Saint Guinefort

Guinefort, dog-headed saint.
Guinefort, dog-headed saint.

Very few people have been given the honor of being venerated as a “Saint,” but only one dog has been fortunate enough to receive that distinction. He even has a feast day, which is on Aug. 22.

His story dates back to around the 13th century. Historians say that Guinefort the dog saint assumed the name of an earlier human saint of the same name, but about whom very little is known, except that he was executed by being shot with many arrows. It is unclear how he became transformed into a Greyhound, but this is not uncommon in the history of saints. Many also believe that Guinefort might have been a cover story for the use of a pagan healing well.

Guinefort the greyhound belonged to a French knight who lived in a castle near Lyon. One day, the knight went hunting, leaving his infant son in the care of Guinefort. When he returned, he found the nursery in chaos – the cot was overturned, the child was nowhere to be seen and Guinefort greeted his master with bloody jaws. Believing Guinefort to have devoured his son, the knight slew the dog. He then heard a child crying; he turned over the cot and found his son lying there, safe and sound, along with the body of a viper. Guinefort had killed the snake and saved the child. On realizing the mistake the family dropped the dog down a well, covered it with stones and planted trees around it, setting up a shrine for Guinefort.

The local peasants hearing of the dog’s noble deed and innocent death, began to visit the place and honor the dog as a martyr in quest of help for their sicknesses and other

Saint Guinefort depicted in a miniature.
Saint Guinefort depicted in a miniature.

needs. Women especially, with sick or poorly children, carried them to the place, and went off a league away to a nearby castle where an old woman would teach them a ritual for making offerings and invocations to the demons and lead them to the grave. When they got there, they offered salt and certain other things, hung the child’s little clothes on the bramble bushes around, fixing them on the thorns. They the would throw the baby through the opening between the trunks of two trees, the mother standing on one side and the old woman on the other side, while invoking the demons to adjure the fauns in the wood of “Rimite” to take the sick and failing child which they said belonged to them and return to them their own child big, plump, live and healthy. Once this was done, the mothers took the baby and placed it naked at the foot of the tree on the straws of a cradle, lit at both ends two candles a thumbsbreadth thick with fire they had brought with them and fastened them on the trunk above. Then, while the candles were consumed, they went far enough away that they could neither hear nor see the child. In this way the burning candles burned up and killed a number of babies.

The Catholic Church was unamused and In 1262, Inquisitor Etienne de Bourbon demanded that the remains of the dog be burned and the shrine and surrounding trees be completely destroyed. The church decreed that anyone found even going to the site of the former shrine would have all their possessions seized and sold. Despite this threat, the shrine continued to receive many visitors up until the 19th century,


Princess Olga of Kiev

Saint Olga Photo Credit- Image from

When you think of a saint, most people think of a gentle, Godly person with great patience and faith.  Princess Olga of Kiev proves that a saint can be a woman of God, but not take any crap either.

No one is exactly sure of when Olga was born.  Sources put it any where between 879 and 890.  According to the Primary Chronicle, she was born in Pskov, a city northwest of Russia, to a family of Varyag origin.  Varyag was the name given to Vikings or Norsemen who came to the area in the 8th and 9th centuries.    Other sources say Olga was the daughter of Oleg Vershchy, the founder of the state of Kievan Rus.  Still others state she is of Bulgarian heritage.

What we do know is that around 912, she was married to Prince Igor.  Igor was a part of the newly founded Rurik Dynasty of Russian tsars.  In 912, the two ascended to the throne of Kievan Rus and lived as peacefully as a Russian tsar can.  In 942, a son named Svyatoslav was born to the couple.  There are no reports of major disputes, and it seems like the couple had an amiable relationship.  However, as with most royal marriages, we can never be sure of what goes on in a private bedroom.  All of this is fairly normal for a royal couple of that time period.  Here’s where things get interesting.

Three years after Svyatoslav was born, Igor met with the Drevlyans, a Slavic tribe that owed him tribute.  As was wont to happen, there was a dispute over how much money was owed, which was settled by the Drevlyans killing Igor.  That’s one way of settling a bill.  Now that Igor was dead and his son was only three, there was a succession crisis.  Despite it being far out of the norm, Olga set up a regency for her young son with the full backing of the Rus army.  However, the Drevlyans were still the sticking point.  There were not happy about having a female as a leader.  In a bold move, the murderer of her husband sent Olga a matchmaker to propose her marriage to their Prince.  These people did not know who they were dealing with.

