Tag Archives: Local Saints

Holy Suffolk

Holiness is the Christian Orthodox ideal: we look not at rank or riches, but at holiness, for it is one of the four signs of the Church and the one which is personally accessible.  It is why all Orthodox speak of the Holy Land, the Holy Mountain, Holy Russia and of making pilgrimages to holy places, the places of the saints. Locally, in England, we speak of Holy Island, the monastery of St Cuthbert in Lindisfarne, and also of one county as holy: Holy Suffolk. What is the origin of this latter name?

When the pagan Danes invaded the Kingdom of East Anglia in the ninth century, martyring St Edmund in Hoxne, among the ‘southern folk’ of the Kingdom, later called Suffolk, they found so many churches and so much piety that they called the region ‘gesaelig’, meaning ‘blessed’ or ‘holy’. This by corruption in the Middle Ages became ‘seely’ and today ‘silly’, hence the name ‘Silly Suffolk’. Incidentally, the root of this word is the same as the Greek ‘salos’, which means foolish for Christ; any fool for Christ’s sake is known as ‘salos’ in Greek. As the Apostle Paul writes, foolishness (‘silliness’) in this world is wisdom before God.

Thus, we know that there were already 417 churches in Suffolk in 1066 – for a population that could not then have been more than 50,000: one church for every hundred or so people. Moreover, what had become known at that time as Suffolk (the region of the southern folk of East Anglia) was by the twelfth century divided into three parts: about one third in the south-east was called St Audrey’s Liberty, for this centred on Rendlesham, which had been owned by St Audrey (pedants call her ‘Etheldreda’). She was baptised by St Felix who lived there and after whom nearby Felixstowe, where St Felix founded a monastery, is named. The other two-thirds was divided into St Edmund’s Liberty or west Suffolk, centred on Bury St Edmunds, and into what was called the ‘Geldable’ (= the taxable, that is the area subject to central secular taxation). Thus some two-thirds of the modern county was dedicated to the Church, through St Audrey and St Edmund.

Indeed, a more or less straight diagonal line can be drawn from Felixstowe in the south-east corner of Suffolk, on to Bury St Edmunds and then to Ely, which borders Suffolk,  just beyond its north-west corner. The monastery in Ely had been founded by St Audrey who had been born in nearby Exning in Suffolk. This straight line forms a heavenly path for pilgrims, a spiritual way, a mystical road, connecting the three best-known saints of Suffolk: St Felix, Apostle of East Anglia, St Edmund, King of East Anglia and St Audrey of Ely. This is part of that mystical conscience of the other England, beyond modern traffic and roads, towns and shops, noise and bustle. It is a tiny fragment of holiness in today’s Suffolk, pointing us to our Orthodox destiny.

Holy, Felix, Audrey and Edmund, pray to God for us!