Thursday, December 3, 2015

Saint Birinus (Brian) of Dorchester, Apostle of Wessex

Birinus (c. 600 – 649), venerated as a saint, was the first Bishop of Dorchesterer. After Augustine of Canterbury performed initial conversions in England, Birinus, a Frank, came to the kingdoms of Wessex in 634 AD, landing at the port of “Hamwic”, now in the St. Mary’s area of Southampton. During Birinus’s brief time at Hamwic, St. Mary’s Church was founded.


Birinus had been made bishop by Asterius in Genoa, and Pope Honorius I created the commission to convert the West Saxons. In 635 AD, he persuaded the West Saxon king Cynegils to allow him to preach. Cynegils was trying to create an alliance with Oswald of Northumbria, with whom he intended to fight the Mercians. At the final talks between kings, the sticking point was that Oswald, being a Christian, would not ally himself with a heathen. Cynegils then converted and was baptized. He gave Birinus Dorchester-on-Thames for his episcopal see. Birinus’s original commission entailed preaching to parts of Britain where no missionary efforts had reached, and may have included instructions to reach the Mercians. But he ultimately remained in the West Saxon kingdom (Wessex).
Among the churches founded by the Apostle of Wessex we should mention the church of the Holy Virgin in Reading (Berkshire), St. Helen’s church in Abingdon (Oxfordshire) as well as the church in the village of Taplow (Buckinghamshire), where the saint performed a mass baptism in Bapsey Pool. (All these churches, though rebuilt during the following centuries, exist to this day, and Bapsey Pool has survived as well). In 648, the successor of Cynegils, King Cenwalh, invited Bishop Birinus to found and consecrate the new cathedral in Winchester. As Winchester was an important political centre, it later became the major spiritual centre of Wessex as well. Bishop Birinus reposed on 3 December 649 (or 650) and was buried in Dorchester.

After his repose he was at once venerated as a saint. Late in the 7th century, the future St. Hedda of Winchester translated part of St. Birinus’ relics to Winchester. Numerous miracles occurred at the place where his relics lay, whilst many pilgrims flocked to them. In 1140, on the site of the first early English foundation of St. Birinus, a new, Augustinian monastery appeared. This monastery existed until the Reformation. In the 1530s Henry VIII dissolved the Abbey, but the former Abbey church, purchased by the town’s residents, survived. The medieval shrine of St. Birinus was restored as late as 1964. Today this shrine can be found in the south aisle of the Abbey church. And relics of the holy enlightener of Wessex are most likely concealed under the floor of the church. This church also contains some of the oldest stained glass windows in the country. St. Birinus is venerated as the patron-saint of Berkshire and Dorchester-on-Thames to this day, on the 3rd December.

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