Celts to the Creche: Day 12
St. John of Beverley
died May 7, 721
On day 12 of our pilgrimage with the Celts to the Creche, we journey with St. John of Beverley who was not only the scholarly and erudite Bishop of Hexham and York, but he was also known as a great preacher, evangelist, teacher, and miracle worker. The mystic Julian of Norwich was a great fan of this saint. John became the Bishop of Hexham when the former Prior of Lindisfarne, Eata, who later became Bishop of Hexham, died about 687. John served at Hexham for 33 years and then he was consecrated as Bishop of York in 705. John built a monastery and church at Beverley. Today, the church that has been rebuilt over time is called Beverley Minster.
What we know about St. John of Beverley, derives mostly from Bede (see day 23 of Celts to the Creche ) who was a contemporary of John. Bede wrote about John in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. John’s life is not only recorded in Bede’s work, but also in later more embellished biographies/hagiographies by Folcard, John Leland, and William of Malmsebury among others who partially based their works upon Bede’s earlier work.
Life and Education: John was likely born to a noble family in Harpham in East Riding of Yorkshire just a few miles north of Beverley, but we do not know the exact year or even the decade when he was born. Bede says that John lived to be a very old man and that he died in 721. So, it is likely that John was born in the first half of the 600’s.
John trained first under St. Hilda (see day 2 of Celts to the Creche) at her double monastery at Whitby and likely later studied under Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury. Since the famous monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow were under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Hexham, Bede records that he was ordained by St. John of Beverley, first as a deacon when he was 19 years old and later as a priest when he was 30. Both of these ordinations were carried out under the direction of Bede’s Abbot, Ceolfrith at Jarrow. Surely, Bede had great affection and admiration for John of Beverley who ordained him two times.
I conjecture that perhaps John is the one who told Bede much about St. Hilda since he personally studied with her. Bede wrote that St. Hilda’s monastery at Whitby trained five Bishops of England: John of Beverley; Bosa of York; Offtor of Worcester; Wilfrid II; and Ætla of Dorchester.
Miracle Worker: John was not only a Bishop, but also a miracle worker. Bede states that the Abbot Berthun of Beverley recounted to him many of the miracles of John. Some of these miracles include the healing of the nun Cwenburgh who was the daughter of the Abbess Hereburg of the small nunnery of Watton near Beverly; the healing of the wife of a wealthy man named Puch with holy water consecrated in the church; the healing of a servant of a wealthy man named Æddi; and the healing of the Abbot of the monastery at Tynemouth who had fallen off his horse and cracked his skull.
One of the more intriguing miracles was of a young man who was not able to hear or speak and whose head was so covered in scabs that no hair would grow on his head. John not only prayed over the boy and placed the sign of the cross on his tongue, but he also worked with him to teach him to speak the letters of the alphabet and to be able to say “yes” and “no.” This young man was later able to speak in syllables and then in words. So, this was an incarnational miracle: human and divine working together. Many more miracles are credited to John, not only in life, but also in his death.
Death and Place of Burial: Three years before John died at a ripe old age, he resigned as Bishop of York and he consecrated his successor, Wilfrid II as the new Bishop. John retired to the monastery he had founded in a secluded spot called by Bede, Inderawuda, meaning ‘in the wood of Deira’. This Inderawuda is considered to be Beverley, as at that time this little village was very wooded and was an island in the middle of a lake. The name “Beverley” likely means “beaver stream/lake.”
Bede says that John died in 721 and we get the exact date of his death from Folcard as May 7, 721. He was buried at his monastery church in Beverley and almost immediately after his death, Beverley became a place of pilgrimage. Pilgrims from the early Middle Ages all the way until the Reformation flocked to his shrine to see his relics and pray for miracle.
As part of Henry VIII’s English Reformation, sadly John’s shrine was destroyed in 1541. The contents of the shrine disappeared from the records, but in 1664, workmen discovered a vault under the floor of the Minster’s nave at Beverley. Made of stone, the shrine was 15 ft long and 2 ft wide at the head and 1 ft wide at the base. It was encased in lead and inside were found ashes, six beads, three great brass pins and four large iron nails. The lead had the following inscription:
In the year from the incarnation of our Lord, 1188, this church was burnt in the month of September, the night after the feast of St Matthew the Apostle and in the year 1197, the 6th of the ides of March, there was an inquisition made of the relics of the Blessed John in this place, and these bones were found in the east part of this sepulchre, and redeposited; dust mixed with mortar was found likewise and re-interred.
