Saint’s Day Story

Posted by Censor Librorum on Jul 6, 2007 | Categories: Lesbian in a Catholic Sort of Way

Happy Birthday to me. Today I’m 55. Lori says I’m better looking then when she met me 20 years ago. It’s nice of her to say.

Casting about for a better birthday saint than St. Maria Goretti (ick!) I found the runners up to be a lost more interesting, if legendary.

July 6 – the Feast Day of St. Julian, anchoress; St. Palladius, missionary to the Picts; St. Goar, priest, hermit and suspected sorcerer; St. Monnina, baptized by St. Patrick; and St. Sexburgha, 7th c. abbess of Ely.

With a name like “Sexburgha” no wonder she was dropped out of the first tier of the roster of the saints, but I was intrigued so I researched further.

In AD 664, Queen Sexburgha founded the Abbey church of Minster on Sheppey Island on land given to her by her son Ercombert, the King of Kent. The church has been destroyed by Vikings, feuding medievals and Protestants. Roman tiles can be found in the NE corner of the building.

An active place of worhsip for over 1300 years, it also houses the tombs and tomb effigies of some interesting people, chief of whom is Sir Robert de Shurland, killed by a witch’s curse.

Here’s the story: “The horse’s head on the tomb of Sir Robert de Shurland in Minster Abbey is connected in popular belief with the Legend of Grey Dolphin as related in The Ingoldsby Legends, by the Reverend Richard Barham under the pseudonym of Thomas Ingoldsby. This summary is taken from “The History of the Isle of Sheppey” by Augustus A. Daly, first published in 1904, reprinted by A. J. Cassell of Sheerness in 1975.

“The tradition respecting the horse, ‘Grey Dolphin’ by name, is that the faithful animal was the means of once saving Sir Robert de Shurland’s life, and eventually through no fault of its own, of being the cause of its master’s death. The story which survives today is that the baron, having, in a moment of anger, slain a monk who dared to disobey him on an important occasion and fearing the consequences of his terrible crime, resolved forthwith to supplicate the king for mercy, as such a sacrilegious act was accounted an almost unpardonable one.

Sir Robert knew at that moment, his master the king was detained by stress of weather, at the Nore (an anchorage in the Thames Estuary off the Isle of Sheppey), whence he had crossed over from France. Post haste he saddled his trusted ‘Grey Dolphin’ and rode to the seashore, where he urged his horse to swim out to the vessel bearing his majesty, which he reached in safety. An interview with the king was obtained, and Sir Robert, having persuaded him to grant the pardon, took his leave. He again mounted his faithful charger, plunged into the sea and reached terra firma once more in safety.

On his homeward journey to Shurland (his home in the nearby village of Eastchurch) he was accosted on the beach at Scraps Gate, Minster-on-Sea, by a witch, who knew of his crime, taunted him with it, and warned him that the same horse, ‘Grey Dolphin’ that had so miraculously saved the baron that day would be the death of him within twelve months. The baron, though elated with the result of his mission, was enraged at the woman’s impertinence; and to show her the fallacy of her prophecy, he dismounted, drew his sword and with one fierce blow severed the head of his faithful charger from its body; and the remains were buried in the sand on the shore.

Nearly twelve months after this event, sir Robert was walking about the same spot and, seeing a bony mass protruding through the sand, kicked it violently; so much so that a portion of it pierced his boot and cut his foot very badly. Naturally the baron was enraged, and doubly so when he turned round and espied, once more, that same old hag of twelve months agone, grinning at him in a hideous fashion. She told the baron that the bony mass, which he had unearthed with his kick was the skeleton head of ‘Grey Dolphin’, and fiercely reminding him of her prophecy, she vanished.

Sir Robert made the best of his way to Shurland Castle; the wound was a very bad one, acute blood poisoning set in, and within a few days his soul had passed away.

Another more probable – but less romantic! – reason accounting for the horse’s head on the tomb is that Sir Robert, as Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports in 1272, obtained the right to collect flotsam and jetsam from wreckage from the sea off Sheppey. The right was confined to the distance that a mounted knight could ride out at ebb tide and touch any floating article with the end of his lance. Apparently ‘Grey Dolphin’ was Sir Robert’s favourite horse for this task.”

Another version of the witch’s tale, as related by Alex Stevens, goes as follows:”My understanding of the legend is that he was cursed by a witch who saw him ill treating the horse and was told the horse would be the death of him. Scorning such a curse he continued and eventually rode the horse ‘into the ground,’ so to speak, for the horse dropped dead on the sands where he was galloping.

It was much later when on the beach he passed the bleached skeleton of the horse and in a fit of pique kicked at it for having been so troublesome to him. As a result he received a cut that turned septic and lead to his death.”

Which story is true? Parts of all of them? None of them? The horse’s head at the tomb may simply have been the rembrance of a beloved steed. What is more interesting is the endurance of the belief in a witch’s curse–even in my own family.

Bookmark and Share

Leave a Reply