Botulph is a popular medieval saint who built an Abbey in East Anglia.  His name has been honoured in the dedication of many local Anglian churches. 

Botolph Medieval Saint
Botolph Medieval Saint

Botulph was one of the most popular British saints of the early ­Middle Ages. He was a nobleman who went to the Continent to become a Benedictine monk and returned to England to found a monastery in East Anglia. Although the life story of this humble affable man is sketchy, several records show that he did exist in history and his story is more fact than legend. Much of what is known about him was written four hundred years after his death by Folcard, the Abbot of Thorney Monastery in the Cambridgeshire Fens.

Born into a Christian Saxon family in the early seventh century, Botulph and his brother Adulph were educated by Saint Fursey in Cnobersburg monastery, located at Burgh Castle near Great Yarmouth. When Mercian forces invaded the region, the boys were sent to Europe and became Benedictines. Botulph was sent back to England in 647 to establish the Benedictine Order, while Adulph remained in Europe and became a bishop.

On his return, Botulph approached the little known King of the southern Angles, Ethelmund, whose sisters he had known in Germany. The King offered Botulph part of the royal estate upon which to build a monastery. Instead he settled for a desolate, barren site, reported to be haunted by demons.

St Botolph's Church, Cambridge
St Botolph’s Church, Cambridge

With the support of Saint Syre, Saint Aubierge, and their brother, King Anna of East Anglia, Botulph founded the monastery of Ikanhoe (Ox-island), which according to the Saxon Chronicle, was established in 654 AD as a Benedictine abbey.

The site was surrounded by water and endless work was needed to make this austere place viable. As their Abbot, Botulph attracted enough brother monks and hermits and soon, through their hard work and faith, the monastery grew. The monks built several structures, turned large areas of marsh and scrub into productive grazing and farm land, and dispelled the local people’s fear of demons.

No one knows for sure where Ikanhoe was – the two modern contenders are Iken in Suffolk and Boston in Lincolnshire. For many years local historians believed that the developing area around the monastery came to be called Botulph’s Town, then Botulphston, with the name finally contracted to Boston.

However, more recent research suggests that the actual spot may be the village of Iken, near Snape in east Suffolk which, centuries ago, was almost encircled by the River Alde. The church there is also dedicated to St. Botulph.  During his time at the monastary, Botulph also worked as a travelling missionary through rough, bandit-plagued areas of East Anglia, Kent and Sussex.

It is believed he died after a long illness while being carried to chapel for a compline service on 17 June 680 – the date his feast is commemorated. He was buried there at Ikanhoe. A couple of centuries later his relics were removed to prevent them from being destroyed by invading Danes. It is believed they were transferred to Grundisburgh, a village near Woodbridge and later for safety distributed to the monasteries at Ely, Thorney and Bury St. Edmunds.

According to legend, the relics destined for Bury were taken by night and the travellers were guided by a light that shone above the site of the new shrine. In the 11th century, a portion of Botulph’s relics were also taken to the Abbey of Westminster after it was rebuilt by Edward the Confessor.

Although there is some uncertainty as to where Botulph’s relics lie, what is not in doubt is that he was honoured by many churches dedicated to his name – well over fifty, chiefly in East Anglia. They bear witness to his untiring work which strengthened the Benedictine movement for many centuries after his lifetime.

Some of these churches were built at the ancient city gates to serve as safe-havens for travellers in times when robbers and footpads lurked along the roadways. Botolph is regarded as the patron saint for travellers and itinerants, and also farmers and agricultural workers.

His name is perpetuated not only at Boston in Lincolnshire but also by the New World city of Boston in Massachusetts. He gave his name to several English villages including Bottlebridge near Peterborough. Originally called Botulph’s Bridge, the village lost its identity when it became part of Orton Longueville parish in 1762.

© Owen Spencer-Thomas

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