In 1738, when the present Minster floor was laid, the same relics were once again dug up and replaced in the same position with an arched brick vault over them. This was covered by a marble slab, similar to others in the nave. The inscription on the tomb now reads:
THE BODY OF SAINT JOHN OF BEVERLEY
FOUNDER OF THIS CHURCH
BISHOP OF HEXHAM AD 687–705
BISHOP OF YORK A.D. 705–718
HE WAS BORN AT HARPHAM
AND DIED AT BEVERLEY
His Influence: John was canonized by the Pope in 1037. Because of the popularity of pilgrimage to Beverley, by 1377, this little village in the woods and marsh land became one of the largest twelve cities in England.
Julian of Norwich, the 14th century anchoress and mystic was a devotee of St. John of Beverley and she described him as “a kind neighbor of pure knowing.” The famous scholar Alcuin had an very strong devotion to St. John of Beverley. In his poem on the saints of York, Alcuin wrote of the numerous miracles of John. (from verse 1085 to 12150.)
King Edward I and King Henry V were also followers of St. John of Beverley. Henry V attributed his win at the Battle of Agincourt in the 15th century to the help from John. It is said that on the day of the battle, that blood and oil flowed from John’s tomb.
Just as St. Francis is associated with animals and creation and St. Joseph as the patron saint of carpenters, John is closely associated with criminals and fugitives because the church at Beverley had special sanctuary rights which were likely more extensive than those of other churches. He is the patron saint of the deaf.
John likely left behind numerous writings that have been lost over time. Robert Bale who died in 1503, recorded that several of John of Beverley’s writings were in Queen’s College in Oxford. It seems, that these works have been lost over time.
Currently, the feast of St. John is celebrated on the Thursday nearest May 7, when the choir and members of the congregation of Beverley Minster go the church at Harpham and in a procession walk to the flower festooned well of St. John. After singing an anthem and praying, the congreation returns to the church for choral evensong.
On the Sunday nearest May 7, the dignitaries of the city dressed in full regalia led by mace bearers process to the West Door of the Beverley Minster. After the service, the children from Harpham place primroses that they have gathered from the woods on John’s tomb.
Feast Day is May 7
St. John of Beverley exhorts us to remember those who are in need of healing whether from a physical disability, a debilitating physical or mental illness, or struggling in soul and spirit. We live in a broken and fragmented world, desperately in need of the Good News that the God of the universe who loves us, also has compassion on us. May we be Christ’s heart, hands, feet, and mind bringing hope, healing, and renewal to those in need of wholeness.
Jesus the Christ said that when you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to Me. Matthew 25:40.
Prayer: O God of healing and compassion, may our spiritual eyes be open to those who need a word of encouragement and blessing, a kind smile, a tender touch, a hug, a meal. Help us to do unto others as we would have them do to us. Amen.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
Blair, John. An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England, 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
________.The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Bonner, Gerald, David Rollason, and Clare Stancliffe, eds, St. Cuthbert, His Cult and His Community to AD 1200. Woodbridge, UK: Woodbridge Press, 1989.
Deansley, Margaret. The Pre-Conquest Church in England. New York: Oxford University Press, 1961.
Fletcher, Richard. The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity. New York: Henry Holt, 1997.
Goffart, Walter. The Narrators of Barbarian History (A.D. 550-800). Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005, 2009 reprint.
“John” in Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England.
“John of Beverley” in Dictionary of National Biography, vol. 29.
Kennedy-Jones, Neil and Geraldine and Andrew M. Seddon. Walking with the Celtic Saints: A Devotional. New York: Crossroad, 2004.
Kirby, D. P. The Earliest English Kings. New York: Routledge, 1991.
Leyser, Henrietta. Beda: A Journey Through the Seven Kingdoms in the Age of Bede. London: Head of Zeus, 2015.
Ridyard, Susan J. The Royal Saints of Anglo-Saxon England: A Study of West Saxon East Anglian Cults. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
St. John’s Well Blessing Beverley and Harpham. Youtube Video.
Stenton, F.M. Anglo-Saxon England, 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Presss, 1989.
Wallace-Hadrill, J. M. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People: A Historical Commentary. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1988.
Wilson, Susan E. The Life and After-Life of St. John of Beverley: The Evolution of the Cult of an Anglo-Saxon Saint. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2006. (the author did her dissertation on St. John of Beverley and this book is the most complete study on this saint)
Yorke, Barbara. Kings and Kingdoms in Early Anglo-Saxon England. London: Routledge, 1997.