St. Berin, the Apostle of Wessex
Frankish priest, born c.600. Died 3 December 650 at Dorchester.
Birinus was probably a Frank, consecrated a bishop by Archbishop
Asterius in Genoa. In 634, he was sent by Pope Honorius I to convert the
pagan people of Mercia. He landed at Portchester (Hampshire) and moved
up through the Christian Celts of Hampshire to Silchester (Hampshire).
Before he reached Mercia though, he encountered the pagan Saxons of the
Thames Valley. Finding them greatly in need of Christian teaching, he
decided to stay and was directed to the King's estate on the Berkshire
Downs, probably at Cholsey (Berkshire). Here he met King Cynegils of
Wessex who chose Churn Knob (Blewbury, Berkshire) as the site for the
saint's first sermon. He must have thought this ancient pagan place to
be a fine spot to intimidate the newcomer. However, Birinus was
unperturbed and even managed to persuade the King of the merits of
Christianity. Cynegils allowed Birinus to preach throughout his Kingdom,
but it took a while before he himself was totally converted.
The King was, at the time, desperately trying to finalise an alliance
with the powerful King Oswald of Northumbria. Together he hoped they
could defeat the hated Mercians. Cynegils arranged negotiations at his
palace in Easthampstead (Berkshire), and the King of Northumbria
travelled down to meet him. On reaching Finchampstead (Berkshire), the
King became thirsty and prayed for water. The Holy Dozell's (or
St.Oswald's) Well instantaneously sprang up and flowed fresh water. At
the Royal talks, the only sticking point was that Oswald was a Christian
and would not ally himself to any pagan. So the King of Wessex decided
it was time to be baptised into this new church. Oswald agreed the
alliance could then be cemented by the marriage of his daughter and the
southern King. Birinus was sent for and, at the nearby Fountain Garth
(Bracknell, Berkshire), Cynegils was baptised immediately.
The bishop was given the old Roman town of Dorcic (Dorchester-on-Thames,
Oxfordshire) in which to build himself a cathedral, and the Royal party
travelled north to examine the site. On the way many of the Royal
courtiers also expressed a desire to become Christian, so at the
Brightwell (Berskhire) crossing of the Thames near Dorchester, Birinus
arranged for a large proportion of his Court to be baptised en mass. The
King's son, Cwichelm, resisted at first, but he was eventually converted
to Christianity the following year. King Cynegils died in 643 and, about
five years later, the new King, Cenwalh, invited Birinus to establish an
important minster at Winchester. Other churches in Wessex have a lesser
claim to a Birinian foundation: St. Mary's, Reading (Berkshire); St.
Helen's, Abingdon (Berkshire) and the parish church of Taplow
(Buckinghamshire), where the saint is said to have bapised the local
Saxons in Bapsey Pond. These were the beginnings of the See of Wessex.
Birinus became its first Bishop and remained so until his death in 649.
His shrine at Dorchester became a great place of pilgrimage, but
controversy later arose when the Bishop moved his seat to Winchester and
claimed to have taken the body of Birinus with him. Winchester Cathedral
still has his relics.
Birinus had great devotion for the Body of Our Lord, as is shown in the
account of his walking on the sea to procure the corporal given him by
Pope Honorius, wherein he ever carried the Blessed Eucharist. Many
miracles took place at the discovery of Birinus's relics, and Huntingdon
among others speaks of "the great miracles of Birin". At present, there
is a growing devotion to him in the Established Church, due probably to
the connection of the British royal family with Cedric, a side branch of
whose stock was Cynegils.
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Page last updated: 27 November 2008
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