St Urith of Chittlehampton

The Glastonbury Commonplace Book (O.9.38), described by M. R. James as “the note-book of a Glastonbury monk”, contains a remarkable collection of miscellaneous material. Today, however, we are focusing on the legend of St Urith (or Hieritha) whose feast day is celebrated on 8th July. The manuscript contains the fullest known account of this saint in the form of a rhyming poem. The poem appears towards the end of the volume (f. 87r) and, although the leaf has been damaged on the outer edges resulting in the loss of the ends of some of the lines, James worked on the text and published a transcription in 1902.

O.9.38, f86v-f87r
O.9.38, f86v-f87r

Based on this text, he summarised the legend as follows: Urith, a maiden dedicated to a religious life, had a jealous (pagan) step-mother who bribed some haymakers to attack and kill her. A fountain sprung up from the ground where she fell. This legend is very similar to those of two other west-country saints – St Sidwell of Exeter and St Juthwara – both beheaded at the instigation of their stepmothers. However the poem locates this particular legend in Chittlehampton, north Devon:

Nunc gaudet tota patria/innocens virgo [vicerit]/Quod sue nouerce odia/O villa chitelhamptonia/quod tal[amum sponsi subiit]/Letare cum deuonia

The church at Chittlehampton is dedicated to St Urith who was probably buried in a small chapel on the north side where a medieval slab may now cover her burial place. Urith’s well is found at the east end of the village. There were regular pilgrimages to her shrine until the mid-16th century and the considerable offerings there seemingly funded the building of the impressive Church tower. The carved stone pulpit (c. 1500) includes a figure of Urith holding a martyr’s palm as well as the church’s foundation stone.

The Tower of Chittlehampton Church
The Tower of Chittlehampton Church. Photograph by Rex Harris.

 

The Pulpit at Chittlehampton
The Pulpit at Chittlehampton. Photograph by Rex Harris.

As a local saint, the name Urith was popularly used for girls during the sixteenth and seventeenth century in the west country. Urith Chichester from Raleigh in Devon, for example, married John Trevelyan of Nettlecombe Court in Somerset in 1591. It has been suggested that the stained glass window in the church at Nettlecombe may, at the time of the marriage, have been inscribed St Urith when it originally depicted St Sidwell.

Stained glass window in Nettlecombe depicting St Urith or St Sidwell (second from right) (Photograph by Peter Tremain)

References:

M. R. James, ‘St Urith of Chittlehampton’, Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society (1901-2), pp. 230-234.

Revd J. F. Chanter,  ‘St Urith of Chittlehampton: A Study in an Obscure Devon Saint’, Report and Transactions of the Devonshire Association, Vol 46 (1914).

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