he kept the Faith and moved to Crowland for some peace and quiet. Crowland is quiet now but back then it was quieter still. There was nothing there, except for the aforementioned noisy birds and an ancient burial mound in the marshes which had been partially excavated by treasure hunters and which became Guthlac’s new home.

So how did Guthlac use his time of self-isolation?

https://www.wnsstamps.post/stamps/2018/BY/BY010.18.jpg

Firstly, he didn’t drink too much. He didn’t drink at all in fact.

Secondly, he watched his diet. It is said that he made a solemn vow never to eat before sunset.

Thirdly, he tried to keep in touch with his friends and family. He was visited by various people seeking his advice including the Mercian king, Æthelbald. It is said that Guthlac’s sister Pega lived with him for a while but there was an incident with the ‘eating before sunset’ rule and sadly they parted company. Pega went to live by herself in nearby Peakirk (which is why it’s now called Peakirk).

Fourthly, he prayed. Being by yourself all day gives you time to contemplate, reflect, meditate and listen to God. This was much easier in the days before Facebook and Netflix box-sets which can be a waste of time. Anyway, for Guthlac it was the whole reason for him moving to South Lincolnshire in the first place so he got on and dealt with it seriously.

Finally, he faced his demons. According to Felix, who wrote an early biography of Guthlac, the demons took many forms including horrible, ferocious and sometimes frankly disgusting beasties. In our so-called enlightened age, we don’t think about literal demons very much but we all face our own modern demons, e.g. in the form of addictions, domestic violence, low self-esteem, ignorance, arrogance etc. A time of self-isolation is a good time to confront them and deal with them. There is far more help available for dealing with these demons than Guthlac would have had when he faced his.

“...and so great was the reverence he won, that only two years had passed since his death when the stately Abbey of Crowland rose over his tomb. Earth was brought in boats to form a site; the buildings rested on oaken piles driven into the marsh; a great stone church replaced the hermits cell; and the toil of the new brotherhood changed the pools around them into fertile meadow-land.” 3

This year, St Guthlac’s Day has fallen on Easter Eve, and in the middle of the Coronavirus pandemic. For the first time in living memory, we are living through a plague which is spreading throughout the UK as well as the rest of the world. The only weapon we have against it appears to be social-distancing (staying at least 2 metres away from other people) and self-isolation (leaving the house as infrequently as possible). Guthlac of Crowland was one of the most popular pre-Norman English saints and he taught us that being in isolation is not only possible, it can also be productive and even Holy.

Happy St Guthlac’s Day and Happy Easter!

Places to visit in Peterborough: Crowland Abbey - We Love Peterborough
Crowland Abbey – Built on the site of Guthlac’s hermitage.

1 “A short history of the English people”, John Richard Green, 1877
2 Not to be confused with Æthelred the Unready who was king of England 200 years later.
3 “A short history of the English people”, John Richard Green, 1877

1 thought on “Self-isolation, the South Lincolnshire experience – A feature for St Guthlac’s Day

  1. Very interesting Ashley, except today is Holy Saturday. Easter Saturday is next weekend.
    We have a number of local Saints from this area, and you have already touched on St Pega.
    Few people know that:
    St Botolph, was born in Thorney
    St Tibba’ the Patron Saint of Falconers is from Ryhall, where she lived in isolation.
    Saints Kyneburga, is from Castor near Peterborough
    St Kyneswide was also from Castos near Peterbirough
    Saints Kyneburga, Kyneswide and Tibba were all sisters
    St Gilbert was born in Sempringham. The only English person to form a monastic order

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