The story of the Fenland Saints Guthlac and Pega

One problem about telling stories about individuals of centuries past is deciding what is fact, what may be fact, and what probably is story-telling/fiction. The story I am telling here could – and almost certainly does – contain elements of all three.

Saint Guthlac (c. 674 – 714) and Saint Pega (d.719) were brother and sister. Their father was named Penwalh, and the family was related to the royal family of the East Angles. Much more is known about Saint Guthlac than Saint Pega. Their cults were extremely important during the Old and Middle English periods but waned during the late Middle Ages and especially after the Reformation. There are scattered references to Guthlac thereafter. In 1538, for example, a man named John Lambert claimed to have seen “St Guthlake’s Psalter” at Crowland Abbey, and the proverb “sweet as Crowland bells” was recorded in 1878 by Samuel Henry Miller, indicating that the saint and the abbey dedicated to him were remembered that late.

Guthlac’s death is noted as 714 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. However, the principal source for information about the two is in the Anglo-Latin Vita sancti Guthlaci , written by Felix soon after Guthlac’s death. Felix describes himself as “a servant of the Catholic community” acting under the orders of Ælfwald, the king of the East Angles from 713 to 749. According to Felix, portents surrounded the birth of Guthlac, who was named “from the name of the tribe known as the Guthlacingas”. The young Guthlac was inspired by “the valiant deeds of heroes of old” and served in the army of Æthelred of Mercia for nine years, gaining war-booty and attracting followers from many parts of the country. At the age of twenty-four, he underwent a religious conversion and joined the monastery of Repton. Two years later became an anchorite at Crowland, on an island at the western edge of the Peterborough Fen.

His sister Pega also became an anchorite, and according to Matthew Paris in the thirteenth-century Chronica Maiora, she lived at Crowland with Guthlac. One story tells us that the devil took her form and tried to persuade Guthlac to break his vow never to eat before sunset. To prevent any further such attempts to lead him astray Guthlac ordered Pega to leave the island. They never met again. She became a solitary in the neighbourhood of Crowland. The village of Peakirk –“Pega’s Church” – is named after her.

Felix tells us that Guthlac endured many trials and temptations. Several times, he was rescued from demons by Saint Bartholomew, to whom he had a special devotion. When he was dying, Guthlac sent his servant Beccel to Pega, saying “tell her that I have in this life avoided her presence so that in eternity we may see one another in the presence of our Father amid eternal joys”. On her way to bury Guthlac, Pega healed a blind man. After praying over Guthlac’s body for three days, she buried him “In his oratory”. According to the Historia Croylandensis , she left Guthlac’s Psalter and a scourge given to the saint by Saint Bartholomew in the possession of Abbot Kenulph of Crowland. According to Ordericus, Pega went on a pilgrimage to Rome and died there in 719.

After Guthlac’s death, his hermitage was occupied by a converted pagan named Cissa, who was living there when Felix wrote the Vita. Eventually a monastery was built on the site, but its early history is shrouded in legend.

Guthlac and Pega are known in both Latin texts and from those in the vernacular. The earliest of these is the Old English Martyrology, which dates as early as 850.

There are a number of interesting works about Guthlac and Pega composed after the Norman Conquest, most remarkable the Harley Roll (MS British Museum Harleian Roll Y.6), eighteen roundels illustrating scenes from the life of Saint Guthlac. [The pictures in this essay are from the Harley Roll, by permission of the British Museum.] Each picture has a short explanation in Latin. The Harley Roll is usually dated to the abbacy of Henry Longchamp, and the earliest date given for its composition is 1141. Many of the works written during the Middle English period deal only with Guthlac, but the Chronicon ex Chronicis of Florence of Worcester (d. 1118) speaks of Guthlac as “the brother of the virgin Pega”, leading some scholars to speculate that Florence considered Pega more important than Guthlac.

There were numerous churches dedicated to Guthlac, as well as the one at Peakirk dedicated to Pega. Vernacular references to Guthlac become less frequent after the Norman Conquest than they were before. An intriguing one occurs at the end of one version of the fifteenth-century Sir Gowther: ‘There he lyeth in a shryne of gold And doth maracles, as it is told, And hatt Seynt Gotlake’.

Poems about Guthlac appear in three manuscripts of the work known as the South English Legendary (14th c), but neither of the two modern editions of the collection includes the Guthlac material. Much material about Guthlac and Pega must have been lost at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, although antiquarians in the nineteenth century made important discoveries about the cult of Guthlac, which are relevant to the examination of his legend. Charles Kingsley in his 1868 study of hermits acclaims Guthlac as the spiritual father of the University of Cambridge, and therefore of Harvard University.

The Abbey Church of Crowland in the East Anglian Fens is dedicated to St Guthlac and has fascinating displays of the saint. A few miles along the road can be found the village of Peakirk and its church dedicated to Saint Pega.


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