There are several versions of what happened next.  The Primary Chronicles describes what Olga did next, “Now Olga gave command that a large deep ditch should be dug in the castle with the hall, outside the city. Thus, on the morrow, Olga, as she sat in the hall, sent for the strangers, and her messengers approached them and said,

“Olga summons you to great honor.” But they replied, “We will not ride on horseback nor in wagons, nor go on foot; carry us in our boats….” So they carried the Derevlians in their boat. The latter sat on the cross-benches in great robes, puffed up with pride. Thus they were borne into the court before Olga, and when the men had brought the Derevlians in, they dropped them into the trench along with the boat. Olga bent over and inquired whether they found the honor to their taste. They answered that it was worse than the death of Igor’. She then commanded that they should be buried alive, and they were thus buried.”

Then in what had to have been either the bravest or stupidest move ever, the Drevlyans sent back more ambassadors with more suitors.  Unsurprisingly, Olga killed them too.  This group she locked in a bathhouse and set fire to it.  Then Olga traveled to the land of the Drevlyans, and instead of running like sensible people they held a banquet for her.  After all the nobles had been drinking and were far into their cups, she ordered them killed.  All 5,000 of them.

Unbelievably, this was not Olga’s last run in with the Drevlyans.  These people just never learned.  In 946, Olga was traveling through the land gathering tribute and the town of Iskorosten refused to pay.  According to legend, Olga seemed to soften and asked that each family present her with a a bird, such as a pigeon, sparrow or dove, as a gift.  Everyone agreed thinking they got off cheap.  Not so much.  The Primary Chronicle describes the carnage:

“Now Olga gave to each soldier in her army a pigeon or a sparrow, and ordered them to attach by thread to each pigeon and sparrow a piece of sulfur bound with small pieces of cloth. When night fell, Olga bade her soldiers release the pigeons and the sparrows. So the birds flew to their nests, the pigeons to the cotes, and the sparrows under the eaves. The dove-cotes, the coops, the porches, and the haymows were set on fire. There was not a house that was not consumed, and it was impossible to extinguish the flames, because all the houses caught on fire at once. The people fled from the city, and Olga ordered her soldiers to catch them. Thus she took the city and burned it, and captured the elders of the city. Some of the other captives she killed, while some she gave to others as slaves to her followers. The remnant she left to pay tribute.”

So why is this woman a saint?  After Svyatoslav came of age, she converted to Christianity.  Svyatoslav did not support her decision, but did not stop her from converting.  Her influence on her grandson Vladimir the Great was strong.  When Vladimir came to the throne, Eastern Orthodox Christianity was made the official religion of Kievan Rus in 980.  Because of this, in 1547 Olga was made a saint and “isapostolos” or “equal to the apostles”, one of only five woman in history who have achieved this title.


Sources available on request

Elizabeth Barton – The Holy Maid of Kent

Blessed Elizabeth Barton (Holy Maid of Kent) Icon- Photo Credit- Google Images
Blessed Elizabeth Barton (Holy Maid of Kent) Icon- Photo Credit- Google Images

Figuring out what you believe is difficult in the best of times, but it was a hundred times worse at the court of Henry VIII. The king’s beliefs swung with the wind and whoever was standing next to him at the time. Like most kings, Henry did not take to disagreement, and in Henry’s case this was doubly true. In the 16th century, reformation was sweeping the continent and many thinkers were coming to question the Catholic Church. They either wanted to reform the Church or break completely from it, depending on who you talked to. Henry was staunchly against this, until it fit with his own plans. The gentry and common folk of England were caught in this crossfire. An example of this was Elizabeth Barton, who is known as the Holy Maid of Kent or the Mad Maid of Kent depending on who you ask.

Elizabeth Barton was born sometime in 1506 in Aldington near Canterbury, and like most women of that age her early childhood is a mystery. We know she came from a poor family and got work as a servant for Thomas Cobb, who was the steward of an estate owned by William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury. In 1525 Elizabeth fell seriously ill and upon recovering, she began receiving visions. These visions predicted the future accurately enough to call attention to herself in the household. She urged people to go on pilgrimage and pray to the Blessed Virgin Mother. Rather convenient since the Archbishop would profit handily from that since Canterbury was a popular pilgrimage spot.

19th century engraving depicting Barton being instructed by Edward Bocking- Photo Credit-
19th century engraving depicting Barton being instructed by Edward Bocking- Photo Credit-

Warham sent Priors to examine young Elizabeth, and they determined she was doing nothing against the doctrine of the Catholic Church. This led to her becoming a nun at St. Sepulcher’s Priory in Canterbury, where she met her confessor Edward Bocking. Bocking was one of the priors that was sent by Warham to investigate her. He was either a true believer or saw an opportunity because he definitely hitched himself to her coat tails. Her fame grew and Elizabeth met and corresponded with many important churchmen of the age – Archbishop Warham, Bishop John Fisher and Sir Thomas Moore. In 1528, she met with Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and twice with the King himself. At this time, Henry was very much on the side of stamping out Lutheranism and had been named “Defender of the Faith” by the Pope for his efforts. Elizabeth’s teachings and prophecies fell in step with his aims.

