The ideology and iconoclasm of the Reformation did a very thorough job of destroying the cult of saints and the shrines and relics associated with them from medieval Britain. There are now only a couple of places in England and Wales where there is an untouched medieval shrine, complete with the relics of the medieval saint within it. There are other places where either a shrine or the relics survive, such as Durham Cathedral where the relics of St Cuthbert are below the site of his shrine, but only two places where relics and shrine are still intact. The first is Westminster Abbey, where the body of St Edward the Confessor is still within his shrine, albeit in the base rather than in the lavish feretory that once surmounted it. The second is in the village of Whitchurch Canonicorum near Lyme Regis in Dorset. In the parish church there, is the shrine containing the relics of the woman who gave her name to the village, St Wita or St Wite; or as she was known in Latin, St Candida. It was a particular thrill to be able to visit the church and her shrine at Whitchurch Canonicorum during the summer.
The shrine of St Wite is in a rather unusual position, it is built into the north wall of the north transept. It comprises a plain Portland stone coffin, topped with a Purbeck marble slab with a chamfered edge. This is set in turn on a base with three oval openings in the front – presumably intended to allow the faithful venerating the saint to get physically closer to the relics in the upper coffin.
The shrine has been opened twice in the past hundred and twenty years, on both occasions during restoration work to the transept. The second time was in April of 1900, when some subsidence in the transept was causing damage to the stone coffin atop the shrine. The vicar, the Rev’d C. Druitt supervised the opening of the coffin, which was undertaken with a great deal of sensitivity and care. The following details of the opening are taken from an account subsequently published by the Society of Antiquaries. (see reference below).
By 1900 the western end of the Portland stone coffin had developed a large crack (which can still be seen) and it was possible to remove the whole west end of the coffin in a single piece from under the Purbeck marble top slab, which was left in place.
This revealed a lead relic box within the coffin, measuring 2 foot 6 inches long, 8 inches wide and 8 inches high. This had an inscription on one side made from cast lead letters, which was also repeated, in part, on one end of the box. The abbreviated Latin inscription ‘Hic Requiescant Reliqie Sancte Wite’ confirmed the identity of the contents of the box – here lay the relics of St Wite.
Between the lead box and the south face of the coffin were many fragments of bone and these were removed and were put into a clean cloth. The lead reliquary was then carefully removed from the coffin and examined. It was clear to Mr Druitt, that at some stage the lead box had been violently torn open and damaged and he concluded that the oxidisation of the damage suggested that this had occurred many centuries ago. The box contained a large number of bones, which the exception of a thigh bone, were left undisturbed within. On the basis of this retrieved long bone and the condition of some teeth found lying next to the box in the stone coffin, the conclusion was drawn that the bones appeared to belong to a woman of small stature aged around 40. The thigh bone was returned to the box and the bones found next to it were also placed inside, wrapped in the cloth Mr Druitt had placed them in. The reliquary box was then returned to the stone coffin before the coffin was then repaired.
How the shrine and the relics of St Wite remained untouched by the reformers hand is anyone’s guess. The shrine itself is plain, unadorned now, but there was once a painted inscription on the front of it with the Latin version of the her name ‘Candida…….. Candidiorque’, very visible. The damage to the inner lead reliquary does suggest that it was removed and tampered with at some point, perhaps at the Reformation? If tampered with, why on earth then were the relics returned? These are all questions we will never answer.
Although the shrine is plain and it is located in the north transept, it is not unobtrusive. The shrine setting is in an extraordinarily lavish example of early 13th-century architecture, that contrasts with the simplicity of the shrine itself and was clearly intended to create a rich backdrop and an appropriate approach to the shrine. The shrine is set in a recess flanked by shafted pilasters topped by stiff leaf capitals. Before rearrangement in the 15th-century, these pilasters supported an arch that would have framed the shrine. The north wall of the transept is divided into two bays, these again are framed in the same way. The arches here may well have led through to projecting chapels that have now been demolished.
As for the approach to the shrine, the nave has a five bay north arcade, the four eastern bays are early 13th century and match the work in the transept. Three of the arches of these bays are heavily moulded, but the bay opposite the south door is differently treated with elaborate undercut chevron decoration. You can’t help feeling that you are being invited through that arch and down the aisle.
The aisle of course connects directly with the north transept by a communicating arch and this was presumably the main approach to the shrine. Both the shrine and its setting are clearly of one campaign that can be stylistically dated to the first quarter of the 13th-century.
All of this early thirteenth century architecture is executed in really costly materials that have been brought in from some distance; grey-white Portland stone in combination with polished Purbeck marble. These materials contrast markedly with the local rubble and Ham stone that the exterior of the church is constructed from.
Sadly the coherence of this Early English work was tampered with slightly in the fifteenth-century. At some point the arch framing the shrine was taken down and the wall was rebuilt. A new Perpendicular window was inserted above the shrine in seeming disregard to the architectural cohesion of the shrine setting. A projection on the outside wall of the transept was also created at this time too, that replicates the size and shape of the shrine inside. The purpose of this is unclear, is it just to reinforce the wall behind the shrine, or does it have a devotional purpose? In the 14th and 15th centuries, there was often a wholesale reconstruction of saints shrines and this updating is surprisingly modest, perhaps suggesting that the cult never really took off?
