‘coheir of a heavenly realm’ – St Wystan and Repton

At the peak of it’s power and prestige the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia stretched from the Humber to the Thames and from the Trent to the border of Wales. The kingdom was converted to Christianity in the second half of the seventh century after King Peada was baptised by Finan of Lindisfarne at Repton, one of the his ‘capitals’. Afterwards, Repton became a powerhouse of the faith, and Peada established here both a bishophric and a royal minster that thrived for two centuries. During the seventh and eighth century, Mercia was the dominant Anglo-Saxon kingdom in Britain, but due to internal dynastic conflicts and to the rise of Wessex, by the early ninth century its power was on the wane. In the 820s and 830s the kingdom was ruled on-and-off by Wiglaf, but by his time the independence of his kingdom was in constant jeopardy. When he died in 839, he was buried in the Minster at Repton in a mausoleum built by his mightier predecessor Æthelbald in 757. With the death of Wiglaf, the independence of Mercia died too, for he left behind an unstable and uncertain legacy. Within a generation the Danes had overrun the eastern part of his kingdom, they had taken Repton and Mercia was broken. One of the contributing factors to the kingdom’s fall, was a succession crisis after the death of Wiglaf. His son Wigmund died before him and when offered the crown his young grandson Wigstan or Wystan, Wigmund’s son, declined it. Wystan was a pious young man and he preferred a religious life to a life of warfare and politics. However, he remained something of a threat to some of his more ambitious relatives. He was supposedly murdered as he protected his mother from the advances of his relative Beorhtwulf, who wished to take the now hollow crown. I will let the twelfth century text the DE MARTIRIO SANCTI WISTANI by Dominic, prior of Evesham, provide you with further details.

King Wiglaf of the Mercians, a noble man, fathered by his wife Queen Cyneswitha a son named Wigmund. When King Wiglaf of the Mercians died in the thirteenth year of his reign and was buried at Repton, his son Wigmund succeeded him in the realm of the Mercians and took as wife Elfleda, daughter of King Ceolwulf, by whom he fathered Wistan. Wistan dedicated himself with the entire steadfastness of his soul to the worship of God. Then, when his father Wigmund died, his fellow Mercians asked Wistan to accept the direction of the realm which by right of inheritance was owed to him. But the boy Wistan, preferring to become coheir of a heavenly rather than temporal realm, neglected every earthly rule.

Hearing this, a certain consul named Brithfard, a relation and godfather of Wistan, sent messengers, that is, Wibald, Man, and Ethulf, to Queen Elfleda, Wistan’s mother, that he intended to take her as his wife and thus acquire the realm of the Mercians for himself. Hearing this, Wistan said to his mother, “My sweet, sweet mother, you had as husband my father King Wigmund, who has now died. For his death you endured countless sorrows and you still endure them even now. Act in accord with my counsel, and you will have an undying husband for whom you will be seen never to grieve but rather to rejoice everlastingly.” The queen promised to accept his counsel.

Then Wistan, her young son and the relative of the consul Brithfard, made known to him through his legates that he could not marry the mother and wife of his relation. When consul Brithfard had heard this, he send word in friendly fashion to Wistan that he should come to a certain designated place with three companions to confer with him about various important matters. When Brithfard had seen him in the designated place, he approached and kissed him. With that done, he drew a sword that he had hidden, and he cut off the peak of Wistan’s head at the apex of his helmet, and he pierced through the companions who had come with him. And at once he was made insane.

But the body of Wistan was conveyed to the monastery of Repton, which was at that time famous, and was entombed in the mausoleum of his grandfather King Wiglaf. From the place where he was innocently slain, a column of light — stretched out as far as the eye could see — was visible thirty days to all the inhabitants of the place. The saintly boy suffered his death on the calends of June in the 850th year of the Lord’s incarnation. On his account God performs countless miracles of different types.

This hagiographical text was of course written by one who was trying to popularise his cult, and no doubt it is embellished, but there is no reason to doubt the essence of it. It was not long before Wystan was acclaimed a saint and a martyr and the grave of the prince at Repton, became a place of pilgrimage. Despite the Danes dominance of Mercia and their occupation of Repton, St Wystan’s body remained at Repton in the mausoleum until 1019, when it was removed By King Cnut to Evesham. It continued to be a focus of pilgrimage there until the Reformation when the bones were dispersed.

Repton, Derbyshire
The chancel and the crypt below from the south east.

Although Wystan’s relics have now gone, it is still possible for us to step inside the royal mausoleum at Repton where St Wystan was originally buried twelve centuries ago beside his grandfather Wiglaf. The mausoleum is a crypt chamber, partly subterranean set below the chancel of what is now Repton parish church and was the Anglo-Saxon minster.

Repton, Derbyshire
The exterior of the crypt from the south east.

Dr H. M. Taylor who knew this building better than anyone, has suggested that the fabric of the crypt was constructed in three phases. The crypt is cruciform and consists of a central chamber with four recesses at the compass points. The outer walls and this ground plan he argues dates from the eighth century from the time of Æthelbald and that the four recesses were perhaps intended as the burial place of Æthelbald and his successors.

Repton, Derbyshire
The crypt looking east.

He believes that Wiglaf updated this structure added the existing vaulting of the crypt. This vault is supported on four pillars with distinctive spiral decoration twisting around them and on wall pilasters. The pilasters are not bonded to the outer walls, indicating that the vault is indeed a later modification to the original structure. If this work is indeed by Wiglaf, it is a bold piece of architecture for the ruler of a turbulent kingdom, who was heading up a failing dynasty.

Repton, Derbyshire
Looking north west and showing one of the entry passages and stairs.

The third phase to the work Taylor dates from after the burial of St Wystan in the crypt. He argues that an increasing desire by pilgrims to visit his relics, led to the construction of the present access to the crypt, via two western passages and sets of stairs, cut through Æthelbald’s masonry. This work, he believes, must have taken place between St Wystan’s burial here in c.839 and the removal of his relics to Evesham in 1019. He argues that it is likely to have been before 873, when the Danes captured Repton and the minster was suppressed.

Repton, Derbyshire
Looking north east.

To enter an Anglo-Saxon space, particularly one with such rich associations with both a royal house and with the cult of a saint is a breathtaking experience.

Further reading

H. M. Taylor’s detailed account of the construction of the crypt and it’s wider context can be found here. H. M. Taylor, ‘St Wystan’s Church, Repton, Derbyshire’, Archaeological Journal 144 (1987), pp. 205-245.

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