Then it all went wrong. In 1527, Henry began proceedings to divorce his wife Katherine of Aragon saying the marriage was not valid in the eyes of God because she had been married to his brother, Arthur. It didn’t hurt that her attractive maid of honor, Anne Boleyn, was waiting in the wings to give Henry the sons he longed for. But Henry swore this was God’s doing. His tender conscience was hurt. The Pope played for time and Henry began to get impatient and cast about for some way to get his way. Breaking from the Church started to look very attractive.

As can be expected, all of this divided the people. Elizabeth Barton fell on the side of the Church and prophesied that if he ended his marriage with Katherine of Aragon he would die with in a year. She claimed to see the place in hell where he would be roasted. This did not go over well at all.

Engraving of Elizabeth Barton probably by Thomas Holloway based on a painting by Henry Tresham, and comes from David Hume's History of England (1793–1806). Photo Credit- Wikipedia
Engraving of Elizabeth Barton probably by Thomas Holloway based on a painting by Henry Tresham, and comes from David Hume’s History of England (1793–1806). Photo Credit- Wikipedia

In 1533, Elizabeth Barton and “other conspirators” were arrested and tried in the Star Chamber. Such a thing must have been terrifying to a simple country girl as she was. She was exposed at St. Paul’s Cross and read a confession she was a fraud, however, this wasn’t enough. A bill of attainder was passed in 1534 so Elizabeth could be executed without trial. She was hanged at Tyburn with four of her supporters, Boking among them, and her head was put on a spike on London Bridge. She was the only woman awarded that dubious honor.

To this day there is debate as to whether she was a saint or a fraud. She is venerated by the Anglican Catholic Church of St Augustine of Canterbury and the Nephite Church of Christ. She is also described as having religious mania not much different than the girls of the Spiritualist movement of the 1800s, and coached by ambitious men like Boking. No one can know. What we do know a is a poor girl from Aldington was just one casualty in the nasty wars of religion in England.


The Lonely Life of an Anchorite

The enclosure of an anchorite Photo Credit- Corpus Christi College Cambridge, MS 79, fol.
The enclosure of an anchorite Photo Credit- Corpus Christi College Cambridge, MS 79, fol.

In the medieval world, the power of prayer had a very real meaning.  Monks and nuns retired from the world to pray, but for some of the faithful even this wasn’t enough.  An anchorite was an extreme of withdrawing from the world for the religious faithful, and was held in awe in the Middle Ages.  They followed the example of John the Baptist and withdrew completely from secular life into isolation to pray for the sins of the world.  St. Cuthbert was said to wade into the freezing waters of the Celtic Sea to pray.

To become an anchorite, one had to go through a strict ceremony where the last rites were administered and then the person was walled up into an enclosure.  If the anchorite tried to leave the enclosure, he or she was escorted back and subject to damnation.  The life of the anchorite was open to both men and women.  In fact, more women than men chose this life.  No one is quite sure why.  Perhaps it was because the religious vocations for women were more limited.  An anchoress was more revered than a simple nun, and even an abbott would defer to her judgement.  Any stoles or altar clothes embroidered by an anchoress would take on holy meaning.  The same for a book illuminated by an anchorite.  A woman could choose this life after being widowed or as a young woman to escape marriage, although it was rather a drastic escape.

As a group, people who followed these rules were called Solitaries.  Sometimes they were priests, monks or nuns, but a solitary could be anyone who was very devout.  The difference between a hermit and an anchorite was rather blurry, but the general rule was that a hermit was out in nature, the more difficult the better, and an anchorite was “anchored” to a church.  

In Constantinople, the enclosure was too luxurious for some and they lived on top of a pillar as stylites.  St. Daniel the Stylite lived on top of a pillar for thirty-three years because being a hermit was too easy.  The first anchorites in England were recorded in the 11th century, and unbelievably there were still some anchorites at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century.  The height of the trend was in the 13th century where up to 200 people were enclosed as anchorites.

St Julians remains of an Anchorite cell Photo Credit- Google Images
St Julian’s remains of an Anchorite cell Photo Credit- Google Images

The enclosure was often next to the parish church and had a small slit window, or “squint”, that looked in on the church.  That way the anchorite could see the altar of the church for mass.  There was also a “squint” that looked onto the world to interact with visitors, even though they were few and far between.  Alms were given for their upkeep as a servant was required to bring the anchorite food and remove their waste.  In fact Aelred of Rievaulx wrote in his “Rule” for anchorites that there should be an older woman servant for her sober influence and a younger one who could fetch and carry more easily.  However, the anchorite was supposed to be of sufficient means before they were walled up.  In return for alms, the anchorite dedicated his or herself to prayer and meditation to intercede for the sins of the world.

