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Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Honouring a Dorset Saint: The Customs and Traditions of St. Wite's Day

St. Wite
The 1st June is the feast day of ‘St Wite’ (white) or as she was known in Latin ‘St Candida’. Very little is known about her except that her shrine at Whitchurch Canonicorum was and still is a place of pilgrimage.  St. Candida (or St. Wite) and Holy Cross, Whitchurch Canonicorum is the only church in England, other than Westminster Abbey, that retains the original medieval shrine and relics of the saint to whom it is dedicated.

The Shrine of a Dorset Saint 

In the church beneath the north window of the north transept the shrine of St. Wite is built into wall and consists of two parts: the lower portion is of early 13th century work and forms a base which supports the upper portion, namely a stone coffin with Purbeck marble top which contains the relics of St. Wite. Beneath are three oval openings intended for the insertion of diseased limbs or for handkerchiefs to be afterwards borne away for the healing of the sick. In days gone by all roads and paths led to the church, for the Shrine was a place of pilgrimage.  It is the great treasure of the Church and it is unique, for no other parish church in England has the relics of its patron saint in a shrine within its walls. In 1900 a fissure appeared in the north wall of the transept and the shrine itself was damaged. To effect repairs it was opened and inside the stone coffin was found a leaden box on which were the following inscriptions:— 

CT    RELIQE    SCE    W

(“Here rest the remains of St. Wite”)

The Shrine to St. Wite
Within the reliquary were a number of bones, which were thought to be those of a woman.

In the 1863 edition of Hutchins' "History of Dorset" it is recorded that an inscription was painted on the exterior of the Shrine, which included the words "Candida" and "Candidiorque."   In Hutchins’ original edition of 1774 mention is made that the tomb was without inscription, so this lettering must have been painted between 1774 and 1863. It is rather curious that throughout the Church there is no trace of any stonework ever having been painted.

Who was St. Wite?

It is unfortunately not possible definitely to identify St. Wite.

Until the middle of the 19th century the local tradition had always been, for something like 900 years, that St. Wite was a Saxon woman Who was killed by the Danes on one of the occasions of their landing at Charmouth when, as was their practice, they pillaged lie surrounding countryside and probably a number of Christians were killed by them.

Since the middle of the 19th century three other theories as to the Saint's identity have been put forward.

The late the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould, a noted hymn-writer and hagiologist, put forward the suggestion that she might be identified with a saint who bore the Celtic name of Gwen and the French name of Blanche, which would be the equivalent of the Latin St. Candida, although it is improbable that the Saxon "Wite" means "White”. Gwen, or Blanche, was the daughter of a Prince of Brittany and her second husband was a man named Fragan, who was a cousin of the Duke of Cornwall. In the latter part of the fifth century they crossed to Brittany and settled near where is now the city of S. Brieuc at a place still called Ploufragan, or the tribal residence of Fragan. Gwen was the mother of two lesser known saints and at Ploufragan there is a modern statue of her as a Queen; at Scaer is a holy well named after her under the name of Candida.

There is a fable that she was once captured by pirates and escaped from the ship with the loss of two fingers, cut off by an axe, and that she walked on the water back to Brittany. There a track of foam left by the tide as it turns is still called the track of St. Blanche.

Between 919-921 there was an influx of Bretons into the west of England and they brought with them the bodies of their saints. The suggestion is that the relics in the Church here are those of Gwen or Blanche, brought over from Brittany in this way.

A second suggestion is that St. Wite was a Wessex born monk who in the eighth century went with a band of missionaries under St. Boniface of Crediton to evangelise the people of Germany. There was a "Witta" consecrated Bishop of Buraburg. St. Boniface and his band were massacred in A.D. 755 and, in accordance with custom, the bodies of the martyrs were brought back to England for burial. The suggestion here is that our St. Wite was St. Witta, but there are two difficulties.

In the first place, the name has always been in feminine form and the bones in the tomb in 1900 were thought to be those of a woman. In the second place Witta, Bishop of Buraburg, according to the records, was not martyred in 755 but died some years later and was buried at Hersfeld in Germany.

In an attempt to overcome these two difficulties a third theory was put forward that St. Wite was one of the many women evangelists who went with St. Boniface to Germany and suffered martyrdom there. But the only reason to connect Wite with Boniface is the similarity of the name to that of the Bishop Witta of Buraburg, and if that theory of identity fails there is no ground for this other suggestion.

It seems more likely that a tradition which was strong in the Parish for over 900 years should be correct, rather than any of these theories of later years.

A Site for Sore Eyes

St. Wite's Well
St Wite's Well, near Morcombelake has been in existence since 1630, when a traveller refers to 'St White a Virgin Martyr, whose Well the Inhabitants will shewe you not farre off in the Side of an Hill, where she lived in Prayer and Contemplation'.

In Christine Waters' book 'Who was St. Wite - The Saint of Witchchurch Canonicorum" (1980). She makes reference to the healing well.

"After venerating the shrine, our pilgrim made his way to the saint's well, about a mile away at Morcombelake. The waters of St. Wite's Well enjoyed a reputation as late as the 1930's as being "a sovereign cure for sore eyes". They were said to be most efficacious when the sun's first rays lit
St. Candida's Eyes
upon them. Sore eyes, were of course, a constant source of discomfort to medieval man, living as he did in low cottages from which the smoke did not escape properly. Lead holy water bottles or "ampullae" were filled here and taken home for later applications.

The wild periwinkles that carpet nearby Stonebarrow Hill every spring, are still known locally as "St. Candida's Eyes."

St. Wite's Cross

The Dorset Flag
This flag on the right was recognised as the flag of Dorset on the 16 September 2008, when the Dorset County Council organised a public vote, open to all Dorset residents. The idea for the flag came from expatriate Dorsetman Stephen Coombs and Dorchester resident Dave White. The flag has been known as "St. Wite's Cross" or The Dorset Cross".

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