Monastic Saints – Saint Botolph – 17 June


Monastic Saints – Saint Botolph – 17 June

[This is a series on saints from the Benedictine family (Benedictines, Cistercians—“the Benedictine order and its branches,” to attempt a translation of Peter Lechner’s “Benedictiner-Ordens und seiner Verzweigungen” in the subtitle of his martyrology).  There used to be a commemoration of all saints of the Benedictine family on 13 November.  But even in the days when the liturgical calendar was much more heavily festooned with saints’ feastdays, I suspect there were many monastic saints who had been lost to memory.  This series tries to introduce or re-introduce us to at least a few in this monastic cloud of witnesses.]

[Image: photo of St. Botolph’s, Boston, Lincolnshire, U.K.]

[The following is adapted from what is posted at the Diocese of Ely website here.]

Botolph was one of the most popular British saints of the early Middle Ages. Although the life story of this humble, affable man is sketchy, records show that he did exist in history and his story is more fact than legend.

Born into a Christian Saxon family in the early seventh century, Botolph 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.

Some modern accounts claim Botolph and Adulph became Benedictine monks on the continent.  Possibly, since Pope St. Gregory had already, in the late sixth century, singled out the Rule of St. Benedict for praise.  But note that monastic life ordered according to the Rule of St. Benedict did not become prevalent in the West until the beginning of the ninth century.

For reasons not entirely clear, Botolph returned to England in 647, perhaps to establish a monastic house as a foundation of the one in which he possibly made vows on the continent.  (Adulph remained in Europe and became a bishop.)  In any case, Botolph approached the little-known King of the southern Angles, Ethelmund, whose sisters Botolph had known on the continent.  The King offered Botolph part of the royal estate upon which to build a monastery. Instead, Botolph settled for a desolate, barren site, reported to be haunted by demons.

With the support of Saint Syre, Saint Aubierge, and their brother, King Anna of East Anglia, Botolph founded what the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle refers to as a “minster at Icanhoe” (Ox-Island).  The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was first compiled in 890, two centuries after Botolph’s death.  It was also written in a time in which, as noted above, Benedictine monasticism was the dominant form of monasticism in the West.  But the Chronicle records the word “minster” as Botolph’s foundation (rather than a “Benedictine monastery”).  Possibly, Botolph intended a monastic foundation that still maintained the Anglo-Saxon idea of a minster, which is to say a missionary church tasked with educating the people in the faith as much as administrating the sacraments to, and pastoring, those who already identified as Christian (Spencer, 73-74).  That Botolph’s foundation was more an Anglo-Saxon minster than a Benedictine monastery is likely because of the fact that Botolph is said to have worked as a missionary in East Anglia, Kent, and Sussex (areas that were rough and bandit-plagued).

The exact location of Icanhoe is uncertain.  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 Botolph’s Town, then Botolphston, with the name finally contracted to Boston.  More recent research suggests 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. Botolph.

It is believed Botolph 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 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 distributed (for safety) 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 Botolph’s relics were also taken to the Abbey of Westminster after it was rebuilt by Edward the Confessor.  The relics, it is said, were carried into London through the four City gates of Aldersgate, Bishopsgate, Aldgate, and Billingsgate.  Churches close to these gates were placed under St. Botolph’s patronage.  The first three remain.  Billingsgate was destroyed in the Great Fire (1666), however, and was never rebuilt.  It is possible that St. Botolph became the patron saint for travelers because these London churches were places of thanksgiving for travelers arriving safely to London, in times when robbers and bandits made travel un-safe, and places for prayers when setting out from London.  Botolph is also regarded as the patron saint for farmers and agricultural workers.  Might this be because of the labor by which he and his brother monks turned Icanhoe’s marshy wastes into arable land?

Botolph’s name is perpetuated not only at Boston in Lincolnshire but also by the New World city of Boston in Massachusetts.

St. Botolph—or the town named after him, at least—inspired a hymn tune dear to those in the Anglican patrimony.  Here is a link to an a cappella performance.  And the following history of the hymn tune is taken from

The hymn tune ST. BOTOLPH was composed by Gordon A. Slater (b. Harrogate, Yorkshire, England, 1896; d. Lincoln, England, 1979) and first published in Songs of Praise for Boys and Girls (1930). The tune was named for St. Botolph’s Parish Church in Boston, Lincolnshire, England, where Slater was organist from 1919 to 1927, following his service in the British army in France during World War I. That church honors St. Botolph, the seventh-century abbot of an influential monastery thought to have been near Iken, northeast of Ipswich in Suffolk, a monastery destroyed during the Danish invasions. … As originally intended by Slater, ST. BOTOLPH is best sung in unison. Music theory students may delight in finding some parallel fifths in the harmonization. Sing and accompany in two long lines rather than in four short phrases. “Jesus, the Very Thought of You” (480) is often sung to ST. BOTOLPH in British churches. –Psalter Hymnal Handbook


Diocese of Ely – –

Spencer, Nick. Parochial Vision: The Future of the English Parish. Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 2004.

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