The Shrines of Oswald and Wulstan

  • 17 Mar 2019
  • Historical Studies
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The shrines of Oswald and Wulstan were the most popular of the Midland religious shrines in the 13th and 14th centuries. The great re-building of the Cathedral in the 13th century, the choir and Lady Chapel, were made possible by the fame of the Saints of Worcester. 

It was Wulstan himself who made the shrine for St. Oswald, and it is believed that the wonderful crypt in the Cathedral was built for the express purpose of receiving the bones of the saint, being designed so that the crowds of pilgrims could descend one staircase, pass between the rows of columns to the shrine, offer prayers, and pass out by the steps at the other side.

The splendid shrine of Wulstan seems to have been in the choir, and in the 13th century the body of Oswald was moved to the crypt to a position opposite Wulstan, probably in 1218 when the shrine of St. Wulstan was being restored. It had been plundered in 1215, when the City had prematurely sided against John, and the King's men sacked the City and fined it 300 marks. To pay the fine the gold embossments of Wulstan's shrine were melted down. When the shrine was restored, it was more convenient to have both saints together and to cater for the enormous increase of pilgrims. 

Kings, and the greatest in the land, came and worshipped at the shrines and left their offerings. In 1218, the young King Henry lll attended the restoration in state, and there were no fewer than ten bishops and ten abbots and priors, all in gorgeous pontificals, and a great many nobles.   When Edward 1 undertook his expedition to France in 1293, he sent a gold ornament and two cloths of gold for the great altar, and three masses weekly were said at Wulstan's shrine for a successful campaign. On his return, he brought more gold and gifts, and on his bended knees before St.Wulstan's tomb he said to the assembled company:

" What reward shall l give to the blessed Wulstan's shrine for all that he hath wrought for me by his holy prayers?"  "This small thing l vow before God and his saints: the sustentation of three monks and two wax lights to burn before the saint shall be provided at my expense"

In times of trouble the body of the saint was carried in procession, as in 1437, when crops suffered terribly from storms and long continued rain. But in the early 14th century, the fame of Wulstan suffered a temporary eclipse, for the monks of Gloucester, having the body of Edward ll, who had been dreadfully murdered, so advertised the'miracles' occurring at the ill-used King's tomb, that for something like 30 years, the pilgrims very largely deserted Wulstan and worshipped  at the tomb of Edward instead.

In 1538, after Henry Vlll's quarrel with the Pope, the shrines of Oswald and Wulstan were dismantled and the bones buried on the north side of the altar. The Bishop of Worcester, who was then Bishop Latimer, also removed the image of the Virgin Mary from the Lady Chapel, with the cynical wish "it may burn in Smithfield with her old sister of Walsingham, her young sister of Ipswich, with their two other sisters of Doncaster and Penrice".

So ended the cult of "Our Lady" which had been introduced into our Cathedral about 1200, and the pilgrimage which had begun very much earlier.