Ironically, the life of an anchorite was not always solitary.  Pilgrims and followers flocked to the anchorites, and their alms were needed to support the anchorites’ way of life.  One of the most famous anchorites was Julian of Norwich.  She became an anchorite in the 15th century.  There is debate as to whether she became an anchorite after her family died of plague or if she had originally been a Benedictine nun.  When Julian was 30, she suffered an illness and saw sixteen visions of Jesus Christ.  This became her work Revelations of Divine Love, which is thought to be the earliest surviving English work by a woman.  She is venerated in the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Church and the Lutheran Church.


Sources available on request


The Execution of the Stratford Martyrs

Following many years of religious turmoil, instigated in England by the Protestant reformation and aided by Henry VIII’s desire to put aside his wife Katherine of Aragon in favour of new love Anne Boleyn, a period of calm was achieved as religious matters settled down for the most part during the rule of Henry’s son the Protestant King Edward VI.Sadly, this calm was short-lived as Edward’s rule ended abruptly after just six years with his sudden death in 1553 at the age of 15. […]

1785495 Following many years of religious turmoil, instigated in England by the Protestant reformation and aided by Henry VIII’s desire to put aside his wife Katherine of Aragon in favour of new love Anne Boleyn, a period of calm was achieved as religious matters settled down for the most part during the rule of Henry’s son the Protestant King Edward VI.

Sadly, this calm was short-lived as Edward’s rule ended abruptly after just six years with his sudden death in 1553 at the age of 15. There followed a brief struggle for control of the throne, ending with the imprisonment of the named heir Queen Jane Grey, and her husband and father; her supporters quickly switching allegiance to Edward’s eldest sister, the Catholic Queen Mary I.

Mary pledged to put England back under the control of Rome and reintroduced Catholicism as the official religion of the nation. Unfortunately, many of her subjects weren’t overly thrilled at this turn of events. They had lived for several years away from the shadow of the Pope and the prospect of Purgatory, and having to pay tithes and taxes to a Church they no longer believed in, a Church that got rich from the labours of the people it was meant to serve, while they suffered hunger and poverty. The new religion was easier, in a language they could understand, and didn’t require them to hand over most of their hard earned cash.

Mary was disappointed. She expected the nation to fall to its knees and bless the return of the true faith. Some did. Mainly because they feared the results if they didn’t. The older generation remembered the death destruction in the days of her father. How far did the apple fall from the tree? Not far it seems. Earning herself the nickname ‘Bloody Mary’ The new Queen married the King of Spain, Philip, whom the people mistrusted. A Spaniard AND a catholic, the two things they hated most, then set about whipping up a storm of Catholic revival, aided whole-heartedly by her Cardinal, Reginald Pole, and a large stack of firewood. Not for Mary the traditional methods of execution for the neighbourhood heretic, Mary preferred a good old burning at the stake.

One has to wonder if Reginald was still smarting at the treatment his family had received at the hands of Mary’s father and grandfather, including the execution of pretty much most of his closest family. He certainly seemed willing to go with the plan of removing the Protestant blight from the Nation. In June 1556, Reginald ordered the arrest of 16 common folk, on charges of Heresy, from Essex and surrounding areas. The basis of the charges is not recorded in great detail, however whilst imprisoned the sixteen were offered the chance to recant and be pardoned. Three of them chose to do so, Thomas Freeman, William Stannard and William Adams.

6268711Following a sermon preached against the condemned by John Feckenham, the thirteen, each with their own religious views wrote a joint statement reaffirming their faith as Protestants. During their imprisonment, they were kept in two groups, in several rooms, and each group was separately offered a pardon on the condition they recanted. Each group was told the other had already done so. Neither group did.

On June 27th, eleven men and two women, one of whom was pregnant were taken from Newgate in wagons to an area of Stratford in Bow, to the village green, where the men were tied to three stakes, and the women, one of whom was pregnant were left untied to walk freely in the flames of the pyre that was built on which to burn them. Watched by a crowd of 20,000 spectators, the Stratford Martyrs refused their last chance to recant and were burned to death as Heretics.

John Foxe, writing in his Book of Martyrs a few years later, records their names as: Henry Adlington, a sawyer, Laurence Pernam, a Smith, Henry Wye, a Brewer, William Halliwel, a Smith, Thomas Bowyer, a weaver, George Searles, a tailor, Edmund Hurst, a Labourer, Lyon Cawch, a Flemish Merchant, Ralph Jackson, a servant, John Derifall, a labourer, John Routh, a Labourer, Elizabeth Pepper, wife of Thomas, (with unborn child) and Agnes George, wife of Richard. Sadly Agnes was not the only one of Richard’s wives to die in flames at Mary’s hand.

A memorial was raised in the 19thC to commemorate the Stratford martyrs, and five others who were similarly executed on different days, in St John the Baptist Churchyard, which was believed to be one of the possible sites of the execution.