The later medieval church of St Botulf (or St Botolph) at Iken in East Suffolk is built on the highest point of a former island overlooking the Alde estuary across the river from the site of the early Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Snape.

Iken Church from the south-west at low tide: the wooded area marks the former island – a branch of the river originally also flowed through the marshes to the right (author’s photograph)

Iken Church from the south-west at high tide (author’s photograph)

Iken appears to be the likely site of the saint’s original foundation noted in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year 654, alongside the reference to the death of King Onna.

Her Onna cyning wearþ ofslægen; ond Botulf ongon minster timbran æt Icanho.

Here [in this year] Onna King was slain; and Botulf began [his] minster to build at Iken Hoo.

Bede makes no mention of the once highly venerated St Botulf, even though his mentor St Ceolfrith visited “Abbot Botwulf” in East Anglia around the year 670. This we know from The Life of St Ceolfrith (4), the work of an unknown author written after 716, with which Bede must have been acquainted. This describes Botulf as “proclaimed on all sides to be a man of unparalleled life and learning, and full of the grace of the Holy Spirit” (ibid., 4).

St Botulf still has over sixty churches dedicated to him, as well as a town and city (Boston) and several villages (such as Botesdale, Suffolk) named after him. St Botulf appears to have been regarded as a major early pioneer of Benedictine monasticism in England by the church and as something of a guardian of travellers and exorcist by the people. In Denmark, where his cult was probably introduced in the reign of Cnut (King of England & Denmark), 1016-1035), he is still held to be the patron saint of travellers.

Inside Iken church, part of a large carved stone cross-shaft can be seen. This wonderful find was discovered incorporated into the wall of the later tower by Dr Stanley West during his excavations at Iken Church in 1977. The shaft formed the lower part of a large decorated stone cross perhaps ten or twelve feet in height, the style of which associates it with an East Mercian sculptural style datable to perhaps the ninth or early tenth century (see Plunkett & West, A Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Material from Suffolk, pp.328, 344-45). The suggestion is that this cross was erected here as a memorial to St Botulf. Perhaps it was intended as the successor to the original cross he himself is said to have raised in order to exorcise the place of his first minster (Folcard’s Life of St Botulph, 8).

The surviving part of the Iken cross shaft cradled on its side close to the spot where Dr West discovered it (author’s photograph).

Certainly the placing of such a rare standing stone cross in this locality marks out the site as one of great importance. Presumably the base stone and the top part of the shaft might be discovered one day, perhaps incorporated into the fabric of the later church building, or buried somewhere nearby.

St Botulf died on 17th June 680 and was buried at the site of his famous minster. His tomb appears to have survived the destruction wrought by the Danes, for in 970 his bones were moved with the consent of King Edgar. The intention appears to have been to divide his potent relics for use in the more famous minsters of the day, but for some reason they only got as far as the Grundisburgh. The exact site of the chapel which housed the bones of St Botulf appears to where the church of St Botolph at Burgh-by-Woodbridge now stands, just to north the the present parish of Grundisburgh. Burgh church is built on a hill overlooking the marshy valley of a tributary of the Deben and inside a mysterious late Iron Age double ramparted earthwork enclosure also containing Roman evidence (for more on what can be deduced about this site, see E.Martin, Burgh – full reference given below).

Burgh church from the air looking north-east: traces of part of the double ramparts of the Iron Age earthworks are visible in the ploughsoil encircling the hill on which the church was built (photographed by Cliff Hoppitt).

This is another site said to be haunted by a demon with a liking for marshes, in this case the valley which the church overlooks (see E.Moore, Suffolk Words and Phrases [London 1823; repr. New York 1970], pp.141-142). Perhaps St Botulf’s bones were brought here because his reputation as an exorcist of marsh-monsters might help the local inhabitants overcome their fear of the place. It does appear that it had not been settled at all in the Anglo-Saxon period, and that it was not until after this time that there was any settlement in or immediately around the earthwork (E.Martin, Burgh, p.74).

Whatever the reason, St Botulf’s relics were housed at Burgh for around fifty years until after the time of King Cnut, who granted permission for his relics to be divided between several minsters, including Bury St Edmunds, At the west end of the great abbey there, St Botulf’s relics were venerated in his own shrine, the ruined crypt of which can still be seen.

Some of his relics also reached Ely and possibly Hadstock, as well as Thorney. It was Abbot Folcard of Thorney who later in the eleventh century wrote The Life of St Botulph.

© Copyright Dr Sam Newton, Yule-monaþ AD 2000

Further Reading

Arnott, G., Alde Estuary (Adlard 1952).

Martin, Edward, Burgh: Iron Age and Roman Enclosure, East Anglian Archaeology, 40 (Ipswich 1988).

Plunkett, S.J.& S.E.West, A Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Material from Suffolk, East Anglian Archaeology 84 [Suffolk 1998], pp.328, 344-45.

Scarfe, Norman., “St Botolph, The Iken Cross, and the Coming of East Anglian Christianity”, Suffolk in the Middle Ages (Boydell 1986), pp.39-51.

Stevenson, F.S. “St Botolph (Botwulf) and Iken”, Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History, 18 (1924), pp.30-52.

West, S.E., N.Scarfe, & R.Cramp, “Iken, St Botolph, and the Coming of East Anglian Christianity”, Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History, XXXV (1984), pp.279-301.

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