The creation and embellishment of the shrine in the early 1200s was a significant investment and one wonders who coordinated it and why? An answer to that question might be found in the second part of the place name – Canonicorum. Until the 1190s the advowson of the Whitchurch belonged to the Norman abbey of St. Wandrille (Seine-Inférieure). Somewhere between 1194-1207, the abbey did a deal with the Dean and Chapter of Old Sarum and the advowson and associated property of Whitchurch then passed into the hands of the Dean and Chapter of Salisbury. The abbey of St Wandrille was given the church of Upavon, which was then made a prebend of Sarum, in return for the advowsons of the churches of Whitchurch Canonicorum and Sherston Magna, with land and tithes at Wilsford near Manningford Bohun. It is their ownership of the advowson that gives the place the name ‘Whitchurch of the Canons’. We have no real idea why this curious transaction took place, but you do have to wonder if the Dean and Chapter felt there was something in Whitchurch to benefit them. In the first quarter of the thirteenth century the canons of Sarum are in the midst of a major operation, the moving of their cathedral church from the outdated Norman castle of Old Sarum to a new site in what is modern day Salisbury. The foundation stone of the new cathedral in Salisbury is laid in 1217 and for the rest of the thirteenth century the chapter are engaged in the expensive operation of building that new cathedral. The new cathedral is built in Portland stone with Purbeck marble dressings in the Early English style, in the same style and with the same materials as the work at Whitchurch. It is perhaps reasonable to conjecture that the fabric at Whitchurch associated with the shrine of St Wite, is by masons from Salisbury cathedral and that the Dean and chapter of Salisbury were responsible. It would have been a costly investment. Of course saints cults provided useful income streams for cathedrals and Salisbury was unusually lacking in its own substantial saints cult, until one of its bishop, St Osmund was canonised in 1457. Were the chapter encouraging and reinvigorating the local cult of the somewhat obscure St Wite, as a speculation, as a possible means of providing an income stream to support work they were engaged in at the cathedral? Does the modest updating of the shrine and its setting in the 15th-century, suggest that that speculation didn’t pay off and that the cult never became established to any great degree? The lack of any supporting evidence for either pilgrimage or cultic activity in Whitchurch in the years running up to the Reformation, may reinforce that conclusion.
So who was this short female saint in her 40s, enshrined as St Wite in this lavish setting? Frustratingly nobody really knows and that in itself is quite instructive. There is no hagiographical tradition, no iconography of her in art, nor is she is included in any of the English liturgical calendars. Her name is generic: Wite or Candida in Latin, means precisely what is sounds like: white. Attempts at identifying her have been made in modern times, but these are purely conjectural. D. Holland Stubbs the Vicar of Whitchurch had a good go in an article in 1907, drawing no firm conclusions. He suggested that she might be one in the same as St Gwen, or St Blanche, a Breton Princess who married a Cornish prince and was said to be the mother of four Cornish saints S. Cadfan, S. Winwaloe, S. Gwenthenoc, and S. James. She was said to have ended her life back in her native Brittany and Stubbs suggests that her relics might have been brought back to England by Breton settlers in the tenth century. As Stubbs admits this is all mere speculation and entirely without evidence.
In conclusion: we have architectural and archaeological evidence that there was a cult of a female saint in this church, who was known as St Wite (a generic name) and whose identity is not entirely clear. The cult was given a significant boost of investment in the early 13th-century, with the creation of a lavish shrine and architectural setting and her relics remain within that shrine. The investment in the cult was just at the time when the advowson of the church changed hands and became the possession of the Dean and Chapter of Salisbury. The cult was not of such significance that it attracted any further meaningful investment in the 14th and 15th century, a time when the cult of saints in England was at its height. The fact that there is no evidence of cultic activity at all here, particularly in the years leading up to the Reformation and that the shrine was seemingly ignored by the reformers of the 16th-century, may suggest that the cult had ceased to function in any meaningful way. What I would like to suggest and it is a conjecture at this stage, is that the cult of St Wite at Whitchurch, was not really a meaningful and lasting saint’s cult at all, but was probably a failed speculation in the 13th-century by the Dean and Chapter of Salisbury cathedral.
‘Rev. C. DRUITT, M.A., communicated through James Harrison, Esq., the following notes on the recently discovered Relics of St. Wita in the church of Whitechurch Canonicorum, Dorset’ Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries, 2nd series, xviii, pp. 190-191.
D. Holland Stubbs, ‘Whitechurch Canonicorum. A descriptive sketch, compiled from notes made at various times by former vicars’, Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Antiquarian Field Club, 28 (1907), pp.51-64.
‘Whitchurch Canonicorum’, in An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in Dorset, Volume 1, West (London, 1952), pp. 260-265. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/rchme/dorset/vol1/pp260-265 [accessed 11 February 2020].
‘The cathedral of Salisbury: From the foundation to the fifteenth century’, in A History of the County of Wiltshire: Volume 3, ed. R B Pugh and Elizabeth Crittall (London, 1956), pp. 156-183. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/wilts/vol3/pp156-183 [accessed 11 February 2020].